“Institutional Repair”— In the Ironic Sense of the Term. From my Native Point of View

One of the most illuminating stories in the history of cultural anthropology is the scandal of Bronislaw Malinowski, which, to my knowledge, has been most thoroughly interpreted by Clifford Geertz. “The myth of the chameleon field-worker, perfectly self-tuned to his exotic surroundings—a walking miracle of empathy, tact, patience, and cosmopolitanism—was demolished by the man who had perhaps done the most to create it.”[1] This happened after his death, when his widow published his secret confessions about his—mostly negative—experiences during fieldwork in A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. What is striking about Geertz’s interpretation of the case is his focus on an epistemological, rather than moral, understanding. “The discussion eventually came down to Malinowski’s moral character or lack of it; ignored was the genuinely profound question his book raised, namely, if anthropological understanding does not stem, as we have been taught to believe, from some sort of extraordinary sensibility, an almost preternatural capacity to think, feel, and perceive like a native (a word, I should hurry to say, I use here ‘in the strict sense of the term’), then how is anthropological knowledge of the way natives think, feel, and perceive possible? (…) What happens to verstehen when einfühlen disappears?”[2] Geertz later makes a convincing argument for a desirable approach: “The trick is to figure out what the devil they [the natives—A.P.] think they are up to. In one sense, of course, no one knows this better than they do themselves; hence the passion to swim in the stream of their experience, and the illusion afterward that one somehow has. (…) The ethnographer does not, and, in my opinion, largely cannot, perceive what his informants perceive. What he perceives —and that uncertainty enough— is what they perceive ‘with,’ or ‘by means of,’ or ‘through,’ or whatever word one may choose. In the country of the blind, who are not as unobservant as they appear, the one-eyed is not king but spectator.”[3]

Picture of Bronislaw Malinowski (center) with natives on Trobriand Islands, 1920. Wikimedia Commons

As I was preparing this article, in which I should analyze —for readers who are mostly foreign— the institutional politics and policies that prevail in Hungary, in the light of the recent legislative acts and the attitude of employees towards their workplaces, I suddenly remembered this wonderful essay by Geertz. And when I shared the planned analysis with a very good friend of mine, an art historian, she asked me why I would want to make the reputation of the stigmatized Hungarian scholars, artists, and cultural workers even worse. Well, this article is not a moral judgment but an attempt to understand. I can no longer go for einfühlen, I must admit. Let’s have a go at verstehen, then—in the manner of Geertz, who in the quoted essay shed some light on the very nature of anthropological understanding.

My position is different: I am a freelancing outsider. Working on contracts does not compare to participatory observation, I haven’t done fieldwork there, I can’t see inside people’s heads, I can’t force them to answer my questions if they are afraid to or simply don’t want to—or can only with the permission of the ministry. I use media reports instead and personal observations; no “participation” but plenty of “real life experiences.”

When I listed and categorized my sources, I noticed a striking thing about them. They almost correspond to the categories of the Kádár-era, in how they represent different kinds of public spheres. Some of the articles I use were published in the primary public sphere of the Orbán regime, in the print and online versions of Magyar Nemzet, an outright propaganda newspaper distributed nationwide. In what could be called a “sub-primary” public sphere—originally available for certain groups of people, mainly experts, but hidden from broader audiences—I would place several news portals that are thought to be independent and to have a readership that shares similar views: these include Szabad Európa (Free Europe), Népszava and 444.hu. There is a secondary public sphere, with media like Tranzitblog (the Hungarian contemporary critical art platform) and the YouTube channel “Kritikus Kultúra” (Critical Culture). While these are of course not banned, and their authors need not face silencing, imprisonment or exile, they reach only a very small and well-definable circle of intellectuals. This is a rough and ready overview of the situation.

Critical Culture / Culture In A Critical Condition, conference in Budapest, December 2023. Curator Kata Oltai is giving her opening speech. Photo: Kritikus Kultúra

Let me start my analysis with the last of these categories. In 2011 and 2012, and then in 2016, Gergely Nagy, the editor of this thematic issue of Mezosfera, published a series of articles about cultural politics and cultural institutions, on Tranzitblog, one of the main platforms of critical culture. The titles are telling, and comparing them with articles from the mainstream propaganda newspapers reporting on the same events brings the absurdity of the Hungarian media environment into relief: “The Soul of Power and How It Concerns Us,” “Museums on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “What Do We Do Now? Seriously,” “Finita de la commedia,” “And Soon the Darkness,” etc. Tranzit.hu, an independent contemporary art institution supported by Erste Foundation, has always been a hub for protests. The latter were mainly organized by the group of Free Artists, Uniting for Contemporary Art, while tranzit.hu provided the minimum infrastructure in the framework of the Tranzit Action Days, where everyone had the opportunity to give voice to their discontent and discuss it with others. (Recently, they staged an exhibition in their new community space, Lehetőségek Tere (Space of Opportunities), about the past decade of civic resistance, entitled Keep Freedom in Mind.) Resistance was at its peak in 2013, when the cultural authorities started to “invade” the key institutions, and the Orbán government established the Hungarian Academy of Arts (MMA), which prompted a small group of artists to occupy the stairway in Ludwig Museum in protest. Let me quote one of the protagonists, a freelancing activist photographer, who created a vast archive of photos of nearly all the demonstrations that followed this event:

“At the beginning of the demonstrations, we believed that—since a full-scale crackdown had not yet taken place—the protests made sense. We believed that it was at least possible to push back against some of the oppressive, cronyist, expropriatory practices of those in power, and that it was possible to preserve the crumbs of democracy. By now, the entire system of cultural institutions has been transformed. I call it a subtle transformation, but it really is an extension of political influence and a curtailing of freedom, the gradual suppression, restriction and elimination of free thought, primarily by structural, systemic means.”[4]

Occupy Ludwig!, 2013, Budapest. Photo: Összefogás a kortárs művészetért / ‘Uniting for Contemporary Art’ Group

She tells about her own attitude toward the present cultural scene, saying she keeps distant from all these institutions, taking no commissions from them. And that is a striking difference from pre-1989 state socialism when the options were those of being supported, tolerated or banned by the regime. While this has been reiterated many times, the fact is that from about 1983 there were a number of transitional varieties of these categories.

Just as there are many today. A lot of the protesting artists, curators and cultural workers have either left the country or work at or for the public institutions that are under complete governmental control. They usually argue that they agree to do so as long as they have artistic or intellectual freedom, and they are not told or ordered to act or think in specific ways.

In this article, I attempt to make out, in the light of recent events, whether this choice is an illusion or a form of self-deception, a realistic survival strategy, or both.

The critical component of the following brief case studies is the Act on the Protection of Families, passed in Parliament in June 2021, and commonly referred to as the “anti-LGBTQ” or “pedophile act.” It was a culmination of the “gender panic” stirred up by the government and the extreme right Mi Hazánk Mozgalom (Our Homeland Movement, MHM). As a lead-up, MHM MP Dóra Duró publicly destroyed a children’s book in which classic fairy tale characters were represented as members of marginalized communities. “Fairyland does not belong to the aberrated ones!” she proclaimed. The act was widely covered by the media in Hungary and abroad, but that did not prevent people from self-censoring in their work. Students under 18 cannot be shown educational materials, videos or films about LGBTQ culture or identity. In 2023, Libri, the largest publishing house, was purchased by the Mathias Corvinus Collegium Foundation, which is highly subsidized by the state, and its director gave orders to shrink-wrap books that reference LGBTQ culture. There were many examples of distinguished academics starting to obey rules, whether explicit or hidden. Who acted more shamefully? The director of the Research Institute for Economics, who forced staff critical of the government into retirement? Or the organizers of the psychiatry conference who in a panel devoted to gender criticism gave the floor—much to the consternation and protest of the other participants—to the exponents of pseudo-scientific, pro-government propaganda about the “dangers” of gender? (According to the petition signed by the protesters, these presentations contained inciting, hateful statements.)

“Dear U18’s! This what you are not allowed to see”. A web flyer of the independent student organisation EDF (United Student Forum), using a photo by Claudia Andujar. EDF Facebook

Or the directors and employees of museums and art galleries? How could one “measure” their loyalty to the government, their opportunism or fear? Obviously, it cannot be measured in any way, and any effort to do so could only lead to useless moralizing.

Instead, let us recall and analyze a few cases, in hope of a small spark that could help verstehen.

The first scandal at an institution was again sparked by MHM MP Dóra Duró, who discovered Hannah Reyes Morales’s photos about a home for elderly members of the LGBTQ community at the 2024 World Press Photo Exhibition, hosted by the Hungarian National Museum, and she demanded a legality review from the minister, János Csák. A long process began, in which obedience and disobedience were both in play, with visitors under 18 barred from the exhibition, but no capacity (and probably willingness) to enforce the rule. (Meanwhile, due to the extensive media coverage, young protesters appeared and long queues of curious visitors formed outside the museum…) In the end, museum director László L. Simon, who as an MP had voted for this law, was removed from his position. He went on to claim, repeatedly, that what had brought about the whole chain of events was not the act itself but its erroneous interpretation, and that age restriction did not equal censorship.

Nor does, I’d like to add, censorship equal self-censorship. In October 2023, Műcsarnok presented a major retrospective of the work of the well-known emigré painter, Judit Reigl. (Műcsarnok had been one of the largest art institutions to be “invaded” at the start of Orbán’s rule, causing the above-mentioned Free Artists to protest.) After the National Museum scandal, György Szegő and Piroska Medgyes, the directors of Műcsarnok, published this statement on the institution’s website: “Dear Visitors! Műcsarnok is fully compliant with the law, and our exhibitions do not violate any laws, including the law on the protection of families. The exhibition Judit Reigl 100 – Judit Reigl and the Second Paris School is a tribute to the artist on the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest and internationally most renowned Hungarian artists of the 20th century.” Now, one could ask, why was this “pledge of good intentions” necessary? Only those familiar with the biography of Judit Reigl can guess correctly: because she was a lesbian. So this is how the Hungarian tribute becomes complete.

JUDIT REIGL 100 | JUDIT REIGL AND THE SECOND SCHOOL OF PARIS. Műcsarnok, Budapest, 2023. The exhibition was opened by Katalin Novák, President of Hungary. Photo: Sándor Palace

The director of the Museum of Ethnography chose another path, which in my opinion crowns the whole sequence of these nightmare events and makes it understandable why einfühlen is out of the question when one tries to describe and analyze the mentality of social scientists—ethnographers and anthropologists—at the museum. Claudia Andujar, the well-known Brazilian activist photographer of Hungarian descent had her first and unique exhibition in Hungary opened in September 2023. After the events above, which took place in November, a rope barrier and a sign were installed to prevent visitors under 18 from seeing one of the photo series. Young protesters went to the museum in an attempt to discuss the issue with the director, Dr. Lajos Kemecsi, but they were denied access. The police were called, and the leader of the activist group, Noel Perlaki-Borsos was given a fine, which was later reduced to a warning.

How the “problematic” photos were handled epitomizes and sheds light on a context marked by a highly unprofessional fear of law and a deliberate uncertainty in its interpretation. In 1967, early on in her career, Claudia Andujar made several photo series about marginalized people living in São Paulo, mostly for the journal Realidade. One of these series, called Homosexuality, represented gay persons with exceptional sensitivity and empathy (and was originally censored, what with the social reality of Brazil in 1967). The cover photo at the exhibition shows two men with naked torsos, one behind the other, with the one in the back tenderly touching the shoulder of the other. When I took the guided tour, the curator, anthropologist György Szeljak made no mention of the reason for the restriction, or the subjects of this particular series. This silent complicity was particularly painful to observe in that environment, a vast exhibition hall filled with manifestations of extraordinary artistic solidarity and the experience of oppression. After the tour I wanted to ask the other curator, historian of photography and museologist Judit Gellér about this, but she said she was not allowed to answer, and referred me to the director of communications, Marianna Berényi. Over the phone, the latter advised me how I was to proceed: I should send my questions in an email so that she could forward it to the ministry, and with its permission she would answer—or probably would not, she added honestly. In fact, she didn’t, though I sent two emails.

The exhibition garnered critical acclaim, had good media coverage, and was accompanied by a nice catalog (without age restriction). It is not a publication to document the sociocultural environment in which Claudia Andujar’s “homecoming” was celebrated. Which in terms of the hate and stigmatization, and the mentality of the people, is not unlike the one she left in 1944.

Museum of Ethnography, Budapest. Photo: György Palkó / Liget Project

“Our heritage makes us what we are.” Thus read the caption of a photo of Szilárd Demeter, re-appointed director of the Petőfi Literary Museum, in Magyar Nemzet’s article about his new position as the head of a vast centralized holding that was to integrate the largest public museums. He has gained notoriety for offensive remarks he makes with impunity, but luckily, according to his employees, he never gets involved in the professional decisions at the institutions under his control. So his colleagues can hold “other” heritages dear on a high professional level.

At the conference, Critical Culture / Culture in a Critical Condition I–II (Budapest, December 1 and 11, 2023) many excellent speakers were trying to ask the right questions about this extremely controversial cultural environment. Renátó Fehér gave a highly ironic account of his decision not to apply for the position of director of the literary museum. Others analyzed the inequality between the conditions of large public institutions that are well maintained and highly controlled by the state and smaller ones that experience less control and receive less support; while the latter can afford to express more critical views, they reach much smaller audiences.

What compromises and concessions, what form of self-censorship is necessary for smooth operation? Are they slowly widening the circles of freedom, leading, step by step, to the collapse of the system? Can the institutional repair (rather than critique) performed by exhibiting artists with a critical voice lead to a covert critique of the system, which can spill over into the political sphere? Or can the two reinforce each other? Or on the contrary: open opposition results in open destruction?

The Hungarian Section of AICA, the International Association of Art Critiques gave its award for the Best Curated Group Exhibition of 2023 to Ludwig Museum’s Handle with Care, which was curated by Rita Dabi-Farkas and Viktória Popovics. I encountered the phrase, “institutional repair”—an alternative to institutional critique—at the excellent symposium that accompanied the exhibition, during a presentation by two curators, Flóra Gadó and Judit Szalipszki (though the context in their reference was different). I spent a lot of time at the exhibition whose educational programs I contributed to with a contract, and just now, while writing this article, I became aware of a glaring omission: that of LGBTQ representations. There was one work, to be fair, but it is a safe bet that hardly anyone noticed it. Stephanie Winter’s site-specific installation, The Womb was a safe space where you could read The Psyche of the Earth is a Glowing Pudding, a book on “radical care,” in which a chapter was about queer mothering.

We’ll never know if this omission was a sign of self-censorship or it was that simply different aspects of the topic gained priority, but it is probably not important anymore: just like me, no else one cared.


Geertz, Clifford. “‘From the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding.” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 28, no. 1 (1974): 26–45. https://doi.org/10.2307/3822971. A Mű. “Tíz éve. ‘Én eleve is másfelé megyek’ – Csoszó Gabriella,” 31 May 2023. https://amu.hvg.hu/2023/05/31/tiz-eve-en-eleve-is-masfele-megyek-csoszo-gabriella/

[1] Clifford Geertz, “‘From the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding,” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 28, no. 1 (1974): 27.

[2] Geertz 27–28.

[3] Geertz 29–30.

[4] Part of Gabriella Csoszó’s response to A Mű’s poll. “Tíz éve. ‘Én eleve is másfelé megyek’ – Csoszó Gabriella,” A Mű, 31 May 2023, https://amu.hvg.hu/2023/05/31/tiz-eve-en-eleve-is-masfele-megyek-csoszo-gabriella/.

Andrea Pócsik is an independent cultural researcher, film historian, university lecturer, PhD. In addition to hr research on film history and film education methodology, she is mainly engaged in archival and memory research.

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