József Mélyi

Decadence and Progress: The Boundaries of Official Hungarian Art (Hungary, 1968)
József Mélyi

While the new art of a new generation was emphatically present from the mid-sixties, today thanks to the canonisation of the Iparterv exhibitions, the year of 1968 appears as the primary turning point in Hungarian art. The change was signified by the concentrated and programmatic appearance of the ‘new strivings’ of the avant-garde that publically went against the officially accepted guiding principles and artistic thinking in relatively greater numbers. The border between the official art of the time, and the overstepping of that border by unofficial art, appeared as an important problem.

The state (party) principles and preferences of power that were applied in the area of art were most systematically communicated to the professional audience and a broader public through the art journal Művészet. Based on the examination of the published articles and images in the issues of Művészet from 1968, the study highlights the frame provided by official art theory and examines the art public of the sixties through the analysis of texts published in the magazine. It makes the ideological boundary lines visible, so that the criteria of preferences appear more systematically, and from this it is possible to convey the way in which the official system related to artists who partly defined themselves outside of these frames.

From the beginning of the sixties through the changing viewpoint of the journal it was possible to observe both the gradual deflation of a socialist realist tendency that asserted its dominance and was strongly anti-abstraction, as well as fluctuations: short episodes of ideological loosening were often followed by stricter, more hard line periods.1968 in the contemporary criticism and exhibition accounts of Művészet the officially specified values, above all the intelligibility of art had to be defended. Művészet saw a guarantee of this, amongst other factors, in the maintenance of the characteristics of Hungarian painting as intelligible to everyone and the continued focus on socialist themes. In the second place, the audience had to be protected since ’without an audience there is no viable cultural revolution.’ In the third place, ethical commitment had to be defended: ‘humanity believes in socialism, and therefore socialist artists have to be prepared to cater to the spiritual nourishment of the masses.

Characteristic of 1968 was the adoptive strategy, which attempted to bring the young artists closer to the categories of the system. In this category sensitivity towards social problems, the illumination of the problems of the present, or an affinity for humanism was enough for a young artist to go from being a representative of progressive art to being tolerated or even temporarily supported. Over the course of 1968 numerous young artists appeared in Művészet who at the December Iparterv exhibition turned directly against the ideals of official art. In 1968 from the official side, the broadening of the picture seemed possible by situating the young in the field between decadence and progress.