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On The Occasion Of The Slovenian Cultural Holiday, We Talked To Academic Janko Kos

“His face had a healthy flush, and it was somewhat tanned from the sun; his forehead was white and not too big, for he had luxuriant hair; my mother said it was the most beautiful forehead she had ever seen. His eyes, grey and rather small, were only half open; his gaze was usually grave and gave his eyes a rather cloudy haze, which made people believe that his gaze was dark. Only when he was excited, for example, happy or angry, would his eyes sparkle, and a powerful beam would strike the object of his love or his anger. He told my mother that he could see to the bottom of the human soul,” Ernestina Jelovšek wrote about our greatest poem, France Prešeren – who was her father.

“We talk about Prešeren’s presence in the Slovenian cultural space most loudly on the anniversary of his death, year after year,” Dr Janko Kos, Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Literary Theory, once wrote about France Prešeren – and this year is no different. On the eve of the cultural holiday, the highest awards in the arts, the Prešeren Awards, are presented at a celebration in the congress hall Cankarjev dom. This year, the focus was mainly on the recipient of the Prešeren Award in 2000 – the poet Svetlana Makarovič, who refused the award back then, but this year she changed her mind and promised to come on stage – “even if I have to crawl up there on all fours.”

“Would you give our greatest poet the Prešeren Award?” we asked our interlocutor, Professor Kos, who is also a member of the Board of the Prešeren Fund, a bit jokingly, in the midst of the whole circus of awarding and returning awards. “Of course, Prešeren would have got it, because his personal life is something completely different from his artistic life,” Kos replied, referring to the question he suspected would soon follow. But before that, he said that he stood by the position most clearly defended by Ivan Cankar in his “Bela Krizantema” (White Chrysanthemum), where Cankar laid down the principle that who an artist is in his private, empirical life, with all his habits – good or bad – is one thing, and the artist’s work of art, which emerges out of his artistry, is a whole other thing. The work of art is, therefore, something other than the artist’s everyday life practice.

This debate has been going on in public for some time, and Kos has already gotten this question several times before: should priest Marko Ivan Rupnik, whose alleged abuses of nuns have recently become public, return his Prešeren Award? Our interlocutor answered this question in advance when he explained “the Cankar principle.” Kos also does not know whether there even is any regulation or law on the return of the award – “Probably not,” he said. In his opinion, it is also difficult to judge what the relationship is between an artist’s private life and his art – the latter is also true of Rupnik, whose art, among other things, has not even received any art criticism. The literary historian also reminded us that in the history of art, we have several examples of artists who were even criminals in their private lives – the greatest poet of the Middle Ages was one of them, in the case of the French. Among the greatest Scandinavian writers, for example, we have a Hitler sympathiser who was also convicted after the war, but it never occurred to anyone that Knut Hamsun should return the Nobel Prize. Those who talk only about the artist’s private practices do not, as a rule, even know his art and so find it difficult to judge it. This kind of talk shows, among other things, a certain lack of understanding.

The spiritual atmosphere today is problematic

Sometimes, it happens that it is not only the best of the best who stand on the stage of the Prešeren celebrations. Moreover, it is also noticeable that our cultural space today may not even offer poets who can compete with Prešeren. Do poets of his calibre even exist anymore? “The problem is simply that today – if there are any exceptional talents – the spiritual atmosphere is not such as to allow them to develop their personal potential,” says Kos, who also finds it interesting to think about whether France Prešeren, Ivan Cankar or Edvard Kocbek and Dane Zajc were such individuals who were born for great achievements, or whether the environment, the era, the cultural atmosphere in which they lived also contributed to their achievements. In Kos’s view, the spiritual atmosphere is problematic today. “Quite frankly – we are all talking about the crisis of this Western civilisation, the civilisation in which we live. This is probably the reason why we don’t have a Prešeren, a Cankar, or even a Sreček Kosovel, a Kocbek or a Dominik Smole. They existed in other periods that were favourable to the development of some exceptional personalities, and that helped these achievements to emerge,” he explained.

“The real crisis of Prešeren’s idea could only occur at the moment when there would be a crisis of culture in the deepest sense of the word in the world, and thus also in Slovenia; when it would disintegrate at its very foundations, so that it would no longer be clear what culture actually is, when it would no longer be possible to distinguish culture from non-culture, and when there would no longer be any forces capable of creatively preserving it,” Janko Kos wrote in the 1960s in the magazine Sodobnost (Modernity).

Are we perhaps in the midst of a cultural crisis, where it is no longer possible to distinguish between culture and non-culture?

According to Kos, there is a certain hyperproduction of literature happening in Slovenia today, while on the other hand, there is a decline in the creation of paintings – other forms are emerging instead, which can be a problem. So, in literature, there is a very productive average, from which no great achievements emerge. This average is mostly achieved in a solid and professional way – we have a lot of quality here, too – but it is not in the real sense spiritually or aesthetically significant, as our leading poets have been – not only Prešeren, but also Simon Jenko, Josip Murn, Oton Zupančič, all the way to Kocbek, Zajc and Gregor Strniša. “There are no such people at the moment, it is hard to find anything exceptional or original,” admitted the literary historian, who nevertheless does not see the situation as completely dire. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the distinction between high art and mass production is blurred, and even in our newspapers and magazines, not enough attention is paid to this distinction – everything is treated as equal. “Which is, of course, impossible, and I think there should be some objective criticism of our artistic production again, which would be principled, but at the same time rigorous enough in choosing what is more and less worthy,” stressed Kos, who notes that this is not the case in our country, as critics are very flexible or rather friendly towards authors – which, of course, leads nowhere, and we should return to Fran Levstik’s demand that there should be some kind of objective criticism that serves the true selection of culture, and literature in particular. Kos believes that a generation of younger critics should now enter the public arena, who would be more rigorous and, above all, less obliging. “What is essential is what Levstik demanded in his time, when he felt that culture was becoming indeterminate, that one did not know what was good and what was bad. He demanded criticism, criticism, criticism. In our time, this is necessary, there must be some clear views of what is being sought in culture,” he reiterated.

If we say that the nation is the foundation of culture – does the crisis of culture mean that we also have a crisis of the nation or national consciousness?

“This is one of the reasons why culture is no longer at its best. If we apply this idea to current events, such as the closure of the Museum of Slovenian Independence – behind this problem, there is actually a lack of awareness of what Slovenians are, what we have been, what we want, what we have achieved and where we are going. If there is no clear awareness of these things, then even something as simple as a museum becomes a problem,” he confirmed. For Kos, the most pressing issue at the moment is what the Museum of Slovenian Independence should look like. “It should be a centre of excellence, where it would be possible to study what the Slovenian nation actually is, why it is an independent nation and why it has its own state, or how it came to be,” he believes. The question of who and which spiritual leaders led us to the idea of a Slovene state, so that it could be realised at an opportune time, should be addressed. “This could be the purpose of such a museum, and hopefully it will be,” Kos stressed, adding that this is also about culture, which is the foundation of the Slovenian nation, and the Slovenian nation is the foundation of the Slovenian state – all of these things are interconnected, which would also be revealed through scientific study. This is a complex matter, which is precisely why it needs a museum, a scientific collective, to look very closely at these fundamental problems, which are of the utmost importance to all of us. “Slovenian national independence is something so extraordinary, probably the highest thing we Slovenians have achieved,” added the academic, who firmly believes that we do need a Museum of Slovenian Independence.

This year, the Grand Prešeren Award was awarded to multidisciplinary artist Ema Kugler and academic painter Herman Gvardjančič. The Prešeren Fund Prizes, which are awarded for outstanding creativity over the last three years, were awarded to writer and journalist Dušan Jelinčič, composer Drago Ivanuša, pianist Alexander Gadjiev, academic painter Nikolaj Beer, film director and screenwriter Matevž Luzar, and the Medprostor architectural studio.

Sara Bertoncelj

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