Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives
No More Tradition's Chains Shall Bind Us...
The show entitled ‘No more tradition’s chains shall bind us ...’, on view at OSA’s Galeria Centralis, is not a poster exhibition, although it presents almost 300 posters from the period between 1945 and 1989. It is this historical period which has been placed in parentheses by the political Declaration on National Cooperation passed by the parliamentary two-thirds majority on June 14, 2011, and by the similarly-worded National Avowal, the preamble to the new Fundamental Law, passed on April 25, 2011, and which entered into force on January 1, 2012. From the Declaration on National Cooperation: “At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, after forty-six years of occupation and dictatorship, and two turbulent decades of transition, Hungary has regained the right and ability of self-determination.” The National Avowal takes this point further: “We do not recognize the suspension of our historical constitution due to foreign occupations. [...] We do not recognize the Communist constitution of 1949, since it was the basis for tyrannical rule; therefore we proclaim it to be invalid. We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected body of popular representation was formed.”
The posters in this exhibition are not performing the role of visual documentation of a bygone historical era. By tearing the posters from their original context, our intention is for them to illustrate the relationship between the present and the past they represent, which the two sentences from the solemn declarations cited above wish to delete.
The search for historical analogies is tempting, but dangerous. Historical analogies generally suggest that if we can see some kind of similarity between two events or actions, then these events or actions will correspond in other areas too. Citing analogies, however, often serves to obscure the uncertainty of our judgments of the present or, more precisely, to justify our often mistaken evaluations.
There are three objections that might be raised against this exhibition.
The first is that the exhibition is a farce. It makes fun of the Party-state dictatorship which vanished in 1989, and which caused indelible pain for so many people. And it makes fun of the present which, according to many, is no occasion to joke either. Our answer comes from the text of one of the posters, and which we shall try to expand on below: “Let’s take it seriously!”
The second possible objection is that the exhibition is false, nostalgic gazing back into the past. Its organizers are trying to make us believe that the earlier system — from which the National System of Cooperation (established in 2010) wants to distinguish itself — was politically and morally better than the one being built now, and that the Declaration on National Cooperation and the National Avowal want the period 1945-1989 to be forgotten because these texts are scared of the comparison. This interpretation is not one we share.
The third objection is the obverse of the second. There is a view popular in circles critical of the present government that the same sort of one-person/one-party, authoritarian system and dictatorship is being built now as in the pre-1989 Rákosi and Kádár eras. Accordingly, the exhibition tries to shore up this opinion by juxtaposing the founding texts of the new system with visual memories of the post-1945 dictatorships.
Our opinion is the following. As of June 2013, Hungary is neither a dictatorship nor a police state. There are no political show trials or executions, as there were during certain periods of the Rákosi and Kádár eras. Over the past few years, nobody has been imprisoned, and the state security services have not openly harassed anyone for their political opinions or activities. Nothing restricts citizens’ freedom of movement, travel, personal relationships, or the free domestic or international movement of ideas. Parliamentary opposition can organize freely. Parties, civic organizations and churches are not banned. Groups and organizations dissatisfied with the government can express their disapproval. Institutions that provide constitutional counterweights to the executive have suffered serious damage, but have not been completely abolished. Opposition press is not afflicted by direct administrative restrictions, or open harassment from the authorities or state security services. These are decisive differences that separate dictatorships from non-dictatorships.
On the other hand, the two-thirds parliamentary majority carries out its political decisions through force, and without consultative agreement. It attempts to hinder the functioning of the free press through market influence and legal regulations. Public media is under the government’s control. The right to assembly and political organization has not formally been curtailed, although the strike law, employment law, education law and the modified law on trade unions have brought significant legal restrictions compared to the pre-2010 situation. The re-tailoring of the constitutional system, the softening of basic legal protection and rule of law guarantees, the serial violation of legal norms, the centralization drive, the closure or sidelining of independent, autonomous organizations, and the restriction of local government and civil society autonomy have significantly expanded the executive’s room for maneuver, and increased citizens’ vulnerability. In the civil service and public administration, but also among one section of market actors, the feeling is growing that under this government, it is neither advisable nor rewarding to defy the authorities. This feeling is not unfounded. The transformation of the legal system, and the evacuation of rules and institutions guaranteeing legal protection have approached the level where there is almost no internal impediment against representatives and insiders of state-power bringing laws to regulate the workings of the state, and making decisions that influence public life both nationally and locally, according to their whims, tastes and fleeting interests, enforcing their will on anyone and anything. Industrialists, farmers, entrepreneurs, civil servants, school directors, teachers, district physicians, academic researchers, journalists, company directors, the rich and the poor, employees, the unemployed and people on public works projects in exchange for social welfare all experience, day in day out, that if they do not adjust to the expectations of the National System of Cooperation, then their jobs, property and livelihoods are at risk.
The culture of the rule of law built on sovereign citizens’ rights has been replaced by a collectivist vision of the political community and the spirit of political moralizing, which permeates the Declaration of National Cooperation and the new Fundamental Law, whose moral and cultural expectations question the equal dignity of different world views and approaches to life: they compel identification, or adjustment, and try to drive into submissiveness. They do not regard citizens as free, adult, autonomous individuals, but instead attempt to infantilize. The enthusiastic collective march towards familiar scenes of tranquil, love and the bright future, and the childish, imbecilic crowing over various so-called “national consultation” exercises conspire to obscure the fact that instead of a true political community of self-aware, sovereign citizens, a form of “national cooperation” between the almighty state and its subjects is being built, in which everyone must play their assigned role. Today, the divide is deepening not between left- and right-wing camps, but between those inside and outside the fortifications of power.
The Declaration of National Cooperation and the National Avowal, and the political system determined by the self-designated “central field” in politics, thus unavoidably wind up back in the past, the past with which they appear to want to break. They revive those gestures, turns of phrase, intonations, illustrations and subjects’ servility that were shared by the dictatorial, paternalist, collectivist and authoritarian systems of the twentieth century, irrespective of ideological differences. The exhibition is a reminder to those whose memories have already faded, or to those whose age means they have no first-hand memories of this past. In the previous century, we have already seen, experienced and survived a number of times these sentences, pictures and admonitions, the hypocritical and fabricated community feeling ordered from above, and the self-satisfied, missionary narcissism of power. However overwhelming the temptation might be to delete the past, it is precisely the deluge of political kitsch brought to life by the Declaration of National Cooperation and the National Avowal that shows that this sort of attempt can easily turn into a parody of itself. We can free ourselves from the past in one of two ways: one is the roar of the cannon, the other is roaring laughter. This exhibition strives for the latter.
The exhibition is in Hungarian and English (except the films).
Opening June 19, 2013, at 6 pm.
Opening remarks by Gergely Péterfy, writer.
Curator: Tamás Kende, historian
Runs: June 20 – July 28, 2013.