Issue 3/2018 - Institut "Kunst"

“You Can’t Step into the Same River Twice” – Sure Enough, You Can!

Transformation from a (Post-)Socialist Institution of Art into an Illiberal-Nationalist, Autocratic One

Edit András

One might assume that the experience of art and culture under Socialist dictatorship has provided proper immunity to prevent the recurrence of the disease of totalized and normalized culture in a new mutation, namely in the form of right-wing authoritarian, “illiberal democracy.” However, in reality, the opposite is the case. I am interested in the inquiry, how is it possible to step into the same water twice? I wish to scrutinize the issue from the perspective of the official institutions and cultural policy (the regime’s relation to art and culture, methods employed by the state-power) and from the perspective of the actors of the art-scene (how the previous compromises and failures translate into blindness, opportunism etc.), and also to have a glimpse at the framing of art, as to what role art theory might play in the new scenario. Since Hungary is at the forefront and takes the lead in regard to the transformation from one form of dictatorship to another one, regressing to right wing authoritarianism, I will rely on the rich sources it provides. Though the recent art scene bears more than a passing resemblance to the Socialist one with its sharp division and its centralized and tightly controlled nature, there are significant differences as well, or, better said, this one is an upgraded digital version of the manually operated analog system of the previous one.

The Layout and Design for visualizing the concept
The leaders of various authoritarian systems show striking similarities in their deep-seated desires and ambitions to shape the capital of their country to convey their vision. Stalin’s pet-project, the Palace of Soviets, was “the proud symbol of proletarian architecture”1. This “example of the Soviet sublime … is a fantasy object that must be imaged into existence on gigantic scale. The idea of the sublime that is suggests is one of overcoming the physical limits of the collective workers who will build it. The latter are required to sacrifice themselves, as sensory beings, in order to build a new world for the proletarian masses. In proportion as their own physical selves are diminished, the collective is enhanced in symbolic form.”2 Based on Susan Buck-Morss’s conceptualization of Stalin’s gigantic project, one might consider Kossuth square in Budapest near the Danube, in front of the Parliament building as an example of Post-Socialist nationalist sublime, which is focused on time rather than space. With the help of this timely fantasy, the visible traces of the past of a whole generation are diminished, and the (imagined) national past is enhanced in symbolic politics. The square in recent form offers a trip back in time to the mid-20th century in a literal meaning, as its 1944 (!) spectacle has been recently meticulously reconstructed erasing its overall image of the Socialist time, as if it never happened. This imagining is in line with the rhetoric, that Hungarian sovereignty was lost during the two consecutive occupations of the country, first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets.3 There are two opposing visions, the Socialist looking to the future, while the nationalist looking to the past. The reconstruction of the image of “ideal” past is in congruence with the account that “myths and symbols of defeat provide … a banner around which to rally for national mobilization in the name of the restoration of the ideal, that was defeated.”4 The regime is well aware that being threatened with the recurrence of that defeat, that victimhood of the past is a strongly mobilizing force. Thus, the same vision is projected into the future through constant fearmongering and scapegoating as well as the busting siege mentality on which the latest election campaign was built.
To complete the regime’s time travel into the past, research institutions of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, long residing in the Buda castle were expelled in order to make space for the governmental offices and for the “king” of the imagined kingdom. The imagined king wishes to have the city lay at his feet and stare down at his people, the commoners, from a huge balcony to be built for him, disregarding the strict rules against building new elements to heritage buildings. Retrospectively, it can be reasoned that the impetus behind expelling the Hungarian National Gallery from the Buda castle by merging it into the Museum of Fine Arts was to make room for moving physically and symbolically to the historic, aristocratic quarter of the city, Buda from Pest, its modern part associated with the bourgeoisie.

Reconfiguration of the Hardware for busting the system function
Although the project of the regime of dreaming the country back to the interwar years is an all-encompassing one,5 I wish to focus on contemporary art and its institutions. As for art and culture, the account that “the Golden Age is not an age of perfect divine order but rather the wellspring from which the boundaries of the culturally authentic are defined”[6| resonates well with the local situation.
Socialist cultural politics understood that art could play a key role in realizing their vision, affirming or subverting it; hence, it admired and generously supported art and culture in exchange for serving the communist power. The intellectuals, though positioned at the third after the workers and peasants in the hierarchy of the society, still had a very prestigious position in the socialist system. In service of the communist utopia, high rank functionaries, among them museum directors, certainly had to be loyal to the regime; yet, they were selected from the pool of qualified art professionals in order to legitimize their position and their institution. In the second course of the right wing Fidesz party, as the regime had already relaxed on politics, it could pay attention to art and culture, and it started to regulate cultural life, which had enjoyed relative independence during the first course. Museums were perceived as too cosmopolitan and independent, so they had to be more closely controlled. Professionalism was not a criterion anymore for choosing the perfect candidate. The corps of professional museum directors was decimated and their places were filled mostly with party loyalists.7
For the short cut to the cultural transformation a magic wand was waved: the absolute power over the art scene was placed in the hands of a private fraternity elevated to the rank of the two- hundred-year-old Hungarian Academy of Sciences, named itself Hungarian Art Academy (HAA), and was legalized by enshrining it into the constitution in 2011. Gradually this ultraconservative institute, a kind of shadow ministry has gained full power over cultural issues. The institution did not represent political neutrality, nor did it praise professional merit as traditionally the institutions of academies did, but, instead, was divisive and exclusive. Its slogan is very much telling, it favors ‘national culture within the culture of the nation.’8 That is to say that subsidies to experimental, let alone critical, art institutions and practices were not granted anymore. Despite the strong political and financial backing of this courtly institution, its very existence and hostile activity met strong resistance.9
Nevertheless, the strategy of HAA following a combative, extreme period has changed by the onset of the third turn of the Fidesz regime. For now, it gained everything it wished for and even more; it is a powerful public body with a huge state subsidy, buildings, institutions, and it has control over positions, state-subsidies and, not least, its members have a generous monthly salary without any professional expectation. Thus, the time was ripe for gaining professional acceptability on the local art scene. The latest strategy of cultural institution is outrageously wicked and is about to corrupt the whole art scene. From September, 2018 a hundred emerging and mid-career artists (by 2020 three hundred) from different spheres can apply to the institution for a three-years fellowship for twice as much money as traditional art grants (available in much less number) can offer. As for the established members of the art community, those who carry off an award can get an “artist supplement”. However, it is not deposited automatically through some state offices, but one has to solicit it from HAA, an institution they were reluctant to accept. One has a feeling of déjà vu. The method of bribery, silencing and corrupting with money and power is way too familiar from the time of the Kádár era. That time, the post-1956 regime’s legitimacy, installed by force by the Soviets, was at stake. This momentum was to be forgotten in exchange for a relatively (within the East Bloc) good quality of life. As a result, the whole society sunk into collective amnesia, and that gave rise to a “profoundly corrupt, opportunistic society.”10 In line with the utopist nature of Socialism, well-being was offered in exchange for the collective lie. Today, once again, the legitimacy, now of an institution, HAA – “the only characteristic of which is being close to the state-power”11 – is at stake. To put it otherwise, the virtual joining the HAA, its acceptance, its legitimation through the humiliating solicitation is the price one pays for the financial security s/he gets. What is offered at this time in exchange for collaboration with the illiberal autocracy, dystopic in nature, is a calming of the public’s fear for survival in a time when the social safety net of Socialism has totally shattered. “The recent cultural politics does not punish dissents, but through realignment of sources it raises the reward of loyalty, of silent approval, or at least of the presence, so much so, that it creates an unbearable conflict situation for the art world”12 – well summarized by a critical art writer.

Certainly, nowadays those in positions of power are more cynical than in the Kádár era when art and culture did matter, and that is not really the case these days. The methods of subordinating the rebellious art scene to the state power are ‘updated.’ There is no longer any need for censorship, once so meticulously practiced by socialist agents, when financial support (or lack thereof) in parity with the proper (or improper) attitude of the actor does the job perfectly. If that was not enough, the media, a courtly institution of state-power, completes the mission by completely silencing and rendering the production into invisibility. It might be said that censorship is systemic and not applied manually on each of the cases. Fear is extended to the whole society: fear of losing state support, commissions, concessions or advertisements depending on what is at stake for the other participants, the actual firms, organizations or venues. The systemic censorship takes its price and results in the taming of radical, critical thinking or in withdrawal from alternative events.
Socialism invested heavily in shaping the official style, Socialist Realism, the strict formal criteria of which has gradually softened, but art still had to be in conformity with the regime content-wise. Today’s more pragmatic management is not bothered by getting into details regarding formal criteria of art. Art representing traditional, conservative, national ideas are accepted in any form; it is loyalty that has absolute priority over representation.

An Updated Software is installed and running well
Concerning the recent condition of the Hungarian art scene regarding its everyday performance there are striking similarities between the social and artistic climate of the Socialist time and that of today in moral dilemmas, artistic strategies, and forced decisions to take sides in a divided (art) scene. It is still problematic to adjust the heroic Cold War era countercultural discourse to recent times, especially when, for now, the black and white picture of the oppressive state and the victimized society of the Cold War era have become obsolete, and a much more layered and nuanced picture holds true. The relationship between state-power and public resistance is defined as a constant negotiation of power between the participating parties.13 Characterizing the society in the Kádár era, Edit Sasvári summarizes that “very few people refused to participate in the consensual discourse of opportunism.”14 In regard to attitude (request for unity and party discipline, submission of subcultural identities, etc.) and language of the discourse (dominant, militant, sexist, intolerant etc.), what was used on one side was echoed on the other.
Owing to the changing social climate of the last few years, the process of ‘normalization,’ a kind of consolidation and acceptance, more and more people, formerly critical of the systematic centralization and rightist transformation of the society and the cultural sphere, are losing their edge. Due to the general exhaustion, the protest movement has also lost its vigor and no more than just a few people, the hard core has kept the radical and uncompromisingly critical position of the upheaval of the protest movement.15 Others, who once sat on the stairs of Ludwig Museum protesting against the selection procedure based on political rather than a professional agenda and demanded autonomy for art institutions, are now collaborating with the institution in one way or another as professional terranes are shrinking. Mücsarnok/Kunsthalle also tries hard to explain away aversions developed when the main venue of contemporary art was given to the HAA which favors outdated, out-of-touch with contemporaneity art-making practices shown in National Salon-type exhibitions. For now, even neo-avantgarde artists, once in opposition, are on the hooks and are to be shown in its tarnished rooms. In regard to the self-reflection of the society, and the art scene in the Kádár era, it is perceived that “besides having to withstand pressure from the authorities, they [artists] had to suffer the social majorities ill due to their own bad consciences about their opportunism.”16 I am afraid, that in today’s scenario artists or art professionals, those who collaborate with the regime do not suffer from “bad conscience about their opportunism.” It is rather cognitive dissonance that can be spotted if their peacock dance, or opportunism (in form of accepting a position, curating an exhibition or having an exhibition in the headquarters of the official culture) is criticized by dissents: namely, it is criticism itself that is accused for digging trenches and not the system of art institutions hat force to take sides.
Given that the political, social and cultural transformations have been peacefully negotiated at a roundtable discussion between the ruling elite of the Socialist regime and its various oppositions in Hungary in 1989, social debate about the nature of “the consensual discourse of opportunism” in different fields has never happened; the shades of grey have never been admitted. Gate-keepers of the Socialist norms were being allowed to get away. Due to the skipped phase of working through the trauma of the communist dictatorship, and normative culture the wound could not be healed and instead gave munition to the (far) right to conduct consecutive witch-hunts against the still operating socialist actors. Generally political coalitions are assembled and maintained by designating a common enemy. In order to maintain unity, differences are to be set aside. As the country has gradually regressed into right-wing authoritarianism, the ex-socialist cultural agents (official critics, censors, editors, gatekeepers of the Socialist culture) joined the alliance against the new authoritarian regime. Thus, those who once policed or controlled art in the Kádár era were able to save their faces.
The strategy of subordinate gender, sexual, and ethnic differences was well practiced by the counterculture of the Kádár era as well; the related identities were to be camouflaged or denied in the name of perceived unity. There was no room for minority issues, the consequences of which are still in operation. The force to take sides in State Socialism diverted attention from the uneven micro-power relations (gender, sexual, family etc.) in different social formations and thus these power relations were never really taken into account. The lack of display of solidarity is inherited and still in short supply. Minority or critical discourses are still marginalized, not part of the mainstream. Male dominance in post-socialist state politics as well as in the institutions of arts and culture, has not just remained well-preserved, but is rarely questioned, and, when criticism is voiced, it is blatantly shouted downed and ridiculed. Feminists, the LGBTQ community and other minorities once took the lead and used art as a means of dismantling the existing institutions in the global scene. This radicality, however, has not been adapted for the (post)socialist condition, and today’s celebrated “women’s art” of the local art scene is pleasing the market with delicate feminine issues, asserting, rather than criticizing, the status quo. In the same way as, feminist critique of patriarchy was absent during the sixties and seventies behind the Iron Curtain when those discourses dominated the Western world, the institutional critique was also absent. Nowadays, the “belated” leftist critique of elitist high culture has been easily co-opted by the right-wing authoritarianism for populist ends to attack academia or the art world.
Since the notions of community, alliance, solidarity and politics in art, to name just a few, were appropriated by the state propaganda during Socialism and as such were compromitted in the eyes of the beholder, art theory cannot change that easily either. Gestures of solidarity are rarely demonstrated, and potential alliances are hardly recognizable.17 Its identity crisis or schizophrenia stems from hesitation to give up its privileged position as part of the “First World,” even in a secondary position, in order to be identified with other margins, the ex-Third world, the Global South. While the post-colonial world embraces the decolonial option18 to define its culture outside of the parameters of the colonizers, East-Central Europe proudly emphasizes its Europeanism: the most passionate voices in defense of modernism come from this region, while it is the most reluctant geopolitical space to demonstrate solidarity with other margins.
One might argue that in a time when extreme nationalism, fundamentalism, and populism are gaining ground all around the world, the intellectual sophistication and interpretative freedom of postmodernism is over.19 The point is well made, however, in regard to East-Central European region, certainly of Hungary and its followers, it translates symbolically into stepping in the same water again without being able to dry out.



1 Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing od Mass Utopia in East and West. London/Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002, p. 174.
2 Ibid, p. 180–181.
3 The period from March 19, 1944 until May 2, 1990 was rendered illegitimate in the new constitution.
4 Steven J. Mock, Symbols of Defeat in the Construction of National Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 279.
5 Edit András, Renationalisierung in der ungarischen Kunst und Kultur, in: Europäische Rundschau, 2017/2, pp. 85–94.
6 Mock, op. cit., p. 279.
7 Edit András, Vigorous Flagging in the Heart of Europe: The Hungarian Homeland under the Right-Wing Regime. e-flux Journal #57, September 2014,
8 Fekete György, Meditációk egy lehetséges nemzeti kulturális stratégia természetésről [Meditations on the nature of a possible national cultural strategy], in: Nemzeti Érdek: A nemzetstratégiai gondolkodás Lapja [National Interest: Journal of Thoughts on National Strategies], 2013, # 1, p. 39.
9 See in more details:
10 Edit Sasvári, Autonomy and Doublespeak: Art in Hungary in the 1960s and 1970s, in: Art in Hungary 1956–1980: Doublespeak and Beyond. Eds. Edit Sasvári / Sándor Hornyi / Hedvig Turai. London: Thames & Hudson, 2018, p. 11.
11 Gergely Nagy, Havi kétszáz fixszel: Az MMA ösztöndíjprogramjáról. [Two hundred monthly: On the fellowship program of HAA], Artportal, 2018.04.12,
12 Ibid.
13 Sasvári, op. cit.
14 Ibid.
15 András 2014, op. cit.
16 Sasvári, op. cit.
17 Piotr Piotrowski, Peripheries of the World, Unite!, in: Extending the Dialogue. Essays by Igor Zabel Award Laureates, Grant Recipients, and Jury Members, 2008–2014. Eds. Christiane Erharter / Rawley Grau / Urška Jurman. Berlin/Ljubljana/Vienna, Archive Books, 2016; #4 Propositions for a Pan-Peripheral Network;
18 Globalization and the Decolonial Option. Eds. Walter D. Mignolo / Arturo Escobar. London/New York: Routledge, 2010.
19 Timothy Snyder, 20 Lessons from the 20th Century on How to Survive in Trump’s America, November 21, 2016,