Interview with Gábor Andrási (Interview)

Gábor Andrási. Image courtesy of the author.Gábor Andrási is an art historian and editor-in-chief of the Hungarian contemporary art monthly, M?ért?. From 1981 to 2007 he was curator of CAA, during which time he put on 300 exhibitions at two non-profit spaces in Budapest (Óbudai Társaskör Galéria & Óbudai Pincegaléria). Since 2007 he has been chief curator at Kassák Museum, Budapest.  He is also a research fellow at the Research Institute for Art History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and has authors numerous publications on classical and avant-garde art, modernism and contemporary art, as well as the local and international art scene.

Edit András: For the past ten years you have been the editor-in-chief of a leading art periodical that is unique in the Hungarian market. Unlike other art papers, M?ért? (the Hungarian Art Connoisseur) sustains itself exclusively from advertisements and from the income of sold copies; it does not apply for state funding. M?ért? surveys the art scene on a regular basis, consciously detecting its position, and shedding light on its sore spots. Now, I would like to survey the scene with you from different aspects, and give an overview of the structure of the local art scene, its main concerns, trends, and the most pertinent issues.

As we approached prominent art historians and critics, asking them to provide us with essays focusing on contemporary Hungarian art for the present issue of ARTMargins, we could not help noticing that almost all the authors ended up dealing with questions of political art, in one way or another—as you call it, subversive art practice, critical art, participatory or community art projects. We have only broadly instructed them to write about issues that are the most exciting for them at the moment.Of course, we cannot deny that we have selected these authors from a specific, small pool; those who we think are knowledgeable of current issues, discourses and events, and who are sensitive of critical practices and have certain reflexivity. However, it is still astonishing that almost all of them are buzzing around the same issue, that is, politics. Do you think this means that political art is in the very focus of the scene at this moment?

Gábor Andrási: The question is what we mean by “the” scene. If we mean the circle of artists open to and aware of the prevailing international discourse, together with the institutions accommodating them, then a strengthening and broadening trend is indeed perceivable. But in fact, this trend seems so strong only from the perspective of the specific pool the authors from which the present issue has been drawn. With respect to the entire Hungarian scene, this is no more than one of many segments-mostly regarded with scepticism and doubt, addressed with sarcastic remarks, qualified as import, fashion, a phenomenon outside the sphere of Art.

Political art (and art dealing with politics altogether) was discredited by the previous regime; initially, even the neo-avant-garde stood up against the state-endorsed art infused with official ideology in the name of the autonomy of art; that is, an autonomy of creative, new forms of art. Likewise, the hardcore political, taboo-breaking and openly confrontational trend was only a narrow segment of the 60s-70s avant-garde. Political-artistic activism is just a similarly narrow, although undoubtedly significant, sub-segment within the “discourse-sensitive” segment of Hungarian art. Its risks, as well as its importance and value, will be raised by the changing conditions and the ever more radical political climate in Hungary.

EA: Do you think that the shift in focus has to do with the two-thirds majority of the right wing in the newly elected Hungarian parliament, and that 17% of the votes were given to the extreme right? A day after his inauguration, the Hungarian prime minister addressed the scene by declaring the need for a “right wing culture.” For the modern right wing, traditional Hungarian Christian culture from before 1945 is not enough anymore. There is now a need for a new, modern culture that would contain the old one. Hungarian right wing culture should be invigorated with art works, awards, celebrations. At the same time, the newly appointed deputy secretary of the Ministry of National Resources initiated a cultural campaign in quest of the relatives, the genetic roots and blood relations of the Hungarian nation.

GA: One can only hope that-if it has to be said-this stays at the level of rhetoric and will never make it into an actual cultural-political action plan. For that matter, anything that has been engendered in the course of the twentieth century by such initiatives of an authoritative “cultural will” (the mid-war cultural policy, and the official art of the Soviet-type regime) has not only been harmfully divisive “in situ,” but seems rather problematic even in a historical context. According to some professionally justified opinions, neither the illustrative ecclesiastical decorations of the Horthy era, nor agitating social realism belong in the sphere of art, these being instances of pseudo-art and non-art. Of course, I’m aware that when the goal is to create a community on an ideological basis, or to form a specific political identity, such considerations are well out of sight. Then again, it feels right to believe in what the acclaimed writer Géza Ottlik has asserted, namely that beyond the prevailing statehood, president, parliament, and authority, there exists “another, intellectual Hungary,” whose map “has always remained untouchable and intact.”

EA: There is a new rupture taking shape in the scene, a widening gap between artists who are eagerly trying tosatisfy consumers and those who are seeking alternative, socially critical or collective, more participatory practices of art production. I assume the appetite of the nouveau riche collectors has been an important factor in the prosperity of the genre of painting, by stimulating private galleries and urging even freshly graduated students to paint.

GA: I have already expounded my opinion about the provincial trend of conservative depictive representation in painting, which alludes to the “classical tradition.”(Gábor Andrási, “Deep Sea Fish,” Documenta 12 Magazines, 2007.  I think this trend is now receding in the Hungarian scene; the market seems to be saturated and to preserve the collectors’ appetite it produces ever more extreme and bombastic offshoots: sexist soft-porn, diva-type “women’s art,” cyber-surrealism, et cetera. Nevertheless, instead of socially conscious contemporary art, or even contemporary art as such, it is the very recent past, promoted into a commercial factor, which is filling up the vacuum.

There is, of course, a difference in principles as you have mentioned, but as an issue it only concerns the most well informed, almost subcultural professional public and a narrow circle of artists. In the meantime, the caravan of the art industry has taken a different path: towards perfecting the consumer system and–for the sake of expanding the product range–the productions of the past have been transformed to a common denominator, whereby the past is deactivated and reconciled.

EA: Nowadays, we are witnessing a world-wide retro-wave-a kind of nostalgic longing for the sixties and seventies-and this retro-wave has reached the post-socialist countries as well. Do you think that this can have some kind of escapist attitude locally, as if it were preferable to look back into the “glorious” past rather than into the uncertain future? Huge retrospective shows are dedicated to the heroic times; in Bratislava, a big show has analysed the work of Július Koller, and a big exhibition dedicated to Tamás Stauby has just closed in Karlsruhe, clearly reflecting the huge international success of his reconstructed film, Centaur (1973–75, reconstruction made possible by ACAX), earlier shown at the Istanbul Biennial (2009).

There certainly is an escapist undercurrent, but it is still precisely the intellectually most valuable and successful exhibitions that are capable of a subtle and complex representation of the past. Perhaps they make use of the retro fashion as a marketing strategy, but the final result transcends the socialist nostalgia just as much as the undifferentiated rejection of the past regime (existence as a whole in the past regime). The Koller exhibition’s selection, for instance, even included those works of the avant-garde master that he made according to the requirements of Dielo, the Czechoslovakian state-owned art dealing company. This has not only exposed all dimensions of the era in their entirety, but also raised the question: is it possible to conceive of the official Socialist culture and of its counterculture as separate entities? However, if a retrospective show lacks such critical and re-evaluative potential, there is a chance that it might nurture nostalgic feelings.

EA: Featuring Andreas Fogarasi, an artist of Hungarian origin living in Vienna, the Hungarian pavilion (curated by Katalin Tímár) was awarded the Golden Lion for the best national pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. The show comprised Fogarasi’s videos of the decaying and abandoned socialist houses of culture. One could say that memory work engaging the Socialist past, denied for almost twenty years, started with his works. Furthermore,  this memory process experienced a boom in the last few years, with exhibitions like the big retrospective of the Socialist-era Béla Balázs Studio of independent filmmakers curated by Lívia Páldi in M?csarnok (Kunsthalle), as well as the exhibition of Amerigo Tot, a Hungarian emigrant artist who only got recognition in his home country in the late, soft Kádár-era. The show in Ludwig Museum Budapest, curated by József Mélyi, concentrated not on the aesthetic nature of the oeuvre, but rather on the mechanism and power relations of the local art world, on the subtle operation of political interests which were unveiled in this exhibition. After a long period of collective amnesia, where do you think the elaboration and analyses of the past are proceeding?

GA: Interest on the part of curators and historians can be considered a first step. In these cases the medium of exhibition and the institutional system of art has been employed for the analysis and exposition of (art) political problems, which go well beyond the mere aesthetic dimensions of visual or cinematic art. The question is whether the “public” wants to remember, whether they wish to and can overcome the black-and-white duality of nostalgia and/or rejection. The current processes have a different tendency: fabulous-mythical mind-bending history substitutes are being mass produced along with non-binding promises for the future. The reactions of the “professionals” have also been divided; besides those who have enthusiastically welcomed the start of the unveiling of the past (ever so “innocent,” packaged in art), there have been others who were protesting the fact that artists and artworks had been used and exploited “outside the sphere of art;” as a matter of fact, they wish to restrict the expanding spheres of contextualisation, which are posing an increasing danger to those in favour of amnesia.

EA: The 1990s were about body politics and identity issues, among them gender issues, something that had been totally off the radar screen in earlier times. In 1995 we collaborated on a year-long exhibition series dedicated to woman artists whose number had rapidly grown after the political changes. I assume it was one of the results of this exhibition series that in 1997 the Venice Biennial championed three woman artists in the Hungarian pavilion, which had never happened before in relation to a country, or a scene, that profoundly and proudly denied even the relevance of gender related problems, regarding them as something irrelevant that was merely imposed from outside.

GA: The issue of identities and minorities is an urgent social problem of such scale that raising awareness of it and managing it politically in a progressive and empathic manner exceeds the power of contemporary art, which can, nevertheless, play a role in its thematization and in the exposition of various sub-problems. In his “Optimistic Lecture” (1981) Miklós Erdély contemplated the “agency of the artist” and argued that “whatever man can accomplish with his limited resources, he should do without delay.” So, although I would not say that art dealing with the issues you have mentioned represents a decisive force in Hungary, it is present mainly in such non-profit small and medium galleries as Trafó, Liget, and Central in Budapest, or the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA-D) in Dunaújváros. However, it has also emerged in the program of M?csarnok (Kunsthalle) and the Museum of Ethnography.

The situation is similar in criticism and art history: issue-based interpretations (including gender discourse) are present, although not in an institutionalized, form. Rather they arise from personal, independent mindsets. Before I end up painting an excessively idyllic picture in this respect, let me be clear that these “presences” can most of all be felt by the socially conscious segment of the contemporary art scene. On a larger scale, identity first of all prevails in the Hungarian public sphere as an issue of national consciousness.

EA: As for the institutional changes that have occurred in the Hungarian art world since 1989, we are witnessing a generational change. The last couple of years have brought a new curatorial policy in the main institutions, such as the Ludwig Museum and Kunsthalle. The Museum of Fine Arts has a privileged financial position among the fellow museums and venues. This museum follows the populist policy of huge blockbuster shows at a time when in the international context the tendency is just the opposite; that is, the emphasis is placed once again on professionalism in curatorial work. Expansionism, both in a physical and an administrative sense, ruffles feathers in the entire art world at a time when independent, alternative institutions are struggling for survival.

The beauty of the Hungarian institutional “landscape” is marred not only by the expansionism of the Museum of Fine Arts, but also by the traditional narrow-mindedness of the players and the unfriendly legal environment, in which twenty years after the political transformation-that is to say, a capitalist environment–statism and protectionism still prevail. Instead of involving new private resources, there is still a sometimes civilized, sometimes merciless lobby for snatching up public funds. There is a need for a more comprehensive strategy throughout the art industry, a strategy that goes beyond pushing around staff and giving away scanty state resources with short-term interests in mind; one based on the pragmatic realization that in the art world the production-consumption pyramid (from auction prices in the millions to the sale of exhibition tickets and to the housewife sticking a Van Gogh magnet on her fridge) is a single, and essentially profitable, structure. Instead of its development, the cultural policy of Hungary gives special treatment and support to the blockbuster shows at the Museum of Fine Arts, and, in a more or less pronounced way, sets this as a standard for other institutions with incomparably humbler capacities.

This approach, which makes a fetish of media presence and visitor numbers and which is based on the marketing of names, gives rise to considerable frustration among museologists and art historians, triggering antagonistic reactions: the emphasising of the scientific role as opposed to the public educational function. Of course we regard the problem of “flagships” independent of its context-even given that its polarizing role is difficult to deny-we might come to the realization that it is definitely better if a museum is being visited by more people (preferably masses) than less.

There is a new phenomenon in Hungary, the emergence of ambitious, young curators on the scene, mostly women, educated in international schools. Responding to the boom of interest towards contemporary art and related curatorial work, new courses and programs were launched in different institutions, art history departments and art universities. Can we say that art history writing through exhibitions is about to get started?

I am certain that art history can be “written” by curatorial work and organising exhibitions, as well. This possibility is not new, and I sympathize with it, as in more than twenty seven years as curator at the Óbudai Társaskör Gallery I have arranged hundreds of non-profit contemporary and modern exhibitions that “explored values”. Another thing is also certain, however; namely, that only those curatorial endeavors became reference matter (I am thinking of shows such as 101 Objects, Forms of Thought, or Water Ordeal) that were accompanied by a well thought-out and concept and a “traditional”, written art historical publication (catalogue or essay).

EA: Private art collectors are the newcomers in the Hungarian art world and they are gaining more weight, at least this is suggested by exhibitions thathave been put together from the selection of private art collections in the Kunsthalle. A related anomaly is that Kogart, a privately owned art collection and art venue, has received state money and sponsorship for its acquisitions, while, once again, alternative and experimental venues are struggling for survival, and state museums are agonizing on extremely low budgets, with which they cannot afford new acquisitions. The private sector, mostly auction houses, is pushing itself into the publishing business as well, so the new canon is saturated with business interests.

The increasing expansion of the private sector seems unavoidable, as today the dominant context of art (art production) is business, commercial value. Apart from artworks and exhibitions, thoughts that claim public attention-including beautiful, glamorous, as well as subversive thoughts-seek and find customers on the market. Compared to the volume of redistributable public funds expendable on cultural policy, there is unfathomable potential in private capital, which has just begun gaining ground, entailing the severe, nauseating anomalies of all beginnings. What is unusual is not that market players and private initiatives are also aspiring to receive public funds (this is part of an international tradition and works with established methods), but that the Hungarian protectionist practice does not come with any concept or long-term strategy.

In any case, investors have recognized the opportunities that lie in the art industry sooner than our politicians, who merely use the image-forming power of culture for personality-marketing. Of course, the opposite is true as well: investing in culture and art comes off as a kind of noble and honourable deed; culture has undiminished prestige and social legitimacy, its aura shines on the entrepreneurs that show up in the field. Even those who have never set foot in a museum know for sure that art is something magnificent and indispensable. Culture is an easy prey: it is eternally short of funds, its old-fashioned experts are unsuspecting, and in this field it is still not impossible to access public funds.

Culture is especially susceptible to camouflage, to being used for a glamorous packaging of the real goals. Roles and notions have become exchangeable: collector, curator, dealer, maecenas, investor, sponsor, expert, critic-anyone can be any of these at any time, or even all at once. These processes shake and undermine the traditional opinion and canon forming specialists’ positions; there is decreasing demand for criticism and concept-as opposed to tasteful promotion, spreading “popular knowledge,” and educating consumers. The situation is well illustrated by the fact that the editor-in-chief of a publicly financed art journal has named state subsidy as the “token of independence.” So presently there are two alternatives: on the one hand, the guardianship (and sometimes a little caning) of “Uncle State,” who grants exemption from the harsh P.E. classes of the market; on the other hand, the power politics of the neophyte entrepreneur who comes from the business sphere and by all means wants to employ his well established methods in the arts sphere.

Edit András. Image courtesy of the author.Edit András is an art historian at the Research Institute for Art History at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest. She has widely published on Eastern-Central European contemporary art, mainly on gender issues, socially engaged art, public art, and art theory in relation to the post-socialist countries and their transitions.