Art Guide East

Why Budapest is a city of copies, of paraphrases and an essentially eclectic concentration. By József Készman

As an Eastern European metropolis, Budapest experienced its heyday during the fin de siecle and, in their heart of hearts, many of its residents would prefer to still live in that period. Thanks to nostalgia and a peculiar relationship to the past, Budapest is a city of copies, of paraphrases, an essentially eclectic concentration. It is a city that seeks to find its identity in the past and is nevertheless blind to its own microcosm and unable to shape it consciously. The cityscape, defined by historicization, Art Nouveau and eclecticism, is host to important modernist initiatives. Similarly indelible is the mark of decades of Socialism, of Socialist realism, the mediocre reinforced-concrete architecture, the sprawling housing estates and industrial plants. This strange fabric provides a spectacular backdrop: the Hungarian capital has served as the set for many world famous films. The oversized centre of what was once »the most cheerful barrack« in the Soviet camp, used to offer a number of alternative scenes and lifestyles for its city dwellers (music clubs, like Black Hole, which were unique in Socialist countries), but it barely seems original now in a global context.

The annual Sziget Festival is nonetheless the largest popular music event in Central and Eastern Europe. A few figures, if you please. The largest professional association of Hungarian creative artists, MAOE, has 7.000 visual artist members, 200 to 300 of whom belong to the contemporary scene. 60 to 80 of the latter can claim to produce art that makes a contribution to the contemporary discourse, but only eight or nine can lay claim to international renown.

What is the reason? Literature and music were always more dominant than the visual arts in Hungarian education and culture, and this is true of the contemporary milieu as well. The visual arts are not very present in the public mind, and its makers are barely unified in their vision of its position. For decades, artists were cut off from the chance to network, to inform themselves about current problems and theoretical issues. Contemporary Hungarian art has been characterized by a craving for information, an eagerness to comply with Western standards, a compulsive desire to be avant-garde, thanks perhaps to an unacknowledged set of values, and an outlook in which conceptualism is considered the apex of art. The opinion-makers of the art scene exert their influence through printed and electronic media (Balkon, Új Müvészet, Praesens, Artmagazin, Műértő, and the online magazine exindex). The most important institutions for contemporary art in Budapest are Műcsarnok (Kunsthalle), Ludwig Múzeum – Museum of Contemporary Art, the Stúdió Galéria (run by F.K.S.E. – Association of Young Fine Artists), Trafó, the ICA-D (which may be in Dunaújváros, 60 kilometres away, but is certainly still within the capital’s sphere of influence), and a number of for-profit exhibition spaces and private galleries. 

Before the political transition in 1989, the commissions and regular purchases of the paternalist state provided artists with a livelihood. What succeeded state patronage, namely the present system of competitions and grants, is unable to sustain the scene itself. There is little method in the support offered to culture; what is given is distributed inefficiently, and no government to date has come up with a strategic concept to settle the issue. There are uncovered areas, and artistic production itself has changed in character. Works are very often projects, processes that branch into any number of directions, and often have the profundity of academic research. After the transition, a tradition was revived which had been in suspended animation for forty years: art collecting. At present, about fifty galleries in this city of two million deal with contemporary art. Only five or six of them, however, can lay claim to professionalism or international repute. Restricted as the market is, it is the area where the most dynamic development is to be expected and in fact a new style, technorealism, already owes its success to these galleries. Most of those active on the Budapest scene seem to live in a state of expectation, in hope that a curator may emerge, a god who will save them and give them their place on the map of world art – as a city that is looking for its place in the region. The way out is cooperation, based on an active dialogue and made possible by artist-in-residence programs and grants. True inspiration may come from the new generations, who, if they circumvent the wrong questions posed by their predecessors, may overcome compulsions and constraints and establish natural links with the universal discourse concerning contemporary art.

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