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Hungary/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Author: Krisztina Keresztély in cooperation with Péter Inkei and János Zoltán SzabóVeronka Vaspál

The Kingdom of Hungary was established in 1000. Following Ottoman expansion (1526 to 1686) and subsequent Austrian domination, it was doubtful whether the Hungarians would be able to retain their identity and autonomy. The 19th century, however, brought about a successful national revival, in which culture played a significant role. A considerable part of Hungary's current cultural institutions and traditions is rooted in the nineteenth century.

Budapest, Freedom BridgeHungary's typical East European social structure was also inherited from that period. A highly developed upper class strata of society, with high cultural standards comparable to most developed countries, was opposed by a majority that was captured in backwardness. While a stable middle class formed the basis of democracy, economic and cultural development in Western Europe, more than half of the Hungarian society was constituted by peasantry up until the middle of the twentieth century. Compared to the West, the size of the working class and the intelligentsia remained small and the bourgeoisie was weak. At the same time, being a Central European country, Hungary constituted a "western" kind of entity as opposed to the Balkans and the East.

After World War I, cultural policy played a strategic role in helping the country overcome its national trauma, with just a fragment of its former territory left. After World War II, cultural policy was focused on physical and political reconstruction. At the same time, the bourgeois, conservative, national and civic traditions were increasingly liquidated. By the late 1940s, the progressive element was eliminated from a Bolshevik kind of cultural policy. Up until the revolution of 1956, a crude, schematic course, slavishly imitating the Soviets, dominated the scene.

After the suppression of the revolution, cultural dogmatism began to melt away in the early 1960s. Up until 1989, similar to other areas of life, a rather protracted process of revision was in progress and the most gradual transition of the entire communist bloc had taken place. As a consequence of the weakening of the communist system, public resources were gradually depleted and, parallel to the withdrawal of political control, the state pulled out resources to subsidise culture. In the 1980s, the commercialisation of culture moved ahead, and the Soros Foundation in Hungary obtained an important role in the emerging vacuum of finances.

As a result of state subsidies, culture was accessible at low cost in the decades of communism, and cultural consumption was growing (reading of books, attendance at the theatre, cinema, concerts, libraries, museums and exhibitions). Under dictatorship, art acquired a specific political significance; its end also contributes to the view of many that culture has been one of the losers in the transition.

After the political turn of 1989-1990, the shaping of cultural policy was based on two main sources: the national traditions from before communism and modern western examples. The establishment of the agency for financing cultural projects called the National Cultural Fund (1993), based on the arm's length principle, was an important sign of change.

Since 1990, when the first free elections took place, the pendulum of cultural policy priorities swung to the right and to the left at four year intervals; this regularity was broken in 2006 when, for the first time, the same "side" was re-elected. Some of the principles correspond to the clichés associated with the political notions of "right" and "left": conservative administrations put greater emphasis on national heritage and pride and on the cultural links with Hungarians living in the neighbouring countries. A marked re-centralisation process occurred between 1998 and 2002, during the first Orbán government. It was during this period that culture enjoyed the highest relative ranking among overall priorities of the government in the past 30-40 years. The schism between the two "sides" reached its peak at the 2002 Parliamentary elections, flared up again in the autumn of 2006, and have remained a sad feature of Hungarian society; the efforts to shelter culture from political and ideological influences have not yielded lasting and overall success.

During the first few years, transition from communism took place amidst great economic difficulties. By the time the change of system had been completed and the new setup was consolidated, nevertheless by 2004, the year of Hungarian accession to the EU, per capita GDP had grown to slightly above 60% of the EU-25 average (purchasing power parities, PPP).

The 2006-2010 period was characterised by increasing economic and social crisis in Hungary – aggravated but not really caused by the world crisis. A huge deficit accumulated in the state budget (as well as in the balance of trade and payments). Those years did not favour concerted action for culture. The elections of 2010 brought about a landslide victory for the centre right Fidesz, with over two-third of seats in the Parliament, which started a fundamental overhaul of the legal and administrative structure of the country. The depth of changes was underlined by the release of a Declaration of National Cooperation which heralds a new era and which each public institution was obliged to display in the form of a framed poster. Work on a new constitution started and was accomplished within a year (with five amendments implemented during the following two years). As part of the changes, the highest level cultural administration became a state secretariat in the Ministry of Human Resources. The 2014 elections consolidated the current political setup, including its objectives and achievements in culture.

Chapter published: 07-11-2016

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