Culture and education in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

Now that it is almost certain that Tibor Navracsics will be responsible for education and culture in the European Commission, perhaps it is appropriate to focus on how these areas have fared under the watchful eye of Viktor Orbán. I am not exaggerating the prime minister’s role here because we have seen a carefully orchestrated Kulturkampf in Hungary ever since 2010. The government purposely fosters the kind of artistic and literary work that appeals to the political leadership, whose taste is not exactly avant garde. Abstract art is frowned upon, as are the kinds of novels that Péter Nádas, Péter Esterházy or László Krasznahorkai write, although they are the best known contemporary Hungarian writers. The statues that are being ordered or resurrected by the government take us back not to the twentieth but rather to the nineteenth century. I wrote several posts about the fate of Róbert Alföldi’s National Theater, now under the direction of Attila Vidnyánszky, originally from Ukraine. His productions have resulted in a loss of 40,000 theatergoers.

The fate of the fine arts was handed over to György Fekete, a rather bizarre interior decorator, in the form of a new Fine Arts Academy. Its future was ensured when it was included in the new constitution. The academy also got full ownership of the Műcsarnok (Art Gallery/Kunsthalle), until now in the hands of the Hungarian state. It is the largest art gallery in Hungary. It specializes in contemporary art. Or at least until now it did.

Fekete, who is 82 years old and an arch-conservative in politics as well as in artistic taste, picked a man after his own heart, György Szegő, to be the director of the gallery. He is an architect best known for his stage sets. Despite his appointment as director of a gallery devoted to contemporary art, he actually despises the genre that “has become fashionable in the last twenty-five years.” He also has some frightening ideas about art which, according to him, should not “criticize” but “only delight.” Instead of the “art of the technical media” one must concentrate on traditional art forms, especially painting with its 8,000-10,000 year tradition. What the West presents as art is a “soap-bubble” that will burst in no time. So, the gallery that is supposed to give space to contemporary art will be headed by a man who hates it. He will undoubtedly force his own taste on the public. Very soon we will be back to the fifties when only socialist realism could be exhibited.

I’m no art critic, but the man whom Szegő extolled as his guiding light produced this work.

The Two of Us (2010)

György Fekete: The Two of Us (2010)

By contrast, Szegő mentioned by name one of those soap-bubble artists–Jeff Koons, whose exhibit in the Whitney Museum of American Art has been a great success this summer and fall. The Koons retrospective is moving to the Centre Pompidou, Musée d’art moderne, and from there to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

Here is an example of Koons’s work.

Jeff Koons: Tulips (1995-1998)

Jeff Koons: Tulips (1995-1998)

I guess from here on Hungarian art lovers will have to go to Vienna for major contemporary art exhibits, but I’m happy to announce that Szegő will receive twice as much money as his predecessor to run the gallery.

And now we can turn to education and all that the Orbán government did and did not do for it. I talked about the Net of University Lecturers who wrote an open letter to José Manuel Barroso on the sad state of Hungarian higher education. Today Budapest Beacon published the English translation of the document, which I republish here with the permission of the editor of the internet portal.

* * *

September 11, 2014

Dear President:

On behalf of university lecturers working in Hungarian higher education, we would like to congratulate you on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree from the Budapest Corvinus University.  All of us greatly appreciate the highly responsible work you performed as president of the European Commission over the past ten years in the interest of advancing the cause of Europe. We would like to use the occasion of your visit to Budapest to call your attention to the crisis situation in Hungarian education.

Over the past five years the Hungarian government has decreased public funding of higher education in real terms by half, and to this day has not created a measured, predictable financial system for the sector.  The Hungarian budget for 2013 allocates 0.43 percent of GDP to education in place of the minimum 1 percent recommended by the European Union.  The current government seriously limits the autonomy of universities by forcing the dismissal of the directors of financially dependent institutions.  The head of government personally appoints chancellors to serve next to rectors through which he can directly interfere in the running of universities.  The government also threatens the independent operation of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee, thereby discrediting its quality inspections and endangering the international integration of our universities. The financial austerity measures have resulted in many being forced into retirement or dismissed. The body of teachers has suffered significant losses, with those retaining their jobs forced to work more for extremely low wages by European standards.

For five years the Hungarian government has failed to adopt a well-grounded strategy for higher education.  The rights and responsibilities of those running higher education are not transparent.  Meanwhile, the government’s administration for education divvies up resources and provides unlawful advantages to institutions close to them or founded by them.  For example, they intend to give 90% of the support for higher education obtained through tender from the European Horizon 2020 program to the National Public Service University.

Alongside existing higher educational and research facilities struggling to retain what is left of their autonomy, the government is building a parallel higher education and research network to service its own goals.  Part of this strategy is the creation and funding (often circumventing normative criteria) of the National Public Service University and the University of Physical Education.  The latter institution was established by the parliamentary majority with an ad hoc modification to a law.  The rules governing the title of university teacher were changed in a manner custom-tailored to a specific individual in such a way that devalues the title of university teacher.  Recently, it came to light that the Hungarian National Bank awarded an amount equal to one and a half times the annual higher education budget, HUF 200 billion (USD 850 million), to its own foundations with which to endow the teaching of its own “unorthodox” economic theories.  This means that state responsibilities are being funded with public money outside the budgetary process in a manner that cannot be controlled, and on ideological grounds.

As a devoted adherent to European values it may be important for you to know that the current Hungarian government does not help, but obstructs the possibility of social advancement.  The Hungarian government undertakes to strengthen the middle class, abandoning the social strata that is increasingly impoverished.  It lowered the obligatory age for attending school to 16. Instead of real programs intending to close the gap and adequate family support and scholarship system, it pursues policies that are harmful to the poor and encourages segregation in Roma schools.  With these actions it makes it impossible for socially disadvantaged students to continue their education.

In the field of education policy the Hungarian government decreased by 30% the number of students beginning their studies in higher educational institutions, which first and foremost destroys the chances of disadvantaged youth.  It is especially important to state here at the Budapest Corvinus College that the limits placed on the legal, economics and other social studies departments by the Orban government mean only those in exceptional circumstances are to be given the chance to join the economic and political elite.

Through its words and deeds the Hungarian government devalues knowledge and expertise.  Its decisions are made without broad consultation or the involvement of experts, with the exclusion of openness.   Europe must see that the Hungarian government intentionally, deliberately and systematically abandons the values of a democratic Europe and the declared goals of the European Union.

In light of the above, we ask that the European Union more determinedly stand up for its own principles, and take action in every instance when the Hungarian government works against European values.

Translated by Éva Nagy

* * *

A few years ago Tibor Navracsics unabashedly admitted that he faithfully executes all tasks he receives from his superior. Let’s hope that he will be severely constrained if he tries to inject Viktor Orbán’s ideas into the EU’s educational and cultural policies. What is happening in Hungary in these fields goes against everything the European Union stands for.


  1. Golly, I was just reading Szegő’s hilarious statements… Does he already have a TV show on EchoTV? If not, he could co-host with Szaniszló, it would be a huge comedy hit.

    The man just ridiculed himself. I already expressed serious doubts months ago about the Liget Budapest project, but now I’m absolutely certain it will go down the drain. Of course, if the buildings are erected the contractors’ and Fidesz’ pockets will probably be full enough.

    What a disaster.

  2. Koon’s tulips do nothing for me. Ok, they’re inward-looking and maybe there’s a philosophical message there but I’ll be damned if I look at painting to discern their ‘message’. That doesn’t mean I don’t like abstract painting but put an Olga Albizu in front of me.


    As for the letter, who are the brave souls who, after 5 miserable years, have found the courage to stand up and yell out?
    It’s a great letter and should be sent to major papers around the globe.

    Good for those who wrote it: good for those who signed it.

    It’s really time for the Cognoscenti to step up and oppose Orbanorphism.

  3. Marcel: the Liget project has never been about anything else than about filling the pockets via giant projects. There has never been any professional concept about any important issues like why in Budapest and not in the countryise as the French do for example with the new Louvre? Why would anybody flock to see the already existing art works? We don’t have Picassos and other hot artists. Why do we need a House of Hungarian Music when we have anyway 4-5 music venues we can’t fill anyway? Why should we close the popular Kecskemét-based photo museum and move it to the anyway rich Budapest? That meanwhile there have been huge cuts all over the cultural field, that there are dozen rural museums in decline. And so on. This is nothing but another opportunity for grand larceny, always has been.

  4. Culture evaporating.
    NGOs oppressed.
    Education getting worse.
    Debts rising.
    Russian influence suffocating.
    EU hostility critical.
    Student moral low.
    Abuse everywhere.
    But Hungarians are enjoying life.

    Who will turn off the light?

  5. “It’s dark in Hungary, very dark already.”

    What’s the problem? Slip-sliding con-artistry: life in Hungary was ever thus. Look at the streets.
    Has a 3rd rate economy every produced so many late-model cars? And now they will all be paid for by the state (by strong-arming the banks). And people think that supplanting Orban/Fidesz
    is a matter of semantics and political will! Wake up, dorks! You’re country is in the full grip of
    a lawless band who will never give up control: they will suck this country dry first, and then hand it over to the Russians. “Ponyemaj Parusskiy?”

    Wecome to Kafka’s nightmare.

  6. Remember that the strange National Theatre was also designed by an interior decorator! (I always wondered why the maze had only one straight way in and out, i.e. it only looked like a maze, but isn’t – plus it wasn’t watered well in recent years…)

    Interestingly, you get to know people best – and most quickly – if you ask them about modern art – and capital punishment. They immediately sort (themselves) into two categories. But only one category knows, strangely, to which they belong.

    The letter to Barroso: At least the translation was quite good this time, and the letter more or less summed up the situation as is. I wonder who signed it and what will happen to the signatories. Was the original letter given to Barroso in Hungarian? However, as I said before, it probably doesn’t matter either way, as Barroso is a man of weak convictions and on the way out.

  7. Fekete’s art piece is like a two dimensional golden cuckoo clock. You can see this stuff on state fairs on the countryside along with those linen wall covers with pathetic life wisdoms on them. The traditional Hungarian pre-facebook, home made, Coelho stuff. Typical made in china quality plastic art.

    I guess we are not far away from bringing back the”socialist realism”, the official art of the communist era. The Budapest Kunsthalle will be full of pictures like this classic, the “Whistling Conductor”:

    The letter. It’s a great letter. But couldn’t they find a better place to send it to?

  8. Mutt: “You can see this stuff on state fairs on the countryside along with those linen wall covers with pathetic life wisdoms on them.”

    You took the words right out of my mouth.

  9. I am tempted to agree with Minusio on Barroso. He is on his way out and probably all he cares about is making connections for the future (maybe he likes vacationing in Hungary).

  10. “Stupid is as stupid does.” After all most Hungarians deserve Orban or at lest whoever voted for his gang. I think the EU deserves Navracsics. They did nothing to stop the madness, and now Orban again won the round. What did the EU done so far (and stick with), any kind of measures to bring Hungary back from the brink of barbarism under Orban?

  11. @Szabo Tibor

    Indeed, the policy issues you mention make perfect sense. Also, building several institutions so close to each other is a mistake, based in part on the idea that their audiences are somehow shared and hence that a sizable number of the visitors of institution #1 will also visit institution #2 just because it is close – something that has been proven wrong everywhere in Europe. Except for busloads in organized travel, people who visit cultural institutions make their choices on content proximity, not geography.

    But as far as content is concerned, just like with the Băile Tuşnad speech, the mask is off. Call me an incurable optimist, or stubbornly naïve, but I used to hope for an alliance of little sparks, polka dots of intelligence: didn’t József Nagy at Trafó and Julia Fabényi at the Ludwig manage to save these places from the Fidesz backlash? Wasn’t it possible that, within an obviously misconceived grand project, a few good men and women could eventually steer in the directions of cultural ambition and sense, and even if only in part, avoid a total shipwreck?

    I don’t believe it anymore. The collection of moronic nonsense delivered by György Szegő demonstrates that the first stage of the descent into darkness (‘we simply want to get rid of the old guys’) has been achieved, and that the time has come to turn off the lights. Hungarians, welcome back to the ’30s – not the ‘1930s, but the ‘1630s.

  12. Some1, I also now think Hungarians have the government they deserve, including those who did not vote. I like your comment about the EU deserving Navracsics; they indeed did nothing to oppose Fidesz’s doings in Hungary but who cares…

  13. @Eva S. Balogh

    By the way, the image you chose for Jeff Koons is a photograph of… an oil on canvas. You know, a painting, that ‘traditional art form’ with ‘8-10,000 years of tradition’! 🙂

    A good illustration of how little sense Szegő makes.

  14. @Eva S. Balogh: I haven’t seen it yet, but I have a hunch it makes quite an impression. Here it is hanging above the Whitney’s restaurant:

    Oh and moreover, Fekete’s work is ‘mixed media’. Meaning that if Szegő was to follow his own stupid rules, Koons’ piece would be most likely to be shown at the Műcsarnok than Fekete’s . 🙂

  15. “He is on his way out and probably all he cares about is making connections for the future (maybe he likes vacationing in Hungary).”

    It is simplistic to think that there’s no plan behind Barroso’s visit and statement about the 35 billion euro. Plainly, it declared the EU’s good intentions towards the country. If now the country is to be punished by some process or other, the citizens will well know what is at risk…

  16. OT but might interest some people who are interested in the Hungarian language. I found this in Nyelv és Tudomány:

    Sajnos a pogácsát Pista ette meg.
    Sajnos a pogácsát Pista megette.
    Sajnos Pista ette meg a pogácsát.
    Sajnos Pista a pogácsát ette meg.
    Sajnos megette Pista a pogácsát.
    A pogácsát sajnos Pista ette meg.
    A pogácsát sajnos Pista megette.
    Pista sajnos a pogácsát ette meg.

  17. “Sajnos a pogácsát Pista ette meg.
    Sajnos a pogácsát Pista megette.
    Sajnos Pista ette meg a pogácsát.
    Sajnos Pista a pogácsát ette meg.
    Sajnos megette Pista a pogácsát.
    A pogácsát sajnos Pista ette meg.
    A pogácsát sajnos Pista megette.
    Pista sajnos a pogácsát ette meg.”

    This is an excellent demonstration of how difficult it can be to translate some Hungarian texts into English…

  18. #{ sajnos, pogacsat, Pista, ette, meg} = 5

    This gives 5! = 120 opportunities to permute the word order and give various emphatical shades to the same basic meaning.

  19. Thanks. You are probably right. I think it’s also “faktoriell” In Austria. – Long time ago… 🙂

  20. Rasi Orban is getting more and more influential within the government. This is gonna be a dynasty, I tell you.

  21. Not totally OT:

    Gergely Pröhle was (is still?) in Moscow as a member of an “International Congress for large families” (sic!) together with other right wingers like Austria’s FPÖ, France’s Front National (Le Pen’s party) and “Pro Lifers” from the USA – sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church.

    Text (in German) and some funny pictures you can find here:

  22. Eva and gdfxx
    In my point of view tis is an excellent example of the challenges what a Hungarian will face when try to communicate on another language.

    Let me tell you, there are much more challenging ones than English what you may come across, time and again.

  23. OT
    Istvan Lovas a particularly obnoxious pro-regime journalist based in Brussels, one who delights in writing abusive and racist emails in English to any foreign correspondents who dare challenge the Orbanist orthodoxy is one of the 30 who have been given the boot from Magyar Nemzet.

    Previously the regime’s Pravda, something is obviously not quite right behind the Fidesz closed doors.

  24. Regarding the subject, I guess once again we can experience the spineless nature of the Hungarian ‘intellectuals” – there is such amount (of money) what makes your hair to have dandruff – as the proverb states.

    Szegő supposed to be “oppressed” and “censured” by the same communist regime who provided Fekete with leading position from day one he’s got his diploma, yet both of them serve the same ruler and expressing their same belief as a mantra: artist shouldn’t have opinion, their only role to please the populace with whatever the Emperor just find advisable.

    Just today I’ve seen a few of the latest years statues erected in Budapest:

    – and let me tell you kind folks, I’ve been living in the very city during those dreadful “communist” years, and I haven’t seen such amount of kitsch erected for public pleasure during the whole era than in the last years, according to this article alone.

    So far nearly all of the megalomaniac dictators felt that their given duty to “reform” the taste of the general public, as much I remember… However, even Vera Mukhina was an artist by her own right – she is the one with the “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” – as opposed to these…well, better not going into details.

    Again and again the dreadfully unintelligent and illiterate ruler’s personality comes trough, whatever he or his faithful minions touches bear the sign of tasteless inadequacy.

    Nothing but visual pollution and intellectual decay – Orbanistan in short.


    The remarkable feature of language is that you can say anything that can be said in any language in any other language. Only not necessarily in the same number of words.

    No translation is “exact,” but it can always be made closer and closer — with more words.

    But no verbal expression of a thought is exact either. Verbalization is approximation too. (Do I make myself clear?)

    Where Hungarian uses word order and inflections, English uses passives and emphasis markers.

    Sajnos a pogácsát Pista ette meg. Alas, as to the biscuit, it was by Pista that it was eaten.

Sajnos a pogácsát Pista megette. Alas, as to the biscuit, Pista was the one who ate it.

    Sajnos Pista ette meg a pogácsát. Alas it was Pista who ate the biscuit.

Sajnos Pista a pogácsát ette meg. Alas it was the biscuit that Pista ate.

Sajnos megette Pista a pogácsát. Alas what Pista did with the biscuit was eat it.

    A pogácsát sajnos Pista ette meg. As to the biscuit, it was alas Pista who ate it.

A pogácsát sajnos Pista megette. As to the biscuit, Pista alas ate it.

Pista sajnos a pogácsát ette meg. Alas it was the biscuit that Pista ate.

  26. and the Hungarian originals, like all sentences, are themselves polysemous: other construals than the ones I made above are possible for the very same words — but they too are translatable…

  27. but I think 5! is an overestimate: some of the permutations and combinations make no sense even in Hungarian…

  28. D7 Democrat: ” Istvan Lovas a particularly obnoxious pro-regime journalist based in Brussels, one who delights in writing abusive and racist emails in English to any foreign correspondents who dare challenge the Orbanist orthodoxy is one of the 30 who have been given the boot from Magyar Nemzet. ”

    Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy ;-).

  29. I wish it were possible to discuss Hungary and Hungarian in this benign way again, instead of having to focus on the way Orban, Fidik, and generic (sic, not genetic) Hungarian culture is making Hungary regress on the mean and ever meaner…

  30. Stevan Harnad: “Sajnos a pogácsát Pista ette meg. Alas, as to the biscuit, it was by Pista that it was eaten.”

    Translation is a difficult thing. Let’s take the above example. Sajnos is a widely used Hungarian word, alas is not widely used by English speakers. I would prefer the word unfortunately instead. Pista was definitely not eaten. One would infer that the word sajnos refers to the fact that the pogacsa was eaten by Pista and not someone else. So, here is how I would translate this: Unfortunately it was Pista who ate the biscuit. 😉

  31. theestampe: “I like your comment about the EU deserving Navracsics; they indeed did nothing to oppose Fidesz’s doings in Hungary but who cares…”

    What kind of “logic” is that except some desperate hope for cure from above? For the record: as long as only a few Hungarians make serious attempts at changing the regime and the majority chooses to emigrate (to the other EU countries, for instance, which we apparently also “deserve”), to retreat or to support Fidesz or Jobbik outright, stop dreaming about changes that will occur just so. Autocracy called “Hungarian style democracy” you already have, you do not need it from the EU. The EU will not force democracy over you, this is contradiction in terms. Reality is, we learned, that democracy is nothing that the majority of Hungarians intends to put any effort in, and when criticised from outside, people will defend Orban and Hungarian rights not to be a colony even more. That is interpreted as “Hungarian democracy”. What exactly would the EU do in such circumstances and under the current treaties? Force the Hungarian opposition to learn to cooperate? Force people to learn that they have to shape the political process if they wish to live in a democracy? Navracsics in Brussels will be annoying but as the Hungarian government is so skillful in accommodating all sides, he will probably hardly be visible or of any specific harm. So the “punishment” might not be too hard. But in general it would be better not to think in terms of “sin” and romantic “deserved punishment” but to learn to think in more active terms such as objectives, strategies and mobilisation.

  32. @gdfxx I used “alas” instead of “unfortunately” just to cut down on length.

    But whereas “Unfortunately it was Pista who ate the biscuit” on its own translates that one sentence just fine, you’ll find you’re going to have to do some more fancy manoeuvres to contrast that meaning with each of the others. The idea is to give a distinct translation for them all.

    (There’s a sexist joke from Maine: Q: “How’s your wife?” A: “Compared to what?” But “Compared to what” is a good way to express how we convey meaning: It all depends on what the relevant or possible alternative construals are. The approximation needs to be tightened (usually with more words) in order to rule out misconstruals so we end up with the same thing in mind. Language is, after all, mind-reading…)

    And here are some pogacsas (vegan ones, which are the only ones I will touch):

  33. About the word order in Hungarian: it is “semi-free”, because word-endings enable us to change the word order to highlight, indicate focus etc. (some of which are not possible in written English unless you use italics).

    In fact, there are a handful of logical and easily understandable rules behind your example sentences, Eva. 🙂

    I’d never argue that Hungarian is easy to learn, but word order is not more difficult than English.

  34. @Stevan Harnad

    The joke is not sexist (imho), it works perfectly for How’s your husband? too.

    As far as the vegan pogacsa is concerned, I would only eat the ones that are “hamuba su”lt”, which must be the best, because it occurs in almost all Hungarian fairy tales. Also, I would not eat a pogacsa that has stuff in it that I have no clue what it is (kurkuma??).

  35. Oh, and I don’t know what 5! is, but you can’t quite put anything anywhere in the sentence, so if that’s what you have calculated, then it’s a lot fewer.
    Also, not every change will change the meaning, some words can move around and the sentence will still mean the same.

    “Penteken Istvan megette a pogacsat” is practically the same as “Istvan penteken megette a pogacsat.” (Istvan ate the scones on Friday.)


    “Istvan penteken ette meg a pogacsat. ” means “Istvan ate the scones on Friday (and not on Saturday)” Penteken is the focus word, and as such will come before the verb and make the preverb (igekoto) get detached and follow the main verb “ette meg”.

  36. @GDFXX

    Kurkuma is a wonderful Asiatic spice. It is a little like ginger and you find it in most curry mixtures. It provides most of the yellow… [But I hope you know the admonition about eating snow: Don’t eat the yellow…]

    @Cheshire Cat

    5! means 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 = 120

  37. @Stevan:

    Thanks for the translations! I also asked my wife , but she got “ungeduldig” …

    These permutations in word order occur in other languages too, of course, so you can put extra emphasis on some of them.

    And on the topic of pogácsá – I only eat them fresh – when my wife bakes them …

    And she uses Irish butter and Emmental cheese (The original is too expensive, so we buy it in Germany) and only flour from the Tüskeszentpéter mill …

  38. Thanks Minusio!

    Wolfi, what’s this Tuskeszentpeter flour then?

    I bake pogacsa with turo in the dough, and in Britain they say you need Canadian bread flour for yeasty things. The English don’t usually get excited by foreign food, but hot turospogacsa is appreciated by our neighbours (they get out the beer to drink with it).

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