Barenscott on Cuevas-Wolf and Poggi, 'Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary'

Author: 
Cristina Cuevas-Wolf, Isotta Poggi, eds.
Reviewer: 
Dorothy Barenscott

Cristina Cuevas-Wolf, Isotta Poggi, eds. Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2018. Illustrations. 160 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60606-539-6.

Reviewed by Dorothy Barenscott (Kwantlen Polytechnic University) Published on HABSBURG (June, 2018) Commissioned by Borislav Chernev

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51915

The discourse and reception of art designated under the banner of “socialist realism” has always raised a special set of challenges for art historians, especially those engaged in studying modernism or tracking the historical roots of the avant-garde. As an international cultural movement of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, modernism has generally been understood as both a theory and a practice, which holds that artists and practitioners must break with the mainstream and/or traditional culture in order to produce new modes of expression and understandings of the present. For avant-garde artists operating at the radical edge of modernism, the attempt to forge more direct links between previously separated realms of “high” and “low” art was especially appealing, and it is therefore not surprising that we can trace among the most revolutionary avant-garde artworks of the early twentieth century a history of Russian, Central, and Eastern European artists working hand in hand with socialist and communist political regimes. The split within the avant-garde, however, would emerge by the 1930-40s when the Soviet Union consolidated power and limited the role of art and popular culture to what Lawrence Grossberg and Cary Nelson have aptly described as “a specific, highly regulated faction of creative expression that promoted Soviet ideals.”[1]

Art was to be partisan, appealing first and foremost to the proletariat, and engaged in realistic—not experimental or modern—depictions of everyday life supportive of the aims of the state and the party. By the end of World War II, once socialist realism was introduced to local populations of Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe as an all-pervading presence, the dictates of the policy, along with its theory and style, collided with deep-rooted local art and culture practices, both modern and traditional. Many artists would regard the new art as a call to propaganda and flee west into exile to continue the modernist project at a safe distance. But for other practitioners who stayed behind, whether by choice or circumstance, the emergence of a new kind of avant-gardism—forged in secret, mostly misunderstood, and largely effaced from the history of twentieth-century art and culture—quietly emerged.

It is critical to the reading of Christina Cuevas-Wolf and Isotta Poggi’s edited book Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary to understand this bit of history in order to consider how the emergence of socialist realism in Soviet-controlled Eastern bloc countries resulted in uneven adoption, ambivalence, and even moments of subversion, producing art that has largely remained underexplored or, worse, disregarded and stereotyped. The title of the volume, grounding both the focus and historical context of the collection, informs the contingent nature of cultural guidelines as they evolved in Hungary, particularly following the 1956 Revolution. The 3Ts, támogatniturnitiltani (promote, tolerate, ban), came to define an entire era of cultural policy under the János Kádár regime (1956-88), which sought to deviate from the Stalinist policies of the past through quiet and targeted reform. This will to reinvent socialism with a Hungarian face simultaneously laid a foundation to provide new freedoms of cultural expression for Hungarian artists and cultural producers. As Cuevas-Wolf argues in her essay, “The 3TS: The Modernist Puzzle in Cold War Hungary,” “the middle concept of the 3Ts, ‘tolerate,’ provided a gray area that would be repeatedly tested” (p. 33). Tibor Valuch, connecting the 3Ts to the emergence of a distinct “goulash communism” in his essay, “The Paradox of Consumer Objects and Modern Living in Hungary,” examines how “the slow departure from Marxist ideals was accompanied by an openness to new intellectual advances and the adaptation of an international culture governed by mass communication that transformed daily life. This attitude was the hallmark of the cultural policy of the 3Ts” (p. 72).

Cuevas-Wolf and Poggi’s book is divided into seven chapters that follow a rough chronological timeline. The volume is also richly illustrated throughout, highlighting art and donated cultural artifacts from the Gerry Research Institute, the Wende Museum of the Cold War, and public and private archives in Budapest. Opening the collection is Steven Mansbach’s essay “A Tempest of Creativity: An Introduction to Hungarian Art and Politics,” arguably one of the most comprehensive, yet incredibly concise and accessible, overviews of Hungarian cultural history in English. Importantly, Mansbach traces the historical roots of a particular celebration of Hungarian national “distinctiveness” and shows how it would lead to the interconnections between modernist art and politics that came to defy easy categorization throughout the twentieth century.

The next three essays provide case studies offering closer examinations of key historical turning points tied to cultural developments in Cold War Hungary. Poggi’s “The Art of Fabricating Realities and Forgetting History” examines the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and looks at a range of media forms, from photography and posters, to film, underground literature, and multimedia installation to unpack the effects of forced amnesia around the revolution. This is followed by Cuevas-Wolf’s aforementioned examination of the Kádár regime’s 3Ts policy that reveals how an emerging generation of artists and cultural producers would respond to the gradual opening of the public sphere in Hungary through the promotion of a new “consumer Socialism” by the late 1960s (p. 40). Dávid Fehér extends and further focuses aspects of this analysis in his essay “Relations and Reality: Avant-Garde Artists and Applied Arts beyond the 3Ts” by introducing specific Hungarian avant-garde artists and their practices, examining how they reconciled the dual life of a wage-earning state artist aware and responsive to developments in modern art movements (such as pop, minimalism, and conceptualism) of the 1960-70s.

The final three essays of the collection shift their focus more toward the everyday and personal narratives of Cold War Hungary. Valuch begins by examining the public and private built spaces of Hungary’s urban and rural communities, showing how modernist architecture, housing developments, furniture, and even car design worked to uphold goals of socialist unification. At the same time, Valuch complicates his analysis by arguing how the “general shift towards a lifestyle centered around the private sphere” was deeply connected to “the desire to identify with Western European consumerism” (p. 78). Katalin Cseh-Varga moves further into discussions of the private and ephemeral in her essay “Documentary Traces of Hungarian Event-Based Art,” where she works to reveal the integration of document and event in the subversive art practices she uncovered while researching Hungarian performance artists. Rounding out the collection is Géza Perneczky’s essay “In the Underground between East and West”—a compelling first person account of Perneczky’s time as an artist and art critic living in Hungary before moving to Germany in his late thirties. This final important essay crystallizes the lived experience of an artist working between distinct cultural and political paradigms and is a must-read for any art historian.

While the collection’s core arguments and overall methodology provide a much-needed contribution to this under-examined moment in the art and cultural history of East Central Europe, it is a volume not without shortcomings. As a collection, the voices are understandably varied and are drawn from art historians, historians, artists, and curators working inside and outside Hungary. But the volume itself is slim and lacks the kind of cohesiveness in purpose, or establishment of clear stakes (Mansbach’s essay notwithstanding), that one might expect from such a focused and political topic. This suggests work left to be done in formulating a more robust theory of the “messy” modernism that emerged on the ground in Central and Eastern Europe. In particular, theories concerning the nature of the “avant-garde” deserve further consideration and reflection by the authors. This is especially so as calls to broaden and complicate Peter Bürger’s highly influential Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984) have been raised in recent years by scholars researching and offering new understandings about the art and cultural history of Eastern bloc countries.[2]

Taking my cue from art historian Andrzej Turowski’s essay “The Phenomenon of Blurring,” published as part of the landmark exhibition on Central European Avant-Gardes at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2002, I believe that there is a stated desire among scholars in the field to direct attention to the problem of national, cultural, and spatial boundaries in the region, where artists, intellectuals, and everyday individuals negotiated a range of conflicting identities and the complex web of geographic and geopolitical tensions that informed how and through what modes they would represent their world. Turowski raises these stakes in the following passage: “Let us ask to what degree the study of modern and contemporary Central European art, this marginalized section of the ‘universal’ avant-garde, changes not only our knowledge of modern and contemporary art but also the very practice of art history. I want to stress that I am not concerned with quantitative revision here, with the addition of a few new facts to those already known, but rather with questioning the very principle on which art historians have based the history of art as we know it today.”[3]

Despite these limitations, what scholars will undoubtedly gain from this collection is a closer and more nuanced reading of the contingent nature of art and culture in Cold War Hungary. This is especially pressing as the broader authoritarian resurgence in Central and Eastern Europe today, linked to the cultural policies of political leaders, continues to grow. Unpacking and locating the seeds of these illiberal developments in Hungary’s art and cultural history of the twentieth century is therefore both critical and pressing.

Notes

[1]. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, “Introduction: The Territory of Marxism,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 5.

[2]. See, for example, Peter Bürger, Bettina Brandt, Daniel Purdy, “Avant-Garde and Neo-Avant-Garde: An Attempt to Answer Certain Critics of Theory of the Avant-Garde,” New Literary History 41, no. 1 (2010): 695-715.

[3]. Andrzej Turowski, “The Phenomenon of Blurring,” in Central European Avant-Gardes, ed. Timothy Benson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, with Los Angeles County of Art, 2002), 372.

Citation: Dorothy Barenscott. Review of Cuevas-Wolf, Cristina; Poggi, Isotta, eds., Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary. HABSBURG, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51915

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

We appreciate this review of our book and the relevant points the reviewer makes about the book’s contribution and its shortcomings. Yet, we thought it would be helpful to our readers to know how and why we chose to address the terminology of “avant-garde” and “neo-avant-garde” in the endnotes.

The discussion about the terms “avant-garde” and “neo-avant-garde” are extensive and would have required much more space for explaining each term individually and in a detailed manner. The three authors who used these terms in their essays in this edited volume, Katalin Cseh-Varga, Cristina Cuevas-Wolf, and Dávid Fehér recognized that it was necessary to coordinate their use of these terms. So we considered what we were trying to communicate across each of our essays, and then collectively decided to follow our editors recommendation to have each of us insert an endnote explaining our individual choice of terminology.

The few things we considered were:

1) It is important to acknowledge the fluid integration of modern art from the 1920s and 1930s with the new postwar tendencies (as experienced at the time, according to the Polish art historian Piotr Piotrowkski) that were produced in the spirit of progression that are identified as the “avant-garde”. Additionally from an art historical perspective, it is important to distinguish between the historical avant-garde and a specific non-conformist attitude that appeared in Soviet Russia and East-Central Europe.

2) The term “avant-garde,” which addressed the contemporary artistic trends in the 1960s and 1970s, also registers the artists’ resistance to the term “neo-avant-garde,” which was used mostly by official authorities. Yet, some artists, like György Jovánovics, accepted the term “neo-avant-garde” retrospectively because they felt it allowed them to re-adopt the historical avant-garde tradition.

3) Although a positive use of the term “neo-avant-garde” arose retrospectively in the post-1989 discourse, it is important to acknowledge the position of key German and Hungarian art historians, such as Peter Bürger and László Beke who have either critiqued or condemned the use of the term. 

Recent publications on the Hungarian avant-garde, such the Elizabeth Dee Gallery’s catalog With the Eyes of Others: Hungarian Artists of the Sixties and Seventies, have opted to use the term “neo-avant-garde,” because it is a term familiar to an American audience. However, the term “avant-garde” can work just as well, depending on the period and context addressed.

In defining our usage of the terms “avant-garde” and “neo-avant-garde,” we wanted to address in brief our understanding of the nature of the avant-garde in Hungary specifically. The differentiation between the terms "modern," "avant-garde" and "neo-avant-garde" belong to the biggest challenges of recent art historical scholarship in Eastern Europe. And one book cannot give a definite answer to such a complex issue.

Cristina Cuevas-Wolf, Katalin Cseh-Varga, and Dávid Fehér