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6 min read

Padded Cells

Art journalist Gergely Nagy on the shrinking space for independent art in Hungary: "Nothing has been forbidden, no one has been jailed." But ...

Credits TEXT: Gergely Nagy Translation: George Szirtes March 13 2018

Gergely Nagy is a journalist and writer, editor-in-chief of the on-line art magazine ArtPortal and one of the organisers of the OFF-biennále in Budapest

The Hungarian constitution used to defend freedom of speech and artistic endeavour, or at least it did until 2012 and the introduction of what is known as the Basic Law. Under it artists are free to pursue their art and to publish or exhibit it as they please. Nothing has been forbidden, no one has been jailed. And that would be the end of the story, except it isn’t, because the system of public funding that maintains the arts is in every way problematic.

It is problematic to such a degree that art is slowly becoming a market of reproductions. Public funding no longer produces new work: art does not develop. New critical ideas and practices are stuck on the periphery and cannot reach the mainstream. This serves the authorities very well and entails a form of soft censorship so everything looks quiet, all is calm, and the entertaining and representational functions of art continue as before, but everything else is left festering at the fringes of the system. It is all an optical illusion: the larger institutions and museums continue to put on exhibitions, people remain in work, a museum quarter is being constructed in the city’s largest and most public park, vast sums of money float from here to there, it’s just that - partly because of general uncertainty, partly because of the fear of political pressure - there are no major exhibitions of contemporary art.

Artists’ careers stall at small gallery level. Nor do the larges institutions have any clear idea of what is happening out there because those with expertise, who have long been living on a pittance, have either quit or gone abroad. The government also dominates various channels of public information: state media have turned into vehicles for propaganda that show nothing of relevance and oligarchs friendly to the government have bought up most of commercial media (on state credit) and steer well clear of anything to do with art or culture. Serious cultural discourse is trapped in a bubble and exerts no broad social influence, that bubble being Budapest where a few non-profit organisations exist as artist-run spaces or as commercial galleries and where the subversive critical spirit of contemporary art struggles to survive. The rest is silence.

How has this situation come about? The answer to that is mind-numbingly simple. The authorities are not stupid and know it is enough to control a few main institutions and channels in order ensure that everything fits into the places appointed for them. The new nationalist government of 2010 set about dismantling institutional structures and made sure to appoint its own supporters to the commanding heights of the wreckage. It relegated matters of culture from ministerial level so that today there is no ministry responsible for the arts, (nor indeed for education, for health, or social affairs). There is only one fountainhead for the lot, titled the Emberi Erőforrás Minisztérium (Ministry for Human Resources) – a true Orwellian touch in the name – where no one has a clue about living culture. All funding has been withdrawn and redirected to a vast new monstrosity, the MMA, full name Magyar Művészeti Akadémia (Hungarian Academy of the Arts), which is neither an academy nor anything to do with art but a corporate chamber for elderly government loyalists. The MMA has money, a range of freehold properties, the Kunsthalle in the city centre and an entire institute for artistic research at its disposal but has no idea what to do with it all – it sits on vast funds but produces little of relevance. The same elderly loyalists continue to serve on its committees, even on that of the Nemzeti Kulturális Alap, (National Cultural Foundation) which was founded twenty-five years ago with the distinct aim of supporting cultural projects.

Those involved in contemporary arts have been protesting since 2012, demonstrating, and occupying the Ludwig Museum when the appointment procedure for a new director was suspected to be manipulated. They have disrupted MMA meetings and handed out leaflets. They made these heroic efforts while fully engaged in the daily struggle to make a living and in the constant battle with crises of conscience. To work or not work with the system? To apply or not apply for public grants? To make terms or not make terms with the institutions? The dilemmas facing the intelligentsia of the Seventies have resurfaced. We have the tension between a conforming and non-conforming, fellow-travelling and emigrating intellectual community. For now the majority are boycotting the MMA and the Kunsthalle but we don’t know how this will work out once the system is in complete control. Meanwhile, like some ageing paedophile, the MMA has begun to reach out to universities, exhibiting parts of graduate shows in the Kunsthalle. Do come in: now stay here.

Many contemporary artists have been worn out by constantly protesting and are looking to discover new ways of supporting their art through various strategies of survival. We are now at the stage where they take unpaid, unofficial work, making their own arrangements within a counter-culture. Their exhibitions and events are free and happen in any available space but it’s hard to know how long such unpaid artists and curators can go on. The government smells trouble, frets and grows ever more aggressive, hysterically attacking civic organisations under the cover of a virulent anti-Soros campaign and labelling some artists as “threats to national security”. That is how things are. Can one live like this? Yes, one can. Hungary is not Belarus or Turkey. Not yet. But that’s the direction we are headed at an ever increasing place.

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