In unhappy times, people are likely to meditate more often on the possibility of time travel: they give more thought to the question of what they could have done differently in the past, or imagine ways of traveling to the future to escape the present. Since 2010, in the Hungarian printed press, online forums, and casual discussions, an increasing number of people have asked, in increasing wonder: “Exactly which era1 have we returned to?” Looking around in astonishment, they try to determine which period of learnt history or lived past the present regime seems to resemble. What is it that this regime, one that has rewritten everyday reality at such an unbelievable speed, is trying to copy over onto our contemporary world purposefully or instinctually? Is it perhaps the Kádár era of the late 1950s to the late 1980s, which ended more than a quarter of a century ago? Or is it the interwar Horthy era2, of which almost no one living today has personal experience as an adult? Is the model perhaps drawn from the 1940s, or rather from the halcyon days of the late 19th-centrury Hungary?
It is difficult to give a clear-cut answer to the above questions, as the definition of “the world of today” would alone require a quarter-century time travel: we need to project ourselves back to 1989 to have a benchmark against which we can examine our one-time visions of the future, which actually represent our illusions, when viewed in retrospect from the vantage point of today. What seems to be a stable cornerstone on which to begin our investigation is that before we thought that Europe was closer; we felt that we only had to endure a couple of years before we would join the European Union, as culturally and historically we had always been linked to the West. This was the basis on which we built our world (utopia); it was our point of departure to revamp, amongst other things, our institutional system of culture—even if we did it hesitantly, repeatedly sinking back into the past. And now, we are standing here slightly stunned, looking around in the worlds preceding 1989 to find a key to the description of our situation today.
Those with at least forty years of life experience, who are old enough to have taken part in the Young Pioneer Movement, may make the first travel back in time to their own lives in Hungary in the 1980s, or even further back, to the 1960s and 1970s, to the world of the stabilized Kádár era. At that time, the regime “prohibited” only a few artists and intellectuals, “tolerated” most of them, and even “supported” some in turn for a couple of minor gestures.3 ] The Hungarian version of the “actually existing socialism”4 passed on to us, amongst other aspects, political power’s incorporative or at least compromising scheme, the gesture of exchanged winks (signaling that we all know where the limit is), self-censorship, and reading between the lines. In a resemblance to this old model, the new “System of National Cooperation”5 created by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán also rewards fidelity: almost all the actors who lined up like some bio-scenery in his party’s election campaigning events years ago have become artistic directors of major theatres by today. In such a complicated world of talking at cross purposes from different times, one is faced with a series of much too familiar dilemmas: What sort of compromise is still acceptable? Where does opportunism begin? And particularly: How can one wait it out and survive?
Hungarian Television, which has been used for the purpose of party political propaganda since its centralization (and which has little, if anything, to do with public service broadcasting), launched a new channel in late 2013. Its program includes showing repeats of TV programs from the Kádár era. These retro entertainment programs (in which you can also encounter scenes with people singing the praises of the Hungarian Young Communist League, which may have slipped the program editors’ notice, or even if they noticed them, they did not have an ear for that) are regularly interrupted by the daily news, which evokes the atmosphere of the 1950s more than anything else. Looking around here today, time travelers will also notice that ideology is actually of secondary importance. It is more important to bring “Dance Song” Festivals,6 operettas, and “Magyar songs”7 to everyone, and to convey through them the image of a country that “performs better”8, so that its citizens can finally indulge in amusement.
The next station in our time travel is 1948, following a short period of transition after World War II: the beginning of mopping up all democratic residues, the period of de-privatization. The centralization of arts administration and the central directives that were implemented at that time loom up against the backdrop of today’s trends: the first priority of that time was Socialist Realism, while today we have “national commitment” as a prerequisite for becoming a member of the Hungarian Academy of Arts9, an organization that has extended the reach of its power over everything and, not unimportantly, has been inscribed into the Fundamental Law, i.e., the new constitution.10 Within the span of a couple of years, every area was taken in one hand, or as people would put it at the time, under the control of “the lords of life and death:” the government assigned a leader to each segment of culture. It was not necessarily a matter of drawing upon the old single-party model, but rather a type of “outsourcing,” in terms of which the institutions of film, theatre, museums, or classical music have been reorganized in line with a given individual’s obsessions or interests towards power. Moreover, having largely given up a claim to versatility and its function of coordinating different areas, the State Secretariat which is, according to its name, in charge of culture, has become a tiny part of a larger conglomerate, the Ministry of Human Resources11—a name that may as well bring to mind the energy reclaimed from human bodies as an energy source12 for machines in The Matrix, or may actually recall 1984, even more than 1948.
The third layer in this palimpsest of time travels is the interwar period. Leftist thinkers were eradicated from the country’s culture following the fall of the 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic13—it was at this time that figures such as Michael Polanyi, Alexander Korda, and László Moholy-Nagy left the country. Today’s liberal, leftist intelligentsia, or those who have been labeled as such in a process of incessant political categorization, may similarly feel stateless in their own homeland these days. The word “cosmopolitan” has yet again become an imprecation in the mouth of the establishment; those criticizing the political system are regarded as nothing but “1919 Reds” by the Hungarian Academy of Art’s opinion formers. Every week you can encounter an irredentist14 commemoration in the country. The government has removed every statue from the square in front of the House of Parliament that would have thwarted its expressed determination and symbolic act to reconvert Kossuth Square into its state prior to 1944. And meanwhile, shining out amongst the old, dilapidated tenement houses in Budapest’s downtown area, there have emerged richly fitted out ecclesiastical buildings for education and culture, and Loyola Café & Lounge opened for the general public with a wide variety of food and drinks, “for the greater glory of God”15. In the Horthy era, many Hungarians left their homeland because of the unbearable intellectual climate, perhaps in numbers greater than those who fled the country after the 1956 Revolution: those who decided to choose a new homeland included Marcel Breuer, Robert Capa, and Béla Bartók. Revealing the nature of the chaos, the establishment proudly emblazons their names on its banner when it is in its interest to do so, as if they could have found their spiritual and intellectual homeland in the present system, as well.
The forth era to which this time travel takes us is the late 19th century, a period of economic flourishing in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the time when Hungary sought to protect its freedom from Austria. Today, in statements by politicians, as well as in television advertisements and on billboards, the government declares its intention to protect the nation from the European Union. The establishment seems to be longing for 1896, the time of the Millennium festivities commemorating the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin in the 9th century, and to the venue of the celebrations, the Budapest City Park. This may account for its concept of building a megalomaniac Museum Quarter in the City Park16 as its first priority program in an economic environment that contradicts this project from every possible aspect. This may be the underlying reason for suggesting and implementing the idea of handing over hegemony over the art scene to an artists’ association, just as it had happened following the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, so that a self-appointed benefactor of Hungarian culture, the Hungarian Academy of Arts, is now able to organize “salon exhibitions,” familiar from those halcyon days, for the artists that they regard worthy, and to present their works in the Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle17, which was all of a sudden “outsourced” to them, with the result that contemporary art has ceased to be present in this building in the manner and form it was present for several decades.
Time travelers will certainly notice at a glance that the act of rewriting history does not concern a single era: various elements of more than a century are mingled in today’s Hungary. The advent of the Hungarian Academy of Arts simultaneously evokes worlds that existed one hundred and twenty, sixty, or thirty years ago, while the construction of stadiums and public financing of football as a supplement for culture belong to a new development. I have not found a historical example of a ministry in charge of culture ordering a mass for the repose of a non-Hungarian football star’s soul, as the Ministry of Human Resources did for the Portuguese Eusebio. Genre statues have been erected in every era, but perhaps none of the past regimes would have allowed itself to erect, as a ne plus ultra of historical forgery, the German occupation memorial18, in which the Imperial Eagle, representing Nazi Germany, attacks Archangel Gabriel, symbolizing innocent Hungary, so that the royal orb drops from his hand. Without referring to a particular era, this establishment draws upon a long tradition of a historic sense of grievance harbored against the West; namely, upon the often justifiable yet ultimately mostly self-serving contention that sets an isolated Hungarian culture against a Western civilization that fails to hear anything except that which is spoken in its own language. Moreover, without referring to a particular era, the regime also draws upon the fault lines beneath a tribal setting: upon the irreconcilable opposition that exists between the Eastern European idea of “let us dare to be small” and the even farther Eastern idea of “let us dare to dream big.”19
For this political power, there is not a single epoch to be unequivocally selected and copied, and nor is there a single exclusive ideology either. Only power exists in itself: power to be seized and retained. Even those who have re-written the constitution are unable to find a means to this end other than sinking lower and lower in populism, adapting to the clamor of the man in the street, and trying to find the common denominator of indifference to criteria of quality. All this, particularly side by side with the thoroughgoing revamping of education, will cause long-lasting harm to the texture of culture. This government will bequeath to us a legacy of institutionalized cynicism that will stay with us for a certain period of time, making even the most fundamental values of Western civilization disputable. It will bequeath to us the legacy of a centralized institutional system of culture that is—quite contradictorily—tailored to suit individuals and their personal interests, at an increasing distance from autonomy. Of the aspects mentioned in the above sentences, their future tense poses a truly open-ended question, seeing that the present regime actually intends to stop the future. It does not have a vision of the future, as it regards itself to be inalterable; therefore, it expects its subjects not to think of the future. However, this is something to which time travelers will most probably never acquiesce.
The text was published on tranzitblog.hu in Hungarian in April 2014.
Translated by Andrea Szekeres
About the author
József Mélyi is a Budapest-based art historian, curator, and critic, co-initiator of Outer Space. Stand Out Every Week—Contemporary Art in Front of the Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, a year-long series featuring the actions of different artists. The series was also a response to the deferral of Kunsthalle’s ownership to an informal group the so called Hungarian Academy of Arts.
- János Kádár was premier of Hungary (1956–58, 1961–65) and first secretary (1956–88) of Hungary’s Communist Party, who played a key role in Hungary’s transition from the 1956 anti-Soviet government to the pro-Soviet regime that followed. From the 1960s on, the consolidated Kádár regime represented a form of soft dictatorship with a relatively secure economic and social system. See also: Goulash Communism. ↩
- Miklós Horthy was a Hungarian admiral and statesman who served as regent from 1920 to 1944. Under his regime, Hungary became the first post-World War I nationalist dictatorship in Europe to form an alliance with Nazi Germany. ↩
- The three words, “prohibit, tolerate, support,” refer to the infamous cultural policy of Hungarian state socialism, linked to the name of György Aczél, the most influential cultural-political leader of Hungary between the 1960s and 1982, who expressly stated that the regime recognized three types of cultural activity: “the one we support, the one we tolerate, and the one we prohibit” (known as the three T’s policy, as each word begins with a T in Hungarian). [All footnotes are translator and/or editor’s notes. ↩
- Actually existing socialism (also: real socialism, really existing socialism) is a term used from the 1960s in countries of the Eastern Bloc to refer to the (meager) reality of their political and economic systems, in contrast to the Marxist concept of socialism. Later on, the term became a sarcastic reference to the Soviet-type socialism. ↩
- According to Hungary’s ruling FIDESZ party, the System of National Cooperation (Nemzeti együttműködés rendszere)—an alternative to liberal democracy—is a “new social contract” between the Government and the population in order to “unify” the nation. ↩
- Táncdalfesztivál was a series of TV broadcasts of Hungarian pop music competitions and shows from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, which was extremely popular and watched by many, at a time when there was a single TV channel in the country. ↩
- Magyar nóta (“Hungarian song”) is a popular, composed song genre originating from the 19th century, using, among others, elements of Hungarian folk music in its style and lyrics, orchestrated and played in what is usually identified as a typically “Gypsy” music style. ↩
- Magyarország jobban teljesít (“Hungary performs better”) was the government’s slogan before February 2014, when it was given to the ruling FIDESZ party, which used it for its campaign for the 2014 parliamentary elections in printed and on online media as well as on public posters, to inculcate in people a positive image of the ruling party’s performance as an act of wishful thinking. (This “generous gesture” meant that hundreds of millions of public money was given to the ruling party). Source: Benjamin Novak. “Transparency International: This may be a free election, but it’s definitely not fair.” The Budapest Beacon. March 18, 2014. ↩
- Originally a private association founded by mostly conservative artists as a counter-academy in opposition to the Széchenyi Academy of Letters and Arts (established by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1992), the Hungarian Academy of Arts (in its Hungarian abbreviation, MMA) was established as a public body in 2011 according to the decision of the Hungarian Parliament. Its position in all major decision-making procedures in culture is also assured by the new Fundamental Law of Hungary, i.e., the constitution. The HAA’s increasing power has triggered several protests by Hungarian artists and arts professionals engaged in contemporary art. For a detailed analysis of Hungarian cultural policy (dated December 2014) see Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe (Hungarian profile: www.culturalpolicies.net/down/hungary_122014.pdf). ↩
- The controversial new constitution of Hungary, called the Fundamental Law of Hungary, entered into force on January 1, 2012. ↩
- The Ministry of Human Resources (officially dubbed in English as the Ministry of Human Capacities since 2015), is in charge of areas as wide as public administration, parliamentary affairs, EU development policy, family and youth services, sports, healthcare, social welfare, social inclusion, culture, public and higher education, as well as church, civil society, and national minority affairs. ↩
- The Hungarian word for resource, included in the ministry’s name, also means ”source of energy” in the literal sense. ↩
- The Hungarian Soviet Republic or Hungarian Republic of Councils was a short-lived independent communist state established in Hungary in 1919 in the aftermath of WWI. (Wikipedia) ↩
- Commemorative events to mourn the consequences of the Trianon Treaty, a peace agreement after WWI (1920) defining the final borders of Hungary, which thus lost two thirds of its territories. See also: Hungarian irredentism. ↩
- In line with its name, Loyola Café belongs to the renovated Jesuit Centre, the House of Dialogue, opened in 2011. The quotation is from an article of the Catholic portal, Magyar Kurír, announcing the opening of the Café with Ignatius’ motto: http://www.magyarkurir.hu/hirek/boldogok-akik-kaveznak-isten-nagyobb-dicsosegere-megnyilt-loyola-cafe/, September 17, 2011. ↩
- The much debated museum quarter project (“Liget Budapest”) planned for Budapest’s city park (Városliget) has undergone fundamental changes over the past years. The strong political will of the ruling FIDESZ party has not met with professional and public support. Besides the reconstruction of several venues in the City Park, this gigantic cultural and entertainment center aimed at building five new museums (as of 2013), which would have meant only one chapter of the drastic rearrangement of the whole museum structure in Hungary. Despite criticism voiced by political opponents, architects, environmental activists, and local citizen, the project is to be realized for 2018—however, the number of newly built museums has decreased to two. ↩
- The building of the Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle (also referred to as the Hall of Art or Palace of Arts) was also built in 1896 for the millennium celebrations. As an institution, it was founded in 1877 on the initiative of the Hungarian National Fine Arts Association in another building, which is now home to the University of Fine Arts. The ownership of the state-owned building, which had been regarded as the most significant venue and symbolic space for contemporary art in Hungary, was transferred to the Hungarian Academy of Arts in 2013. ↩
- The Memorial to the Victims of German Occupation is a sculptural composition that was erected on Szabadság Square in Budapest in the summer of 2014 to commemorate those who died as a result of Hungary’s occupation by German forces. The erection of the monument was ordered by a government decree on the last day of December 2013, with a deadline of merely two and a half months to be ready for inauguration on March 19, the anniversary of the German occupation. Since the publication of the first plans, many have protested against the interpretation the memorial presented, namely a self-exonerating one that relativizes Hungary’s responsibility. While the construction of the memorial was still in progress, a number of protests were initiated. The Living Memorial movement—a civil initiative opening up the field for public discussions—has remained active at the site to this day. ↩
- An aphorism attributed to Count István Széchenyi (1791–1860), “the Greatest Hungarian,” often quoted by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the context of the government’s economy development program, the New Széchenyi Plan, launched in 2011. The original sentence is from Széchenyi’s 1831 book, Világ vagy is felvilágosító töredékek némi hiba ’s előitélet eligazitására (Light, or Enlightening Fragments to Correct Some Mistakes and Prejudices): “Let us dare to be great—and it is actually not so difficult—but let us be wise at the same time.” ↩