What is Hungarian Art?

Hungary’s government has implemented four constitutional amendments in three years and a controversial media law. Now politics spills into the art scene as well.

by Carolin

The Budapest Millenium Cultural Centre in early summer 2013 offered an unusual sight: Banners and transparencies demanding a “free Ludwig” dangled from the ceiling of the entrance of the Ludwig Museum; on the staircase that leads visitors up to the vast collection of modern and contemporary artworks, young people sat on sleeping mats, discussing or keeping their eyes fixed on netbooks. A flip chart announced the e-mail address of the newly founded Alliance for Contemporary Art. Its aim is to keep the museum independent of the right-wing governing party Fidesz. While the whole scenario is widely familiar in the context of university protests, the occupation of a public cultural institution in Hungary was unprecedented.
The mandate of Barnabas Bencsik, the former head of the Ludwig Museum, ran out in February. While the museum staff expected it to be prolonged, an application process was initiated by the Cultural Ministry which did not allow for any transparency as to its procedure. Neither the Austrian Ludwig Foundation, owner of the collection, nor the museum’s staff was consulted. The latter reacted with an occupation, calling for transparency and dialogue. Behind this is a widespread fear that yet another cultural venue could soon be headed by a Fidesz-backed person, chosen mainly for political rather than curatorial profile – a fear based on the recent changes within the cultural landscape of Hungary.
In November 2012, the former head of Budapest’s biggest modern art museum Mücsarnok, Gábor Gulyás, resigned. The decision had been a protest against the loss of autonomy in his curatorial work. Nowadays, all state-run museums are under supervision of the Hungarian Art Academy (MMA), a nationalist-conservatist board, supported by the Ministry of Culture. Gulyás had staged an exhibition titled “What is Hungarian?”, which took a critical, and in parts comical stance towards Hungarian national identity. In a TV-interview, MMA’s head György Fekete denounced the exhibition as “national blasphemy”. He furthermore assured the viewers that, under the guidance of MMA, Mücsarnok would no longer host art which deviated from an attitude of national identification.
The restructuring of the cultural sphere in Hungary is not limited to the work of MMA and museal locations alone. The history will repeat itself in July, when artistic director of the National Theatre Robert Alfoldi will leave office. Since Fidesz came to power in 2010, Alfoldi had been repeatedly criticized and publicly ridiculed by members of parliament for his political views and homosexuality. Finally, the Cultural Ministry denied him another term as artistic director.

Alarming tendency
In reaction to the latest events at the Ludwig Museum, the Austrian Branch of the international writers’ club PEN released a letter in May stating that “it is practically written into the new Hungarian Constitution that works reflecting a Christian-nationalist ideology will be given priority when state subsidies are disbursed.” Meanwhile, the Cultural Ministry trivialized the occupation of Ludwig as unfounded “hysteria”. Indeed, as the replacements in Mücsarnok and the National Theatre are recent events, their future outcome is yet to be seen. For many, the tendency marked by these incidents is alarming enough; especially so for a generation of young Hungarian artists like Anita Kroó.
In 2011, she graduated from the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts. Having taken part in exhibitions in the capital for almost ten years, she recently staged her first two solo shows. “Mücsarnok used to offer critical, progressive exhibitions on a grand scale and with international acclaim,” she recalls. “It is a terrible thought, that this would soon be only a far memory.” For her, this creates the danger of being cut off from an artistic dialogue, and denied access to what is happening in the international art discourse. Even as she cannot yet imagine a direct effect on her own work, she perceives a general tension in the scene. “And of course, if I wanted to apply for a state grant, the first thing I would have to ask myself would be: Is my art provocative?”
Kroó’s works refer to personal and collective memory rooted in public spaces. One of them is a public transport junction and common meeting place on the Buda side of the city, formerly called Moszkva tér (Moscow square). The square is one of many places in Budapest which have recently been renamed in order to reflect the country’s identity more properly. Nevertheless, naming one of her paintings Moszkva tér was initially a mere intuitive act for Kroó. She was simply used to that name. “At the same time, my first thought upon hearing of this government renaming programme was: ‘They’re messing with our memories.’” She would not describe herself as a political person per sé, and doesn’t want her artwork to be reduced to a placative political stance. In a way, however, it is a subtle take on the claim of political leadership towards a prerogative of interpretation that far extends the symbolic exchange of street names.
There is a widening gap in present-day Hungary between “official“ and “alternative” culture, the latter being increasingly repressed in public spaces. Many old buildings in the centre of Budapest are still state property – a structural remnant of the communist era. This situation makes it hard for alternative art and community spaces to catch hold in the city at all. “Siraly” used to be one of them: a meeting place for artists, student protesters and the young Jewish community, as well as an exhibition and event space. It was forced by the officials to leave its premises in spring 2013. Several other art communities and theatre groups faced the same situation within the past two years, among them the theatre group Third Voice. It is lead by Julia Bársony, teacher of performance art and theatre at the renowned Moholy Nagy University of Art (MOME). “We simply had no place to go”, she remembers.

Inside Müszi, the abandoned shopping complex in central Budapest
Inside Müszi, the abandoned shopping complex in central Budapest

Denied alternatives
According to Barsony, Hungarian artists which are appreciated on an international scale, are being marginalized and rejected in the country itself. Ensembles travelling international dance and theatre festivals aren’t showcased at the grand venues in Budapest. “In communism, there were the categories of amateur art and official, established art. Now the government acts as if an alternative culture wasn´t even there”, Barsony examines. She witnessed many young artists at her university going abroad recently. Some of the students leaving for an ERASMUS semester in Berlin or Rotterdam don´t come back afterwards.
Bársony’s Third Voice ensemble moved to an abandoned shopping complex in central Budapest, which is privately owned. Following this, a new cultural venue was established there, called Müszi. At present, it houses 25 artists’ workshops and offices on roughly 2800 square meters and has become a vivid meeting point for artists as well as for cultural activists and exhibition-goers. It is one of the remaining places in Budapest which counterbalance the general trend towards homogenization and centralization among political lines. In contrast, its programmes attempt to involve people more actively in contemporary art discourse. In May, it hosted a festival organized by the Hungarian Contemporary Architecture Centre. The event aimed at locating abandoned buildings and thinking of ways to transform them into cultural and community spaces. Simultaneously, exhibitions are displayed, which more or less directly counter the approach of a new type of exclusive art fostered by MMA.
Just as the occupation of the Ludwig Museum, Müszi attests to the fact that art is still a protagonist in societal matters, rather than being set apart from it. In Hungary, the price to be payed for this is that art venues become battlefields in what foreign and independent local media have come to call an uneven “cultural war”.


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