PRAGUE — FOR decades, Cafe Slavia was a center of Prague cultural life, a place brimming with painters, playwrights, and poets.
In 1989, dissident intellectuals jammed the lively space overlooking the Vlatka River during the Velvet Revolution that won Czechs their freedom from Communism. But today the cafe is closed - a metaphor for a recent decline of expression and artistic spirit in the free-market Czech Republic.
Leased in 1992 for 50 years by American real estate firm HN Gorin, Slavia got lost in a legal and commercial limbo. Sources say the historic cafe would have become a glitzy tourist site, and powerful forces, including President Vaclav Havel, helped halt planned renovations. With no side giving in, the cafe today sits in stalemated emptiness - no life stirring behind dust-streaked windows.
The city of Franz Kafka has long defined its identity through intellectuals and artists; for 40 years Prague's special blend of brooding ennui and absurdist humor made it the only Left Bank in the former East Bloc.
"Under communism we didn't have money, we had culture," one Prague-born emigre put it.
YET today, priorities seem reversed. Battered by high costs and hesitant about mass-market approaches, many Czech artists have not hit stride. Intellectuals complain that as rents go up, the quality of art goes down. Writers such as Vaclav Havel, Milan Uhde, and Eva Kantorkova, who used to fill small magazines with electrifying essays, are now in public service.
"I haven't read the book or seen the play that is about everything I'm living in," says Sasha Neumann, publisher of Respekt magazine. Mr. Neumann, a rock music critic in the 1980s, adds, "I haven't seen or heard or touched the art that is really it, something we all agree is on new ground."
With Czechs newly concerned about jobs and making ends meet, audiences have dried up. Magazines, plays, books, and film are no longer subsidized by the state. Painter Milan Knizak, now director of the Czech Academy of Arts, this year began to include courses on entrepreneurship for his students.
Vaclav Marhoul, head of the Barrandov Film Company, says his problem today is finding scripts that appeal to a broad audience. "My first question is not about art. It's about whether a film will sell," he says. Mr. Marhoul doesn't want films about "post-communist realism. But I don't want imitation Hollywood, either."
Five years ago, the Barrandov company made 35 films a year; today it oversees half that. A decline is also evident in magazines. Respeckt, a popular intellectual weekly, has gone from a circulation of 100,000 during the Revolution to 25,000 today.
Ivan Klima is the only major Czech author who continues to speak to a Western audience. "Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light," his novel published this spring, describes life in the new period with a theme of endless "waiting, waiting" for some sensibility and definition to emerge.
Many Prague reviewers say that as a piece of art, Mr. Klima's novel is the kind of sub-par work they complain about. "I'm sorry to say his novel makes my point," says one.
Not that Czechs would read Klima anyway. The big sellers in the Czech Republic are the novels of Danielle Steele.
Moreover, the National Theater, which sits just down the street from the empty Cafe Slavia and a crowded new K mart megastore, now sells as many tickets to tourists as to Czechs.
"Unlike the 1980s, there is no juicy political subtext to these plays," says Karen von Kunes, a columnist for the English-language Prague Post.
The music scene in Prague is similarly affected. There are many good bands, still. But folk musicians, located on every other street corner during the 1980s, are no longer seen on the scene. Prague Selection, an underground band during the revolution, has retired. Its leader, Michael Kotsob, is a member of parliament.
"I think there was a stronger spirit of freedom before the Revolution," says a writer for the daily Rude Pravo.
President Havel said in a Monitor interview he "sometimes misses the strong, respected voice of intellectuals in public life. But in a free society, art does not play the same role of alternative politics. I think interesting things are happening in the arts. But it looks smaller."
Most citizens of Prague would like to get the real Cafe Slavia back. A year ago, students illegally "opened" the cafe for a short time in protest.
But the American owner will not renegotiate the lease. Neumann insists, "We need places like this to remind us that Prague has a soul."