Author: Péter Inkei, János Zoltán Szabó
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.
Hungary'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 the First World War, cultural policy played a strategic role in helping the country overcome its national trauma, with just a fragment of its former territory left. After the Second World War, 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 socialism, 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. During the first few years, this transition took place amidst great economic difficulties. By the time the change of system had been completed and the new setup was consolidated, world-wide recession prevented the government from spending more on culture. The protracted process of joining the European Union – which actually took place in May 2004 – was a major factor in shaping cultural policy in Hungary.
The political system has been relatively stable: three of the five parties that are in the Hungarian Parliament have been there since 1990. Also, there has been sustained economic growth, which propelled per capita GDP to slightly above 60% of the EU-25 average by 2004 (purchasing power parities, PPP), the year of Hungarian accession. During the past decade, public cultural spending was usually above the European average. The continued marked trend of decentralisation was manifested with growth in the cultural spending of local governments; between 2002 and 2007, it grew by about 80%, when the cumulated inflation was less than 40%. Within public spending on culture, the proportion between central and local governments became 1:3.
Against this favourable background, however, a huge deficit accumulated in the state budget (as well as in the balance of trade and payments). This led to a set of revisions from 2006. As one of the first steps, the culture ministry, which was a separate entity between 1998 and 2006, merged once again with the Ministry of Education (2006-2010). On the other hand, the national framework programme for 2007-2013, financed through the European Structural Funds, contains important cultural investment and human development components exploiting the educational potential of culture (for more see chapter 4.1).
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 is obliged to display in the form of a framed poster. Work on a new constitution started and was accomplished within a year. As part of the changes, the highest level cultural administration became a state secretariat in the Ministry of Human Resources. This national re-organisation is, however, taking place under the conditions of economic crisis that has been affecting Hungary particularly severely.