September 26, 2010

For the Love of Prague

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When President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Klaus spoke at Cornell last Friday, he stated, with regard to the Czech Republic’s relatively recent membership to the European Union, “to be a normal European country is to be part of the European Union.” I am glad that the Czech Republic is a member of the E.U., and I’m certainly glad that Czechs have gained political freedoms that were denied to them for so many years under Communism. But after studying abroad in Prague last spring, I was very much taken aback by Klaus’s stress on the Czech Republic as a “normal European country.”

For me, the Czech Republic, as I saw it principally through its capital city, Prague, is anything but normal.

The term “normal” is, of course, a subjective one, but I interpreted Klaus’s use of the word to refer to “average” or “ordinary.” While the wild originality with which I’ve come to associate Prague was understandably not the aim of Klaus’s speech, I wish that he had conveyed, in addition to his thoughts regarding democratic ideals, just half as much love for the country’s uniqueness as he did for climate change politics in his global warming refuting book, Blue Planet in Green Shackles — What is Endangered: Climate or Freedom?

I believe that it is important to call attention to the struggle between “normalcy” and preserving originality in the Czech Republic because some things, like the Czech Republic’s currency, are destined to change within the next few years due to political and economic necessary. I hope, though, that those aspects of Czech culture that are adjusted to accommodate the status quo are kept to a minimum.

It is important to me that Czech leaders like Klaus acknowledge and uphold Czech culture, despite a desire and maybe even necessity to be “normal,” because Czech culture is totally, amazingly, and originally artsy. Yes, “Stereo Love” was played on repeat in every Czech club like it was in every other European club, and even every Israeli club, as I’ve been told. I guess Klaus would applaud this step towards normalcy. But Prague, overall, is unlike any other place in the world with regard to art.

Prague has mastered the art of the random, best represented by the work of Czech sculptor, David Cerny, famous for his controversial structures throughout the city. His work includes a series of sculpted babies climbing up Petrin Hill and the “Pissing Men” (two bronze statues that move and “pee” water) placed outside the Franz Kafka museum. All of Cerny’s sculptures have political significance, but are also tons of fun to simply stumble upon and enjoy. Oh, and don’t get confused between the climbing babies and the giant sculpted babies in another area of the city, complete with giant baby butts on which you can climb. I told you Prague has mastered the random.

Then there is one of Prague’s central tourist attractions, Black Light Theater, marked by elements reminiscent of modern dance, Charlie Chaplin-esque comedy and the Blue Man Group. This art form is at once confusing and understandable, clichéd and one-of-a-kind,  essentially, in the end, difficult to describe. So I reference Wikipedia, or “Vikipedia,” as the Czechs call it: Originating in Asia, Black Light Theater features “the use of black curtains, a darkened stage, and ‘black lighting’ (UV light), paired with fluorescent costumes in order, to create intricate visual illusions.”

For those who are more traditional in their artistic palettes, one can walk along the cobblestone streets of Prague any day of the week and choose from various performance halls and churches to see high quality classical music performances that are astoundingly cheap. Prague boasts three performance halls for opera (that I know of, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there was another one of which I am unaware). I saw Mozart’s Don Giovanni for approximately five dollars.

While I’m embracing my inner (now outward) nerd, my school and dorm were located in the historical district of Vysehrad, which is the site of Vyseharad Graveyard, the burial site for many famous Czech artists and a piece of artwork in itself due to its elaborately designed graves. The cemetery was potentially one of my favorite places in Prague because my favorite “classical” music composer (he’s actually considered a “romantic” composer), Antonin Dvorak, is buried there. My excitement over this fact earned me the compliment from one friend, “You are exactly like my mom.”

Prague has churches that can rival those anywhere in their beauty, as well as the unique and tragically stunning synagogues of the Jewish Quarter. There is the architectural masterpiece, the gothic Tyn Cathedral in Old Town Square, which I referred to so many times as the “Disney World Castle” that I can’t remember whether it was actually the inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle or if the two structures just share a resemblance. There is the Czech Republic’s unique film culture, represented to me by a class at Prague’s renowned film school, FAMU, entitled “Cinema Dance,” in which two of my friends managed to enroll. They returned from the class, refusing to say anything more than that they had filmed movies in the woods and were now part of a famous but ultra-secret cinema cult.

Then there is the Lennon Wall, an ordinary wall covered in graffiti that referenced peace and other John Lennon-inspired ideals after the musician’s death in 1980. The Communist state police pursued those who drew on it, who were said, ironically, to be followers of “Lennonism.” Today, anyone can write on the wall and the graffiti is always changing.

Under Communism, then, people transformed their grievances into art. Communist overtones, both relics from the era and modern art that references it, are still rampant in Prague. What’s more, certain forms of art did not stop flourishing under Communism. The Czech director of my school in Prague told me that although good literature was rare, books were published by the hundreds of thousands and people read as much as they could. She described how every Thursday, people lined up in bookstores to wait for the new arrivals, and people frequently loaned each other good books. “Samizdat” refers to the practice found throughout the Soviet block in the 1980s, in which people copied censored literature and publications themselves and passed the copies around.

Prague is anything but “normal” for me because it provides soemthing for both lovers of tradtional and modern art, art is extremely accessible,  and the artistic culture has, incredibly, withstood the Communist regime. The reality today, though, is that we are so preoccupied with being “normal” that originality is often set aside. Thus, while the Euro may soon replace the Czech Koruna, I hope that overall, the desire for normalcy in the Czech Republic will not undermine Prague’s unique artistic culture. That art is flourishing now, only 20 years after the fall of Communism, is a good sign. That it never truly stopped flourishing, even during the Communism regime, is an even better one. If there is one thing that Czech history and culture can show us, it is that art, like the human that creates it, is resilient.

Original Author: Suzanne Baumgarten