Reports from the Growing Moral Gray Zone. An introduction to Mezosfera #13

Here in Hungary, in the spring of 2024, we tend to look at everything that happens in Europe—and partly outside Europe—from the perspective of the current situation here, trying to find explanations for our own problems. Today, Hungary has effectively slammed the door on its own cultural workers, the whole cultural sphere. It has closed the ideological iron curtain, and the Hungarian cultural and art institutions, at least those publicly funded and controlled by the government, are practically excluded from the international discourse and are unable to comment on what is happening in the world. In this realm, it is forbidden to formulate an opinion on the Russian aggression in neighboring Ukraine, or to make visible gestures towards the victims of the bloody and desperate Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Even if an art institution thinks something about the sad state of democracy in Hungary, it is not allowed to express it. If it thinks anything at all about the growing tensions in our society, about the millions left without a voice or representation, about the oppressed minorities whose very existence is questioned—be they ethnic or sexual minorities—it cannot say a word on their behalf. Its only task is to maintain some kind of optimistic, politically neutral cultural production, which, despite the economic crisis, is still quite heavily subsidized by the government, and which now has no real connection to the environment in which we live.

János Sugár: Culture Shutdown, 2013. Outer Space (Kívültágas) project 2013. Photo: Gabriella Kamondi

Of course, it’s not that simple either, because nothing is black and white here today, in a country that is now the realm of a growing moral gray zone. After all, we have cities where the will of the government does not fully prevail—Budapest, for example—and where some art institutions are still free to shape their own programs. There are still small venues, arts NGOs, safe places where anyone can do and say whatever they want, where the conditions for the free practice of art still exist. (Although, of course, they are also constantly threatened by the government with its new ideas: anti-LGBTQ law, sovereignty protection law, labeling NGOs as foreign agents.) But these places are often short of money, resources and power. Today, in Hungary, everyone is tired and exhausted. Today, a critical-minded intellectual in our country is in a financial situation that forces them to work three or four jobs just to make ends meet, and they still can’t afford a bus ticket at the end of the month. For the most part, the critical intelligentsia does not live an intellectual life, but goes about the daily tasks of survival, and it is not difficult to see how this serves the political purposes of those in power: exploited and vulnerable, such an individual will not organize, will not be able to support, build and maintain what sociologist Alan Sears calls the “infrastructures of dissent” with voluntary work, participation, or financial support.

When the question is whether you can buy a bus ticket on a given day, you will gradually lose sight of those around you—the countries and contexts around us—and you are less and less able to make sense of what is happening elsewhere. As a result, we cannot see that we are not alone in our problems. These amorphous moral gray zones can be found everywhere. Slovakia is now entering the cultural/political ice age that has been our experience since 2010: you can read an authentic, personal account of this in Mezosfera #13, from inside an art institution. Germany is in chaos with ethical, artistic and political conflicts over who has what opinion about the situation in Gaza. In the United States, museums have once again become a battleground for social struggle. We are reminded of Chantal Mouffe’s words about agonistic spaces and how the exhibition gallery inevitably becomes one. And as this takes place, we look around and cannot help asking: who and what do our art institutions represent? Whose face is visible and whose voice is heard in these spaces? A possible answer comes from the Hungarian governing party, and it is very clear: we hold two thirds of the seats in parliament, so every institution must represent our two thirds—which in practice rests on less than half the votes, but that is another question. The result is a gray zone of lobotomized, zombified institutions. This is what the regime is ready to spend huge sums of money on: using art institutions for distributing their narrative, making the arts subservient to a direct commercial logic, privatizing public culture and letting money do the work is for them work well done. One of our two articles from Budapest is precisely about the production of space (in the sense of Henri Lefebvre’s theory), about how power politics, investors’ will and patronage shape our cultural spaces, in a city full of repressed conflicts.

Empty gallery space. Photo: judy dean / Flickr

For some strange reason, many of us still think that contemporary art has the potential to bring about social change. It is possible that we are wrong. But when I see the government threatened by a photograph of two half-naked men, I can’t help thinking that images still have power—which is what our other Budapest article is about. The government naturally wraps its fear in aggression and tries to prevent such pictures from being shown, which is ridiculous and frightening at the same time. But the next question has to be: how will museums, curators, artists and viewers react to this? And, of course, what impact can this have on the masses who cannot even get to an arts institution and whom these institutions are currently unable to address?

So, if art is an appropriate tool for social change, is the museum, the Kunsthalle, the gallery the appropriate space to attain it? The pressure on these institutions is unbearable, so shouldn’t we look elsewhere, outside the structure, to realize free artistic concepts? Or should we try to take back our institutions, our spaces?

That is exactly what is happening in Poland. After the fall of the nationalist-populist course, the new government (and many art professionals) are trying to reclaim and re-democratize the state-funded art institutions. How is that possible? How can decisions previously taken in violation of the law or instrumentalizing the law be lawfully rescinded? One of our articles seeks to answer these questions, based on a case study from Warsaw.

Société Réaliste: Empire, State, Building, 2012, exhibition view. Photo: Tamás Bujnovszky, Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Archives

Too many questions for the thematic issue of Mezosfera, though. But as the editor of this number, I am most interested in what all this means for individual strategies. We are living the dilemmas of the impossibility of resistance and the moral obligation of it, or, if I were to be poetic, the melancholy of resistance.

The current authors of Mezosfera are reporting on events and problems in the context of their own cities, each too complex to be judged easily. And all of them offer lessons to learn. I, on my part, feel inspired by the thoroughness, commitment and openness that mark these authors. There are stakes, risks and a moral foundation in their texts, which are a testimony to the need to talk to each other. Unless we do, we might as well close down and leave our remaining cultural spaces for good.

Gergely Nagy is a journalist, editor, author. Lives and works in Budapest. His main fields of interest are contemporary art, cultural policies and cultural resistance. Former editor in chief for Artportal and A mű (The Artwork). Co-organiser of East Art Mags, a collaboration platform for art magazines in East-Central Europe. He is one of the founders of OFF-Biennále Budapest which has become the largest civil contemporary art initiative in the region.

Cover image: Ars Electronica Gallery Spaces. Photo showing Emmanuel Van der Auwera’s VideoSculpture XXI., 2017. Photo: Martin Martin Hieslmair / Flickr

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