The Upside of Romania’s Culture Wars: When Culture is Politicized, it Matters


photo by Andreea Retinschi

With the recent change of regime in Romania, what ensued during the past few months could be described as a downright culture war. Rumors of corruption and accusations of plagiarism against political and cultural leaders in the country abound, while Romania’s leading intellectuals are taking sides.  Victor Ponta, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) since 2010, became the Prime Minister of Romania in May 2012.  The shift in political power became more pronounced when Traian Băsescu, the President of Romania since 2004, was suspended from office on July 6, 2012. These political changes affect not only Romanian society, but also the realm of culture in particular: writers, artists, movie directors, architects, musicians, professors etc. This is why Romanian intellectuals are reacting so strongly–on both sides–to these political changes. It is perfectly understandable. Many of the cultural leaders in the country are political appointees. When there’s a drastic change in government, there’s a corresponding change in their lives and livelihood. The New York Times recently printed an article about the repercussions of the change in government upon Romania’s cultural institutions, both in the country and abroad.

As Larry Rohter states in this article, an emergency decree of the coalition government that was passed on June 14, posits that the Romanian Cultural Institutes, “a non-partisan entity that formerly reported directly to the president, now responds to a Senate driven by partisanship. Its new mandate: to direct its activities at the Romanian diaspora community. As a result, collaborations with American arts institutions – including Lincoln Center, co-sponsor of an annual Romanian film festival, and publishing houses specializing in translated literature — could be in jeopardy.”  Rohter continues to specify that Horia Patapievici, the leader of the Romanian Cultural Institutes, Cristian Mungiu, winner of the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 for his movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, as well as several influential cultural institutions, “including the Museum of Modern Art, Film Forum and Melville House have sent letters to the new prime minister and other government authorities, urging them rescind the measure.”

The response of those supporting the Ponta regime has been equally vehement. I have been following the unfolding of these political and cultural events in Romanian newspapers and via Facebook, which, not surprisingly, have divided many of my Romanian friends. I have always been extremely proud of my cultural heritage and viewed part of my role as a writer and art critic to show the merits of Romanian culture abroad. In fact, I still do.  This is less from a perspective of hopeless naivete and nostalgia than from a sincere appreciation of my cultural heritage and sense of pride in a country where culture still matters.

The idealist in me believes that whatever happens in the realm of politics in Romania, the reality is that the country has produced great artists, writers and philosophers–Eminescu, Caragiale, Brancusi, Ionescu, Eliade, Cioran–and it will continue to do so. Simultaneously, the cynic in me believes that you can’t have it both ways: writers and artists being detached from politics and economics, as is largely the case in the U.S., and culture mattering to the general public. Where culture is politicized, it will be subject to the kinds of tensions, ruptures and battles that occur routinely in countries like Romania and France. Where culture is largely separate from economics and politics, it will be–as I believe it is in the U.S.–a pleasant, harmless diversion and not much more than that. Few will pay attention to it or care about it

In this country, while economics may govern books, it does not govern culture. Certainly in the U.S. there’s a large and profitable publishing industry. But the genres most associated with “culture”–literary fiction, art books and scholarship–are not the money-makers that receive most media attention or a large publicity budget. They are often relegated to specialized, academic or  smaller publishing houses that are either non-profit (university sponsored) or low profit. Most of the big publishers’ annual publicity budget–millions of dollars– goes to a very tiny percentage of their books, usually in the categories of self-help, celebrity biographies or genre fiction (fantasy, horror and mystery). All this to say that the realm of “culture” in the U.S., which is largely detached from politics and economics, receives very little attention from the  media and the general public.

Thus, from my perspective, as a Romanian-American writer who has a partly external and partly internal perspective on both societies–or Intre Doua Lumi (Between Two Worlds) as the title of my novel was aptly translated into Romanian–the current tumultuous situation in the realm of culture in Romania is on the one hand a tragedy–because the country is so deeply divided–and on the other hand a triumph–because intellectuals are taking sides in a country where culture still matters. Henry Kissinger is said to have stated that “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low.” I believe  this statement is absolutely true. In my estimation, the saddest fate for a culture is not strife, but irrelevance

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon


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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Cristian Mungiu, fiction, Horia Patapievici, Intre Doua Lumi, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, publishing industry, Romania, Romania's culture wars, Traian Basescu, Velvet Totalitarianism, Victor Ponta

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