Context & Identity in Contemporary Hungarian Art

Reimagining the near past and constructing local identities. A Fulbright project by Linnea West (2012-13)

National identity in the visual arts (5): current situation

Yellow_notebook_paperToday, one can point to many positive indicators that stability and growth in the arts, which have promoted the freedom to explore different styles in a Western and local way and a nuanced exploration of national identity. For example, one can look at international participation and recognition, the stability among public art organizations, a growing gallery scene, and a developed sense of art history as both a local and regional phenomena as well as an international one. While artist’s education tends to be traditional with a strong emphasis on Modernism and Conceptualism, many interesting Hungarian artists are working with very contemporary questions and modes, and they deal with navigating the challenges of making art for a local versus international context, relationship of their art to money and commercial structures, the exploration of social issues and history. However, the past year has made it necessary to mention rising nationalism. Hungary has experienced a rise in right-wing nationalism, similar to other European countries such as Greece, and the reelection of Victor Orbán in 2010 heralded significant changes to the funding and structure of the arts that are just beginning to have widespread ramifications, perhaps extending to kind of content that will be shown in publicly funded arts institutions, i.e. the majority of institutions in this country.

Ludwig Museum

Ludwig Museum

But first, let us consider the general scene with its positive indicators. Institutions there were created or reorganized after 1989 have stabilized. The Ludwig Museum and the Műcsarnok (or, Kunsthalle) are the biggest venues for contemporary art, presenting international artists and blue chip Hungarian artists in regular large, high-quality exhibitions. The Ludwig Museum, housed in a state-of the-art building, feature a noteworthy collection of Hungarian and international contemporary art that often does shows putting Hungarian art and artists into an international context. International participation in art fairs has been notable, and the Agency for Contemporary Art Exchange (ACAX), a department of the Ludwig Museum,[1] was created solely to facilitate participation in international events and residencies by Hungarian artists and introduce foreigners to the Hungarian art scene. The Műcsarnok is an exhibition space that, in the tradition of a Kunsthalle, does not maintain its own collection and its mission is to mediate, present, and influence Hungarian and international trends and phenomena in the contemporary visual arts. The Ernst Museum, a part of Műcsarnok, hosts projects. The Hungarian National Gallery, located in the Buda Castle, has a collection of almost 100,000 artifacts from the early Middle Ages up to the present day– the greatest collection of the Hungarian art. The exhibition catalogs and research for these shows has continued the necessary historical work of creating the art history of the past century.

Andras Kiraly, Part of the Studio of Young Artists Association's 1 x 1 BILLBOARD – GIANT POSTERS OTHERWISE project

Andras Kiraly, Part of the Studio of Young Artists Association’s 1 x 1 BILLBOARD – GIANT POSTERS OTHERWISE project

Trafó Gallery is one of the few medium-sized non-profit institutions in Hungary, producing progressive contemporary projects by international and local artists. The Soros Center, an important source of funding and research immediately after 1989, ceased to exist after it was deemed unnecessary for the revitalized scene, and it spawned a descendent of sorts in C³: Center for Culture & Communication Foundation, an institution that focuses on the promotion of media arts and the intersection of art, science and technology. The Studio of Young Artists’ Association (SYAA), with a membership of about 450 artists under 35, promotes young artists and provides them with exhibition possibilities. The Hungarian University of Fine Arts remains the main art university in Hungary while the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design Budapest (MOME) is one of the most significant European institutions of visual culture. Commercial galleries of note include ACB Gallery, Kisterem, and Vintage Gallery. Galleries and non-profits, for example artist-run spaces, have been grass root efforts that haven’t necessarily had the easiest time of it, but continue to exist. Recently, ArtMarket Budapest has been an international art fair that continues to grow.

In a monetary sense, institutions have navigated the challenge of existing in a capitalist society with minimal success. Arts organizations often have a hybrid structure, less common in the West, where the vast majority of their budgets remains government funded. There is a noticeable effort to develop a local, sustainable scene but the state still being a vital supporter of the arts. There is an increased pressure to find non-governmental local support in the form of individual philanthropy. Art professionals have found it challenging to find collectors and private support, and the active cultivation of such revenue is necessary is in country with no history or culture of individual support of the arts.

Artists, like arts institutions, feel the pressure to become more entrepreneurial, and the burden of being responsible for the business-side of their artistic practice. Seeking sources of income outside the Hungarian government, whether through international residencies, EU funding, or private collectors, is necessary. In addition, artists can compete for art awards, which are beginning to exist locally, such the ACAX-run Leopold Bloom Art Award, aimed at supporting progressive contemporary Hungarian visual artists and their presence in the international art scene. The financial crisis has naturally made this difficult situation, in a place with no tradition of art collecting and little popular familiarity with contemporary art forms, more difficult, drying up what little financial support that might have provided. At the same time, the attitude toward money is sometimes not unbridled enthusiasm but reluctance. An ethical view, perhaps a holdover from Communism, considers money a contaminant of art. In part, perhaps this reflects the continued reverence of the intellectual and artist as the moral voice of society.

Looking beyond the simple binary of East and West, art historians are responding to a perceived need to integrate the local context into a global understanding of artwork produced in the region and to create a greater recognition of local variations of international styles. As art historian Edit András writes, the old socialist and the new capitalist modes are not simply in absolute opposition but rather:

“The discrete charm of the Post-Socialist condition is precisely that it nurtures hybrid phenomenon, hardly known and recognizable from the outside, that is the post-communist hangovers could greatly have been interwoven with the elements of predatory capitalism. So, instead of clash, we do find fusion in a lot of cases, providing strange mixtures of elements of both cultures, whether we speak about the art institutions, or whether we speak about the theory and art practice and even reception of art.”[2]

For Hungary, this means an important differentiation from itself and Western Europe as well as differentiations from their regional neighbors, despite the façade of similarity created by the former Eastern Bloc. Rather than a simple emulation of Western models, or reliance on the binary divide between East and West as explanation, art professionals and artists are creating a more nuanced place for Hungary on the global art scene. In part, of course, the increased international participation of artists also achieves this goal.

Similarly, regional networks and organizations are being actively developed to support a more nuanced and local art history beyond the binary of East and West. For example, Transitland. Video Art from Central and Eastern Europe 1989–2009 is an international collaborative project to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its main outcome is an archive of video works produced in the period of 1989 to 2009, reflecting the transformations in post-Socialist Central and Eastern Europe.[3] Another example: Iron Applause was an international exhibition and symposium of Young Visual Artists Awards network (yvaa.net) also created in a regional framework. Furthermore, transit, created in 2002, is a network of autonomous initiatives of contemporary art in Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Rumania, Slovakia, featuring different formats and methods such as critical platforms, exhibitions and other artistic lectures, discussions, publications, and research.

Reconciling making art for a local versus an international context can be challenging for the Hungarian artist. Previously, as in Socialism, there was an intensely nuanced and local modus operandi for understanding the significance of works, and even today art that responds to local situation is often difficult to understand from the outside. Often there are many layers of historical meaning. Contemporary artists have naturally taken advantage of increased opportunities abroad, but they face challenges with the differences of operating on an international and a local level. Making work that operates on both an international and a local level is a fascinating challenge for the Hungarian artist today, and when artists privilege one level over another in their work, it says much about their intended audience.

Institutions and artists display a growing engagement with social issues and the historical past. For example, East Art Map,[4] one such large, discursive regional project with many iterations, has the motto is “History is not given. Please help to construct it.” Hungarian art historian Edit András has written persuasively about contemporary Hungarian society as being in a state of “collective amnesia” in regards to the past.[5] Just as art institutions have begun to deal with these matters (in exhibitions such as “The Hidden Holocaust” and “What is Hungarian?: Contemporary Answers” at the Kunsthalle), so too are artists beginning to reconsider the history and art of the recent past, and re-present it in new ways. At the same time, contemporary issues are being delved into, for example through the documentation of previously marginalized groups. In that sense, representations of national identity have taken on new forms, more nuanced one representing an idea of Hungary that is not the monolithic nationalist mythic entity created during ‘the long century.’ In contrast to, say the issue-based art of 90s New York, Hungarian artists tends toward the more subtle, layered, and formal in their work. Because artworks dealing with societal issues to be oblique rather than didactic, and sometimes obscured with nuanced local histories, their lack of explicitness often means their content goes unrecognized on the international scene.

Growing nationalism and conservative controls over arts funding oppose this generally positive and natural growth. An opposite trend toward these explorations of national identity can be found in the growing right-wing nationalist segment of Hungarian society, solidified when the current conservative Prime Minister Victor Orbán was voted into power with a two-thirds majority in 2010, effectively giving him sweeping and unchecked powers. This right-wing nationalist surge has parallels in other European countries. As Stefan Berger notes, “As much of Eastern Europe has been emerging from the Soviet Union’s ideological grip in the 1990s, national master narratives have enjoyed a strong revival, often actively and ably supported by national historiographies.[6] Orbán’s government has shown as interest in the construction of this national identity, with projects like the illustration of the new constitution, or Basic Law. Nationalism has experienced a “re-emergence as a powerful political tool in the 1990s in the context of the accelerating processes of Europeanization and globalization.”[7] Trianon continues to play a role in the national psyche, and the right wing uses the idea of retaking its original lands, “Greater Hungary,” as a rallying cry.

Nationalism symbols resemble symbols of the “long century,” that initial period of exaggerated nationalism, so that one is seeing more of the Turul for example. There is a renewed parallel being drawn between the Christian religion and the cult of the nation. The return of the origin debate reflects a disturbing tendency to define Hungarians in opposition to non-ethnic Hungarians living here, such as the Jews and Roma. Interestingly, in the arts, this means a return to a celebration of the worker and the Hungarian nation in the simplified and outdated forms of Modernism—which in the country harkens back to the Soviet regime.

The contemporary arts tend to be progressive and liberal, and when they deal with national identity, they do not reflect this traditional narrative. Edward Said notes that the colonized always resist,[8] and in the arts I believe once can see sign of resistance to the current resurging nationalist narrative. With the political right under Orbán in control, the political left, which includes a number of art professionals and artists are, have becomes very suspicious about attempts to control cultural production through appointments and funding, and quite recently seem to have been proved right.[9]

Art historians have pointed to a lack of interest in national identity in younger artists. Within the arts, the use of traditionally Hungarian symbols are treated with suspicion if not outright hostility due to the complicated history of dominance, bloodshed, and marginality. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible to tackle such issues. In fact, many artists seem to feel the opposite: that it is impossible not to discuss what it means to be Hungarian in Hungary today, and their approaches are splintered from the overtly political, to documenting the other, to exploring historical consciousness and collective memory. The forms these projects take vary, but there is often a strong social or conceptual component rather than a formal one.

Previous articles in this series:
National identity in the visual arts (4): the aftermath of 1989

National identity in the visual arts (3): the Soviet Era

National identity in the visual arts (2): ‘the Long Century’

National identity in the Hungarian visual arts (1): situating oneself in the historic context


[1] ACAX is the host institution for my Fulbright grant research in 2012-2013.

[2] András, “An Agent That is Still at Work, 7.

[3] The Transitland archive was initiated by InterSpace (Sofia, Bulgaria), Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art / ACAX (Budapest), and transmediale (Berlin, Germany).

[5] In addition to “An Agent That is Still at Work”, see “The Unavoidable Question of Nationalism” Springerin online, 2010, No. 3 (http://www.springerin.at/dyn/heft_text.php?textid=2368&lang=en) and “Transgressing Boundaries (Even those marked out by predecessors) in New Genre Conceptual Art” in Art after Conceptual Art,  ed. Alexander Alberro and Sabeth Buchmann (Vienna, Austria: Generali Foundation, 2006)

[6] Stefan Berger, Introduction, in Narrating the Nation, 3.

[7] Allan Megill, “Historical Representation, Identity, Allegiance” in Narrating the Nation, 20.

[8] Said, Culture and Imperialism

[9] Recently control of the Műcsarnok has gone to right-wing political appointees, and the public arts budget is now being administered by a highly conservative, formerly private group, the Magyar Művészeti Akadémia.

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This entry was posted on January 21, 2013 by in Article.
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