Realism of the Future: Debates and Conflicts around László Beke’s Imagination/Idea Project

“Misunderstanding is the main factor of the development of art”

Leó Popper[1]

Imaginations section at the 1971 – Parallel Nonsychnronism exhibition. Kiscell Museum- Municipal Gallery, Budapest, 2018-19. Photo: György Orbán

László Beke’s 1971 Imagination/Idea project is considered by art history writing to be the first important summary of Hungarian Conceptualism. The collection created in the year of György Lukács’s death—exactly two months later—is on the other hand an important chapter of the intellectual fight Beke has been leading for decades against the hegemony of realism. Conceptual art appeared in the Hungarian art world in the second half of the 1960s in a moment when the abstraction-realism debate[2] that had been going on for decades suddenly became pointless. Art works emerged that seemingly belonged to one side or the other but both questioned former ideas of art and the directions of interpretation. Besides art that created and reflected the “old” integral worldviews—let it be the socialist humanism of Gyula Hincz, the utopia of technicist Constructivism of Lajos Kassák, or the existentialist dystopia of the Surrealism of Béla Kondor —a new attitude appeared that undermined the emptied-out clichés of universalistic art. The generation of artists emerging in the 1960s started to experiment with new possibilities in pictorial and sculptural meaning-making, the reformation of the language of art, and thus a seemingly generational conflict took shape, which could only be handled with the means of tendentious misunderstandings by the cultural authorities following dogmatic Marxism.

Generational conflict and nonsynchronism

The generation of ‘68, the first transnational one,[3] was considered by sociological research in both capitalist and socialist countries to be irresponsible people living under the influence of consumption, entertainment, and personal life. Until the student protest of 1968 they were thought to be unaffected by public matters, when it turned out that their political involvement and activity emerged in new fields and with new means. Hungarian-German sociologist Karl Mannheim’s[4] 1928 essay entitled The Problem of Generations became relevant again at this point, which described generations as groups competing for the interpretation of reality that are not defined by their biological age—and neither by their classes—but by the conflict between them. Mannheim, similarly to German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, devoted a special place to utopian thinking that, in contrast to ideology, pointed beyond the present, existing order, and reality.[5] Both of them borrowed the concept of nonsynchronism from the same German art historian, Wilhelm Pinder, who questioned the unified period-styles with this generation-based concept.[6] It is an important change that both Bloch and Mannheim put the concept of nonsynchronism in a Marxist and sociological context.

Hungarian art in the turn of the 1960s and 1970s was characterized by the conflict of two generations with strong nonsynchronism and differing geopolitical orientation. One eloquent example for the arising structural misunderstandings is clear from the interview with Hungarian artist Gyula Hincz—who was supported artist by the socialist state, and thus could represent Hungary abroad—on his participation at the Venice Biennale in 1970:

The reason why professor Vayer—[the Hungarian commissioner at that time—ed.]—chose the excellent sculptor, József Somogyi and my works was probably in part due to that the organizers of the exhibitions requested from the commissioners of every country works of multifaceted artists who use different techniques. Besides painting, I also created graphics, but also ceramics, tapestry, and a few sculptures. At the exhibition it quickly became clear that being multifaceted, the use of versatile techniques had a slightly different meaning abroad”—as Gyula Hincz described his experiences of the Venice Biennale in 1970.

In the same interview, he called the works of Vasarely and Nicholas Schöffer “aesthetic stress,” not art, pointing out that he likes their work after all, but without the philosophical contemplations attached to them. Hincz also acknowledges that the Hungarian Pavilion probably seemed outdated to the international audience.[7] Hincz’s artistic concept of humanist grand realism[8] that is modernizing in style, but aspires for totality in its subject matter, conflicted strongly with new Avant-garde tendencies not only in international events but also in Hungarian art discourse. Besides the already used accusations—that considered abstract art the l’art pour l’art formalism of bourgeois decadence, and regarded the representatives of its newer manifestations, Informel, Op art, and Hard Edge, as epigones—new derogatory phrases were popularized in the case of Conceptual art. Alongside the tendentious misunderstandings emerging from political or personal spite, the criticism of Concept art took aim at the “un-done character,” gesture-like quality of these works.

In the context of this debate Beke’s Imagination/Idea project emerged in the summer of 1971. His call for participation took place simultaneously with the first attacks that artist György Galántai’s self-organized initiative, the so-called Chapel Studio in the town of Balatonboglár received both from the authorities and the press.[9] Beke – like Galántai – wished to present artistic ideas that had limited opportunities to get publicity, as a way to get a wider and truer view on the current state of affairs in the arts. At the same time he introduced the thesis that the documentation of artistic imagination could be considered as an actual work of art, of which there were no examples before. Conceptual art, until then had mostly manifested in the form of objects and combinations of objects[10] in exhibitions in Hungary. Beke emphasizes in later descriptions that despite citing Lawrence Weiner from 1968 as a motto[11] in his call for participation, he primarily did not want to follow the example of similar current international exhibitions conceived as a publication[12] but to map the observed local, Hungarian tendencies.

Quite concrete motivation of mine was Ilona Keserü’s idea that –inspired by the heart-shaped headstones characteristic to the village Balatonudvardi, which she already used in her paintings– she would build such a “triumphal arch” above the road passing through the small town. Or the plan of Elemér Zalotay’s “ribbon house” (…). At the turn of 1960s-1970s, these thoughts were coupled with perceptible presence of utopian thinking—as an escape from the overwhelming Marxism—that reached Hungary through the New Leftist, hippy ideas, and student movements. However, not only these, but also a collection of classical architectural examples I was already familiar with: Josef Ponten: Architektur, die nicht gebaut wurde.[13] Thus, on the one hand, the scientific exploration of possibilities, and the conflict of the soaring imagination and the naked truth.[14]

Beke’s proposal created an autonomous art field that gave legitimacy to works excluded from state funding for stylistic, ideological, or personal reasons, and also confronted the viewer with the monumentality of the artistic concepts, thereby offering an alternative to the makeshift solutions characteristic of realized club exhibitions.

Beke’s Imagination project mostly featured participants of the so called R-exhibition in 1970, with the addition of artist Erzsébet Schaár (1905-1975) and the members of the Pécs Műhely (Pécs Workshop). Together with artist Dezső Korniss (1908-1984) who also participated in the R-exhibition), Schaár represented the older Avant-garde generation. What helped to bridge the generational gap between them and the young artists was their marginalized status in one respect, and that both Korniss and Schaár renewed their forms of expression at the end of the 1960s. Schaár in her last artistic period, which started in the 1960s, created less and less realistic, and increasingly expressive figures positioned within specific spatial relations. She started to use styrofoam for her life-sized figures and space compositions; and – as a Pop art-like gesture – completed these cube-like figures—with casts taken from the faces and hands of her friends. Korniss at the end of the 1950s, started to create calligraphies recalling the style of Jackson Pollock that he first presented in 1958 in the Netherlands, in his exhibition together with Hungarian artist Endre Bálint. Korniss worked in the Pannonia Film Studio between 1963 and 1969, where he made animation films.

Dezső Korniss: Space Grid, 1961-1971, handwritten text and pencil drawing on graph paper. Imagination collection, courtesy László Beke, and the heirs of the artist

Beke sent out his call for his Imagination project in August 1971, and received materials from 31 artists by the end of the year. The works could be viewed in his apartment, in the next few months, Beke counted 80 visitors.[15] Beke invited not only those artists who participated with purely Concept works in the previous years’ Neo-avant-garde exhibitions, but also those in whose activity he saw the potential of a kind of impossible, paradox, or futuristic, utopian dimension that could be freed from material appearance. The materials Beke received highlighted numerous possible interpretations of the original concept. Apart from the purely structural, formal-visual interpretations (e.g. Ferenc Lantos’s variations), and the visual experiments to rethink the theoretical questions of painting and sculpture (János Fajó, Ferenc Ficzek, or Endre Tót), some artists raised issues that concerned the artists but were seemingly outside of the realm of art (e.g. György Jovánovics’s contribution discussing the fictional reconstruction of Lenin’s chess games and theoretical questions of chess notation). The two most important trends in the collection were concepts breaking up the frame of conventional artistic forms, conflating different systems of signs, verbal, pictorial, spatial, and performative dimensions (László Lakner, László Méhes, Géza Perneczky, Péter Türk), and the interventions aiming to remodel, to artistically frame the natural, urban, and everyday material surroundings (Gábor Attalai, Imre Bak, Gyula Gulyás, Tamás Hencze, György Kemény, Ilona Keserü, Dezső Korniss, Sándor Pinczehelyi). Besides these, such ironic and provocative reactions and gags were also typical that explicitly replied to Beke’s text and initiated discussions about the new Avant-garde trends and their position in the society (e.g. the reaction of Gyula Pauer), and the approach of István Haraszty introducing the new arts.

Sándor Pinczehelyi: The Creation of a Motif from a Given Element, 1971, Detail from the series, collage, Docubrom photo. Imagination collection, courtesy László Beke, and the artist

From the responses to Beke’s call, it also becomes clear that not only representatives of cultural authorities, but also numerous Avant-garde artists dissociated themselves from the thesis that stated that such documents can be considered artworks and that it was not necessary to “fabricate” the piece in the traditional sense. Interestingly, this question was not exposed as a generational conflict, at least not in a biological sense. Dezső Korniss and Erzsében Schaár did not have any problem with Beke’s concept. Korniss sent to Beke futuristic plans for monumental constructivist public scuptures, which he developed from his actual blueprints submitted to interior design competitions in early 1960s. Erzsébet Schaár designed a sculpture in 1970 to be placed in a castle based on a legend of a cursed girl who lived there, but it has never been erected because of bureaucratic reasons. As an alternative, Schaár planned a film with director Gyula Gulyás (1946) that would have been likewise about the legend of the castle using her sculptures, but this was not erected either, but its documentation survived because of the Imagination/Idea project.

 At the same time, Péter Donáth sent a lengthy letter to Beke in which he argued with the concept of Imagination/Idea. In one respect, he also connected Beke’s call to the new tendencies of Western art, and then drafted five—logical, theoretical, psychological, social, and ethical—objections. Beyond the logical and art theoretical contradictions of identifying imagination=work=documentation and the purpose=tool=realization, Donáth considered Conceptual art a kind of compromise. On the one hand, according to him, it was already obvious in the West that giving up classical artworks only seemingly made this trend independent of the market that was always hungry for novelties.On the other hand, Donáth insists that in the Hungarian context, nominating ideas to be regarded as art works is a withdrawal from society, giving up on socially engaged art.

Ilona Keserü, similarly to Donáth, claims in her letter to Beke that her principal motivation for creation is to materialize, and this process always transforms the original conception. She refers as an example to the gravestone motif used in her paintings, which she transformed to monumental land-reliefs, and– which served as inspiration for Beke. Although Keserü intended it as a counter example, the mentioned piece might be reckoned among the conceptual branch of land art.

The “fashion” of Concept art was viewed with aversions by a third participant of the Imagination/Idea project, János Major (1934–2008). Major regularly picked upon “found” names and figures that taken out of their environment got new meanings in the context of contemporary art and offered mordant, humorous crosstalk to a limited audience. From 1968 on he regularly took photos in cemeteries and displayed some of these photos in the self-organized Iparterv and R-exhibitions; the images also inspired Beke’s 1972 call for Cobblestones and Gravestones – to be discussed later. Major sent to Beke the Tombstone of Lajos Kubista that brings into play the art historical meaning of the family name Kubista (meaning Cubist in Hungarian). The cemetery photo is completed with a list of innovators who were Hungarian by origin but became famous abroad. Major recalls in an interview that the text attached to the photo was originally written for Klaus Groh’s request, who collected works for his book Aktuelle Kunst in Osteuropa roughly the same time as Beke’s call: “This story is full of misunderstandings. (…) I had a few tombstone photos, and even though I did not know anything about Concept, I saw that it was using photography, and that it was a modern thing, and the tombstones were available, so I sent from these. I chose the photos of the tombstones of actor Sándor Góth and painter Miklós Barabás, and the mausoleum inscription of statesmen Lajos Kossuth thinking they would understand them. Shorty after, I received a response by mail that they liked my photos but also asked me to tell them what my concept was. I got aggravated. Well, because Concept is now fashionable, you have to write a concept, so I have succumb to Western trends, because it is the only way to participate, to matter. And out of this anger came the text that I thought everybody would see as a Hungarian complaint: here whatever is born dies. From here, nothing goes further, here the ideas only enter, get accepted blindly in Budapest, but there is nowhere to go from here, as it is the final stop. Nobody understood it this way, at least reactions suggested so.”[16] Then Major sent to Beke the photo of the tombstone Lajos Kubista already with the text, which became one of the most renown works of Major, and has been reproduced in several international publications.[17]“This story is full of misunderstandings. (…) I had a few tombstone photos, and even though I did not know anything about Concept, I saw that it was using photography, and that it was a modern thing, and the tombstones were available, so I sent from these. I chose the photos of the tombstones of actor Sándor Góth and painter Miklós Barabás, and the mausoleum inscription of statesmen Lajos Kossuth thinking they would understand them. Shorty after, I received a response by mail that they liked my photos but also asked me to tell them what my concept was. I got aggravated. Well, because Concept is now fashionable, you have to write a concept, so I have succumb to Western trends, because it is the only way to participate, to matter. And out of this anger came the text that I thought everybody would see as a Hungarian complaint: here whatever is born dies. From here, nothing goes further, here the ideas only enter, get accepted blindly in Budapest, but there is nowhere to go from here, as it is the final stop. Nobody understood it this way, at least reactions suggested so.”[16] Then Major sent to Beke the photo of the tombstone Lajos Kubista already with the text, which became one of the most renown works of Major, and has been reproduced in several international publications.[17]

János Major: Tomb Stone of Lajos Kubista, 1971, Docubrom photo, typwritten text (translation below). Imagination collection, courtesy László Beke, and the heirs of the artist

1. Lajos Kubista was buried in the Farkasrét cemetery in Budapest
2. Cubism was not born in Budapest
3. No ism was born in Budapest
4. Victor Vasarely was born in Hungary
5. Op art was not born in Hungary
6. Nicolas Schöffer was born in Kalocsa
7. Kinetic art was not born in Kalocsa
8. Tivadar Herzl was born in Budapest
9. Zionism was not born in Budapest
10. The father of the nuclear bomb, Leó Szilárd, was born in Hungary, but died in the USA
11. Pop art was born in the USA, its influence extended to Hungary
12. Béla Bartók was born in Hungary, but died in New York
13. Concept art was born in New York; since then several concepts have been born in Budapest
14. János Neumann, outstanding mathematician and the inventor of the computer, was born in Hungary and died in the United States
15. Cybernetics has been used for the successful production of artworks in numerous technologically developed nations, whereas in Hungary—as far as I know—we have never got round to it
If, as I claim, all the assertions in the above concept are incontrovertible facts, then in this case “Fact art” would be a more fitting title than “Concept art.”
Would Fact art have originated in Budapest?
This hypothesis can only be maintained if its founding arguments are actual facts.
When I reviewed the accuracy of the arguments, I found that the 3rd argument is false.
Consequently, Fact art was still-born in Budapest, because one of the arguments, from which we concluded its coming into being—the one, according to which no ism was yet born in Hungary—is wrong, (non fact).
16. There was one ism that was born in Hungary: Bicsérdism.
17. Béla Bicsérdy died in America. 

It is important to emphasize among the critical responses to Beke’s call the gesture of Miklós Erdély (1928–1986) who provoked Beke from the other side compared to the previously mentioned examples; testing radicalism of Beke’s concept. Erdély from the 1950s was a member in different circles of friends, temporarily  acknowledged or marginalized artists (Dezső Korniss, Endre Bálint, Aurél Bernáth, Béla Kondor, János Pilinszky), while he was working as an architect. He got acquainted with the younger generation of Avant-garde artists in the middle of the 1960s. He participated in Hungarian and international actions and exhibitions (R-exhibition, 1970; Balatonboglár Chapel Studio 1971-73; Kunstzone München, 1971) with collages based on semantic tensions, made out of everyday objects and materials endowed with symbolic meaning. The cotton wool with goose lard that he gave to Beke with the inscription “Don’t separate! Don’t isolate!” in one respect is a provocation referring to the practical execution of Beke’s conception, according to which he collected ideas documented on A4 sheets putting every artist’s piece in a case-file in alphabetical order. How the works of different artists influence each other in such a collection? Is it enough to imagine something without doing it? Are the documentations of ideas valuable pieces to be preserved or purely reproducible documentations of the actually immaterial concept? In another respect, the goose lard as kosher fats activates the connotation of Jewish identity which was a taboo subject in state socialist Hungary, and which Erdély thematized in a number of his works.

The reaction of artist Gyula Pauer also carries provocation, parody: Pauer replied with another call to Beke’s letter, as a result of which he created a self-reflective collection, within Beke’s collection: a catalog of not public, ephemeral, or destroyed works. Pauer also based his call on a thesis: “the index card (museum index card) is the only document that reliably proves the existence of an art object.” Pauer sent blank index cards to 16 artists, mostly from Beke’s list, asking them to fill in the data of the work they considered to be their best. Even though Pauer parodistically discouraged the participants to perform and write down non-traditional artworks (e.g. actions or happenings) on the cards, the “punch line” of the initiation was exactly that Neo-avant-garde artistic practices cannot be written down with traditional museological methods. The received cards highlight a new aspect of most of participating artists’ activity—compared to the materials sent to Beke. What kind of connections are possible between the descriptions of ideas and those of the museum records? How can artistic practices aspiring for immateriality be represented in collections? How does the speculative language of Conceptual Art relate to the bureaucratic language of art institutions?

It is clear also from these examples that Imagination/Idea, while adapting the international examples of group exhibitions realized as a publication, was not only a review of artists but also a prototype of the thematic exhibitions emerging in Hungary the following years. Thus, it did not simply present the representatives of one tendency or artistic form but the responses to a concrete theme.[18]

Dóra Maurer: a-b-c, 1972 (left), Is it a top of a clay teapot? (right), 1972, cardboard, glued photographs, ink. Imaginations collection, courtesy Szent István Király Museum, Székesfehérvár, and the artist

“Intellectual Liberation Operation”

Still in the year 1971, Márta Kovalszky, the art historian of the municipal museum in Székesfehérvár made a plan for a similar exhibition, entitled Imaginations, also involving László Beke as the would-be author of the introductory essay for the catalogue. The museum sent official invitations to 23 artists with an emphasis on visual documents, experimental ideas, and models that would allow an insight into the creative process. Even though the exhibition concept of Márta Kovalovszky worded in the invitation letter is less radical than Beke’s call for participation from six months earlier, as she did not equate ideas, plans, and the documents of the artistic process with artworks, but the same curiosity was driving her, to get to know the immaterial yet visual ideas. Out of the artists she invited twenty participated in Beke’s project, Dóra Maurer, Sándor Csutoros and István Nádler were invited, in addition. Right after the invitation letters had been sent, the cultural authorities notified the museum that the exhibition cannot be realized due to the fact that the proposed participating artists could not be supported by the state. Nevertheless, by that time, the works to be reproduced in the catalogue had already been submitted. The works sent to the museum have been kept in a folder since 1972; documents of the unique attempt of the museum to display a new artistic tendency not retrospectively, but almost simultaneously with its emergence.[19]

For this finally unpublished catalogue, Beke wrote a preface in April 1972 – supposedly already knowing that the exhibition would not  take place. The surprising opening of the text—“To face our depressing past,” also confirms this as the exhibition was going to be about the future. Beke—inspired by the line of thoughts Major’s Lajos Kubista—writes bitterly about this inert future and failed talents of Hungarian art history, their dead-ends, as though he would question the authorities why they create more and more misunderstood heroes, and stars fleeing abroad. While he strongly attacks institutions praising false and “anachronistic” ideals, Beke, writing a kind of plea, takes each accusation leveled against the artistic programs appearing in the exhibitions Studio ‘66, Iparterv, and R-exhibition, and ultimately in the Imaginations, one by one: epigonism, and following Western trends uncritically. Beke didactically explains that Western inspirations primarily gave new tools to Hungarian artists, with which they continue dealing with local problems, in fact with a mind-shaping aim. Beke also mentions the question of accessibility, which is crucial in case of displaying the works in a museum. On the one hand, he points out that many artists had not given up on material realization, so they should not by accused of extreme intellectualism; while, others did so exactly as reaction to the overlook of their former spectacular experiments. Either way, these works require active interpretative attitude instead of the passive one that only appreciates art through the senses. Beke likewise faces here the accusation that later returns several times, that conceptual artists are lazy to realize their ideas. Beke here admits that Concept Art indeed makes a virtue out of necessity and because of this—at least in this country—it is often ironic and humorous. Nonetheless, obstacles in the way of realizing such ideas are due to external causes. He opposes the label “anti-humanist,” often used for these sarcastic pieces, claiming that every art is humanist by definition. In the case of inconsequential gags, Beke already flashes out the idea that was inspired by Joseph Beuys and Fluxus, that would be influential later on, and which seemingly is not far from the Socialist perception of culture: the simpler an idea is, the easier it is to copy it, the better. Concept artists do not wish to prove their unique genius but to activate the thinking of the viewer, and it builds a future in which “aesthetic action” takes a collective form. Beke supports this with the idea that conceptualism that attacks quality in the traditional sense, and criticizes the capitalist value of the artwork as a merchandise, is in fact an “intellectual liberation operation.”

Although Beke writes about the activity of the invited artists in general, his concluding thoughts harmonize with Imre Bak’s manifesto. On the invitation by the Székesfehérvár museum, Bak submitted compositions experimenting with visual and conceptual contrasts, the contradictions of visual and verbal signal systems, and two short, antithetical texts describing an artist’s activity, and the special social status of the Neo-avant-garde artist. More precisely, the situation that they could only maintain their autonomy, and finance their Avant-garde practices by taking graphic design, restoration, or decorator jobs. One of the texts, is a report on the copying of a technical drawing Bak made for the purpose of making a living, the other describes the intellectual, processual, documentative, and communicative nature of artistic activity, and defines the art of the future as the quality in collective action.

Gábor Attalai: Dangerous Chair, 1970, paper, photo, typewritten text. Imaginations collection, Courtesy Szent István Király Museum, Székesfehérvár, and the heirs of the artist

The others started to take Conceptual photos that were not purely the reproductions or documentations of something, but the title (or the inscription) and the photo (of a sight that is constructed or appropriated as ready-made), constitute together a work, or a statement. On a photo of a chair cut in half, Gábor Attalai wrote the words Dangerous chair. The chair was one of the most popular objects of Fluxus and Conceptual art in this period,[20] so he literally adapted the international trends to the local context, and reflected on the discomfort and dangers of double games, e.g. regarding his own distinct roles. Attalai collaborated with art institutions as the main figure of the new textile movement, whereas he was avoiding to participate in underground events, at the same time he regularly sent concept works to international Neo-avant-garde shows and publications.

László Lakner’s has sent a piece to Székesfehévár, which also deals with the question of the place, role, and the position of the Neo-avant-garde artist. He documents a minimalist action: “LL shows the right direction,” acting out a gesture similar to that of a Lenin statue, but leaving the resolution of the guidance’s ambiguity to the viewer. The work is part of his Self-Modellings series, in which Lakner shows a kind of stripped-down role playing documented with photo: he lays on steps, looks into space with binoculars, puts Christmas lights on himself.[21]

Cobblestones and Tombstone

The theme of cobblestones and tombstones appear in several works sent to Székesfehérvár, which were originally also connected to Beke’s another call for participation in Spring 1972. In this case Beke presented the received material as a slideshow in György Galántai’s Chapel Studio in Balatonboglár. On the one hand, Beke’s call wished to collect works created earlier in the theme of tombstones (János Major), and cobblestones (Attila Csáji, Dóra Maurer, László Lakner), which spoke ironically about the emptied out symbols of the revolution and tried, simultaneously, to revive them in the spirit of the New Leftist movements of 1968.  On the other hand, many artists created new pieces especially for this  call, like Gyula Gulyás, who made a series of objects exploring the political, sculptural, geometrical, and practical meanings of the cobblestone. Tamás Hencze, as a continuation of his Underground project sent to Beke in 1971, sent an obituary with his own name, but left the date of the funeral blank. Hence’s works connected another meaning of  “underground” with the original Land art idea, which was to  create a monument to the metaphor of underground art, – like a negative Hollywood sign – activating the literal meaning of “under-ground.”. Pauer sent his 1970 Pseudo Manifesto and a photo montage of pseudo cobblestones (cardboard or metal cubes on the sides of which the photo of the surface of a real cobblestone could be seen), in which the viewer could notice the differences between the real and the pseudo after thorough examination.

Although there is no work by Miklós Erdély in the Székesfehérvár Imaginations, it is important to mention his unexecuted concept for Beke’s Cobblestones and Tombstones action. Erdély, for Beke’s call, wanted to commemorate a writer friend who fell off from the balcony of Béla Kondor’s studio in 1961 within unclear circumstances. Erdély had been on friendly terms with Kondor since the fifties whose studio used to be a frequent meeting spot for intellectuals more or less detached from mainstream culture. Erdély had the idea in 1972 that as a response to Beke’s call he would throw out a cobblestone from Kondor’s balcony in memory of the writer friend, and he would document the action on film from above and on photo from below. Kondor formerly considered a peripheral eccentric in the second half of the sixties suddenly became favored by culture politics. He represented Hungary in the Venice Biennale in 1968, and had a solo exhibition in the Budapest Műcsarnok [Kunsthalle] in 1970, and whose thus consolidated art was less and less cherished by the prominents of the avant-garde,[22] and whose 1970 statement turned into winged words “I hope I am not modern.”[23] Although he remained friends with Erdély until his death in 1972 – he did not give his consent to Erdély’s plan. In this context, Erdély considered as a subversion that Kondor combined in an exceptionally esoteric way Christian and Socialist iconography in his recent works for building decorations for the state. For Kondor, however, Avant-gardism that Erdély stood for could not be perceived as art, it remained pure bohemianism, eccentricity – that outside of art was not too far for him. Erdély’s not realized plan became a legend that exemplifies clearly how the cultural political campaign against concept art played off artists – who differed greatly from the idea of Socialist Realism, but stucked to traditional concept of art and were given concessions in this period – against new Avant-garde trends. At the end of 1972 when Kondor died tragically young, the journal Kritika – that behaved as an organ of cultural politics – published an obituary of Kondor and it also included the typescript of a private conversation recorded on tape in which Kondor was teasing Erdély’s cobblestone plan. It was tomade clear that Kondor, whose entire bequest was bought by the state not much later, “had not hand in glove” with concept artists.[24]

The Hungarian state-directed press had to pay attention to the new tendencies questioning the concept of traditional art primarily in reports on international exhibitions. In 1968 the critic of Népszabadság, calls environments at the Venice Biennale a misanthropic (i. e. anti-humanist, differing from the Socialist concept of art) amusement park, and purely entertaining or nauseating applied art.[25] This disapproval is one example for the special discrimination in which not autonomy, but Socialist humanism, representing grand ideas, became the standard of fine art. Art that is not conformed to this standard, that is indirect or has a critical message, was deliberately misunderstood, and interpreted only formally, as a purely sensory effect, and  was underrated as applied art —by a kind of art criticism that functioned as a disciplining tool of cultural policy. For the first time in 1972, the Venice Biennale had a central theme, “Work or Behavior,” which indicated that at that time the dialectic relationship between process-based and conceptual practices and the artwork was in the focus of international attention.  The same critic, Gyula Rózsa ­—who discredited Miklós Erdély with the words of Béla Kondor — in his 1972 article about the Venice Biennale, deems Concept art to be the latest trend of the decadent West, fake art that can include anything.[26] A few months later, in his report on the Documenta 5 in Kassel, Rózsa openly states that the most effective way to counter this kind of art, is not to make it an enemy, but to ridicule it. He also sweeps away the moral responsibility of the informer press, explaining once again in detail that he does not want to provoke “measures” by the authorities. The more publicity Conceptual art gets in exhibitions and articles, the better, as this creates an opportunity to dissolve it without making a martyr—argues Rózsa.[27]

Ridiculing is a traditional tool of politically directed journalism, but in this case, it had a specific status, as Avant-garde, Fluxus and Concept art in particular, used precisely irony and humor, open frivolity, and banality to disrupt the pathos of the traditional/academic idea of art. István Haraszty models social processes with toys in his Play Art series submitted to Imagination/Idea, and György Kemény proposes with photo montages and a sociological study the replacement of the lions of the Chain Bridge in Budapest with poodles.

Futurism and realism

The publication of Klaus Groh’s seminal book Aktuelle Kunst in Osteuropa in1972 gave opportunity to position the debate on Concept art in a wider, international context and to reflect on its relation to various understandings of socialist culture. Beke first wrote a review on this book in his 1972 letter-journal[28] mailed only to a closed circle of his friends and colleagues. It was also published in the Paris emigre periodical, Magyar Műhely in 1974, which triggered another press-debate in Hungary aiming to ridicule Concept art. Beke, in addition to short and easy to pervert descriptions of works reproduced in Groh’s book, also endeavored to embed Conceptual art in the East-European context. He highlighted precisely the advantage of Concept that it elevates into art such simple gestures that cannot be limited neither financially nor politically, thus Eastern European art can finally overcome its disadvantages. He also discussed in this text the problem of measuring the value and social importance of these ephemeral ideas in comparison with classic art. He argues that Concept artists work for “the creation of a kind of permanent openness, preparedness, new sensibility,” and in this mission, the best audience’s response they can get is indeed that “I can do it too”—he writes. Thus these artworks realize the both Socialist and Fluxus idea of the democratization of art. Groh’s gag also picks upon this correlation: he started his book with the following quote from Lenin that could be easily understood as a Fluxus manifesto: “our opinion on art is not important. Nor is it important what art gives to a few hundreds or even thousands of a population as great as ours. Art belongs to the people. It must have its deepest roots in the broad mass of workers. It must be understood and loved by them. It must be rooted in and grow with their feelings, thoughts and desires. It must arouse and develop the artist in them.”[29]

Towards the middle of the 1970s this utopian dimension that could create a link between avant-garde and socialism returned as an idiosyncratic match between the prognostic orientation of technocratic planned economy and the speculative attitude of Neo-avant-garde. In 1973 a large-scale prognostic conference was organized on “Hungarian Culture in 2000,” where László Beke could talk about the Imagination/Idea project as a futurological research, which was also reported on in a cultural TV program. Here he connects Imagination with Ernst Bloch’s concept of a qualitatively new, real future that was practically the critique of the present. On a more practical level, with regards to the predicted increase of workers’ free time, and the Socialist concept of popular – non-professional -education and culture already advocated by Marx, the aforementioned endeavor of Conceptualism that aims to democratize and demystify art gains a new field of justification. The increasing need for leisure time activities could perfectly be met by Concept and Project art, which does not need traditional training and which could create more social value than the amateur movement, which is only a diminished imitation of high art – Beke argues. He also refers to the curatorial concept of Documenta 5 and to Tomáš Štraus,[30] who claimed that today’s art is the realism of the future that anticipates the society to come.

Tamás Szentjóby: Presenting the Future is: Accelerating the Life, 1972, 
2 sheets, paper, typewritten text, 2 glued photographs, 
Imaginations collection, courtesy Szent István Király Museum, Székesfehérvár, and the artist

The future orientation of the Imagination pieces does not manifest itself purely in depicting a future better than the present, which comes across rather in the case of the representatives of Socialist humanism, but rather in the fact that the works are purposely left open—that is not the same as being undone—and their recipe-like character that consciously builds on the viewers’ interpretations and their different time horizons. This change of horizon and the attitude that relativizes the present offered the way out from the suffocating, restrictive context; like in Tamás Szentjóby’s Parallel Course / Study Tack program which aimed to suggest a free reorganization of elements and hierarchies of reality, stultification of prohibitions in a field of action constituted in parallel with the status quo.

In the Presenting the Future is: Accelerating the Life series in the Imaginations folder in Székesfehérvár Szentjóby, in the spirit of Fluxus—according to which everyday activities may also be interpreted as art—documented the ad-hoc parking inhibitors on the streets and identified them as anonymous folk art. These photographs were included in his Aspects on the Question “who is an artist?” (1970), a utopist prognosis, displayed at the 1973 Paris Biennale. Szentjóby demonstrated creativity infiltrating everyday life by using press photos of daily activities and temporary constructions in the streets, and used them as the documentations of newly invented “arts.” He also completed this with a chart that shows that as both the number of policemen and artists are increasing steadily, so by 2150, everyone will be a policeman, and then by 2240, every policeman will be an artist.

It is clear from these comparisons that the Imagination/Idea project, and the related statements, came into existence in the context of contemporary debates on stylistic, critical, or dogmatic realism and anti-realism, interpreted in different levels. It was an important step of the generation change that was halted in the short run, but which from today’s perspective, set the worldview of the 1968 generation towards institutionalization. This generational program wished to introduce abstraction and ready-made realism united in Concept Art to art institutions where then the exclusive canon was the humanist grand realism, the “maximal art”[31]  of moderately modern pre-war artists. The dogmatic Marxist utopia of the artists in service of state socialism—according to which the artist is the builder of socialist society—was contrasted with the New Left utopia of the next generation, in which limit-breaking artistic thinking frees oneself from social conventions, alienation, and bureaucracy.

[1] See György Lukács, Art as Misunderstanding in Mediations, (2016): Vol. 29, No. 2.

[2] On the abstraction-realism debate see: Sándor Hornyik, “Aesthetics in the Shadow of Politics: Surnaturalism and Magical Socialist Realism in Hungary in the Early Sixties,” Acta Historiae Artium 56 (2015): 323-332. academia LINK ok?

[3] Aleida Assmann, “1968 in Germany: A generation with two phases and faces” Eurozine (June 22, 2018) 

[4] Karl Mannheim, “The Problem of Generation” in Karl Mannheim (ed. Paul Kecskeméti) Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge (Routledge & Kegan Paul LTD., London, 1952): 281-284. He attended the Sunday Circle together with Lukács and they had been working closely together until 1919. See Éva Gábor (ed.): Selected Correspondence (1911-1946) of Karl Mannheim, Scientist, Philosopher, and Sociologist. (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003): letter, 318-319.

[5] Ernst Bloch, “Ideas as Transformed Material in Human Minds, or Problems of an Ideological Superstructure (Cultural Heritage)” [1972] in The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, translated by Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenberg (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988): 18-71.

[6] Wilhelm Pinder, Das Problem der Generation in der Kunstgeschichte Europas (Frankfurter Verlags-Anstalt, 1926).

[7] “Magyarok a XXXV. Velencei Biennálén. Beszélgetés Hincz Gyulával.” [Hungarians in the XXXVth Venice Biennial: Conversation with Gyula Hincz] in: Képzőművészeti Almanach (1972): 46–48.

[8] The concept of “grand realism” is connected to the aesthetics of György Lukács, starting to be canonized in Hungary at that time, which gave a wider interpretation to realism than socialist realism, but rejected avant-garde. See György Lukács, Essays on Realism, R. Livingstone (trans.), (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), A History of Modern Political Thought in East Central Europe: Volume II Volume II: Negotiating Modernity in the ‘Short Twentieth Century’ and Beyond, Part II: 1968-2018. 346.
László Beke, “The Strange Afterlife of Socialist Realism,” in Art and Society in the Age of Stalin Péter GYÖRGY– Hedvig TURAI eds. (Budapest: Corvina Kiadó: 1992), 118–126.

[9] Chapel Studio of György Galántai at Balatonboglár – 1971

[10] Gábor Attalai participated with concept – also submitted later to Beke – in the exhibition “Pläne und Projekte als Kunst”in 1969, in Kunsthalle Bern.

[11]1. The artist may construct the piece.

2. The piece may be fabricated.

3. The piece need not be built.”

[12] E.g.: Seth Sieglaub’s The Xerox Book in 1968, in which each artists got 25 pages of „exhibition space”, or his – January 531, 1969 project, in which he exhibited the exhibition catalogue instead of works, and Klaus Groh’s If I had a mind (DuMont, Köln, 1971)which published concepts made for the pages of the book.

[13] (Stuttgart: Dt. Verlagsanstalt, 1925)

[14] László Beke, “A magyar konceptuális művészet szubjektív története” in: Né/ma? Tanulmányok a magyar neoavantgárd köréből. ed. Deréky Pál – Müllner András (Budapest. Ráció Kiadó, 2004): 228-229.

[15] Beke’s collection was published with English translations: Imagination/Idea: The Beginning of Hungarian Conceptual Art: the László BekeCollection, 1971. (Zurich, JRP/, 2014).

[16] István Hajdu, “Önnéző. Beszélgetés Major Jánossal” Balkon (2009/11–12): 2–10. For more detail on János major and this work see: Dániel Véri, “Leading the Dead” – The World of János Major (Budapest: Hungarian University of Fine Arts, 2013) 47-53.

[17] Anik Cs. Asztalos [Körner Éva], “No Isms in Hungary” Studio International (1974/3): 105–111; Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s. Eds.Luis Camnitzer – Jane Farver – Rachel Weiss (New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999) 46.

[18] The exhibition Mozgás 70 [Movement] in the Janus Pannonius Museum, Pécs preceded Beke’s project and

the Material and Form exhibition realized in 1971 in the Studio of Society for Dissemination of Scientific Knowledge (TIT) and the Direct week in Balatonboglár, organized by Gyula Pauer and Tamás Szentjóby in 1972, and then at the same place, in 1973 the Mirror and the Texts exhibitions, as well as the Copernicus exhibition in the Technological University were the subsequent examples for thematic shows.

[19] Concepts identical or similar to the ones in the Imagination(s) collections byImre Bak, Tamás Hencze, György Jovánovics, Péter Legédy, Dóra Mauer, Gyula Pauer and Endre Tót were published in the 1972 special issue of the international periodical, Hungarian Schmuck, byPéter Türk and Tamás Hencze as illustration to László Beke’ article “Junge Kunst in Ungarn” in the magazine Werk (1972/10. 592–598.); by Tibor Csiky and János Major in the 1973-4 slide publication Progressive Hungarian Art compiled by Dóra Maurer. Pieces by András Baranyay, Tamás Hencze, Károly Kismányoki and Kálmán Szíjártó, and János Major were also displayed later in the 1987 exhibition of King Stephan Museum entitled Old and New Avant-garde.

[20] E. g.: George Brecht’s Three Chairs, event, 1961 and Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, 1965.

[21] Dávid Fehér, Lakner László (Budapest, Hungart, 2016) 19–20

[22] Géza Perneczky – for instance – wrote a slightly dismissive review on Kondor’s Kunsthalle exhibition. Géza Perneczky, “Magyar romantika” [Hungarian romanticism] Élet és Irodalom (March 21, 1970): 12.

[23] János Frank, Béla Kondor (Budapest: Műcsarnok, 1970)

[24] On the relationship between Kondor and Erdély and the cobblestone concept see Sándor Hornyik, “»Other« Revolutionary Traditions. »Official Culture,« »Neo-Avant-Garde Art,« and Contemporary Critical Practices” in Parallel Chronologies (Budapest,, 2011)46–51.

[25] Gyula Rózsa, “Embergyűlölők a Luna-parkban – Velencei Biennale, 1968” [Misanthropes in the Funfair – Venice Biennial, 1968] Népszabadság (July 28, 1968): 8.

[26] Gyula Rózsa, “Velencei körkép” [Venice Panorama] Népszabadság (July 12, 1972): 7.

[27] Gyula Rózsa, “A valóság nem válaszol” [Reality Does not Answer] Népszabadság (November 19, 1972): 7.

[28] László Beke, Ahogy azt a Móricka elképzeli, Levél barátaimhoz [As Little Jonny Imagines, Letter to My Friends] Budapest, 08 16 – 09 17, 1972.

[29] Klaus Groh, Aktuelle Kunst in Osteuropa (Cologne: DuMont, 1972).

[30] Tomáš Štraus, “A művészet mint a társadalmi valóság anticipációja” [Art as the Anticipation of Social Reality] in: Szovjet Művészettörténet XXVI. (Budapest, 1972) 26–45. Tomáš Štraus was a friend of Beke, who assisted him in organizing the Meeting of Czech Slovak and Hungarian artists, in György Galántai’s Chapel Studio in 1972.

[31] The term was introduced by the Serb art historian, Oto Bihalji-Merin in his book Ende der Kunst im Zeitalter der Wissenschaft? (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1969) and was often referred to in the art history writing in Hungary in opposition to minimal art.

Zsuzsa László is a researcher at Artpool Art Research Center and is completing a PhD in Art Theory at the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. Between 2009 and 2018, she was researcher and curator at She has (co-)curated various exhibition and publication projects, including: Art Always Has Its Consequences, 2008–2010; Parallel Chronologies 2009–; Regime Change—Incomplete Project, 2012; Creativity Exercises, 2014–2018; Sitting Together, 2016. She is member of the board of and the editorial board of the online magazine Mezosfera. From 2008 to 2012, she was lecturer at the Intermedia Department of the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, and between 2005 and 2007, at the Institute for Art Theory and Media Studies, ELTE, Budapest. In her research and curatorial activities she explores transnational exhibition histories in relation to the concept of East European art in the Cold War era, and the interconnections of pedagogical practices, cultural and social history of the neo-avant-garde.

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