Hungary, Network 4 Debate

What Can Be Said About The State of Hungarian Art?

The growing power of the Hungarian Academy of Arts (MMA) has been supressing the art communtity, motivating several cultural groups to react in various ways throughout the past few years. What does the MMA's dominance over art mean in practice? And what could be the solution?

The Hungarian Academy of Art (MMA) has become such an frequently used name amongst Hungarians, even those who have very little contact with culture, and we have become so used to the long shadow of its ever growing power in the past six years, that we are only really confronted with the irrationality of this monstrous institution when we attempt to explain it to our foreign friends. The MMA is a relatively rare kind of creation. Such openly ideological, state operated cultural institutions are almost entirely unknown in the developed world. It is also rare that one encounters such a powerful actor in cultural politics as the president of the MMA, György Fekete.

Milestones in cultural politics

The previously small and insignificant Hungarian Academy of Art received state institution status in 2011, which meant that it received equal rights and authority with the Hungarian Academy of Science. The Orbán government’s constitution – problematic in itself – came into effect in 2012, January 1st. Since this constitution, in which the MMA has been mentioned, the Academy of Art has regularly emphasized its role in Hungarian culture, which is to „protect our cultural values, especially to preserve, transfer and present the nation’s artistic traditions” for future generations. György Fekete has often openly emphasized that „apparent national consciousness” is a prerequisite for any member of the Academy. In the course of fall 2012, the Hungarian government injected 2,5 billion forints (8 million euros) into the MMA, and this amount has been growing steadily since then, as is evident from the Academy’s budget.

In 2013, apart from the constantly growing budget, institutions that had previously been owned by the state, such as the Budapest Hall of Art, the Vigadó Concert Hall and the Hild Palace came into the Academy’s possession.

Authoritarian consistency

What exactly is there to criticize about these decisions, and what are their consequences for Hungarian art? If we take a closer look at the changes in culture, it becomes clear that the authoritarian leadership in this domain is characterized by the same school of thought that has already been spread to all other institutions and organizations governing numerous different areas of society. If we look at the situation of Hungarian art in detail, there can be no doubt about the fact that this school of thought is openly ideological and in line with the current government’s politics. There is institutionalized corruption, for instance.

As far as the profession itself is concerned, opinions of experts in the field are completely disregarded and consultations are bypassed or openly rejected.

Laws are recasted in order to suit personal needs, and the new laws and regulations do not take into account the continuity of institutional history. As far as the profession itself is concerned, opinions of experts in the field are completely disregarded, consultations are bypassed or openly rejected, or if they are not, it is only because their outcome is foreseeable, so that they are then used in order to demonstrate legitimacy. Thus, a functioning democratic system is simulated.

Public property is distributed amongst well-chosen clientele. The requirement is rather a similar worldview and loyalty to the current system than the quality of the individual product. The consequence of all of the above, similarly to the slow dismantling and the destruction of skilled workforce by the state funded educational system, is, in other words:

The destruction of our future

The government’s responsibility lies in escalating this situation to its extremes.

But what does this mean in practice? The younger generation, i.e. those who do not want to commit themselves on a certain world view, and approach cultural work simply as a professional issue, are forced to work under incredibly precarious, uncertain conditions. The situation has probably not been this tense since the collapse of the communist system. Obviously, these conditions also seriously affect the older generation’s life and career opportunities, limiting it to an unprecedented extent. Of course, not everything can be chalked up to the government, as this partially fits into current global trends affecting young workers, intellectuals, amongst them also cultural workers, who are in a vulnerable position both in the West and in Eastern European countries. The government’s responsibility lies in escalating this situation to its extremes.

If you take a look at the MMA’s members, you would have to get out your microscope in order to find members under 35, and women only make up 16% of them, although that is at least slightly better than the parliament’s 9%. This phenomenon has an unfortunate reason and tradition in Hungary. These numbers are indicative of how the Hungarian government – and its ideological cousin, the MMA – feels about the role of women in society.

At this point, the reader might be wondering: was there no one who tried to stop all this, or who at least tried to oppose it?

Of course there was, there were several attempts in the course of numerous types of protests, but if one is honest, it has to be admitted that they were all very ineffective. Not because they were not sincere in their intentions or inconsistent, but because of the profession’s divisions and its weak self-advocacy.

The Free Artists group was founded in December 2012 from the art students and practicing cultural workers (artists, curators, aesthetes) of the Young Artists’ Studio. The group together with its circle organizes protest actions regularly and has great creative potential. They also constructively collect information and comment on cultural political events on several blogs.
● The ’Outside it’s wider’ project came into being in January 2013. Those participating in the project asked contemporary Hungarian artists to react to the changes in Hungary’s cultural political life and in its overall political atmosphere. The project ended officially on 2 January 2014.
● The website launched its Day of Action series in April 2013. For the duration of one year they attempted to react monthly to the cultural political situation on forums, especially, but not exclusively, together with organizations for applied art. The project’s goal was to „organize a series of events primarily through the promotion of political information, sharing practical tools and tactical coalition building, that would involve affected people and would at the same time build cooperation with advocacy groups and people who are active in fields other than art”:
● In May 2013, the Coalition for contemporary art group organized a long demonstration in front of the Ludwig Museum, occupying the museum’s steps. They were demonstrating against the classification of the tendering process for the positon of the Museum’s new director. They also wanted to put pressure on cultural decisions by generating a professional dialogue.
● Their second notable protest action was the symbolic funeral of the Hall of Arts in October 2013.
● In March 2014, the Free Artists group protested against the attachment of the Vigadó Concert Hall to the MMA by organizing a live performance as an act of civil disobedience in front of the building. The activists were removed by the police.
● In November 2015, the same group tried to initiate a discussion at the general meeting of the Academy about changes regarding the National Cultural Fund, which would mean that the MMA would receive even more power. This attempt ended in a scandal, which the group reacted to in a statement the next day.

Structural attempts at answers

Apart from listing these protests it is important to see what structural answers could be given to the questions arising from the current crisis. Hungarian culture’s strong financial dependence on the state can be traced back to our institutional past. Due to the strong economic support after the regime change there was a big culture boom. However, creator autonomy and freedom of speech gradually decreased, thus placing workers of the cultural sphere in a precarious position. It is also more and more problematic to identify with the current government’s rhetoric, which also addresses moral questions.

Is it acceptable to apply for funding by the government when it represents the exact opposite of everything that a cultural worker thinks and believes in both as a private individual and a professional?

How could we access public assets and funds more justly?

Lifting an „unquestionable national consciousness” up to the state of a main priority is still absolutely unacceptable for most prominent actors of the contemporary cultural scene. The point at which each person draws the line in his or her cooperation with the official cultural policy and its institutions for personal advancement is up to the individual’s own conscience and morals. This basic atmosphere and attitude further splits the already fragmented field of culture, and it is common knowledge that the arts are not the only domain in which such division is the case.

In general, it can be said that apart from these moral questions, many are arguing for becoming independent from the state as an inherent value and important goal in itself, which would obviously mean bringing commercial actors into a cultural sphere that was civil- and value centric before.

Opinions differ on whether this can simply be construed as modernization, as a means to survive in a neoliberal economy, choosing the „rationally lesser evil” which works according to particular demands of the market, but would only result in dependency on a different set of cultural and economic forces. These arguments fragment the political landscape of the art scene, while the basic question remains the same in other domains as well: how could we access public assets and funds more justly?

The OFF Biennale was the first event that tried to give an institutional answer while mobilizing at the same time, thereby testing the hypothesis according to which it could be possible to organize a high quality biennale without the use of state funds and institutions. The event was organized through different grants, donations and a great amount of volunteer work in spring 2015. Thanks to its success and very positive international reactions, the preparations for the second biennale in 2017 have already begun.

The Teleport Gallery was a project started by young curators. Their central concept, which could also be seen as a moral stand, is the organization of exhibitions of young artists’ works in institutions that were “important in the progressive art discourse of the ’60s and ’70s, but are less important in contemporary art exhibition practices.” The gesture and the constructive answer given to the institutional transformation is also obvious in this initiative, which questions the accessibility of culture in its own way.

Solidarity within the profession, as well as opening up cautiously to the afore mentioned market, is incredibly important.

The Studio of Young Artists Association (FKSE) is an initiative with a long institutional past, which plays an important role in supplying the arts with new actors. It is a rare type of creation, as it is an independent civil state funded organization, which was founded in 1958 with the aim of supporting young artists at the beginning of their careers in order to help them find their place in the profession. It still has the same function today. As an advocacy group it has regularly criticized the activity and spreading of the MMA. The support of the state has been reduced accordingly, so that its current leadership called together a forum in 2016 to discuss the transformation of the National Cultural Fund and decided not to apply to them for any grant, thus protesting against the MMA.

ACAX was founded by Barnabás Bencsik in 2006, who after leaving the Ludwig Museum transferred his experience and knowledge into the organization. He played an important role in positioning the Hungarian art scene on the international media stage. Through his excellent residency program at his Studio House he provided several prominent international artists with the opportunity to work in Budapest.

Apart from seeking out alternative funding options and thus building an alternative institutional system, solidarity within the profession, as well as opening up cautiously to the afore mentioned market, is incredibly important. However, it would be wrong to discard the future reform of the authentic institutional system of art after the MMA hopefully will have fallen to pieces as a consequence of the generational characteristics coded into itself, as well as the usual fate of most rigid and unproductive structures. Although discourse on the matter still finds itself in its infancy, it is the profession’s common interest that by the time this comes to pass, we should have ready made plans and a vision regarding the way we want to build a fair cultural policy program that will allow Hungary to fit into the universal art discourse.

This article was created as part of the Network 4 Debate project, supported by the International Visegrad Fund.


Sociologist and artist, board member of the Young Artists’ Studio Society since 2015.