During the 2018 Tusnádfürdő festival in Romania, when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced a new intellectual and cultural approach starting September the same year, most people doubted the swiftness by which he solves problems today, hoping that inconsequence and fanatic desires would slow things down, if common sense doesn’t. Just like the criminal and construction ‘Skopje 2014’ project was announced in 2010 by the Macedonian government at the time, which was supposed to rebuild the center of Skopje in only four years. Not only did this project not end in 2014, but it also extended into all segments of culture and continued even after November 2018, when ex-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski illegally fled to Hungary. What is equally important and scary about both of these visions is the overlapping relation between society and culture, so “we must embed the political system in a cultural era”, i.e. in a specific and particular cultural reality predetermined by cultural trends, collective beliefs, and social habits. And so, cultural policy is being retailored to suit private interests, while completely losing its autonomy and publicness.
Yet, even though it looks as these projects come about by chance, such chance is not a coincidence but a result of systematic construction, right before our eyes. Just like the ancient black swan saying that presumed black swans did not exist up until one was observed, suddenly a mastodon that gnaws at the basic human values stands in front of us. This is exactly why it looks old, the news is old, the things that happen are already old, heard and familiar, not to mention mastodons, but there is no end to the staged astonishments, disbelief, and distrust.
The cultural war in Hungary seems to have been started since 2011, along with the homophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, when “another (new) face of the regime” was also put forth. Only a year after Orbán came to power, internationally renowned filmmaker Béla Tarr and other intellectuals faced government pressure, investigations, and accusations, on the account of a newly constructed army of artists and collaborators who prefer historic, patriotic themes in a 19th century visual/artistic expression. Among others Tarr has also been directly faced with government pressure. After winning the Silver Bear award for his film ‘The Turin Horse’ at the Berlinale, he stated that “the government pressures some intellectuals calling them traitors, liberal and oppositional”. Shortly after, he withdrew the statement, and then he confirmed it again. “We don’t deserve this kind of treatment”, Tarr said and then withdrew from making feature films, with ‘The Turin Horse’ being his last one.
Most probably, when also viewed in retrospective, the will of those greedy for more power cannot be easily crashed, but it only goes deeper. In 2018, the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest was accused of promoting communism by the far-right newspaper Magyar Idők , while this same newspaper previously accused the Billy Elliot musical for “promoting homosexuality in a country which is struggling with demographic challenges”. Control over, and re-shaping of, cultural policy even extends into the practice of making exhibitions, and so, in 2018, the Kassák Museum was also attacked for the visual representation of the political aesthetic of a historical event that happened on May 1st 1919 in Budapest (133 days of Hungarian Communist state). All this is happening in the background of the legal attack of the Central European University (CEU) and its partial transfer to Vienna, as well as the transfer of the Open Society Foundations’ office to Berlin because of the created stigma or operation called ‘Stop Soros’.
The restructuring of the cultural sphere and infrastructure, as well as the moral degradation, also happens through the dominance of the Hungarian Academy of Arts (MMA) whose aim is to “protect our cultural values, especially to preserve, transfer and present the nation’s artistic traditions”, then through appointing new directors and building a new cultural fellowship by gradual public discrediting of those who oppose, by simply removing people from public life, by introducing measures of control in a sense that employed people in culture ask for permissions for public interviews and even ideas for building a new museum district by cleaning the area around the Buda Castle. The latest news comes from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) with the demolishing of its research institutes, as well as the destruction of its independence and self-government. This first happens through an aggressive decrease of the 2019 budget supposed to be used for the research institutes, then reorganization of the network of these institutes that employs about 5,000 people, and now their dispersion and cut-off of the Academy’s body. This is where researchers organize themselves in the Academic Workers’ Forum starting 2019 and already protested under the motto “we would not apply for funds that are intended for us”, just as many others before them. Katalin Aknai of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences – Research Institute of Art History, says the devastation of culture and healthcare system is now expanding into education as well, and since 2011, there’s also a National University of Public Service specifically aimed at public administration, functioning under the motto “in service of the nation”.
Does this hit home? To those of us from the Republic of North Macedonia all this sounds very familiar. There’s a lot of similarity, as if there were a book on rules of the game and a black list on how to play by them. But, while Gruevski started to encroach on culture and art after four years in power, and he’s now the only one granted asylum in Hungary, whereas his entire cultural army is slowly making its way to freedom, Orbán has been building his cultural strategy for eight years to precision and in every detail, and it seems that the walls he built are difficult to break down.
Silencing any critical thinking
“Why liberal is bad on so many levels”
Using culture to boost populist and conservative values of right-wing governments but also of neoliberal policies and interests is in full swing in Hungary, at the expense of its public and emancipatory character. After the 1990s, when the market economy began to penetrate the country from the former Eastern Bloc, it is now already the mecca of the business world. After the cooperation between the non-profit and state sectors in the 1990s, when the private one was still under development, it looks as though there’s now another trinity at the helm – conservative values of the government and their supporting business partners, the growing commercial business art sector, and the civil precarious sector labeled as liberal or leftist. The conservative and the neoliberal values draw near each other precisely at the level of culture, creating a strange dominance of the private, which seems to be becoming public, reducing the resources and the participation of the country. The idea seems to be for culture to become private property and a source of bigger profit, so the dominant interest in cultural production is to maintain its market value.
So, a cultural era of private interest sets in: it is either manifested in control over public discourse and shouting down any different opinions, so that a handful of people in power could get rich and have culture/the country at their own disposal as if it were a private property; or, it is manifested in a handful of people with business interests getting rich as a result of the government’s cultural policy of neutralization of the institutions’ politicality and boosting the national-conservative artistic approach. Public resource is reserved for the newly-created army of “cultural workers”, and it is simply inaccessible to others, so it becomes a funnel through which private interests are poured as if into a private property, while the content is emptied in its ideological – political connotation or it magnifies the national component. On the other hand, the market oriented business sector or the commercial galleries are dominating and trying to capitalize on everything that the public sector doesn’t do, or profit from the lack of education/emancipation in the institutions, at the same time making education/emancipation as one of their primary tasks (book publishing, education, collaboration with independent initiatives etc.).
In such a situation there is a need to defend the public, but how is that possible when machines are already rumbling at full speed into gobbling up all that is public?
Most people demonstrate their revolt and rebellion by refusing to apply for public funds to signal they aren’t cooperating with Orbán’s policies and in the creation of a parallel world of functioning, or by leaving the country and starting anew elsewhere.
We are all in this s… together
Several people from Hungary think that if you’re running away from a strictly controlled environment, you’ll easily get caught up in another cage. Common sense may even be preserved by moving to another geographic location, but the rise of right-wing conservative policies in Europe, and even across the world, doesn’t give much hope that life elsewhere is easier. It’s neither easy in Macedonia, recently renamed the Republic of North Macedonia, after the regime’s fall, as the tentacles of the former government are deeply entrenched in institutional functioning. Not only that, but also the mentality, the way of functioning and communication of the citizens is so gradually shaped that today, perpetuating flimflam is a norm and corruption seems incurable. (Just for the record, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index has Hungary as the third most corrupt member of the EU).
In Macedonia, during the regime period (2006-2017), almost no institution stirred up from within, many programs just snuffed out, and a lot of organizations drastically reduced their activities or ceased to exist, so the scene survived on the shoulders of a few people and few initiatives and organizations of artists and cultural workers. Contrary to this, Budapest still constantly seeks for alternative ways of functioning: from creating a parallel non-profit world to increasing the power of the private sector, not only in the area of business, but also in the idea of the educational role and development of the scene (for example, studio complex and gallery space art quarter budapest moves towards creative industries). But, this is probably the difference between a semi-peripheral position of a European country within the world–economy and a completely peripheral and self-colonizing country from the aspect of both culture and economy.
However illogical, it seems that these small precarious initiatives have the potential for change. They are resilient and resistant, and can be transformed preserving their ideological, political and artistic principles and ethics. Different models of spaces, financial support and cultural production in the form of new places and networks of independent spaces functioning on a self-organization basis are still researched. Without any support from public funds, i.e. refusing to apply for public funds as a kind of a boycott of government policies, and in a situation when the government is trying to find all sorts of ways to eliminate international sources of funds, a lot of initiatives are trying to come up with different models ranging from cooperatives through initiatives and organizations, and to the most precarious forms of work which ideally want to be independent from “the state and the market, horizontal (not hierarchical) structure, providing social services and representation.
Amidst this whirlwind is the OFF-Biennále Budapest which serves as an alternative, as a meta-institution for contemporary visual art. Hajnalka Somogyi, leader of this art event, believes its exact right place is in Budapest. OFF was launched in 2014 as a place to discuss and exchange pressing and relevant topics and to encourage people’s voice, while its principles of work are that it doesn’t rely on Hungarian state funds and it keeps away from state arts institutions. So, the international program of the Biennale takes place in private apartments and empty stores, industrial buildings, alternative theaters and public spaces as a way to boycott the developments in the Hungarian society. (Similar with the Kooperacija initiative in Skopje active between 2012 and 2015). There’s ongoing work on its third edition scheduled for 2020.
Recently, small exhibition spaces have also been created for artists to show and develop their works, such as MŰTŐ – a space in a closed factory intended for exhibitions and studios, led by artists and curators from interdisciplinary fields, or the Hidegszoba Studio, which is a project-based art gallery apartment that also operates as a design and photo studio. Some of the other include ISBN – books+gallery, a contemporary art bookstore and a gallery space for new and second-hand contemporary art publications and exhibitions, and there are also various initiatives such as Küszöb Fesztivál (the Threshold Festival) focusing on opportunities for young artists. Easttopics continues its mission to promote contemporary art (previously focusing only on Eastern European contemporary art) in a new space, and also The Studio of Young Artists’ Association (SYAA) contributes as much as it can through its already 6 decades long mission to encourage, facilitate and sustain the work of its members.
It seems that stepping out of the comfort zone/the bubble of specific fellowships, disciplines and circles can lead to a social and even cultural change. In the background of many protests in Hungary or in Budapest in the past years, many socially engaged practices have also developed, sometimes artistic as well, directly intruding public space or cooperating with the most marginalized social groups and trying to expose the illiberal democratic Hungarian society. The idea behind these spaces is fighting for social justice through participative and community-based research methods, as well as strengthening the human rights of the most marginalized social groups, so that they can participate in public (poor and homeless persons, Roma people, unemployed, asylum seekers, single mothers and persons with disabilities).
Auróra is a community house aimed at creating innovative and self-sustaining practice that increases the number of socially active citizens to promote spreading of democratic practices in Hungary. Gólya has been a community space for the past 6 years and the bar is their main self-sustainable tool. Gólya is a space that helps the homeless, and the need for such space is great, which is also proven by the last fundraising campaign which even resulted in a new space. The idea behind this space is to encourage movement of other cooperatives. Both spaces collaborate with Gabriella Csoszó who teaches photography to the homeless people, and has an online photography base including almost every protest in Hungary from 2010 onwards. She collaborates with The School of Public Life of the informal group The City is for All, an initiative which, among other, offers free legal assistance to homeless people in Hungary at a public square in Budapest. According to data, there are close to 10.000 homeless people in Budapest. Latest legislation requires them to stay at centers outside the city, where the conditions are terrible, which is why they get organized to start living in the woods on the outskirts of the city.
All are the same?!
It looks as though there’s still not an option in Hungary to at least choose the lesser evil, although the lesser evil is never a solution. Any ideas for political and social alternatives are just ideas because market logic is already a parameter whose scope of dominance is widely expanded, just as national sentiments. Many people are of the opinion that anything independent and politically conscious is scattered and dispersed, without enough strength and power to stand and endure in its constant reactive actions and protests. On the other hand, the total denial of the public and the public funding as a revolt and rebellion against the existing policies may lead not only towards self-marginalization, but also towards accepting the private and neoliberal way of functioning.
Even though what is happening is small and dispersed, and sometimes just an optical illusion, unity and joint action with a clear political vision is still the strongest antidote in a poisoned environment. Until cultural, artistic and research movements come together in solidarity with social movements, or with the region facing the same or similar problems, and until it is build a serious strategy for the future, we will be angry and disappointed for having lost or blurred the values along the way of fighting against all that is wrong. So, the solution would be for someone to observe us from aside, to sympathize and come help/solve our problems. But, that’s not the way to build a different society, is it? We would neither get out of the debris so deeply-rooted in conservatism, clientelism or corruption, nor we would make vital political – ideological changes, but we would live in an even deeper not-just-optical illusion.
 “This is now the task we are faced with: we must embed the political system in a cultural era. This is why it is logical – and in no way surprising – that it is precisely in the field of cultural policy that we have seen the explosion of what is currently the most intense debate. This occurred almost immediately after the election; anyone who follows political debate in Hungary will understand what I’m talking about. I think that this is understandable and in order, because after the third two-thirds victory we really need to adopt a spiritual and cultural approach; and there is no denying that from September major changes lie ahead of us.” In http://www.kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/the-prime-minister-s-speeches/prime-minister-viktor-orban-s-speech-at-the-29th-balvanyos-summer-open-university-and-student-camp
 The announcement can be seen on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iybmt-iLysU&t=2s
Cover photo: Manuel Pelmuş: Sketches of a Monument, (actions in public space), OFF-Biennale Budapest, 2017. Photo by Krisztina Erdei
This article was written and published in the frame of East Art Mags programme with the support of Erste Foundation.