Art and Conflict – Artists in the wake of illiberal Cultural Policy
14/10/2019 | Written by Michael Wimmer. This blog reflects the personal opinion of the author.
Summary of a lecture on the occasion of the exhibition of Akós Ezer at the Künstlerhaus Graz
Künstlerhaus Graz recently held an exhibition by the young Hungarian artist Ákos Ezer. For the museum this project is part of the ongoing effort to deepen neighborly relations with Hungarian artists. (It’s actually surprising that cultural institutions in Hungary and Austria, two countries characterized by such a long and controversial relationship, want so little to do with each other). The Künstlerhaus Graz stands as an exception: as early as 2017, visitors to the “Abstract Hungary” exhibition were able to see the vitality and diversity of the young Hungarian art scene for themselves.
The Claim to Non-Political Art as a form of Resistance against a total Politicization of Society as a Whole
Under the title “Art and Conflict”, I was invited to deal with the socio-political and cultural-political context that is currently affecting contemporary Hungarian art, even though Ezer and many of his colleagues consider their artistic works to be non-political. As an Austrian, I saw it as my task not only to reflect on the current political developments in Hungary and their effects on cultural policy, but also to incorporate the current political changes that are becoming increasingly apparent in Hungary’s neighbouring countries and thus also in Austria.
That was when the book “The Ibiza Affair – Insights of a Scandal” by two investigative journalists of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, was published on the very day of the lecture. In the few minutes of the video that have been published so far, we have learned a lot about the mindset of the current FPÖ leadership under Heinz-Christian Strache and his assistant Johann Gudenus. Both are only too happy to use Viktor Orbán’s attempts at the political transformation of Hungarian society as a motif for their political ambitions for Austria.
Under the influence of the current mainstream media reporting, not only do large parts of the liberal cultural sector combine the Orbán system with a comprehensive national armament,we also see a far-reaching standardization of the media, a takeover of the economy by oligarchs close to the government, a refusal to accept refugees, a closeness to Putin and other autocrats, and an opposition to further EU integration; combined with the emergence of an authoritarian form of government in the guise of an “illiberal democracy” (Viktor Orbán, quoted on the occasion of a speech in Tusnádfürdő 2014 (https://budapestbeacon.com/full-text-of-viktor-orbans-speech-at-baile-tusnad-tusnadfurdo-of-26-july-2014/). On the basis of this reporting by the liberal media, public awareness of the current situation in Hungary is becoming increasingly clouded by assessments such as Beda Magyar’s in his article “Hungary is Lost” featured in Die Zeit Online from April 2019.A look at Ezer’s portraits makes it clear: freedom no longer leads the people.
A look at Ezer’s portraits makes it clear: Freedom no longer leads the people
As a cultural policy researcher, I lack the art historical expertise to adequately assess Akós Ezer’s works aesthetically. But when standing in the middle of the works, I am confronted with the depiction of the stark human creature, which is forced to deal with the adverse circumstances of its many lives, to stumble again and again, to stand up again, to trust in the small moments of happiness and to take for granted how much life is determined from the outside and far and wide, with no one who is willing or able to reduce the inhuman stress on the collapsing bodies of their fellows. What I find striking is that Ezer paints mainly young men in a very colourful manner; it is from their necks, some of which are huge, that a great power emanates. And yet the whole body does not know how to deal with this power and uses it, above all, for a multitude of contortions in order to escape external containment.
At the sight of Ezer’s pictures, Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” appeared briefly in my imagination. After all, a greater contrast seems unthinkable: Here the attempt of young men – each for himself and without any expectation for the future – to somehow make life work against all odds. There is a young woman who – as a representation of freedom, sweeping an entire nation of people along – leads the way over all obstacles into a better future with her head held high. In between lie almost 150 years; not exactly aesthetic proof of a logical belief in progress.
The greatest danger comes from the lack of alternatives (and I do not mean the AfD).
This fatigue towards the expectations of freedom within a democratic constitution is reflected, among other things, in the apparent lack of alternatives to the Orbán regime. There are largely no convincing political concepts that would be able to stand up to all those who are currently laying a leaded blanket over Ezer’s figures. It seems as if the corruption charges against Ferenc Gyurcsány, which led to the overthrow of his social democratic government and Viktor Orbán’s resurgence in 2009, have permanently undermined any attempts to defend political pluralism in Hungary. Paul Lendvai, himself a Hungarian refugee who found his way to Austria in 1956, sees the causes in a cultural tradition of the “strong man” present in Hungary, that ranges seamlessly from Miklos Horthy to Janos Kadar to Viktor Orbán.
Even prominent cultural politicians such as András Bozóki, formerly the Hungarian Minister of Culture in the 2000s, remain mute in view of the current political situation and do not offer to bring convincing counter-projects to the people. What predominates – see Beda Magyar – is disaster reporting by knowledgeable observers, many of whom have already left the country.
At the EU level, too, the reactions to the Orbán provocations and his friends have so far proved largely toothless. For example, the EU has all too often looked the other way with its compulsion for unanimity when it came to guaranteeing the maintenance of constitutional standards not only in Hungary but also in Slovakia, Poland, Romania and Austria. In the case of Frans Timmermans, EU Commissioner for Legal Affairs, he lost his commitment to Poland with the refusal of the EU Council to appoint him Council President. Only at the very last moment, in the course of the last EU election campaign, did the family of the Christian-conservative people’s parties at least manage to make a symbolic displacement movement (although they were reluctant to renounce Orbán’s votes for the EPP candidate Manfred Weber) and suspend Fidesz’s membership. Wolfgang Schüssel of all people, who caused the EU sanctions against a black-blue Austria in 2000, was used as a mediator as a complementary measure. Orbán, who had not been afraid of personal insults to Commission President Jean Claude Junker, as seen during a poster campaign, had in the meantime made advances to the right-wing populist group within the EU Parliament in order to join them, should the EPP not be prepared to comply with his ideas of a weakened Europe.
King Ubu of Hungary – On the Current Cultural Policy Developments
In order to take a more detailed look at the current cultural-political landscape in Hungary, I would like to start with Árpád Schilling, a Hungarian artist whom I greatly appreciate. He is known to many as a director of groundbreaking theatre productions in Austria. With his freelance initiative “Kreatkör” he bid farewell to the cultural establishment. From then on, it was a special concern of his to serve not only a limited group of cultural socialites, but to seek contact with ordinary people by artistic means. In the current political situation in Hungary, Schilling and his colleagues motivated civil disobedience within the framework of artistic interventions in public space. His initiative “Free School” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nB3bHUDM4YQ) has become a legend in the meantime. With this initiative, he wanted to present his version of an emancipatory education against the current education policy course in an unconventional way, especially to Hungarian Sinti and Roma youths in the east of the country.
In 2013 the Kreuzberg Factory Days took place in Berlin under the title “Whatever happend to the Hungarian Theatre”. Among others, Attila Vidniyánsky, the then new artistic director of the Budapest National Theatre (now the cultural-political reference figure of the German AfD), who had previously been chairman of a state commission for the promotion of culture, attended the event. He owed his new position to the dismissal of Robert Alföldi, who had previously bravely tried to maintain a non-governmental position as head of the house. He finally threw in the towel and left the field to the Orbán party member Vidniyánsky. With the words: “We had a left-liberal government for 70 years, now finally there is something else” he confronted Árpád Schilling at the conference, who complained that artistic initiatives critical of the government in particular had mutated into “stepchildren of those in power”. In concrete terms, Schilling noted cuts in funding of more than 50%, a circumstance that would cause lasting damage to the Hungarian cultural landscape, which had been quite diverse to date.
The cultural policy guidelines of the Orbán system
According to the most important cultural policy commentators, a primacy of comprehensive renationalisation has also spread within Hungarian cultural policy in recent years. This can be seen, among other things, in the veneration of nationalists such as the author Albert Wass, who has shown a special weakness for Miklos Horthy. Today, he is increasingly finding his way back into Hungarian textbooks, which are generally characterized by a revival of conservative Catholicism and thus a backward-looking portrayal of women. Historian Kristián Ungaváry speaks of Albert Wass as Hungary’s most popular author.
Renationalization usually goes hand in hand with a new authoritarianism; this applies only to a limited extent to Hungarian cultural policy. Kristóph Nagy and Márton Szarvas show in their contribution to IG Kultur “Transformations of Cultural Production in Hungary after 2010” that the situation is not so simple and that market-economy and folk-ideological demands clash in the field of Hungarian film production. They attribute this, among other things, to the fact that Fidesz does not represent a uniform faction but is shaped by different currents. In addition, cultural production – in comparison to other policy fields such as economic, social, health or housing policy – is not given too much importance, but rather offers itself as a playground for a new elite without great influence on larger sections of the population. (Árpád Schilling tries to counteract this isolation with his participative artistic projects). In this ambivalence, the exiled Hungarian Andy Vajan, who succeeded in Hollywood, became the director of the Hungarian Film Fund. His motto: “So far everything has been bad, now we are building a new world”. One of the characteristics of such a world is that pronounced Fidesz partisans are rewarded with important roles in blockbusters.
The transformation of the National Cultural Fund into the Hungarian Academy of Arts was one of the great cultural-political events. The latter mutated from a private initiative to an official legal entity that awards state subsidies – largely intransparent – primarily to political party members who see no problem in declaring extra-aesthetic criteria such as “national greatness” to be the most urgent funding yardstick.
All in all, Orbán’s cultural policy is characterized by a radical change of elites. This led to a series of new appointments in the major state cultural institutions. The new leaders are no longer characterized by liberal-democratic but by national-conservative positions. They are forced to construct a new narrative that is intended to glorify the aesthetic continuity of a self-contained, thousand-year-old Hungarian nation.
The fact that the exponents of the new regime are also capable of a number of sly tricks was demonstrated, among other examples, by the fact that 15 white Hungarian singers from the Hungarian State Opera had to officially declare themselves “Afro-Americans” when it came to putting together a performance of Porgy and Bess by Georg Gerschwin, who had stipulated in his will that only Afro-Americans were allowed to sing these roles.
The history of these individual cases in Hungary is now endlessly long. Further details can be found in the EUROZINE article “King Ubu in Hungary – Viktor Orbán’s “Total Attack” on Culture” by Lásló Györi, a former music and literary critic of the Hungarian radio.
It is as if Hungary had taken Austria as an example.
At this point it might seem irritating to look back at the specifically Austrian cultural-political conditions with this observation of the specifically Hungarian conditions. And yet some similarities emerge when Austria took a very similar path after 1945. At the time, the author Gerhard Fritsch spoke of an “Austriac restoration”. Its representatives were keen to wash away Austria’s image in the world, destroyed by the participation of many Austrians in the National Socialist injustice regime, with the help of its rich cultural heritage.
True to the motto of Pen Club President Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Austria would merely have to continue from the point where it was interrupted by the dreams of a lunatic in 1938. After 1945, Austrian cultural policy was only too happy to follow the austrofascist traditions in the spirit of an authoritarian form of rule that had nothing less in mind than the establishment of a liberal pluralistic democracy.
It took cultural struggles from the late 1960s onwards to liberate cultural events from their national limitations, to rely on the diversity of cultural forms of expression and thus to make them internationally compatible. Graz, of all places, stands for these conflicts in a special way. Here tradition and modernity, authoritarianism and liberal democracy met directly with each other, and present-day views of the city’s political staff, including people such as the deputy mayor Mario Eustaccio, who for a long time steadfastly refused to distance himself from the extreme right-wing cultural movement of the identitarians, suggest that the battle is far from over.
On the basis of this historical course, it is easy to conclude that the realization of a pluralistic, integrative, transnational concept of culture did not fall into the hands of the Austrians. On the outskirts of a historically unique post-war economic situation, this required a specific cultural-political debate. Only after much effort did it enable many artists who had previously been nationally isolated to join the international art scene and increase the chances of their transnational exploitation.
Austria is also susceptible to a cultural policy in the spirit of a “retro-topia” (Zygmunt Bauman).
However, it should not be forgotten that this could only have been a brief historical episode. After all, the short spring of a liberal cultural policy in Austria came to its temporary end in the 1990s. With the rise of Jörg Haider, at any rate, a stronger nationalist tone has again found its way into the cultural policy debate. “The hand that feeds must not be bitten,” said the Carinthian provincial governor, and thus provoked many a controversy with critical artists who addressed his Nazi maxims along with xenophobic slogans. As the election results have shown since then, the success of the resistance has been limited. Austria’s membership of the European Community in 1995 did little to change this, especially since neither then nor now did the EU show any willingness to act as an independent cultural-political actor in defence of transnational liberal achievements.
From a historical point of view, the similarities between Hungary and Austria are striking. If, after the Second World War, Mozart, Grillparzer, or Raimund’s conservative exegesis were to be used to evoke “true Austrianness” once again, it would be precisely in the late phase of communist internationalism that a politician who was politically socialised unravels the cultural treasure trove of “true Hungarianism”, which he sees threatened either by the Brussels bureaucracy or by migrants inside the Hungarian population, bearing in mind the long-maintained victim myth.
We in Austria probably thought prematurely (and naively) in 1989 that Hungary and the other Soviet-ruled Central and Eastern European countries would, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, submit to the liberal economic and social system of the EU with no alternative but to assign the character of folklore to Hungarian culture in the general rush of prosperity. And now we rub our eyes against the emergence of an unforeseen development, the driving forces of which strive nothing less than to resist a form of suggested appropriation with the means of re-establishing a backward-looking right-wing cultural hegemony (you can also point out, especially in Poland but also in Hungary, good economic data, that the national economies are only able to prosper thanks to considerable EU subsidies, Kuczynski and Orbán like to leave unmentioned).
With the growing frustration of large parts of the national populations who feel betrayed by the promise of soon being brought up to Western European living standards, the political situation has been somewhat different than expected. And yet there is much to suggest that the current Hungarian rulers only have limited faith in their rhetoric about maintaining a genuine Hungarian identity. It is more likely to assume that we are confronted in cultural politics with attempts to cynically instrumentalise a mythologist of national cultural greatness, who primarily serves to maintain a claim to power of a small elite that has absolutely nothing less in mind than the improvement of the living conditions of ordinary people, as Akos Ezer represents it.
Above all, one can learn from such a cursory confrontation that liberalism within and outside the art world is not a gift granted by the state but the result of political disputes. While we regret the consequences of the current Hungarian cultural policy, we should not forget that the reaction in Austria since the 1990s has also done much to turn back the cultural policy wheel. Here, too – see the Ibiza video – new political forces are strengthening, looking hopefully to Hungary in order to establish a new/old cultural hegemony here as well and to instrumentalise it for their own claims to power. In this way, they know how to turn the progressive slogan of the 1970s “cultural policy as social policy” into its opposite and direct it against all those who try to exclude it from “their” society.
The celebration of Hungarian greatness and the promotion of historical oblivion
These few spotlights on Austrian cultural history should make it clear that a rampant oblivion of history leads us only too easily to false conclusions. This also includes the belief that in a democratically constituted market economy, an integrative concept of culture would emerge virtually by itself and would not require specific party affiliations.
The Orbán regime quickly recognized the opportunities that a loss of history offers for political success. Accordingly, the promotion of collective amnesia is a particular concern. In this sense, the regime most recently put the so-called 1956 Institute on the political curb. It was regarded as the last independent humanities institution to oppose the then universal claim to power of the Hungarian Communist Party with its popular uprising. Its set pieces were taken over by the Hungarian VERITAS publishing house, which, on behalf of the national populist party Fidesz, has specialised in bringing the “true Hungarian culture” to the people against all standards of the international scientific community.
A special concern of the Hungarian leaders is the transformation of the public space. In 2013/14 Kossuth tér, the square in front of the parliament, was completely redesigned. A number of former Hungarian hero figures such as the first head of state after the end of the First World War, Mihály Károlyi, disappeared overnight. The statue of the reform communist Imre Nagys was also removed, probably to avoid memories of the struggle against the authoritarianism of earlier regimes. The removal of the statue of Georg Lukasz, the communist cultural philosopher (and teacher of Agnes Heller) and minister of culture in Imre Nagy’s government from Szent István Park, was particularly relevant to cultural policy. On this occasion his archive was also closed down. In return, the aforementioned author Albert Wass received 45 monuments distributed all over the country.
The attempts to close down the Central European University by all means, including open anti-Semitism, found a broad public in order to enforce the ideas of a specifically national scientific enterprise. In view of the growing threats to national independence (e.g. from the hated EU bureaucracy), the latter claims to distinguish itself as far as possible from international influences.
It is not only in Hungary that attempts are made to turn back the wheel of history by means of historical fragmentation (the Polish-English sociologist Zymunt Bauman spoke in this context of “Retrotopie”). This political project to date has been accompanied by a considerable weakening of political analysis in and outside Hungary. The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and Hungary’s EU membership in 2004 would inevitably lead to the consolidation of specifically Western values of liberal democracy, the implementation of which would guarantee the full development of artistic demands.
Things have changed: When the economic successes for all Hungarians did not come immediately, a majority of disappointed people withdrew to the acceptance of a political system that offers little prospect of improvement and renewal, but in an authoritarian tradition offers the chance to somehow find one’s way around or to muddle through. This addresses precisely the characteristics of human action that Ezer shows in his pictures: To fall down, to encourage oneself individually, to straighten oneself up again, to get into an inscrutable thicket again, to simply carry on, for a lifetime. Somehow it will work out. While some obscenely enrich themselves (which is not so much talked about in the face of rampant corruption), the symbol of national strength beckons the many others in their daily struggle for survival.
The new outbreak of the East-West conflict does not take place along national borders but within them.
Experienced observers such as the Bulgarian social scientist Ivan Krastev see the controversial constellation between Hungary and the European Union as the re-circulation of the old West-East conflict, which has set liberal versus autocratic forms of rule against each other. Today, however, these conflict zones only appear to have been geographically drawn up on the surface. The situation is more explosive because East and West have shifted into each other and liberal against authoritarian forms of rule today constitute a central dividing line in almost all European countries, not the least of which is Austria.
While in the phase of economic prosperity after 1945 the Western social model was clearly superior to an authoritarian social constitution, as represented by the states of the Eastern Bloc. Today this model seems to have been disavowed in many ways: Economic and financial crises, global competition, ecological crises, migration and multiple evidence of social disintegration are increasingly calling into question the ability of liberal democracies in the East as well as in the West of the continent to act.
From a specific Austrian point of view, there is no clear answer to this development. On the one hand, there are the “Westerners” and thus the advocates of an alternative-free integration of national economies into the global economic system, to which the last Austrian federal government did not try to respond with neoliberal measures. On the other hand, there is the ever greater temptation for all ” Easterners ” to respond to the growing challenges of a global economy with authoritarian means. These forces were also found in the last federal government.
The most recent discussions about the Ibiza video unanimously indicate that the FPÖ, above all Herbert Kickl in his capacity as Minister of the Interior, was on the verge of transforming Austria into an authoritarian state with his Praetorian troops. It is – at least for now – only thanks to the special stupidity of the former Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache that the publication of the video made it impossible for an FPÖ leadership dominated by German-national fraternities to implement the ideas.
In this context, the early elections in Austria only represent an interlude on the possible way there. It is to be feared that Strache’s admiration for the transformation of Hungarian society to create an exclusive oligarchic power base will be shared by more and more people than the advocates of liberal democracy might like. In Austria as well as in Hungary. And in many other European countries, too, where the hope of broader sections of society for the improvement of their individual living conditions has collapsed in order to seek revenge with the help of a new “strong man”.
With the publication of the backgrounds by the two courageous journalists we learn more about the entanglements of Austrian politicians in a strategy to create authoritarian conditions that Austria’s history is all too rich in. In their thoughts and actions, a new political staff no longer stands for the great longing that once drove many people onto the streets in their desire to overcome totalitarian fantasies of omnipotence in the former Eastern bloc countries, but for the sheer opposite: for the reconstruction of authoritarian forms of rule.
And there are alternatives – On the other image of Hungary on the basis of the philosopher Agnes Heller
While Akós Ezer’s artistic oeuvre works primarily on individual fates, I would like to conclude by pointing out a Hungarian personality who deserves to influence our image of Hungary with greater force than before against all media scenarios of doom. Her person shows directly that Hungary can also be represented in a completely different way than we are currently experiencing.
I have recently read the biography of the recently deceased Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller “The Value of Chance” – which was brought together by Georg Hauptfeld. In her long life, which came to an end a few weeks ago, she was confronted with ever new editions of authoritarian regimes, from which she – partly at the last moment – as an educated cosmopolitan was able to escape in new ways. With her ability to “stand crosswise” she represented a cosmopolitan Hungarian image in the USA, Australia and large parts of Europe, which stands in stark contrast to current political strategies of narrowing a Hungarian cultural identity.
It represents a life with an unconditional claim to freedom as the last, most decisive human reason for existence. We all have to cope with our daily lives, every day afresh. But we are also obliged to decide whether and how we as “free” perceive the world in its unfathomable diversity and want to participate in its shaping – or not. Artists in their exposure are still a good role model for this. Heller’s career makes it clear that life only succeeds when alternatives are possible, but also that these must be fought for against resistance and cost strength, at least not by themselves.
We can learn from it that we in Austria will not be able to settle for an observer role in the long run. We will not be able to avoid taking seriously what Strache has revealed in a public spotlight in the attitude of his community of convictions. With him at the latest, we will be shown our own future in Hungary.
We are still free to decide whether we want to follow the ambitions of this new King Ubu of Austria, and then complain that artists have not sufficiently fulfilled the task of conflict.
Ezer’s confession to be apolitical and yet to paint such portraits of maltreated existences could be a warning to us.
Information of the Künstlerhaus Graz
With Ákos Ezer (*1989 Pećs, lives in Budapest), the Künstlerhaus presents a Hungarian painter of the younger generation who works thematically close to the reality of the present in his home country. The subject of his painting is a series of intentionally or slapstick-like falling, mostly masculine figures. A new series also shows giant portraits with twisted necks. The fall and the physical dislocation become gestures of substance in Ákos Ezer’s works, which the protagonists mostly encounter in everyday situations. With his bodies, which seem to be enraptured by the strange movements, the artist powerfully tells of the failure, clumsiness and fallibility of the individual and society as a whole. Ezer’s colourful and figurative compositions make use of an abstract language of form, with a conceptual pinch of humour sharpening the image of the stumbling blocks of private and public life.
Bild: © Krétakör, Free School. Abgerufen hier am 09.09.2019.