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Reports and Interviews From: Hungary

Artist Szabolcs KissPál in conversation with art critic Edit András

Szabolcs KissPál: After 1989, in most of the post-state  socialist countries of the region—Romania, Slovakia, and Poland—a considerable amount of artistic practice reflected on the past and the period of transition both from social and historical points of view. What is the reason that in Hungary a rather apolitical approach dominated the cultural discourse?

Edit András: I think the reason is twofold. In Hungary the state socialist regime was more permissive and the unofficial art movements were stronger than in the neighboring countries. The opposition shared the ideas of the modernist paradigm and its key tenets. Also, it repeated the methods and habits of official culture; its militancy, binary thinking, and its exclusiveness. The “sub-voices” had to be subordinated to the fight against the common enemy, the regime. After 1989, the politics of art were understood differently than during the Cold War; however, this heritage was persistent in art and art criticism, and worked against new forms of political art which gave place to different “others” as well.

Living Memorial, ongoing project from March 23, 2014. Photo: Gabriella Csoszó / FreeDoc.

KissPál: Why do you think that in spite of the threatening, authoritarian processes which endanger free culture in Hungary, only a few artists join the protest or take the responsibility to stand up and act against them?

András: A lot of artists are simply afraid of being involved in the protest movement, and there are many who wish to benefit from the possibilities abundant for “court artists,” mostly those run-of-the-mill artists who felt excluded from the progressive, internationally oriented art scene of the last two decades. Furthermore, due to the conservative education of artists—and art critics—a lot of them still believe in the romantic idea of the artist’s role having nothing to do with politics, as though art is beyond and above it. They do not perceive themselves as artist-citizens but rather artists with capital “A.”

KissPál: Although the actions performed by the Free Artists include visual elements, they are mostly based on the radical presence of the protesting body in public space. How much do you think this kind of practice differs from the tactics used by social or environmental activists? 

András: The protesting body in public space is a performative body which steps out from invisibility and wants to be seen. At the same time, the artists’ protest contains not only visual elements but also elements of the creative art making practices, as this aspect can create tension, mobilize the senses, and may stir controversy or include spontaneity that activism in itself is lacking. So, the two approaches to, and stakes in, the same issues are quite different.

KissPál: In Hungarian public space one can find many figurative, symbolic monuments. How much do you think the legacy of Hungarian art history, especially the historicism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, contributed to this phenomenon and how can they still be considered relevant by some ideologies?  

András: The representatives of those ideologies that you refer to use art for the purpose of symbolic politics and for their own legitimization. Historicism was not a progressive art practice in that period, let alone a hundred years later, when the genre of monuments itself comes into question and when anti-monuments or participatory memorials are regarded as relevant.

KissPál: In the eyes of the present government, one of the most successful periods of Hungarian history was the one between the two world wars, the system of Governor Horthy. This view is shared both by FIDESZ and JOBBIK, a far right-wing party which recently increased its support to 21 percent. Do you see any resemblance between the art of that era and the one promoted by the present ideology?

András: There are similarities indeed in the strong state support given to traditional, nationalist, and Christian art, but the products of today’s official art are not even repetitions, but rather a kind of artificial resuscitation of that period as anachronistic and absurd caricatures.

KissPál: Our initiative, the Living Memorial, was taken over by some of the leftist parties with decreasing popularity; they even used it as propaganda to repair their public image, which was damaged during the recent election. This worries our group, as many of us strongly believe in the power of the civil sphere. What do you think about the legitimacy of any political parties addressing this particular issue?

András: I share your belief in the power of the civil sphere, and I absolutely agree with you that political parties taking over civil initiatives to get a facelift suffocate the movement of civil disobedience, the only force that might be able to formulate constant criticism.

KissPál: The next target of the Hungarian Academy of Art (H.A.A.) is to control higher education in art. What role do you think the new generation of artists, curators, and critics will play in the coming years?

András: This is the way nationalism works. The younger generations who have been socialized in a free country can travel and study abroad, access the Internet; they can’t be misled in the long run. I put all my trust in them.

KissPál: Hungarian art and culture depend on state subsidies which will be totally under H.A.A. control from now on. What alternative systems of support do you think should be developed in order to secure the survival of critical art?

András: It would be beneficial if critical art could rely more on the support of the private sector, and also participate in international collaborations, otherwise the exodus of artists and curators will continue.

KissPál: Can critical art and culture survive without any infrastructure and funds by applying the tactics of the ’70s and ’80s underground culture?

András: I do not think the same tactics or methods that were used by the artists in the underground culture of state socialism should be applied, especially because by now it has become clear that the division between official and underground culture was not as clear-cut as had been assumed, but was rather a kind of tug-of-war game, played with a lot of compromises. I do not think the myth of powerful (male) artist-heroes with their unreflective single voices should be revitalized either, as if nothing had happened in the last decades in art and theory. There is an urgent need for artists with social responsibility and engagement to create space for themselves and to invent new ways for re-imagining the society—including their own operation and role in it—and producing counter-discourse against the oppressive, dictatorial state politics.

KissPál: The Hungarian office of the Norwegian Fund was recently attacked by a state secretary because they support civil society. How much responsibility do you think the European states have in supporting, including financially, the Hungarian critical discourse?

András: The art scene is supported by foreign foundations; for example, the Austrian Erste Foundation facilitates the operation of one of the most critical organizations, and its Internet journal, However, it is true that without further external support, critical voices could be exhausted and silenced.


Edit András

Edit András, Ph.D, (Budapest and Long Island, U.S.A.) is an art historian and art critic, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Art History of the Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest. Her main interests concern modern and contemporary Eastern and Central European art, gender issues, public art, art theory, and activism in the post-state socialist countries. She has published numerous essays and has participated in various international conferences. Her latest book is Cultural Cross Dressing. Art in the Ruins of Socialism, 2009 (in Hungarian). She is editor of Transitland. Video art from Central and Eastern Europe 1989 - 2009, Budapest, 2009.

Szabolcs KissPál

Szabolcs KissPál (1967) works in various media. His main field of interest is the intersection of new media, visual arts, and social issues. He currently teaches at the Intermedia Department Budapest, Hungary and he is leading a studio at the Intermedia Department of Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, Slovakia. His works have been presented at the Venice Biennial, Kunsthalle Budapest, Apexart New York, Stedelijk Museum, Seoul International Media Art Biennale, etc. Since 2012 he has developed an activist practice by starting up and maintaining a blog, establishing a protest group called Free Artist, and taking part in various civil disobedience actions.


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