Cristina Cuevas-Wolf, Isotta Poggi, eds. Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2018. Illustrations. 160 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-60606-539-6. Reviewed by Dorothy Barenscott (Kwantlen Polytechnic University) Published on HABSBURG (June, 2018) Commissioned by Borislav Chernev
The discourse and reception of art designated under the banner of “socialist realism” has always raised a special set of challenges for art historians, especially those engaged in studying modernism or tracking the historical roots of the avant-garde. As an international cultural movement of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, modernism has generally been understood as both a theory and a practice, which holds that artists and practitioners must break with the mainstream and/or traditional culture in order to produce new modes of expression and understandings of the present. For avantgarde artists operating at the radical edge of modernism, the attempt to forge more direct links between previously separated realms of “high” and “low” art was especially appealing, and it is therefore not surprising that we can trace among the most revolutionary avant-garde artworks of the early twentieth century a history of Russian, Central, and Eastern European artists working hand in hand with socialist and communist political regimes. The split within the avant-garde, however, would emerge by the 1930-40s when the Soviet Union consolidated power and limited the role of art and popular culture to what Lawrence Grossberg and Cary Nelson have aptly described as “a specific, highly regulated faction of creative expression that promoted Soviet ideals.”
with its theory and style, collided with deep-rooted local art and culture practices, both modern and traditional. Many artists would regard the new art as a call to propaganda and flee west into exile to continue the modernist project at a safe distance. But for other practitioners who stayed behind, whether by choice or circumstance, the emergence of a new kind of avant-gardism—forged in secret, mostly misunderstood, and largely effaced from the history of twentieth-century art and culture—quietly emerged.
It is critical to the reading of Christina Cuevas-Wolf and Isotta Poggi’s edited book Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary to understand this bit of history in order to consider how the emergence of socialist realism in Soviet-controlled Eastern bloc countries resulted in uneven adoption, ambivalence, and even moments of subversion, producing art that has largely remained underexplored or, worse, disregarded and stereotyped. The title of the volume, grounding both the focus and historical context of the collection, informs the contingent nature of cultural guidelines as they evolved in Hungary, particularly following the 1956 Revolution. The 3Ts, támogatni, turni, tiltani (promote, tolerate, ban), came to define an entire era of cultural policy under the János Kádár regime (1956-88), which sought to deviate Art was to be partisan, appealing first and foremost from the Stalinist policies of the past through quiet and to the proletariat, and engaged in realistic—not experi- targeted reform. This will to reinvent socialism with a mental or modern—depictions of everyday life support- Hungarian face simultaneously laid a foundation to proive of the aims of the state and the party. By the end of vide new freedoms of cultural expression for Hungarian World War II, once socialist realism was introduced to lo- artists and cultural producers. As Cuevas-Wolf argues in cal populations of Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe as an her essay, “The 3TS: The Modernist Puzzle in Cold War all-pervading presence, the dictates of the policy, along Hungary,” “the middle concept of the 3Ts, ‘tolerate,’ pro-
vided a gray area that would be repeatedly tested” (p. 33). Tibor Valuch, connecting the 3Ts to the emergence of a distinct “goulash communism” in his essay, “The Paradox of Consumer Objects and Modern Living in Hungary,” examines how “the slow departure from Marxist ideals was accompanied by an openness to new intellectual advances and the adaptation of an international culture governed by mass communication that transformed daily life. This attitude was the hallmark of the cultural policy of the 3Ts” (p. 72).
cus more toward the everyday and personal narratives of Cold War Hungary. Valuch begins by examining the public and private built spaces of Hungary’s urban and rural communities, showing how modernist architecture, housing developments, furniture, and even car design worked to uphold goals of socialist unification. At the same time, Valuch complicates his analysis by arguing how the “general shift towards a lifestyle centered around the private sphere” was deeply connected to “the desire to identify with Western European consumerism” (p. 78). Katalin Cseh-Varga moves further into discusCuevas-Wolf and Poggi’s book is divided into seven sions of the private and ephemeral in her essay “Docuchapters that follow a rough chronological timeline. The mentary Traces of Hungarian Event-Based Art,” where volume is also richly illustrated throughout, highlightshe works to reveal the integration of document and ing art and donated cultural artifacts from the Gerry Re- event in the subversive art practices she uncovered while search Institute, the Wende Museum of the Cold War, and researching Hungarian performance artists. Rounding public and private archives in Budapest. Opening the col- out the collection is Géza Perneczky’s essay “In the Unlection is Steven Mansbach’s essay “A Tempest of Cre- derground between East and West”—a compelling first ativity: An Introduction to Hungarian Art and Politics,” person account of Perneczky’s time as an artist and art arguably one of the most comprehensive, yet incredibly critic living in Hungary before moving to Germany in concise and accessible, overviews of Hungarian cultural his late thirties. This final important essay crystallizes history in English. Importantly, Mansbach traces the the lived experience of an artist working between dishistorical roots of a particular celebration of Hungarian tinct cultural and political paradigms and is a must-read national “distinctiveness” and shows how it would lead for any art historian. to the interconnections between modernist art and politics that came to defy easy categorization throughout the While the collection’s core arguments and overall twentieth century. methodology provide a much-needed contribution to this under-examined moment in the art and cultural history The next three essays provide case studies offering of East Central Europe, it is a volume not without shortcloser examinations of key historical turning points tied comings. As a collection, the voices are understandto cultural developments in Cold War Hungary. Poggi’s ably varied and are drawn from art historians, historians, “The Art of Fabricating Realities and Forgetting History” artists, and curators working inside and outside Hunexamines the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and looks at gary. But the volume itself is slim and lacks the kind of a range of media forms, from photography and posters, cohesiveness in purpose, or establishment of clear stakes to film, underground literature, and multimedia installa- (Mansbach’s essay notwithstanding), that one might extion to unpack the effects of forced amnesia around the pect from such a focused and political topic. This sugrevolution. This is followed by Cuevas-Wolf’s aforemen- gests work left to be done in formulating a more robust tioned examination of the Kádár regime’s 3Ts policy that theory of the “messy” modernism that emerged on the reveals how an emerging generation of artists and culground in Central and Eastern Europe. In particular, thetural producers would respond to the gradual opening of ories concerning the nature of the “avant-garde” deserve the public sphere in Hungary through the promotion of further consideration and reflection by the authors. This a new “consumer Socialism” by the late 1960s (p. 40). is especially so as calls to broaden and complicate PeDávid Fehér extends and further focuses aspects of this ter Bürger’s highly influential Theory of the Avant-Garde analysis in his essay “Relations and Reality: Avant-Garde (1984) have been raised in recent years by scholars reArtists and Applied Arts beyond the 3Ts” by introducsearching and offering new understandings about the art ing specific Hungarian avant-garde artists and their pracand cultural history of Eastern bloc countries. tices, examining how they reconciled the dual life of a Taking my cue from art historian Andrzej Turowski’s wage-earning state artist aware and responsive to developments in modern art movements (such as pop, mini- essay “The Phenomenon of Blurring,” published as part of the landmark exhibition on Central European Avantmalism, and conceptualism) of the 1960-70s. Gardes at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2002, The final three essays of the collection shift their fo- I believe that there is a stated desire among scholars in 2
the field to direct attention to the problem of national, cultural, and spatial boundaries in the region, where artists, intellectuals, and everyday individuals negotiated a range of conflicting identities and the complex web of geographic and geopolitical tensions that informed how and through what modes they would represent their world. Turowski raises these stakes in the following passage: “Let us ask to what degree the study of modern and contemporary Central European art, this marginalized section of the ‘universal’ avant-garde, changes not only our knowledge of modern and contemporary art but also the very practice of art history. I want to stress that I am not concerned with quantitative revision here, with the addition of a few new facts to those already known, but rather with questioning the very principle on which art historians have based the history of art as we know it today.”
the broader authoritarian resurgence in Central and Eastern Europe today, linked to the cultural policies of political leaders, continues to grow. Unpacking and locating the seeds of these illiberal developments in Hungary’s art and cultural history of the twentieth century is therefore both critical and pressing. Notes . Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, “Introduction: The Territory of Marxism,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 5. . See, for example, Peter Bürger, Bettina Brandt, Daniel Purdy, “Avant-Garde and Neo-Avant-Garde: An Attempt to Answer Certain Critics of Theory of the AvantGarde,” New Literary History 41, no. 1 (2010): 695-715.
Despite these limitations, what scholars will un. Andrzej Turowski, “The Phenomenon of Blurdoubtedly gain from this collection is a closer and more ring, ” in Central European Avant-Gardes, ed. Timothy nuanced reading of the contingent nature of art and culBenson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, with Los Angeles ture in Cold War Hungary. This is especially pressing as County of Art, 2002), 372. If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/habsburg Citation: Dorothy Barenscott. Review of Cuevas-Wolf, Cristina; Poggi, Isotta, eds., Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary. HABSBURG, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51915 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoncommercialNo Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.