Beyond the 3 Ts: Promote, Tolerate, Ban – Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary

Cristina Cuevas-Wolf and Isotta Poggi, eds., Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary (Getty Publications, 2018), 160 PP. 

The curators of the Getty Research Institute and The Wende Museum of the Cold War undertook a difficult task with an exhibition in Los Angeles, entitled Promote, Tolerate, Ban – Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary,(Eastern European regimes operating before 1989 were not, in fact, communist states. In my view, even the ‘state socialist’ adjective is inappropriate for the Kádár regime, especially since the mid-1960s, but the now increasingly common term ‘state capitalism’ is not yet accepted in historical discourse. The authors of the volume also rightly point out that they are cautious with the ‘communist’ adjective and generally prefer the more neutral descriptor ‘Kádár regime.’) which was based on Hungarian-related material held by the two museums, and which included photographs and works of fine art reflecting the 1956 revolution, Socialist Realist, and Socialist Modernist works(In the Hungarian art history literature, Socialist Modernism refers not only to architecture, but also to the fact that from the 1960s onwards the system began to increasingly support the slightly geometric stylistic features of pre-war modernism in the fine arts, as Cuevas -Wolf’s text suggests.) supported by the official cultural policy of the era, design objects, advertising posters, as well as avant-garde art. In addition to the texts written by the curators Cristina Cuevas-Wolf and Isotta Poggi, the catalog for this exhibition is supplemented by an introduction by Steven Mansbach, studies by Dávid Fehér, Tibor Valuch, Katalin Cseh-Varga, and a subjective essay by artist and art historian Géza Percneczky, thus covering a wide spectrum of the art of the period under discussion.

cover of exhibition catalogueHowever, the two curator-editors took a double risk: on the one hand, with the mixed nature of the material on display, and on the other hand, with the title. The simultaneous presentation of works located on the autonomous and heteronomous poles of artistic production is usually not without problems, and at least in Hungary it is not very common. The history of Hungarian art after 1989 reveals a sharp contrast between two forms of art:  art that can be related to current Western trends, and more conservative art production, which is more in line with the state cultural policy. As a result, Hungarian art historians and curators sought to represent the Kádár era almost exclusively with western-bound avant-garde or neo-avant-garde art,(There is no consensus in the Hungarian literature on the name of the progressive art of the 1960s and 70s, mainly because the term neo-avant-garde was first used by art critics of one of the state dailies in Hungary as a pejorative adjective, so the artists concerned were much more distant from it for a long time. For the sake of simplicity, in this text I will use the avant-garde concept in the sociological sense of art for different generations of progressive artists as a kind of collective concept.) while former Socialist Realist or non-avant-garde Socialist Modernist art and other visual imprints of the era became increasingly marginalized.

This was natural in a sense, as the post-war avant-garde generation pushed into the background in Hungary was not merely unable to institutionalize – in Hal Foster’s sense(Hal Foster, “What’s Neo about the Neo-Avant-Garde,” October 70 (Autumn, 1994): 5–32.) – the historical avant-garde. Rather, as in most countries of the former Eastern Bloc, the historical avant-garde itself needed a kind of rehabilitation as well. At the same time, the canon of art history was significantly influenced by the long-awaited need to catch up with the West. It is only in recent years that exhibitions have been organized that have begun to interpret avant-garde art no longer alone or in conjunction with the post-conceptual works of the younger generation of artists, but in a mix with non-avant-garde contemporaries.(See for example: Within Frames – The Art of the Sixties in Hungary (1958-1968) in the Hungarian National Gallery (2017/2018) or 1971 – Parallel Nonsynchronism in the Kiscelli Museum (2019).)These exhibitions, on the other hand, sought to nuance the narrative of so called 3 Ts (promote, tolerate, ban; in Hungarian: támogatni, tűrni, tiltani), which also became a leading narrative in the 1990s, and which Cuevas-Wolf and Poggi chose as the title for both the exhibition and the catalog.

In short, 3T means that at the end of a period full of retaliation after 1956, the Kádár regime introduced a cultural policy in the name of alleviation that divided artistic production into three parts: the works it supported, tolerated, or forbade. The art history and exhibition practices following the regime change relied very heavily on this triple logic and—in a rather simplistic way—placed avant-garde artists in the forbidden, or at the very least into the tolerated category. As the most important symbolic capital to be played in the field of art at this time was to demonstrate the pure or opposition position in the former system in addition to proving belonging to the mainstream of Western art, this narrative was welcomed and shared by former avant-garde artists themselves.

However, the 3T categories were never completely stable and they did not essentially apply to persons, but usually to works. The more progressive artists thus fell into one category or another depending on what work they wanted to exhibit or how hostile or tolerant the current political leadership was to Western trends. Moreover, until at least the mid-1980s, state socialism operated a centralized system of supervision and financing that could not be circumvented. Most progressive artists were also members of the main Fine Arts organisations: the Fine Art Fund, or the Union of Fine and Applied Artists, which allowed them to bid for government orders or studios, and there were also those who submitted works for large government purchases.

A volume dealing with a similar topic, also published in 2018—Art in Hungary 1956-1980 – Doublespeak and Beyond—tried to reflect on this set of problems. The editors of the book were trying to stress that the Party wanted to operate a double cultural policy: to present a more conservative and engaged art towards the Soviet Union and a more progressive art for Western Europe and the USA. This recent narrative, with which the editors of the volume wanted to replace or at least nuance the 3T model, was largely met with rejection or silence by the Hungarian professionals, and a significant number of former progressive artists felt offended.

Studies in the volume Promote, Tolerate, Ban also make references to the plasticity of 3T, but since the book is primarily an imprint of the Los Angeles exhibition, it contains little research-based writing and is much narrower in scope, rarely able to go into depth so as to really capture the nature of the political system as well as the relationship of art to that system. True, it is already clear from Steven Mansbach’s introduction that the volume was not primarily intended for readers familiar with Eastern European or Hungarian conditions, as the barely ten-page text, stitched with images, undertakes to describe almost the entire history and art history of the country. To the extent that this is not an easy task, moreover, it tries to summarize in a single page (p. 13) everything that happened between the Second World War and 1956. The second study in the volume, Isotta Poggi’s work, already deals specifically with the 1956 revolution. Poggi is focused primarily on the works on display, which included quite a number of rare pieces, such as deliberately misunderstood propaganda materials and works of art (p. 20) condemning the uprising, which was considered a counter-revolution by the Hungarian party leadership until 1989 and such pieces that were hardly ever on display in Hungarian museums.

Cristina Cuevas-Wolf’s text is the longest study in the volume, and its introduction deals with the operation of the system described by 3T, however a more detailed presentation of the mechanism of operation of the system of art institutions is missing here as well. The author perspicaciously connects the history of Hungarian art in the 1960s and 1970s with international developments and various reforms of the period. At the same time, Cuevas-Wolf tries to nuance the 3T mechanism by emphasizing that Kádár’s cultural policy and its chief rapporteur, György Aczél, sought to build a kind of gray zone and, in return for concessions, tried to persuade the intellectuals and the artistic elite to cooperate. However, consolidation also meant economic reforms and rising living standards, as well as a somewhat freer market and products that could be bought, which, in due course led to the development of ‘consumer socialism’ (p. 38). Cuevas-Wolf’s study deals with this topic in detail, placing great emphasis on how the regime has tried to ideologically influence citizens through modern objects and architecture. However, she does not address one very important fact: that this strategy was in fact a strategy borrowed from capitalism.(The manipulation of the masses with the symbols of consumption and accumulation did indeed characterize the Kádár regime, but this kind of manipulation is not exactly a defining specificity of socialism. Nor are urban modernization projects carried out in a hasty and sloppy way specific to socialist societies.)

Cuevas-Wolf also tries to stay more or less within the limits of the exhibited material, and although the exhibition certainly benefited from a relatively detailed treatment of non-avant-garde art production, some names and events highly regarded within the canon of Hungarian art history are left out of the text.(Like the largest exhibition of the sixties, the 1968 IPARTERV and the many artists exhibiting there.) The essay makes references to certain banned exhibitions, but does not mention specific cases and does not, in principle, make it clear in which period of the Kádár era specific artworks were considered prohibited or even acceptable.(Here, the limitations arising from the fact that the author relied only on texts available in English are obvious. A more detailed discussion of such an event could have revealed that the various prohibitions and acts of censorship were often caused at least as much by tensions within the field of art as by external political circumstances. Furthermore, it would have been good to cite at least one official document on 3T, as it would have revealed how difficult these categories were to interpret and often depended only on the bureaucracy in office as to what was still acceptable or issuable. Perhaps the best example of such an official document would be the one adopted and endorsed by IX. Congress of the MSZMP (Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party) in 1966 as follows: “We support socialist and other humanist works for the masses, allow politically, ideologically non-hostile aspirations, but exclude politically hostile, anti-humanist or morally offensive people from our cultural life.”) In the first half of the 1960s, even the exhibition of abstract art may have run into problems, but later only in very rare cases. Moreover, in the 1970s the abstract painters who were even banned in the early 1960s could safely exhibit even in Western Europe. Instead, from the 1970s onwards, the system was hostile to conceptualism and action-based art, but in some cases (especially in smaller exhibitions away from the capital) it also tolerated it.(However this also changed in the early 1980s. At the Tendencies (1980-81) exhibition series (which was organised by the Union of Fine and Applied Artists) not just the conceptual art was presented but the former extreemly marginalised artists as Tamás Szentjóby for example, who actually emigrated to the West in the 1970s. See Kristóf Nagy, “Whose Land, Their Art? Debates over the Tendencies Exhibition Series (1980–81),” ARTMargins Online, October 19, 2020.) However, it was less tolerant of (new) left-wing discourse or criticism from within, just as it was less tolerant of sociologically based art, as the Kádár regime did not very much acknowledge the poverty that naturally existed in the country.

Cuevas-Wolf reflects on the latter through the photography of Péter Korniss (p. 45), but also mentions writers like Miklós Haraszti, who introduced a very sharp socialist critique of a system that also called itself ‘socialist’ by presenting the everyday life of a Budapest tractor factory (p. 47). Hungary, led by Kádár, was much less a workers’ state than the regime proclaimed itself to be. Moreover, Haraszti (who was sentenced to a suspended prison sentence) stated in a later interview that the slap he received from the arriving police officers at the closing of the Balatonboglár chapel exhibitions (one of the most important meeting and exhibiting place for underground artists in the period) in 1973 was the last slap handed out to an artist of intellectual origin.(Gergely Laki and Dániel Horváth, “Szennyhullám #1: Magyar punkmozaik ’78-’84” (“A Flood of Squalour #1 Hungarian Punk Mosaic ’78 -84”), Partizán DOKU, September 25, 2020, In doing so, he suggested that the system, which professed the principle of a classless society, was in fact (and especially since the 1970s) much tougher on those who were of working-class descent and had a less privileged background. It is therefore very commendable that Cuevas-Wolf also includes Haraszti and the issue of left-wing criticism in the text, but it is also unfortunate that she stops at this point. Her study deals with the 1970s relatively briefly and the 1980s in only a few sentences. In fact, the catalog as a whole, despite its title, discusses Hungarian art and cultural production only within the context of 1956 and chronologically only within the 1960s and the 1970s. However, the art of the last decade of the Kádár regime is only very incompletely elaborated in the Hungarian literature. It is no coincidence that the volume Doublespeak and Beyond did not undertake to present it either.

Compared to Cuevas-Wolf’s text, which makes an attempt to summarize the art of the era, Dávid Fehér’s and Katalin Cseh-Varga’s essays are focused on more specific details and some important tendencies of the era. Dávid Fehér’s essay discusses the topic already covered by Cuevas-Wolf in greater detail, examining how avant-garde artists were able to assert themselves in applied arts, and how they were able to smuggle abstract and pop-art style traits into, for example, poster art, whereas it could rarely have been possible in high art. Through the example of Gábor Attalai, he effectively illustrates how an artist could be a forbidden or tolerated artist and a supported applied artist at the same time (p. 58). With his attitudes, Fehér also fits into the exhibited material, but in his study he already opens up a much wider perspective for the artists who were not presented there.

Similarly, Katalin Cseh-Varga focuses on conceptual photography and event-based art in her study, and how this art was interpreted by the political power, through secret agents who monitored art events. Her essay contains a particularly remarkable passage in which Cseh-Varga shows how agents who did not understand art interpreted an artistic event, and how an agent who himself was an artist considered it completely harmless (p. 86). In this very exciting study, the author—confronting the current canon of art history to some extent—tries to argue that progressive artists in the 1960s and 1970s were much more ‘aesthetic innovators’ than ‘heroic fighters against authoritarianism’ and that they were not essentially against political repression but rather fought the visual oppression of the regime (p. 84). The last text, written by art historian and conceptual artist Géza Pernczky, is more a personal recollection than a study that deals mostly with the mail art movement so important to Eastern Europe. With this text, and especially with the last sentence, it would be difficult to find a better example of the desire to belong to the West, and at the same time that of the ‘Western complex,’ which permeated Perneczky’s generation and post-regime Hungarian society so strongly: “I have finally arrived in the West” (p. 109).(Moreover, Hungarian society is indeed characterized by a high degree of desire to belong to the West, but perhaps the fall of the illusion of economic catching up with the West has caused a rupture that explains current political conditions to some extent.)

At the same time, Perneczky’s statement perfectly supports the dominant Western narrative about the art and artists of the former Eastern bloc, which is also strongly supported by this book otherwise written with great sympathy to Hungarian art. It is obvious that the two curator-editors worked with a given collection of material and organized a lovable and noteworthy exhibition, given their possibilities. The catalog Promote, Tolerate, Ban is also a commendable work as a whole, and despite its shortcomings, it presents a relatively good picture of Hungarian art of the 1960s and 1970s. But the book is unlikely to be part of scholarly discourse on the subject, as it contains few research-based texts or original statements. Compared to the scope of the volume, the 3T system is relatively well presented, but there is still plenty to nuance on this topic, and the mechanisms of the art system cannot be interpreted without presenting the operation of the art institutional system. Although Cuevas-Wolf tries to emphasize the unique nature of Hungarian art and culture (p. 51), due to the framework of the exhibited material, several related works and artists were omitted from the presentation, which could have better supported her argument. Moreover, as Piotr Piotrowski writes, if we look at the art of Eastern or Central and Eastern Europe not as the periphery of the West, but as the margin, it can reveal elements that are invisible from the perspective of the center.(Piotr Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945­–89 (London: Reaktion, 2009), 29.) However, the exhibition and the volume have consistently omitted these possibilities.

Júliusz Huth
Júliusz Huth is a Budapest-based art historian. He graduated in 2016 from Eötvös Loránd University with an MA in Art History and is currently a PhD candidate at the Art History program of the Doctoral School of Philosophy. He is also active as an art critic, and he is publishing articles in different online and offline magazines. His research engages with the history of the infrastructure of visual- and contemporary art in Hungary from the mid’ 80s to the early 2000s. In his dissertation he focuses on the 1989 political and economic changes, their effects on the visual art field, and especially on the so called Salon-debates of the 90s: the conflicts between the official art association of the former era, the Hungarian Union of Fine and Applied Artists, and the most prestigious exhibition space for contemporary art, the Budapest Kunsthalle.