Václav Havelplaywright, human rights activist, and now president of the Czech Republichas had a distinguished literary career and a remarkable political one. His first theatrical works were produced in the 1960s, and since then he has authored numerous plays and essays. Honored for his literary explorations of the moral questions raised by bureaucratic and totalitarian regimes, he has received a number of awards, including the Austrian State Prize for European Literature, the Frankfurt Book Fair Peace Prize, the Sonning Cultural Prize, and many others.
A participant in the Prague Spring, the short-lived period of reform in 1968, Mr. Havel was by 1977 a major leader in his country's human rights movement, serving as spokesman for the leading dissident group, Charter 77. In 1979 he was sentenced by his country's Communist government to four and half years imprisonment for sedition.
Today, 15 years later, in one of history's more poetic reversals, President Havel occupies the same office in Prague Castle where Gustav Husák, the man responsible for his imprisonment, once sat. In this office overlooking the Malá Strana district and the Vltava River that bisects the cityPresident Havel met with Miguel Angel Corzo, Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, to discuss the task of cultural heritage preservation in a period of historic political and economic change. They were joined by Dr. Eliska Fucíková, Director of the National Heritage Department of the Office of the President.
Miguel Angel Corzo: Since 1989 when democratization began, what are some of the changes that have occurred in your country with regard to the conservation and preservation of the cultural heritage?
President Havel: It is not as easy as things seemed to be at the beginning. On one hand, some opportunities have opened up. In the case of many houses or even castles that have been restored to their original owners, restoration or conservation work has progressed past the point that was the case when the properties were owned by the state. And we can see in the streets of Prague, for example, many renovation works in progress.
But there is a dangerous aspect to this, of course. As has happened in other historic cities elsewhere, there is a threat that the rapid advance of a market economy may bring with it some lack of sensitivity to the cultural heritage. A new piece of national legislation on conservation of monuments is now being prepared which I hope will lay down rules for the approach to monuments, so as to avoid instances where, for example, someone would preserve the facade of a house but tear down everything behind it and replace it.
Legislation is essential indeed, but I imagine that there is another aspect which is also very important, and that is your moral authority as president. How can you create an awareness of the importance of the cultural heritage as president of your country?
Of course, my voice being the voice of the president is heard more perhaps than the voice of an ordinary citizen. Therefore I can help things by pointing them out in my public statements. In the area of constitutional power, I do not have many opportunities to exert a direct influence on these matters. But I can try to exert an indirect influence by helping to generate a favorable climate through my public statements and pronouncements.
Because of contemporary society's pressing social needs, there are those who say that expenditures on cultural heritage preservation must wait. I know you have reflected on this dilemma, and I imagine that as a leader it must be difficult for you to reconcile these two demands on resources.
It is a very complicated task for the governmentand in particular for the parliamentto decide on the allocation of the budget funds to meet many needs, all of which are equally important. And of course the parliament, as an elected entity, should resolve these issues in a responsible manner and in accordance with the will of the citizens.
I do attach a great importance to having a variety of sources for the funding of monument conservation, particularly in those cases where funds may be lacking in the budget or where, for reasons of balance, they have to be allocated to other purposes. Right now preparations are under way for passing legislation on nonprofit organizations which should provide the legislative framework for alternative avenues of finance.
Eliska Fucíková: In the president's family, they have divided their volunteer duties, with the president taking care of monuments and his wife of charitable works. The president has in fact established a foundation in support of Prague Castle, while Mrs. Havel is chairing the Olga Havel Foundation, helping children, the disabled, and aged people.
A fair separation of tasks. Has the experience of being president changed or modified your view of the place of culture in society?
President Havel: I would not say that my work as a president has in any principal way changed my views concerning the position of culture in the spiritual life of society. But now that I can see into the complex decision making process of government, I realize that things may often be more complicated than they seem to be when looked at from the outsideespecially now that the system for the promotion of culture is being changed in the context of the overall transformation of our economy. So in that regard, I have acquired new knowledge that has caused me to recognize that things are often not as easy as many might think.
There are so many monuments, paintings, manuscripts, and now photographs...our cultural heritage inventory becomes larger and larger every year. Because society doesn't have enough funds to save everything, certain decisions have to be made as to what stays and what is left to disintegrate. You are a writer, a thinker, a philosopher. How would you decide what stays and what goes? What sort of criteria would you apply?
In that respect I would rather listen to what the experts say to that because, after all, this is what they are for. Of course, some of the more conservative specialists in the area of monuments conservation would like to preserve everything, which of course is not feasible. But I do believe that an expert discussion is necessary, and I would be happy to respect the outcome of such a discussion.
As you are well aware, your office and the GCI are working together at St. Vitus Cathedral on the conservation of The Last Judgment mosaic. Can this type of cooperation serve as a model for the kind of collaboration this country can have with other cultural institutions in the world?
I think, indeed, that this is an excellent example of cultural cooperation, which is of great significance, both to us and generally. Of course, cultural heritage does not belong to us only. And there are certainly many other instances where we would welcome a similar kind of cooperation.