Péter Esterházy

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.

Culture, censorship, and the Hungarian National Theater

Every time foreign critics claim that the Hungarian media is not entirely free government officials are outraged and immediately ask them to point to just one occasion when censorship was used to prevent the free expression of opinion. Well, from here on the supporters of the Orbán regime can no longer boast about their “tolerance” toward contrary opinions. And it doesn’t have to be political opinion that the regime doesn’t tolerate. It can even be artistic. After all, political dominance in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary seems to be going hand in hand with ascendancy in the cultural sphere.

I covered the ongoing “Kulturkampf” through two events. First, there was the disgraceful charade that took place at the Hungarian National Theater which ensured that the government’s favorite, who considers the National Theater a depository of national values, got the job. More on the subject can be found in the post entitled “Kulturkampf is called ‘Kulturkampf’ in Hungarian too.” A few days later I highlighted another government coup in the field of culture. A right-wing gathering of writers and artists are receiving practically exclusive financial support from the Orbán government. To add insult to injury the government appointed György Fekete, whose commitment to democracy can be seriously questioned, president of this artistic academy. Fekete made it clear that literature and art will have to be in the service of national values. “Echoes of Hungary’s communist past” I called that particular post.

Since the values of the new director of the National Theater, Attila Vidnyánszky, are very close to the heart of the current political leaders, one ought not to be surprised about what happened on Magyar Rádió. Péter Esterházy, the well known Hungarian writer, was asked by the Rádió to contribute once a month to the station’s program called Trend-idők (Trend Times). He was supposed to give advice on cultural events–to call attention to a new book or an exhibition worth visiting. The last time he was the guest of the radio station he suggested a posthumously published volume by Szilárd Rubin, a book by Józsed Keresztesi on Rubin, several exhibitions organized by the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum (Petőfi Literary Museum), and finally he urged people to see the last few productions staged by Róbert Alföldi.

That was too much for the servile leadership of the Hungarian public radio station. Esterházy’s positive assessment of the productions of the Hungarian National Theater under the directorship of Alföldi couldn’t be tolerated. They simply left out his remarks about the theater productions.

Esterházy’s answer was an article that will come out tomorrow in Élet és Irodalom. In it he writes that the last time something like that happened to him was in 1981, in the Kádár regime, but he added that by 1986 he could openly complain about it. “Today I don’t want to live in either 1981 or 1986. I lived in those days once, and it was enough. The Regime of National Cooperation as Kádár-splotch [kádármaszat]; I wouldn’t want to national-cooperate this way.”

This story gives me an opportunity to talk a little bit about the history of the National Theater. A few days ago Attila Vidnyánszky, the incoming director, called the National Theater “a sacred place.” For Alföldi, on the other hand, the National Theater is simply a venue where one can produce good or bad plays. There is, in fact, nothing terribly special about this particular National Theater. There are many “national theaters” in the country: one in Pécs, another in Miskolc, and a third in Szeged, just to mention a few that come to mind.

The theater was originally called Pesti Magyar Színház (Hungarian Theater of Pest) and was supported by the County of Pest. It was called Magyar Színház because all the other theaters in Pest and Buda were German-language theaters. When the theater opened its doors in 1837 Hungarian speakers were in still in the minority, a little over 30% of the combined population of the two cities. Basically Pest and Buda were German cities until the 1880s.

Originally the National Theater (normally called in Hungarian simply “a Nemzeti”) was situated at the corner of Múzeum kőrút and Rákóczi Street, right across from the Hotel Astoria, where it remained until 1908. The company “temporarily” moved into the former Népszínház (Volkstheater) on Blaha Lujza Square, where it stayed until 1963 when there were plans to build a new permanent building to house the National Theater.  Nothing came of it, and for more than thirty years the members of the theater had to move every few years from one building to another. That was the case until the mid-1990s when at last the foundation for a new theater was dug on Erzsébet Square. At this point Viktor Orbán won the election and immediately halted work on the building. He threw out the plans approved by an international jury and everything began from scratch. Months went by as they looked for a different location. The theater was eventually sited in District X close to the Rákóczi Bridge. As for the architect? The new government official in charge of the project without any competition gave the job to the architect who designed his own house, a woman who had never designed a theater before.

According to architects the design is unfortunate. Some ordinary folks find it hideous and bizarre. According to Wikipedia, “the building in its outward appearance gives the notion of a ship that is swaying on the Danube.”

National Theater

I may also add that the building was erected in record time. Just a little over a year. The hurry was dictated by political considerations. Viktor Orbán and Fidesz politicians found it very important to stage the first production, Imre Madách’s play The Tragedy of Man, before the elections. And indeed, it was on March 15, 2002, that the theater opened to the public.

On April 7 Orbán lost the first round of elections and the second one on April 21. The National Theater’s charm wasn’t enough.