Beyond cultural war

Justice, accessibility and institutional reform. What kind of cultural politics do we want for Hungary?

The crisis of the system of cultural institutions goes far beyond the cultural war; it corresponds to international trends, and has been getting deeper for years, or even for decades. From time to time, essays and analyses about the current situation are published; however, cultural professionals have not started an extensive discussion yet. The reason for this is that this crisis is in fact deep and affects many fields of culture. Not only financial questions but also more serious ones must be asked about the relationship of culture and society, about the functions and conditions of culture and about the factors legitimising its financial and moral support.

During the two months pre-election, published a series of articles discussing the interpretation of culture as a public good, which does not only have value on a universal level but also on a local one, too (nation-state, if you wish). We must go beyond the current general interpretation of culture consumption and its functions as exclusive and representative, therefore only concerning a narrow circle, and redefine it as a common asset. The series focuses on both questions about the abstract nature of creating values and on direct, material and infrastructural questions – i.e. the conditions of it.

The neoconservative state politics currently reigning in Hungary (similarly to the neoliberal one being active globally, our region included) essentially aims to make not only education but also healthcare and even the institutional system of culture production be maintained by the market gradually, by reducing resources and participation of the state; in the meantime greater part of the resources became accessible for a narrow circle of beneficiaries. If we accept the social-state-like frame of the problem from the viewpoint of redistribution, in which citizens’ taxes constitute public funds that are necessary resources for the cultural institutional system, the inconsistency is apparent: what would the state base on its expectations and demands related to national culture if it waived its role as the maintainer and supporter? Namely, can a state demand culture to be called “national” and claim the symbolic ownership of the produced cultural assets if it does not guarantee the conditions of the production and symbolic joint ownership or accessibility of such assets equally for its citizens/everybody?

It is evident from the previous question that this dilemma has a central importance, almost irrespectively of the political system. In the spirit of this, the articles of the series that raise practical and theoretical questions and attempt to reply for these are written by professionals practising and researching on cultural fields, and they aim to shape the course of following discussions. We included a few subjects that examine the boundaries and possibilities of the scope outside the institutional system.

How can we imagine a more just cultural politics? What structural changes are necessary for redefining the system of financial conditions of cultural production? How the accessibility of culture can be broadened, taking the countrywide regional and social inequalities into consideration, i.e. how would it be manageable that as many people as possible had a share in the produced cultural assets, what kind of governmental participation would be necessary?

Ágnes Básthy has invited eight authors to write on different topics and to propose solutions and strategies (all articles are in Hungarian):
József Mélyi: Irresponsibility
Ágnes Gagyi: Answers to the crisis of the institutional system: criticism, politics, non-institutional practices
Orsolya Bajusz and Ágnes Básthy: Not everything is what it seems
Márton Szarvas: Popular education and culture
Eszter Őze and Júlia Perczel: The wonderful product of the human mind, voluntary toilsome labour
Zsolt K. Horváth: Wienerschnitzel with Tartare Sauce – Ambivalent proposals for reforming cultural politics
Emilia Barna: Culture outside of the institutions? Subcultural production and “cool capitalism”
Katalin Benedek: Responsibility

With kind permission of (Dóra Hegyi) we re-publish contribution no 5 by Eszter Őze and Júlia Perczel in translation (first published on 22 March 2018).

The wonderful product of the human mind, voluntary toilsome labour

by Eszter Őze and Júlia Perczel

Independence from the state and the market, horizontal (not hierarchical) structure, providing social services and representation; this is the minimal expectation of the cultural scene from the non-profit organisations operating ideal-typically. Yet, we can hardly name one such cultural organization in Hungary. Those that operate differently, but (for the time being) still exist typically maintain themselves by voluntary work, struggling from one fundraiser campaign to another. Differing from idealtypical operation is not only the non-profit sector’s characteristic. In the Hungarian cultural field, duties of the civil and the public sphere overlap, resulting in the creation of hybrid models combining both their characteristics. Therefore, it points forward to understand why these “hybrid models” were created, instead of persistently calling for an account of the conformity of the trichotomy of market-civil sphere-public sphere. Besides, it would be an important step if we did not try to force the NGO-model of building a civil society, mostly imported from the West, on ourselves. Instead we should define what the role of non-profits is in the semi-peripheral region of Central-Eastern-Europe is, taking the characteristics also of our local cultural field into consideration.


Before trying to find an answer to the question asking whose task it is and in what proportion of interest to maintain non-profit cultural organizations, there are two issues to examine carefully. First, what does it mean to live in a region that has a semi-peripheral position within the world-economy, what characteristics it has and ad absurdum what advantages might this situation have. Second, we must consider how non-profit, market and state spheres connect here, and also what kind of connection might be effective in such a semi-peripheral position. Reflecting on these is essential to break away from recreating both self-colonizing and nationalist discourses, and to be able to ask the proper questions.

Thinking through these questions is not a trivial task, of course. Despite the fact that many theoreticians believe that the semi-peripheral position between the centre and the periphery has been existing steadily since the birth of modern world-economy,[1] like the Central-Eastern-European region, practice shows that the area was/is considered rather being on the boundary of either the former or the latter: from the centre it is almost peripheral, from the peripheries it is almost the centre. This double identity hides exactly those questions that ask what structures and functions are those that keep this position steady despite being drawn to both ends. This “being hidden” is called strategic silence by Marina Blagojević because this logic recreates continuously the invisibility of the position both before others and us.[2] Actors (e.g. states) occupying this position find themselves in the fiercest competition for the attention of those occupying central position and their support, because obtaining these are of vital importance for them to prevent their degradation into actors occupying peripheral position.[3] Beyond competing for support and attention, and frequently as a means of it, we diligently work hard to take over as precisely as possible the Western European and North American cultural models, offered as a universal solution, but in reality suited for the operation of core states (and as such functioning to reinforce their current position).[4]


The title is a paraphrase to the piece 15 from the work Propaganda by Marcell Esterházy (2015, 50 x 70 cm, giclée print)

[1] Arrighi, Giovanni: The Developmentalist Illusion: A Reconceptualization of the Semiperiphery. In: Martin, W.G. (ed.): Semiperipheral States in the World-Economy, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1990. 11-42.

[2] Blagojević, Marina: Non-”White” Whites, Non-European Europeans and Gendered Non-Citizens: On A Possible Epistemic Strategy from The Semiperiphery of Europe In: M.B.: Knowledge Production at the Semiperiphery: A Gender Perspective, Institut za kriminološka i sociološka istraživanja, Belgrade, 2009. 27-65.

[3] Wallerstein, Immanuel: The Modern World-System as a Capitalist World- Economy: Production, Surplus-Value, and Polarization In: W.I.: World-Systems Analysis. An Introduction. Duke University Press. Durham and London. 2004. 23-42.

[4] Kovačević, Nataša: Introduction In: K.N.: Narrating Post/Communism Colonial discourse and Europe’s borderline civilization. Routledge. London. 2008. 1-21.

[5] Nagy, Kristóf: Kortárs bizonytalanság: Az FKSE útja a rendszerváltástól a végveszélyig. [Contemporary Uncertainity: The Journey of the Studio of Young Artists from the System Change to the Extreme Peril] 2018.01.31.

Esanu, Octavian: What was Contemoprary Art? In: ARTMargins, Vol. 1 Issue 1, 5-28.

[6] For the details see: Nagy, Kristóf: A Soros Alapítvány képzőművészeti támogatásai Magyarországon. A nyolcvanas évek második felének tendenciái. [How the Soros Foundation subsidized art in Hungary: Tendencies in the second half of the 1980s] in: Fordulat, 2014.21.

[7] Sperling, Valerie : Organizing Women in Contemporary Russia. Cambridge University Press. 1999. 143.

[8] Saxonberg, Steven – Jacobsson, Kerstin : Beyond NGO-ization The Development of Social Movements in Central and Eastern Europe. Routledge. 2013. 3.


In the countries of the former Eastern Bloc the change of 1989 was defined by the concepts of democratizing, privatization and market economy, and the process itself was governed by the structural adaptation of the economic policy of the former Cold War counterpole. In compliance with this, the system of cultural financing changed significantly after 1989. The federation unions, whose operation was based on the operation of the former trade unions’, slowly started to change, while other forms of sponsorships appeared using competition based financing, as well as expecting rather project based managerial attitude than membership of the artist.  Moreover, the formation of these new organizations were not based on historical taxonomies of art but rather on a certain attitude and approach to art, and instead of a group of elected leaders from the membership, independently hired curators and art managers became the ones distributing. [5] Even though new societies were established that would fit to the earlier model (e.g. member organizations of the MKITSZ [Association of Hungarian Fine and Applied Arts Societies]), the new non-profit attitude, connected to Western tendencies, was becoming more and more dominant. In consequence, not only the financing of culture and cultural sponsorship had changed but also new positions came into being in the local cultural field, roughly adapted to the local conditions. [6]

In states where civil society is potent in putting pressure on the government (e.g. with effective petitions, strikes, civil disobedience), NGOs have different duties than in states newly being re-established. According to Valeria Sperling, in these latter ones while the state significantly reduces social services, primary task of the non-governmental organizations would be to encourage and support civil self-organisation.[7]

More and more NGOs thus come into being in order to strengthen civil society, which in return might finance the sector in the long run. Paradoxically though, the more NGOs were formed, so as the chances shrank in the short run, that society will be able to keep these organizations afloat. In addition, as Steven Saxonberg points out, in many cases it became characteristic of post-communist civil societies that social movements turned into professional organizations that were more interested in claiming aids and other financial forms than in mobilizing civil society.[8]

In Hungary after 2010, cultural non-profit organizations are constrained to take duties that state cultural politics ignore; these include, to state only the most apparent ones, maintaining gradualness of the institutional system, operating mentor programs, supporting non-profit exhibition spaces. The sector eviscerates itself more and more visibly by carrying out these tasks, living from project money to project money, mostly based on voluntary work.

Marcell Esterházy: Propaganda no.6 [The reason why things are the way they are is because they are this way. They are this way because things are the way they are.], 2015, 50×70 cm, giclée print.

The change of the connection between non-profit and for-profit sectors that has happened in the last few years is one of the local characteristics of operating organizations (getting) independent from the government. Despite the unfavourable operational structure, non-profit cultural organizations developed a self-evident alliance with the state at first after the system change, which was mostly based on the opposition with the other sector looking for its place after ’89: commercial galleries and the art market.

After 2013 (since when the public bodies of NER’s [System of National Cooperation] culture mechanism strengthened and non-profit sphere faced a permanently acute lack of resources) the “alliance” of the state and the non-profit organizations more and more shifted to an alliance within the private sphere; between non-profits and for-profits, thus time (partly) based on the opposition with the state of NER.


Right: Marcell Esterházy, Propaganda no.6 [The reason why things are the way they are is because they are this way. They are this way because things are the way they are.], 2015, 50×70 cm, giclée print. © artist

At the same time, both the civil and the commercial sectors have difficulties sustaining themselves with local private and public support, thus they operate mainly sponsored by the global art market (international art fairs, network of art collectors) and foreign –usually core states’- cultural organizations and institutions. Although the alliance might have numerous advantages (like the possibility to rethink and combine the duties of the two sectors), because of this forced financing it is not free of problems. Because both the commercial and the non-profit sector almost exclusively sustain themselves with the support of the central countries, the region depends on them even more, putting the region in an even worse bargaining position regarding self-representation, and making it even harder to reflect in a subtle way on its own semi-peripheral position. This happens in a context in which the state calumniates organizations supported from abroad to save “Hungarian culture” as stated, while it actively participates in increasing the dependency.

As a closing note, we argue that it might be pointing ahead if regional cooperation strengthens massively instead of constrained competing among actors’ occupying semi-peripheral positions. Further, in order to get out of the trap it would also be pointing forward to instead of forming new non-profit organizations, the financing and structure of the already existing ones renew based on the critical consideration of the roles of the three sectors. In order to do so, such a governmental participation is essential which enables at least somewhat to decrease the dependency of the cultural sectors on the core states, and facilitates self-definition, regional cooperation, and the structural consideration as well as the working out of the connections of the field discussed above.

Right: Ilona Németh, V4 26th anniversary, 2017, Computer animation, technical support by Juraj Mydla. © artist

Original in Hungarian. Translation into English by Eszter Greskovics.

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Cover picture: Demonstration of “Ligetvédők” (Park savers), April 2016, photo: zugló.hu

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