BY En Liang Khong in Opinion | 24 SEP 18
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Issue 198

What is the Art World’s Responsibility in Europe’s Culture Wars?

From Budapest to Liverpool, a resurgent far-right poses a great threat to cultural freedom

BY En Liang Khong in Opinion | 24 SEP 18

One afternoon in April, I visited the apartment of György Lukács in Budapest, where the Hungarian-Jewish philosopher lived from 1945 until his death in 1971. The Marxist theorist’s rooms, which look over the Danube and the city’s Liberty Bridge, now serve as the Lukács Archívum, preserving his books, manuscripts and correspondence for posterity. Or at least they did, until a few days before my arrival. ‘I have something to show you,’ a glum-looking archive researcher said, greeting me at the door with cigarettes, before gesturing at walls of empty shelving. Employees from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences had confiscated Lukács’s papers. They claimed that the manuscripts were being taken for digitization and storage. But, following the removal of Lukács’s statue from a park last year, it is hard not to read darker intentions. Was the disruption of the archive a direct order or the product of the academy’s obsequiousness to the Hungarian government? ‘This is the ersatz version of how to liquidate the archive,’ the librarian told me.

When historians come to examine the current malaise of far-right populisms, what will they make of Europe’s culture wars? In recent months, a blockbuster Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery was denounced as ‘promoting communism’ by Árpád Szakács in Magyar Idok, a right-wing newspaper loyal to the ruling Fidesz party. An article by Zsófia N. Horváth in the same publication also denounced the Hungarian State Opera’s production of Billy Elliot for spreading ‘rampant gay propaganda’, which resulted in the show’s early closure.

The story of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s power-grab – journeying from a student of civil society at Oxford to moulding a popular political platform around xenophobic, homophobic, anti-refugee and Christian-nationalist lines – is not just one of bigotry. It is also about the humbling of a liberal order. In a speech this year, Orbán declared: ‘An era is determined by cultural trends, collective beliefs and social customs. This is now the task we are faced with: we must embed the political system in a cultural era.’ The disturbing implications of those words are easy to miss in Budapest, with its bustling cafes and glorious bath houses. But across Europe, a sense of melancholia, shame and humiliation has become a powerful animating force for far-right mobilization.

At a pro-democracy rally in the 1980s, Orbán – then a long-haired liberal activist  – risked his life by diving in to protect another opposition leader, Gáspár Miklós Tamás, from the truncheons of the communist riot police. One became a right-wing icon, hailed by former advisor to Donald Trump, Stephen K. Bannon, as a ‘hero’; the other, a public intellectual. ‘Not only is Orbán waging a culture war,’ Tamás told me recently, ‘but he is winning it.’ One institution, above all, encapsulates this re-ordering of Hungary’s arts scene. In 2011, a small private society of right-wing artists led by György Fekete, the husband of Orbán’s former spokeswoman, was transformed into a key state organ. The Hungarian Academy of Arts has increasingly monopolized decision-making for state funding and appointments in the cultural sector. It favours artists demonstrating clear national commitment – those who paint vast oils of past Magyar heroes and military victories, say. Fekete’s goal is to ‘counter liberal tendencies in contemporary fine arts’.

In Austria, questions of how culture will fare under the new coalition, comprised of the centre-right People’s Party and the extreme-right Freedom Party, have instilled a profound anxiety within the local art scene. The government’s five-year programme seems anodyne enough, even with its pronouncement that ‘engagement with our common cultural heritage […] contributes significantly to Austria’s sense of identity’. But, at the end of May, the celebrated curator Nicolaus Schafhausen stood down from his post as director of Kunsthalle Wien, arguing that arts programming risked being compromised by the resurgence of nationalist politics. Schafhausen later told frieze: ‘All of us in the cultural institutional context will have to be making these decisions in the coming time. I know where I stand and it’s not on the side of acquiescence and compromise.’

Recently, Germany’s Green Party has been campaigning for the protection of cultural freedoms in response to Europe’s rightward drift. Its open call, titled ‘The Brussels Declaration’, warns of the pressures to the arts brought by the far-right. ‘Art is free, it does not have to please and it must not serve,’ they write. In Germany alone, the increasing popularity of the extreme-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has seen it ever-keener to weigh in on matters of culture. Recently, members of the party have issued a statement describing a piece in Dresden by the Syrian artist Manaf Halbouni –  Monument (2017), a row of stacked buses recalling an improbable barricade witnessed in Aleppo – as an ‘abuse of artistic freedom’. They have also referred to a pro-refugee artwork by the American-Nigerian Olu Oguibe at documenta 14 in Kassel as ‘ideologically polarizing, deformed art’, recalling older fascist language of cultural degeneracy. In Berlin, the Schaubühne theatre has had death threats after staging a play that was critical of the AfD. The party’s MP Marc Jongen has said that he seeks to overthrow the ‘international leftist tendency’ in the German arts and Björn Höcke, a senior member of the AfD, recently decried Germany for ‘having a monument of shame’ – a reference to the Holocaust memorial – in the middle of its capital city and called on his country to be more positive about its past. Further south, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s far-right Lega Nord (Northern League) party, has declared culture to be ‘the strategic asset of our country’.

After the summer’s World Cup frenzy – in which the forces of nationalism seemed at once banal, exhilarating, even transcendent – viewing The List at the UK’s Liverpool Biennial felt like a dark coda. Installed by the Turkish artist Banu Cennetoğlu as a series of public posters, the project – which draws on data compiled by European NGO network UNITED for Intercultural Action – details the names of more than 30,000 people who have died seeking refuge in Europe since 1993. Just a fortnight after the exhibition’s opening, The List was completely ripped from its installation on a wall on Great George Street. Reinstated, it was again torn down weeks later. While the perpetrators, at the time of writing, are unknown, it is not hard to guess at their motives. For her part, Cennetoğlu has decided to leave the project in its ruined state as ‘a manifestation and reminder of this systematic violence exercised against people’. Her suggestion that The List might remain as a counter-monument brought to my mind the artist Horst Hoheisel’s unrealized submission to the 1995 competition calling for a Berlin memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. Blow up the Brandenburg Gate, Hoheisel recommended, and ‘the remaining dust and emptiness would become the Holocaust memorial’. Responding to loss with loss forces us to pay attention: to look the negative in the eye. 

Published in frieze, issue 198, October 2018, with the title ‘Counter-Monument’.

Main image: The List, Liverpool, 2018. Courtesy: Twitter, Joe Anderson

En Liang Khong is senior editor at frieze. His writing on politics and art has been published in Prospect, Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement, Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Statesman, The Daily Telegraph and The New Inquiry. Follow him on Twitter: @en_khong