Viktor Orbán’s government and the business interests connected to it have taken control of many crucial aspects of life in Hungary since he was elected in 2010: the media, the constitutional court, school curriculums, churches, even tobacco shops. By some measures, half of the entire economy. Moreover, the remaining bastions of independent thinking are constantly under attack: NGOs are being discredited and their employees are threatened with jail if they help asylum seekers. What is left of the independent media is under threat, as are independently-minded judges and scientists.
The latest target of the Orbán government is the cultural sphere. In the past few months, theatres, novelists, museum personnel and pop musicians have all found themselves under attack for being left-wing, socially liberal or simply critical of the government.
At first independent journalists, political analysts and even a few politicians from Orbán’s Fidesz party themselves tried to downplay the significance of the attacks on cultural institutions. The general opinion was that Orbán was too busy to concentrate on culture and that this was nothing but infighting over resources.
But in the middle of the summer heat it became clear that they were wrong. In his customary speech at the Tusnádfürdő festival in Romania, Orbán said that he was happy about the culture war that had recently broke out, and that by re-electing him and Fidesz in April voters had given his government a mandate to carry Hungary into a new epoch — one in which the political order needs to be “embedded into a cultural era.” “A new intellectual and cultural approach is needed,” he added. “There is no point in denying that we will see huge changes from September on.”
For Orban, the annual speech in Tusnádfurdő has always been important as a way for him to map out his vision for Hungary. In one of the more inflammatory examples, in 2014, he caused international outrage after using the occasion to express his admiration for “illiberal democracies” such as China and Russia.
The first signs of this nascent culture war appeared in pages of the fiercely pro-government newspaper Magyar Idők. The paper is not widely read, but anyone who wants to know the “government line” will read it. Magyar Idők serves as a weather vane and an early warning system, so the fact that the paper recently published more than a dozen pieces of commentary on cultural topics deserves attention. It was in an op-ed in Magyar Idők, for instance, that objections were first raised about the musical Billy Elliot appearing on the programme of the national opera house. The writer labelled the musical gay propaganda; the theatre quickly cancelled 15 planned shows, and recently announced that the topic of the next season will be Christianity. Even though these attacks come from the pages of a newspaper, they have real-life consequences for those involved.
Theatres, novelists, museums and pop musicians have all found themselves under attack for being left-wing, socially liberal or simply critical of the government
It is important to note here that the director of the opera house is Szilveszter Ókovács, a musician, singer and media executive who was appointed to his post by the Orbán government. Which is to say that Magyar Idők was attacking one of their own. Something similar happened to Gergely Prőhle, the director of the Petőfi Museum of Literature, who was attacked for showcasing the work of novelists and poets critical of the government during literary festivals and for providing financial support for them. Prőhle is also a loyal member of the Orbán government: he served in Orbán’s foreign ministry for years before being named as director of the museum. Prőhle has survived the friendly fire for the time being, but there are reports of him being on his way out following the Magyar Idők article.
Another article accused a popular, ongoing Frida Kahlo exhibition of “promoting communism”. And the most recent story listed a group of pop musicians who the writer considered “left-wing”, accusing radio channels of playing their songs too frequently; the official national news agency, MTI, was also censured for reporting on the premieres of artists who are critical of the government. The Balassi Institute, responsible for promoting Hungarian culture abroad, was under fire for paying for the travel of non-Orbán-loyalist novelists to literary festivals.
Outside of the pages of newspapers, the flames of the culture war have recently been fanned by the banning of gender studies at Hungarian universities. Even though only two schools had such programmes, and student numbers are low, the authorities decided that gender studies were “opposed to what this government stands for”.
Some people, like Ókovács, are surrendering and acquiescing to the wishes of the government, while others are fighting back. Others are standing their ground: Prőhle categorically denied reports that he was to be fired from his job following the Magyar Idők attack, and is, for now, still running the museum of literature. When the same newspaper listed pop singer Vera Tóth as an example of a musician who was being unfairly snubbed by radio stations for her (conservative) political views, she published a Facebook post refusing to be dragged into a political fight.
Even some of Orbán’s own people are critical of the way the culture war is being waged. One of them is László L. Simon, a writer who served as deputy culture minister from June 2012 to February 2013. He also attended the Tusnádfürdő festival with Orbán, and during a debate about culture he stressed that it was “citizens [who] voted for us, not our writers.”
So why is this happening? Why do novelists and musicals bother a regime that has already managed to capture so much of public life in Hungary?
One theory is that this is about money. The Hungarian state spends a lot on supporting cultural institutions and artists, creating a war over finite resources, and the government seems to have decided that it does not want to spend money on artists that are not loyal to its politics.
Orbán positions himself in opposition to the bookish, liberal urban intelligentsia, and this recent culture war fits this image perfectly
However, Orbán’s government has had these kinds of budgetary concerns wrapped up since its initial election in 2010 — it simply has no need to begin redistributing along these lines now. The biggest sums of state money already flow into the coffers of the Hungarian Academy of Arts, created by Orbán and led by loyalist György Fekete. Movie financing is controlled by Hollywood producer-turned-oligarch Andy Vajna. László L. Simon at Tusnádfürdő remarked that the money spent on the kinds of institutions and people currently under attack is negligible in the context of the the cultural budget as a whole.
No: this is more about recognition and fame than money. This is about Orbán trying to replace the Hungarian cultural elite with a new one loyal to him and his ideas. You can see evidence for this in the fact that the condemnations have even reached a figure like Péter Esterházy — an internationally acclaimed writer who died in 2016 and who would otherwise be a source of pride in Hungary. Now one of the culture warriors of the government has declared that they want a country where “the star is not Esterházy.” The government is not shy when it comes to letting people know who the stars should be, with writers like Albert Wass or Gyula Nyírő publicly favoured.
There is another star in all this, of course. After all, this whole charade is also about the personal politics of its figurehead. Viktor Orbán was born and raised in a small village, and has always projected the image of himself as a country boy. Electorally speaking, it’s an image that’s worked well for him, with his strongest support in the countryside not in Budapest. He positions himself in opposition to the bookish, liberal urban intelligentsia, and this recent culture war fits this image perfectly.
“You cannot win an election on cultural issues,” cultural policy expert Péter Inkei recently said in an interview with Hungarian newspaper Népszava. “It almost does not matter what happens in this area — for example, banning gender studies. This is simply a gesture that proves to the masses that their leaders have balls because they dare to say harsh words to those Budapest folks wearing glasses, sitting in their coffee houses. This is political capital.”
Perhaps we will never be able to psychologise Orbán and his culture war. Indeed, it is a peculiar feature of this government that its motivations are unclear. However, one thing is for sure: if Orbán really has set his mind to reshaping the cultural sphere in Hungary, he will do everything in his power to finish the job. And now that September has arrived, many people in the arts are remembering his words at Tusnádfürdő and glancing anxiously at their calendars.