Top-down control overshadows the progressive arts scene in Viktor Orbán's Hungary
Posted: February 27, 2013
By Miklós Stemler
For the Post
The only good and fundable art is of a nationalist and religious character, says György Fekete, president of the Hungarian Artistic Academy since 2011. After the Hungarian government outsourced oversight of much of the country's cultural sector to the originally private organization, Fekete is now in a position to enforce his controversial views.
A lengthy line of people waited in the winter cold four weeks ago before the ticket office of the Hungarian National Theater in Budapest, after the online ticket-selling system collapsed. The huge turnout was generated by a final show staged by the institution's outgoing theater director, Róbert Alföldi. The actor-director leaves the troupe this summer after the government chose his rival, Attila Vidnyánszky, to lead the theater.
Under Alföldi's leadership, the Hungarian National Theater gained great popularity and professional acclaim with its thought-provoking plays. The tender process to select his successor, however, was a mere formality. Members of the conservative Orbán government had previously made it plain they regarded the work of Alföldi as too "liberal" and scandalous. As the new theater director, Vidnyánszky announced after his selection that he intends to make Hungary's most important and representative theater more nationalist and "sacred."
The change of leadership at the head of the Hungarian National Theater is the latest episode of the Hungarian kulturkampf, or culture war, which has raged with variable intensity since the fall of communism in 1989, pitting progressive artists against their conservative counterparts in an ideological dispute over national identity and core values. Although the Hungarian culture war shows a lot of similarities with its American counterpart of the 1960s, there is one major difference: In Hungary, most cultural institutes rely on government funding, disbursed through politically influenced channels. While each government has had its favored artists and cultural personalities in the past two decades, the recent arrangements of the Orbán government in this area have rekindled fears of censorship and aesthetic monopoly reminiscent of the communist era.
Public funding of the cultural sector has declined sharply since Viktor Orbán's government took power. Amounting to 78.85 billion forints (approx. 275 million euros) in 2010, the sum dropped to 51 billion forints in 2012, a 35 percent reduction. The private funding of culture also waned due to the economic crisis and the "unorthodox" policies of the new government, which radically reduced cultural funding and moved to centralize the sector. A new theater act passed in 2011 meant that independent theaters, which are not owned by the state or local governments, could not get government funding. Many such internationally renowned theaters have been forced to disband in the past two years, resolving to overcome their resulting financial problems. Also in 2011, the new and internationally criticized Hungarian constitution cemented the position of the Hungarian Artistic Academy (HAA), formerly a private organization, as the sole representative of Hungarian artistic life.
The move baffled the Hungarian cultural scene, whose members noted that another organization with the same goal, the Széchenyi Academy (named after the founder of the Hungarian Scientific Academy, István Széchenyi), which is part of the Hungarian Scientific Academy, already existed. The HAA, founded by the famous architect Imre Makovecz in 1992, originally functioned as a "counter-academy" after some conservative artists decided that the Széchenyi Academy was too liberal for their liking. The HAA was an important partner of the Fidesz in the past decade and gained the gratitude of the new conservative government after the Fidesz party's landslide victory in 2010. Although some saw this as a formal gesture, the HAA quickly received additional government funding of 100 million forints.
The rise of the HAA opened a new front in the Hungarian culture war between "moderate" and "hardcore" conservatives in the fall of 2012, when the Orbán government announced its intention to outsource most of the Hungarian cultural sector to the HAA. Since the start of 2013, the HAA gained control of the most eminent Hungarian art exhibition place, the Műcsarnok, and became an influential player in the distribution of remaining cultural funds. This cultural reform caused uproar in the country, partly due to the curious statements of the president of the HAA, György Fekete. Fekete, 80, an interior decorator and former conservative politician, quickly gained public notoriety after he assumed the presidential seat of the HAA. In one interview, Fekete stated he "does not care about democracy" and that only "true national and religious art and artists" have place in publicly funded cultural institutions.
Fekete's rise to power caused dissonance within Fidesz after some moderate conservatives opposed a hardliner as the nation's cultural figurehead. The most influential opponent was László L. Simon, the cultural under-secretary of the Orbán government and a former avant-garde poet. L. Simon publicly criticized his party's decision on the HAA, which proved an unwise political move. The power struggle ended after L. Simon was forced to resign from his post in February, leaving Fekete as the undisputed overseer of Hungarian cultural life.
"I do not think in style and genre, only in art that is useful for the survival of the nation," Fekete has said. "There are a lot of useless great works and some mediocre but useful ones. But my only standard is the usefulness of art."
Previously, Fekete rejected the critical assessment that his position is similar to the almighty "culturpope" of the communist era, György Aczél, who single-handedly decided which cultural works to release and which to censor. However, some point out that in fact Fekete is more hardcore than his communist predecessor. Between 1960 and 1985, the self-educated Aczél made accommodations for noncommunist artists, and his overall cultural policy was more pragmatic than ideological. By contrast, Fekete's musings about the usefulness of national art and uselessness of every other art echoes the opinion of the communist-era dictator János Kádár. In 1958, Kádár said he always favored mediocre socialist culture over higher-quality "anti-socialist" culture. Kádár's statement was aimed against Hungary's best-known composer, Zoltán Kodály, the inventor of the Kodály methodology.
In a recent editorial, Árpád Schilling, the acclaimed theater director, called the country's contemporary cultural policy the "time of radical dilettantes," when only ideologically based, "retrograde" art is genuine. "Hungary's most significant theater directors can only trust in international assignments, and they cannot realize their ideas without international funding," the multiple award-winning director said.
In past months, Fekete has become a popular object of ridicule in Hungary's online sphere, where users regard him as "ridiculous" and "out of touch with reality." Fekete memes flood the Internet, and one young artist is creating Fekete masks, so that "anyone can be the fearless leader of Hungarian cultural life." However, many older artists say they do not feel like laughing. Instead, they wonder if life was better under Aczél than Fekete.
Miklós Stemler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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