Interview: Magdalena Gigova
Everyone has been harping on about the mantra that a post-coronavirus world will not be the same. How will culture change, in your opinion?
I continue to view the coronavirus as an accidental error within the system, not as a project for a new system, as moralising insistence is constantly being heard. I am horrified by the aspiration to extract from the pandemic another repressive ideology of some future closed society in an admonishing denial of liberal democracy. In the sense: do you see how far you have taken it with your human rights and freedoms! And the most discouraging thing is that there will be no choice, for this ideology will be right-left, it will unite conservatives on the far right with environmentalists on the far left.
Probably, for the others, there lies ahead a great battle for freedom—on the scale of Prague’s or Paris’ in 1968—of movement, of speech, of beliefs… And culture, of course, will have to carry it on its back, because, in essence, it is resistance, as Prof. Atanas Natev used to say. It discerns the sources of despotism, despite their alibis, and opposes them. I anticipate the birth of new dissidents, which, by the way, fully understandably, began from within the community of physicians. The difference, I hope, is that they will no longer be able to imprison or intern them, but they will be able to declare them crazy, in the old way.
In such a situation, culture will be called upon to increase its civic engagement and broaden its ideological horizon, its questions, to become much more philosophical, existential and political, to abandon its pop-art attraction to everyday life, and to undertake the defence of those democratic values considered unshakeable. It will be a time of manifestos, of unpredictable interpretations, of radical aesthetic gestures: in general, no wonder if the blissful postmodern melancholy is only just really coming to an end. Personally, I would say, unfortunately…
Is there a danger that the thirst for performances and exhibitions caused by the quarantine will experience the effect of an elastic band—after a huge initial interest, to shrink?
I don’t believe so, because coming out of the pandemic will feel like a return to art, to cafés and restaurants, to bohemianism—as a meeting point between them. They were taken away, for the first time, under compulsion from the post-war generations, and hardly anyone would want to voluntarily give them up, this unequivocal sign that life goes on. Moreover, if a highly disciplined society awaits us after a pandemic, it is only in theatres or galleries that we will get back the freedom taken away outside their walls.
But there is still some benefit from the pandemic; in addition to closely looking into oneself, it has brought back the need to donate. Will this trend continue, and will it encompass various spheres of art?
In the event of a disaster, a specific factor takes effect—charity is also accepted as a form of ‘redemption’ from the heavens, valid only for the duration of the disaster. At the same time, society is ready, because of the disaster, to forgive previous misdeeds of public figures if they perform good deeds at present. And they use their chance for ‘epidemiological PR’, something that naturally directs their donorship to the enormous material needs posed by the pandemic. It is unlikely that it redirects to another sphere. Especially to art, which, against the background of concerns for health and daily bread, is beginning to look like an unnecessary luxury.
It is possible, however, that when the acute phase of the pandemic passes, art will become the focus of philanthropic interest, if after the doctors who saved people from the physical damage of the virus, artists offer salvation from the traumas of being saved from the scars of fear and the inertia of obedience. This depends on the strategies of art itself, on its ability to respond to group expectations and to play a healing role. For there is no doubt that, after the body, it is the soul that will need treatment. I already notice such a stirring in the mass genres—in the ‘Stolen Life’ series, for example, the coronavirus was developed as a theme.
In donation too, there is a fashion, as in everything else. What are the current trends and are they fleeting, or are they in line for sustainable development?
The small (‘pocket money’) but mass donations for the implementation of art projects represent a current and, in my opinion, far-reaching trend. Social networks have created exceptional opportunities for such fundraising under one condition: to be convinced and convincing in the presentation of your idea. The artists’ realisation is beginning to depend on their ability to be influencers of their own work, instead of sitting in the studio, waiting for someone else to make them famous. In such a context, the engagement of charitable organisations in the field of culture with their projects, such as the ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ Fund, is especially valuable because it is a reference point for the audience in the sea of suggestions and false causes on the internet. I think that, henceforth, a prerequisite for a sustainable effect in the charitable activities of the Fund will be its preliminary partnership with the creators. They apply before it for the support of their idea and then they jointly launch it to the public. The days of: ‘Give me this money, as small as it may be, and forget about it’, have gone.
This, however, does not stand in the way of sponsorship of the preservation of cultural memory, which is the main mission of the Fund. Also of criticism, without which art falls into a weightlessness of values. And of competitions, which are criticism ‘on the go’. And of children, because you do not become an artist by taking a diploma.
There were periods in history when art relied solely on patrons. What should the balance be between state policy, sometimes subjective subsidies and personal generosity?
There is a formidable collision in the making of state policy in art, because it is a sphere of spontaneity, of resistance, of arbitrariness, if you like, and it does not obey policies. It is always somewhat awkward when the state, with a signature and seal, has to give an art a chance to exist, and not to another. Of course, it is looking for ways to unburden itself of the weight of its own word in cooperation with the guilds, but ultimately the responsibility for what the taxpayer’s money is invested in, remains its own.
In this respect, the practice of ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ proves to be a good option, because the Fund is both state-owned and has an independent budget, formed by private donors of their own free will, something that allows it to make independent decisions. I am not forgetting that it is not an offspring of democracy, and it was created in the mature Socialist era, during the so-called ‘Lyudmilie’ [the period of Lyudmila Zhivkova’s presidency of the Committee of Culture], but as part of an attempt to use the then centuries-old history of Bulgaria to escape the influence of the USSR in the twentieth century. At the same time, Lyudmila Zhivkova, as the daughter of ‘The First’, held a position from which, on her own initiative, to amnesty and reintegrate intellectual figures from our emigration to the West, including in their role as donors. Thus, a model of donorship in culture, valid to this day, was put in place, combining state resources with personal gestures of patriotic Bulgarians—both from the country and from abroad.
There is no doubt that later, in the years of transition, the development of culture depended to no less an extent on the ‘personally demonstrated generosity’ of the nouveau riche. But there is a ‘but’ here that rests on the morality of their capital. And for most of them, it is questionable, even if only because it was accumulated in an economic environment with a large share of shady business, not to mention organised crime groups, criminal bosses, murders, racketeering, corruption…
It is an illusion that donorship alone can justify the origin of the money invested in it. Especially before audiences with civic sensitivity, as are those in culture. There are many examples, but probably the most convincing are the scandals that periodically arose around Vasil Bozhkov’s collection, regardless of the enormous museological value of its exhibits. So, despite the historical references to great artists, designed by patrons with ‘blood on their hands’, nowadays it matters who your sponsor is. It indirectly ‘enters’ the content of the artwork, or at least influences public opinion about it. Because it is one thing to create art in a despotic regime, but another in a democratic society, as ours anyway thinks of itself. It is the ‘purity’, not the amounts with which the Fund supports culture, that gives it significance as a donor.
As a member of the Management Council of NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’, do you feel a certain regret that good initiatives, such as the National Prize for Young Talents in Science and Arts, the awards for Novel of the Year and for the Rashko Sugarev Short Story, were postponed? Or do you think the delay was beneficial?
I think two or three months of delay do not matter in the relatively slow pace of high culture. However, there is another issue: whether a novel, for example written before the pandemic, would find its readers after it—how long will the fears and frustrations hold them back until they regain their breadth of interests? In this respect, delaying initiatives can really be of benefit for the effect.
NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ responded instantly and is already offering virtual tours of the Sarafs’ House in Samokov, Gabenski Gallery in Tryavna and Hadji Dancho’s Houses in Sliven. Do you have any ideas on how to maintain virtual interest and turn it into a real one?
Virtual versions of museums and exhibitions are an established practice, which in some respects can be more enriching than a visit ‘on site’ if, at the level of hypertext, it provides additional knowledge. Thanks to it, people in isolation reached cultural centres and events that they did not otherwise have time for or even assume existed. Now is the time to tell them: ‘Come and see us!’, and for them to hear you. In this sense, the virtual tours organised by the Fund in the current situation are, among other things, an advertising campaign for the cultural heritage it owns. And I am convinced that the Bulgarian public will continue to discover it for themselves, and realise how many people, who are no longer here, through their donations, participate in the nation’s contemporary life.
UNESCO’s Director General granted patronage to the 4th International Youth Art Festival, ‘River of Tolerance’, organised by the ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ Fund. This is a recognition of the role of the event as the road to intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding. What, in your opinion, will be different, given the changed situation under the pandemic? And to the psyche, too?
I started pessimistically, but I would like to end on an optimistic note. I hope that we will not allow the pandemic to damage the greatest achievement of Christian civilisation—an open, tolerant society. I accept UNESCO’s support as an appeal to safeguard it, because it is hardly a coincidence that this support comes right now and precisely for the ‘River of Tolerance’. The project, implemented by the Fund over many years in various forms, stimulates, along with tolerance in intercultural dialogue, the dialogue between teachers and students, between the arts, between aesthetics and schools, between creators and the public, between neighbouring Balkan countries… By the way, Balkan tolerance has always been a ‘hot topic’, not only politically, but also in human terms, and it will also be the focus of the upcoming edition of the project, if all goes well.
And regarding the psyche: I believe that the test has made it more resilient, so as not to succumb to apocalyptic scenarios and to preserve the horizons of hope and joy.