A few years ago, the art world was engulfed in the debate about the notion of contemporary art. In his contribution to the e-flux journal, artist Liam Gillick argued that contemporary art had become historical, a subject for academic work that can no longer be used for the description of the most recent, engaged art production. Gillick does not suggest a ground-breaking alternative to the notion of contemporary art because his proposal is to label the recent artistic strategies as current art. Despite its instrumentality, the dichotomy between contemporary art and current art proves to be very apt for characterising the programme of major art institutions in Budapest. Walking around the Kunsthalle (Műcsarnok), Ludwig Museum or Hungarian National Gallery, one encounters a variety of modern and contemporary art. However, to see the work of current artists, one must go off the beaten track to search for independent galleries hidden in the backstreets of Budapest. Where does this schism stem from?
Not long ago, both the Kunsthalle and the Ludwig Museum were prominent institutions presenting cutting-edge exhibitions developed in collaboration with local and international professionals. The shift of their position is only understandable in the light of the structural changes that have occurred since the Fidesz party won an outright majority in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Investigating the troubled story of the Kunsthalle will serve as a poignant illustration of how political interventions slowly swallowed up many other cultural institutions. In 2013, the Hungarian state handed the administration of the Kunsthalle over to the Hungarian Academy of Arts (MMA), which is by many titled “the Shadow Ministry of Culture”. Based on its name alone, one might assume that the Hungarian Academy of Arts represents an honourable and historic body of established professionals. What it actually represents is a body of self-elected conservative artists, predominantly men over sixty, who were elevated by the Fidesz party to become its official cultural body. No one really knows what the MMA actually does, but it certainly does get very generous funding from the government and – what is worse – significant powers with respect to the distribution of funding to other cultural subjects. To cut a long story short, the Kunsthalle has become the flagship of the MMA, which in turn has become the flagship of Fidesz’s cultural censorship. The party’s cultural policy agenda has not been officially declared but its guiding principles become somewhat clearer when one follows the actions of the key actors.
Not long ago, the former director of the Kunsthalle Gábor Gulyás resigned and the MMA appointed the architect György Szegö, who took over with a strong statement about a new mission of the Kunsthalle. In Szegö’s view, the role of art is not to be critical. Rather, the focus should be on aesthetics, on traditional media, on the local artistic production and popularisation of the arts. He accuses (Western) contemporary art of being too elitist and not concerned with the true values. Despite being a very smart man, György Szegö has possibly become trapped in his own agenda, which is long expired for society in general. Five years later, the Kunsthalle is clearly in limbo. The exhibition I had a chance to see there only proved how important it is to support art that engages in current thoughts and affairs. Out of four exhibited painters, four of them were men, and the dominant theme was the variation on a female nude: shiny bums and breasts on the beach, naked women in dark corners with light touching their nipples, sensual paintings of women engaged in erotic scenes (often Indigenous Americans), surrounded by pictures of planes, cars and similar phallic machinery. If I was to judge the official cultural values of the MMA based on the exhibition I saw at the Kunsthalle alone, I would say it is about old men’s nostalgia for the “good old” patriarchal order and its apparent universality. I was later shocked to realise that it was not just one conservative institution, but that in fact it encapsulated the values of those who rule the country.
Not long ago, the director of the MMA György Fekete gave an interview, in which he stated the criteria for being accepted as a member of the Academy. He strongly emphasised the importance of “national sentiment”, of embracing national culture in a positive manner. An exhibition titled What is Hungarian?  (organised by the former director of the Kunsthalle just one year before the MMA took over) represented, according to Fekete, a blatant attack on the values of the Academy. For Fekete, two positions are unacceptable: a criticism of the great Hungarian nation and of the Church. Or in Viktor Orbán’s rhetoric, the great Christian values of the Hungarian nation have to be protected under any circumstances. In particular, they have to be protected from immigrants, George Soros, (left-wing) liberals and anyone who would dare to criticise them, including artists. If you dared to wonder, what a truly Hungarian display might look like, the exhibition A Döntés (The Decision) that took place in the Szent István Király Museum in Székesfehérvár in 2017 might give you an idea. The curatorial narrative of the exhibition was based on praising the national heroes (represented by images of kings, warriors, soldiers and saints) and demanded from the visitors an ultimately moral decision, whether to participate in the building of the great Hungarian future.
In the light of such display, it becomes clearer why the exhibition What is Hungarian? was perceived as controversial by the MMA. However, it was not the only exhibition that reflected on the poisonous rise of ethnic nationalism across Europe. In 2015, the Budapest Gallery and Kiscell Museum – Municipal Gallery organised an exhibition titled Imagined Communities, Personal Imaginations under the umbrella of the international, EU-funded Private Nationalism Project curated and managed by Edit András and Rita Varga. As well as the previous exhibition, this project also aimed to reflect on the symbols, myths and images that co-create the sense of belonging to the imagined community of a nation. It focused on the private dimension of nationalism, showing how nationalism is not merely something imposed on people by external forces but that national sentiments are, often unconsciously, an intrinsic part of our everyday lives. The list of exhibited works illustrates the critical nature of the project, as well as its strong curatorial conception – among the participating artists were Ilona Németh, C. T. Jasper and Jonna Malinowska, Société Réaliste or Szabolcs KissPál. Just four years later, it had become clear that such an exhibition could hardly be organised in a major museum again, even if the institution was mostly dependent on funding provided by the municipality government. Whether this might change after this October, when opposition candidates won the local elections in many Hungarian cities, will only become clear in the near future.
Benedict Anderson’s notion of the imagined community and his analysis of nationalism, originally published in the 1980s, has been revived by many Central European researchers and artists. The idea of nation as a constructed entity, held together by complex politics of memory, was particularly formative for Szabolcs KissPál’s project From Fake Mountains to Faith: Hungarian Trilogy. The project consists of two films, which could be characterised as fictional documentaries, and an exhibition of a fictional collection that includes found objects, printed materials and videos. Using conventional exhibiting strategies, such as exhibition labels, lighting and framing, KissPál narrates a story of objects, which were supposedly found in the Pilis Mountains. The mountains are claimed to be an important site for Hungarian national mythologies, where many believe the true Hungarian identity has its roots. The objects on display were allegedly found by a group of anonymous archaeologists on the 29th May 2010. According to the anonymous yet authoritative curatorial voice, there has been a growing political interest in the ideology of the so-called Horthy era of Hungary since this date (which coincides with the date when Orbán took the oath of office after the decisive victory of Fidesz). In his project, KissPál uses real artefacts to demonstrate how collective ideas of history and national identity can be transformed according to the current political agenda, particularly with respect to Viktor Orbán’s invocation of the authoritarian regime of the Christian-nationalist Miklós Horthy. Rather than remembering that Horthy sided with Nazi Germany and was responsible for hundreds of thousands of military and civilian deaths, Orbán revokes Horthy’s aim to re-establish the Hungarian state on neo-feudal, Christian-nationalist foundations. In his work, KissPál reflects on symbolism accompanying Orbán’s appropriation of Horthy’s political strategy. His project should be – in different instances – on display in every national museum, and especially in the Hungarian one. Since 2016, it has been on display in galleries in Oldenburg, Cluj, Prague, Dublin, Tallinn and at the OFF-Biennále Budapest.
In response to the establishment of the MMA and the direct censorship exercised by the Fidesz government, artists mobilised and started protesting against the authoritarian transformation of institutional structures. The forceful interventions and protests gradually transformed into boycotts of the party-run institutions and establishment of parallel structures, such as the OFF-Biennále or the Pince Project (The Basement Project). To suffocate independent cultural organisations, Fidesz uses repressive mechanisms that proved efficient in the state-socialist era, such as control of the media and leading actors, as well as responds to the new neoliberal order and its unsparing market mechanisms. Artists and professionals who refuse to toe the line or work within the status quo can not rely on the support from the state-run institutions and are left at the mercy of the art market and private sponsors. Additionally, in 2017, the government introduced measures which make it increasingly difficult for organisations to receive funding from abroad under the banner of improving their transparency. Many directors and other employees of the state-run institutions were replaced by people loyal to the government (regardless of qualification) and those who remain are understandably cowed by fears of losing their positions. The politics of fear and intimidation has brought about an atmosphere where self-censorship prevails. The critical and liberal is clearly undesirable, while what is actually desired is unclear – the cultural agenda of the Hungarian Academy of Arts is as eclectic as Orbán’s political rhetoric. However, even if we perceive the appreciation of the nation, traditional values and Christian religion as something concealing Orbán’s power struggle, the pace with which Fidesz managed to completely undermine and marginalize the art scene, as well as other fields, is an alarming wake-up call. When discussing the present situation, many problematic questions occur: what is the role of the EU and could it provide alternative funding resources? Should the arts rely on private donors regardless of their business background? Does art have to be – to some extent – treated as a commodity that people have to pay for? What would art (and society) that overcomes both models look like? I certainly cannot give any clear answers to the outlined questions but I am fairly sure about one thing: rather than in Venice, I will see you at the OFF-Biennále in Budapest next spring.
Cover image: BORSOS Lőrinc: Pitch / Change of Court 94,5x40x30 cm 2013. Courtesy of the artists
 http://budapestgaleria.hu/_/en/2015-exhibitions/private-nationalism-budapest/, http://kozelites.hu/PNP/
 https://news.artnet.com/art-world/viktor-orban-ludwig-museum-1544659, https://www.penopp.org/articles/irony-being-censored
This article was written and published in the frame of East Art Mags programme with the support of the International Visegrad Fund.