From its origin as a hippie-tolerant young people’s party, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz has swung right on just about every issue, including culture. Debate leading up to Sunday’s national elections is focussed on the country’s economic trials, but a strong secondary strain in Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s platform is the cultural politics of what Hungary is, or should be, as a nation.
“We can only build a strong and successful Hungary on Christian and European traditions,” he said in a recent speech. That position, apparently at odds with the inclusive constitution Fidesz passed in 2011, seems to be driving a cultural agenda in which the promotion of a nationalist view of history and the arts trumps free expression.
During its four years in power, Mr. Orban’s government has aggressively built up national institutions of heritage, history and culture, renovating the Liszt Academy and other historic facilities and creating four new research institutes of national history. Some suggest that these institutes, which overlap with existing research entities, are intended to produce historical narratives pleasing to the regime. At least eight new museums are on the horizon for Budapest, including five that the government plans to build in the historic City Park (Városliget) by 2018, as part of a $741-million plan to renovate and rebrand the park as a museum district. All of the museums bring Hungarian achievements to the fore.
The Liget Project at City Park recently launched four architectural competitions, for a combined home for the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Gallery (now housed across the river in the Royal Palace) and museums of Hungarian photography, architecture, ethnography and music. Most of these buildings will rise along a new green promenade from the Square of ‘56 (Otvenhatosok Square), where a giant statue of Stalin was famously pulled down in 1956.
Behind the city’s museum boom is a rough-and-tumble readjustment of power that some see as an alarming centralization of cultural authority. László Baán, the commissioner of the park, is also the director of the nearby Museum of Fine Arts. In late 2011 Mr. Baán was given control of the National Gallery, in a state-directed merger that Gallery director Ferenc Csák condemned as “very unprofessional, anti-democratic and short-sighted.”
Mr. Csák isn’t the only museum director to resign in protest during the Orban years. Just last week, Museum of Applied Arts director Imre Takács left his post after being told that chunks of his collection will be transferred to other museums, including the MFA.
The complex of power centred on Baán and the MFA doesn’t compare, however, to the growing sway of the Hungarian Academy of Arts and its 81-year-old president, Gyorgy Fekete. The Academy was a private group of conservative artists till 2011, when Mr. Orban’s government made it a state institution that has been granted increasing authority over cultural spending and cultural institutions.
The extent of Mr. Fekete’s power became dramatically clear in late 2011, when the Műcsarnok, a major museum of contemporary art, staged What is Hungarian?, billed as “a comprehensive survey of contemporary artistic reflections on this topic.” Mr. Fekete denounced the show as “national blasphemy,” adding that Hungary is “built on Christian culture; there is no need for constant, perpetual provocation.” The government seemed to agree: one month later, Mr. Fekete’s Academy gained control of Műcsarnok. Museum director Gabor Gulyas resigned, saying “the change in the order of operation of the Műcsarnok does not enable me to continue my work independently.”
When Budapest’s historic Vigado concert hall reopened on March 14 after recent renovations, a symbolic key was presented to Mr. Fekete, an act seen by many as confirmation of his position as cultural kingpin.
On March 20, Israel’s Yad Vashem centre for Holocaust research announced that it won’t participate in a symposium on a new Holocaust museum for Budapest, because there has been no “genuine, substantial involvement of the representatives of the Hungarian Jewish community.” That decision may also have something to do with the blunt Christian nationalism coming from Mr. Fekete and Mr. Orban.
Of course, Fidesz doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Its competition on the right includes Jobbik, a strident far-right nationalist party that has made life in Hungary more tenuous for Roma, Jews and others it sees as alien to the “real” Hungary. Jobbik took an unprecedented 12 per cent of parliamentary seats in 2010. Mr. Orban’s cultural nationalism could be a way of softening the party’s support.
“It would be a sad story to get rid of religious belief, national identity, family and even sexual identity,” Mr. Orban told the Telegraph last fall – as if anyone in Hungary were proposing the abolition of all those things. It will be even sadder if a reelected Fidesz continues to promote a narrow nationalist agenda at the expense of free cultural expression.