Budapest: Happy in Despair | 4 December 1990

International Herald Tribune | Mike Zwerin | report | 4 December 1990 | English

Hungarys Arts and Politics Inseparable Bedfellows

BUDAPEST – A summary wave of the hand dismissed my question about the state of the arts in Hungary. “Who cares?” the journalist said. “These days the daily news is more interesting than anything anybody could make up.”
The first democratic elections in more than 40 years had taken place the day before, and it looked as if the center-right had won. The parties of the left for which most cultured people voted had lost because, they say, many of the leaders are Jews. Xenophobia and anti-Semitism are on the rise. “I’m asking about culture, not politics,” I said.
“You can’t separate them,” I was told repeatedly.
People in the arts were pessimistic about the anarchy potential in an election with 60 political parties. They worried about mismanaged democracy, inefficient capitalism and the oppressed Hungarian minority in Romania. I tried cheering them up – “Sounds just like France” – but they were happy in their despair. Every day seems to be “Gloomy Sunday” in today’s Hungary.
A filmmaker informed me that the industry has been hijacked by Western distribution. Worse, he said, a festival of 10 major Hungarian productions produced in 1989 had been an artistic as well as a commercial disaster. Several authors said that except for György Konrád there was little interesting writing these days. The canvases I saw in galleries around Budapest were painted with tourist-grabbing déjŕ vu The Vígszínház Theatre was offering “The Threepenny Opera.”
I concentrated on musicians, who in general tend to separate creativity from politics better than most, certainly here. “I didn’t vote,” many of them said. “All politicians are the same.”
The Gypsy jazz guitarist Gyula Babos earned a packetful of Deutsch marks programming elevator music on a computer. Instead of a shopping spree, he paid Terri Lyne Carrington and Victor Bailey, a hot rhythm section, to fly over from New York and record with him. He said he loved the way they combined total professionalism with the enthusiasm of amateurs. “Let’s play,” they kept saying, interupting verbal explanations during the first rehearsal, two days before election day.
Tibor Szemző, who hopes to “remain an amateur all my life,” said: “I like the way the Havel people in Czechoslovakia are trying to remain political amateurs. Being a ‘professional’ with a capital P means you have all the answers before the questions are asked.”
After listening to Charles Mingus and then learning flute sonatas in the conservatory, he discovered minimalism, which provided him with the sort of order and clarity he had sought from the beginning. He calls Group 180, which he founded and plays contemporary music by John Cage and Steve Reich, among others, “the best and most exciting minimalist ensemble in the world.”
„You guys play my music better than I do,” Reich told me. But we got too professional. We were playing the music for the money and a lot of office politics began to enter the picture. Our rehearsals are getting to be more talk than music. It’s time for me to move on.”
Working with Péter Forgács, his filmmaker friend, Mr. Szemző adds music to silent black-and-white home movies, his own and those of others. He attached sensitive devices to record the mechanical sounds of his camera and they accompany the images it shoots, which are sped-up, frozen, repeated. Making home movies about family life with an eight-millimetrophone of his own inventing is, he figures, close to politics-free.
“People used to say we could not be free of politics because we were not free,” Mr. Szemző said. “Our existance was defined by politics. As an artist, you had to be either ‘for’ or ‘against.’ ‘It’ was always there. You hardly ever worked on the art directly. John Cage is free to deal with his interests, mushrooms, star maps, whatever. But here they are still dealing with politics. You are more or less forced to take a position.
“These new parties are not all that different from each other, but artists argue with a lot of emotion that this one is bad and that one good. They talk about nothing else. You see, it’s so deeply ingrained that even with freedom we are not free.”

Mike Zwerin

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