Most of us support free speech and artistic expression. As enlightened, creative and (largely) liberal young people, we value the right of artists to produce whatever they want. Should this prove awful, objectionable, even offensive, we trust that wider cultural forces will react accordingly, contesting bad art and relegating it to obscurity or infamy.
However, I suspect that many of us would also like to see more government support for the arts. Especially in these troubled times, we might argue, the importance of the arts is disproportionate to their financial viability. If the government pays lavishly for ethanol corn in Iowa, it might at least shell out a few bucks for hungry ex-Yalies in Brooklyn.
I am unqualified to discuss the economic ramifications of subsidizing the arts versus throwing them to the free market. Instead, I’d like to discuss some of the ethical dilemmas that can arise from the collusion of artists and politicians. A current case in Hungary illustrates both the dangers of such relationships and their importance in the process of national soul-searching.
In Budapest, an actor known for his extreme right-wing views has assumed leadership of the city’s prominent New Theatre. The appointment was announced in October, when Budapest mayor István Tarlós vetoed the opinion of a professional committee and appointed György Dörner to the post. In the days following the transfer of power last week, protestors battled nationalist goons while the police struggled to keep order.
Dörner is not a Gibsonian bigot who confines his prejudices to drunken rants and thinly veiled cinematic allegories. He proudly supports Jobbik, a party that blames Jews and Roma for Hungary’s problems and until recently retained a uniformed militia. These trappings have broad appeal — Jobbik won nearly 17 percent of the popular vote in 2010. However, the actor has stated that his true sympathies lie with the even more radical MIÉP, which openly calls for the expulsion of the Roma and warns of a Zionist plot to control the nation’s media and government.
Shortly after his directorial appointment, Dörner nominated the MIÉP’s chairman, István Csurka, to aid him as artistic director. Csurka was a sometime playwright and full-time anti-Semite whose death on Feb. 4 was mourned by the sort of deluded nationalists who still lament the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Many commentators, ranging from bloggers to European Union commissioners, have decried the rightward swing of Hungarian politics under its autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán. In addition to curtailing leftist opposition, Orbán has done everything but actively endorse extremists like Jobbik. Yet the battle over the New Theatre has opened a new front in Hungary’s culture wars.
While Dörner may be entitled to his political prejudices and their artistic expression, Mayor Tarlós has given him a pulpit and implicitly endorsed his reactionary view of art and society. In a statement, Dörner called for Hungarians to “declare war on the liberal entertainment state, which has sunk to the brothel level.” What would he like to see in its place? Evidently, works like those of his late friend Csurka, whose “Sixth Coffin” is scheduled for production in the coming year.
“The Sixth Coffin” bewails the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which stripped Hungary of vast territories. This might be mere chest-beating were the subtext not crystal-clear — Hungarians belong in Hungary, everyone else belongs elsewhere and someone today must bear the blame for a political injustice (if hardly a humanitarian crisis) nearly a century old. When the government puts its weight behind such work, the line between art and propaganda becomes dangerously blurred.
These are the wages of government-supported theater taken to its extreme. A domineering politician can give a microphone to an unqualified bigot.
And yet there is something deeply moving about a battle for the national soul fought on and around the stage. Because of the links between government and art in Hungary, the modern theater can truly become a locus of protest and dissent, rather than a repository of one-sided, easily ignored screeds. Hungarians care deeply about what plays are produced in their capital city — so much that they will take to the streets to fight for their vision.
It is hard to imagine Americans — Yalies in particular — taking similar action. We see art and government as uneasy bedfellows, both in terms of content and production. Yet a closer relationship between the two need not compromise artistic integrity — rather, it might force greater accountability upon both artists and statesmen. We certainly don’t want to become like Hungary. But how bad would it be to think, as they do, that there is a link between creative and political destiny?
Sam Lasman is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.