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.

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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. @Wolfi: “And on the topic of pogácsá – I only eat them fresh – when my wife bakes them … And she uses Irish butter and Emmental cheese”

    I apologize for being unable to respond light-heartedly.

    The reason I specified vegan pogácsá was because I don’t want to quip glibly about something that causes indescribable suffering to countless innocent, helpless creatures, completely needlessly, just for the pleasures of my palate.

    I don’t obtrude my moral metric in this Forum because it is OT, but whenever a casual remark is made that is unwittingly predicated on animal agony, I feel that it would be as wrong of me to pass over it in polite silence as if it were pre-abolition jests about slaves in livery serving at table.

    I often reflect that the wrongs we deplore in Hungary here are as peccadillos to the unpardonable horrors most of us collaborate in imposing, needlessly, on animals:

  2. “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”

    Kirsten you are totally right when you say that.

    However, there are some specific democratic criteria that future member states need to demonstrate before they become members. Just 6 weeks after Orban landed in power in 2010, Hungary would have failed the accession criteria. And the fact that the EU have not been able to come up with any significant measures to address it, is disappointing. Especially when you know it’s partly because the EPP need Orban to strengthen them.

    This ALDE attempt to discuss the NGO palaver at the E Parliament and the EPP voting against just bringing it up (!) it is also disappointing.

    By the way, you know that the ALDE group is now lead by Olli Rehn, the Finnish politician who used to be the economic and financial affairs commissioner in Barroso’s commission. He has always seemed pretty disgusted by Orban’s “values”.

  3. CC, there are probably many more people in the European institutions that are very disgusted with Orban. The crux is the many problems, current and structural, of the EU, which make it very difficult to actually do something more forceful. For Hungary to be top priority, other issues such as the euro, the banks, the unemployment, the refugees/migrants, Russia, Ukraine, Scotland, UK, Catalonia, the budget for the next years, energy issues and so forth would have to be solved, or at least there should be some relief. Institutional reform of the kind that Brussels will not only tell you how to hoover but also check whether your voting system is according to “norm” cannot be attempted currently. This is how it is, but there is just no use in telling people (in Hungary) that they “deserve” Orban or that the EU “deserves” Navracsics. It is more to the point to think within the EU what could be done about Hungary without strong institutional reform. But to be meaningful that needs the support of people in Hungary, which is why it is also to the point to think what can be done in Hungary. I am simply opposed to this shiftless statement “at least they get what they deserve”. That does not change anything in any case. The other option could (at least in principle) have some more positive outcome.

  4. Kirsten: The EU will not force democracy over you, this is contradiction in terms. (…) What exactly would the EU do in such circumstances and under the current treaties?

    At the institutional level, options have already been made clear last year in the Tavares report: Article 2 Alarm, Trilogue, Copenhagen Commission, EU-FRA, Article 7. Some would require modifying the treaties, other wouldn’t. However, all require a wide majority either in the Council, the Parliament or both – i.e., a strong common political will to monitor fundamental rights in all member States (not just Hungary).

    There is no contradiction here. The treaties signed by Hungary include the respect for fundamental rights. This Gov’t is suspected of trampling upon those rights: they should be held accountable, and if proven deficient sanctioned until they comply – or leave the Union.

    Kirsten: Force people to learn that they have to shape the political process if they wish to live in a democracy?

    The current powerlessness of the EU on the subject of fundamental rights is the surest way to make even more people (if possible) think they cannot shape the political process anyway. For fundamental rights are a preamble to that process in a democracy: English Bill of Rights, [beginning of the] U.S. Constitution, French Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen… it all starts here.

    Again, it’s not only about Hungary. For instance, European countries are facing as we speak a diffuse yet pervasive and unprecedented menace of terrorist acts on their soil. Legislators throughout the continent are adopting new laws that will certainly amputate part of those rights – it is of the utmost importance that the majorities who consent to those amputations remain vigilant as to their temporary nature and their specific aim; it is furthermore necessary (including for efficiency purposes) that all member states cooperate on the subject – which can only be fully achieved if they commit to a higher common standard.

  5. Marcel Dé: “The treaties signed by Hungary include the respect for fundamental rights. This Gov’t is suspected of trampling upon those rights: they should be held accountable, and if proven deficient sanctioned until they comply – or leave the Union.”

    I agree in principle, but then comes the political process with all its compromises that keep the EU working. Hungary can sign a lot but you need tools and be willing to employ them to enforce what was signed. Some member states are reluctant to do what could (in principle) be done, and this is what makes Orban (and Putin) believe the EU politicians are all so “weak”. But the main point is which options are available to restrain Orban. The EU is available but it cannot replace own efforts by the Hungarians, it can aid the process (you cannot meaningfully from Brussels staff for the Hungarians a new government, a new Kuria, new journalists etc. unless you indeed treat them as a protectorate). The domestic part has to be supplied. I am repeating the same argument over and over. As you have perhaps already found out, I am not in favour of meting out punishments, I prefer more constructive and (in current circumstances) realistic options.

  6. Hmmm…

    @Stevan Harnad

    I really hate to be the one to break the news, but I think you need to know, sooner or later anyway: neither butter nor the cheese manufacturing imposes “indescribable suffering to countless innocent, helpless creatures, completely needlessly”, just for the pleasures of your palate, my plate or our plate.
    Cheese and butter made of milk, and getting the milk doesn’t impose suffering to the animals in question. You don’t have to harm a cow to get some milk, believe me.
    Au contraire, cows tend to suffer when they haven’t get milked regularly – due to the accumulated amount of milk in their udder what can cause pain. I guess it’s largely true even in case of sheep, goats, etc. too.

    By the other hand the industrial scale of farming can cause suffering to our fellow creatures., I am completely aware of that, but then again, one can make a choice by supporting small producers – but this is a different question altogether.

    So, in my opinion you can eat your scones – well, these aren’t biscuits, you see – without the slightest remorse, regarding animal rights.

    Came to think to: how about those innocent vegetables which gets slaughtered just for the pleasures of your plate?
    I mean, come on, cucumbers get chopped while bleeding silently, carrots and turnips uprooted while will continue living, not to mention the horrors of salads, the sprouts and tender leaves, and the list just too long..!
    Doesn’t “baby spinach” sounds to you rather “vegophil” little?
    You see, according to the true principles you only supposed to eat fallen fruits – in case if you ignoring the right of the tree’s to spread their seeds at will and multiply, that is.

    They are all living too, you know, and they are all the victims of your appetite..!

    Mine too, but – oh, horror! – I even eat scones with cheese on the top, or whatever I find healthy, or simply in the mood, because I am an all-eater by design.
    Bad luck, I know, but I can live with my conscience for the time being, however.

    Bon appetite!

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