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Interview

„He is marking his territory.“

Artist Ilona Németh about Hungary, Slovakia and “football diplomacy”

23. October 2018
Magazine > Interview > „He is marking his territory.“

Ilona Németh, a Slovak artist, was hesitant about whether she should allow one of her exhibitions to go ahead at the Ludwig Museum in Budapest. The museum receives support from Orbán’s government. When her critical conversations about the responsibility borne by intellectuals during the late 1980s (in times of great social change) were selected, she decided to use her exhibition to help those who openly denounce the domestic situation. Németh, who was born in Dunajská Streda, says that by building expensive stadiums in southern Slovakia, Orbán is marking his territory. Speaking about the consequences of the hysteria in Hungary’s media, she says, “Children in Hungarian schools are now afraid of the man they see on posters everywhere, and play on teams with names like Stop Soros.”

You once said that you’d forbidden your mother from watching Hungarian television. Did she listen to you?

(laughs) I didn’t express myself very well at the time. I meant Hungarian state television. Of course there are a few channels that you can just about still watch. On the state channels, the refugee debate and the Hungarian government propaganda are so heavily manipulated that I had to reassure my mother that she had no need to worry about migrants in her small flat in Dunajská Streda. I also had to tell her not to worry about us when we travel a lot, because she was also scared about that.

Does television still have that much influence?

The fact of the matter is that the propaganda is so strong that people who have no access to other media or who don’t speak another language are now under so much pressure that they have stopped asking questions and have lost their ability to view things critically. The Hungarian government has succeeded in securing people’s trust for every subsequent instalment of its hate campaign. It’s a very sophisticated strategy for remaining in power. If I happen to listen to a Hungarian broadcast, the word “migrant” jumps out at me almost every time. But unfortunately it doesn’t have any counterproductive effects – people still aren’t tired of the subject.

“The Hungarian government has succeeded in securing people’s trust for every subsequent instalment of its hate campaign.”

According to one study, it seems to be working: Hungarians are most scared of migrants and Soros.

My Hungarian friends tell me that it’s got to the stage where schoolchildren are scared of pictures of Soros. And it’s even reached my family. My nine-year-old niece came home after playing football and said that there was a team called Stop Soros. After that, she was really scared that the man on all those posters would take her country away. It’s even affecting preschool children and infiltrating sensitive family structures.

The Hungarian sociologist Anikó Félix says that the posters, which show a smiling Soros, are examples of what’s known as conspiratorial anti-Semitism. Is that how you see them, too?

Anti-Semitism very clearly seeped into society in 2007 and 2008. Before that, there wasn’t so much anti-Semitic talk about Jewish people. It started with people drawing attention to the areas of the cultural sector where Jews worked. People talked about who was Jewish and the discussion began to spread until it became part of everyday conversations and therefore socially acceptable. Nowadays, if a group of friends in Hungary or southern Slovakia are chatting and someone says something anti-Semitic, no one will challenge it. It’s a tolerable topic now. I don’t want to generalise, but the situation with the migration issue has been taking a similar course in recent years. The word “refugee” has disappeared from the Hungarian media and now everything is about migrants. I think the Hungarian government worked to steer things in that direction.

© Attila Kisbenedek / AFP / picturedesk.com
A billboard shows Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. A central element of the election campaign is the multi-media campaign launched against him and a so-called “Soros Plan”, which is allegedly supporting mass immigration into the EU. Photo: © Attila Kisbenedek / AFP / picturedesk.com

Fidesz’s hate campaign seems to be succeeding. The party won the elections and has been leading the polls for a long time. Do you think the campaign is also having an impact on Hungarians living in Slovakia?

To a certain degree, yes. On the other hand, I think that Patria, which is a Hungarian-language radio station for the Hungarian minority in Slovakia, is currently the best Hungarian radio station out there. Unlike many other Hungarian stations – including the private ones – Patria works hard to be more objective. That said, most Hungarians living in Slovakia still tend to follow the state broadcasters because they think that they are the most important source of information about culture and Hungarian politics. Of course they are influenced by what they see and hear. The Slovakian media are more objective, which offsets the effect somewhat. But anyone who chooses Hungarian state broadcasters as their main source of information is easy prey for Hungarian propaganda, even in Slovakia.

Why Patria?

The station’s reporting is definitely the most objective and balanced, and the opinion pieces are of a good quality. Hungarian experts contribute to that – they include university lecturers and researchers who were driven out of the Hungarian media. That’s no coincidence. With the continual erosion of media independence in Hungary, the critical voices started disappearing – including those in the cultural scene. These voices are now resurfacing on Patria. János Széky, for instance, who used to write for influential media in Hungary, now works for Parameter, an online Slovakian newspaper. Southern Slovakia has become a place where high-quality critical writers from Hungary can express themselves.

The critical newspaper Népszabadság shut down two years ago. Is there anything left that you can still read?

Hungary has seen a wave of print media being bought up, and now the same thing is slowly starting to happen with the online media. Index, for instance, is a news site that I used to enjoy reading and that was similar to the newspapers Denník N and SME. But now it has a new owner and is no longer as good as it once was. The website Origo is completely unreadable these days, but 444 is still at an okay level. However, I just read that Fidesz will be completely changing its cultural policy from September. I’m imagining a gigantic steamroller that will roll over everything that is left.

Will that also affect critical artists?

It’s not just about critical artists. Media have been bought up and TV staff have been replaced. Plus, the government is now promoting its own people in the art scene. For years, people have been talking about changes in the artistic canon – the system in the art scene that sets the qualitative, representative and most important works of the time apart from the others. However, people in Hungary were in the habit of saying that canonised art was being influenced by Jews or leftist liberals, and that real artists had no chance. So now there’s a discussion about the state deciding who should be brought to people’s attention. But that’s not how art works. The state must not be allowed to decide who becomes part of the canon and who doesn’t.

Of course there are always artists who don’t get as much space as others because they never stir anything up. They live in the present but they don’t make contemporary art. Fidesz is deliberately creating a scene for so-called “national” artists who support the party’s ideology. For them, the ideology is more important than the quality of the works. You can see that in the visual art scene at the Hungarian national academy, which receives unusually high levels of financing – so the monthly salaries of its members are high, for instance.

Ilona Németh

Ilona Németh (1963) was born in Dunajská Streda and studied in Budapest. Today, she is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, where she runs her own studio. She has organised numerous group exhibitions and exhibitions of her own in Slovakia and throughout the international art world. Last year, the Slovakian president awarded her the 2nd Class Pribina Cross for outstanding services to the cultural development of the Slovak Republic in the field of visual arts. Kunsthalle Bratislava recently exhibited her work Eastern Sugar. Her son, Ábel Ravasz, is deputy leader of Most-Híd (“Bridge”), the Slovakian party for the Hungarian minority.

Photo: © Tomáš Benedikovič

You qualified as a professor at the university in Budapest. Was Fidesz policy also present in the academic world?

It reached its peak four or five years ago, when the education ministry installed its chancellors in the universities. The chancellors decide on university financing and can influence the direction of their institution. They even rank above the academic senate. It was very strange that the rectors didn’t join forces and organise a large-scale protest.

Did that mean the universities were no longer independent?

Correct. The chancellor can arbitrarily change decisions made by the rector or the senate. The moment the chancellors were installed, the universities lost their independence. A mood of fear has gradually taken hold in Hungary, and society has been successfully polarised. If you visit Hungary, then you either avoid sensitive topics if you don’t want to fight with your friends, or you fight with them, or you all go your separate ways. And that’s also happened within families. One example of the negative trend is the removal of gender studies courses from the Central European University (CEU) and from Eötvös Loránd University. The move was justified by the claim that the problems being studied in these faculties are just marginal. Also, it was said that very few students were signing up for the courses anyway, so it would make no sense to fund them with public money. That is a completely unacceptable and cynical standpoint.

Why?

The Fidesz party has brought back archaic gender stereotypes and the hierarchical Catholic culture, and is increasingly enforcing these. The gender studies courses were stopped to make sure that no one would talk about the issues. There have been a number of verbal attacks on female opposition MPs in the Hungarian parliament. There are even fewer female MPs there than here in Slovakia. Lászloné Németh was the only female minister during Orbán’s second term. As well as taking their husband’s surname, women in Hungary can also take his first name. The idea of women and emancipation is still in its infancy in Hungary. That’s extremely regrettable because Fidesz was actually the party standing up for modern values in 1989.

“A mood of fear has gradually taken hold in Hungary, and society has been successfully polarised.”

Orbán himself received a Soros scholarship – and now he’s turned Soros into public enemy number one. What’s behind that? Is it calculated cynicism or something more?

It’s calculation that uses the simplest methods – the ones that can reach the most voters. To fuel fear and hatred, you just need an internal enemy (nongovernmental organisations) and an external enemy (migrants). Slovakia always plays the national card, and Hungary uses anti-Semitism. Both countries use the same external danger.

It is astonishing that Fidesz is funding its anti-Soros campaign with tax revenues. In Slovakia, Robert Fico might well say that the “children of Soros” are behind everything, but Pellegrini’s government could probably never use public money to make posters attacking those demonstrating for a decent Slovakia. Why is Orbán allowed to get away with it?

It was a continual process of the party taking control of most of the media, nationalising advertising and media agencies and putting everything in the hands of powerful oligarchs close to Fidesz. With that loss of control, the restraints also weakened. This was also visible in the Constitutional Court, where positions were filled by those with links to Fidesz. It’s a strategy designed to destroy democracy.

How would you describe Orbán’s regime?

It is 100% an autocracy. In fact, it’s almost a return to feudalism. Those in power decide the fate of individuals. Everything that normally exists in a developed country has been lost. I don’t believe that an autocracy as small as Hungary can throw Europe off track. What will be a problem, however, is if these small autocracies start multiplying and joining forces. In among all of this, Slovakia is very interesting because we have a much healthier political culture. We have a critical mass of people who can exert influence – albeit a limited amount – on those in power.

When I tell people in Hungary that we installed a new prime minister and a new interior minister, they all wonder how that was possible. When none of the demonstrations in Hungary had any effect, people stopped demonstrating after the tenth time and stayed at home. Fidesz is banking on people resigning themselves to the situation, and the plan is working.

But couldn’t Orbán also pull Slovakian politicians into his path?

Fico is already trying to go that way, but I think we’re still resistant to it because, for instance, we still have a few media outlets that are not under state control. We also have control mechanisms and institutions that would block his path if he tried to follow Orbán. At the same time as the Dennik N newspaper was starting up in Slovakia, the last critical daily Népszabadság had hardly finished its work before a book about the loss was published. That’s the big difference in how journalists and the Hungarian cultural community react to the loss of independence. Hungarian politics recently reached its lowest point when Le Pen approached Orbán and Italy’s interior minister Salvini to suggest forming an alliance against migrants.

What’s your perception of Orbán’s “football diplomacy” and the fact that he’s now investing in Slovakian stadiums and clubs?

I’ve got nothing against supporting popular sports but I do object to spending large amounts of money from public funds or other sources to build gigantic, expensive stadiums. The way I see it, building stadiums in areas where Hungarians live is a way of marking territory, which means it’s an ideological and political issue. If you want to support culture, you should know that culture in general is underfinanced – even though, in my opinion, it contributes to our quality of life. I don’t see how people’s quality of life will improve with a giant football stadium in which 10,000 fans bellow the Hungarian and Slovakian anthems and nationalism flares up on both sides. It would be much more helpful if those millions were invested in improving the quality of the healthcare or education system.

“Southern Slovakia has become a place where high-quality critical writers from Hungary can express themselves.”

Orbán’s government has also invested 1.5 million euros in a new weekly for southern Slovakia. What’s your take on that?

It’s absolutely unnecessary propaganda intended to help the SMK – a Hungarian party in Slovakia – get into parliament. Perhaps it’s also a covert way of financing the party itself. That model already exists in Hungary, where various media companies or newspapers are used to finance political parties. The Hungarian government has simply decided to meddle in Slovakian politics and to influence the Hungarians living here. However, the Hungarians here have made it clear on a number of occasions that they support a different kind of coexistence – not one that is based exclusively on Hungarian nationalism. Budapest should accept that.

You’re extremely critical of Orbán. Do you still get invited to hold exhibitions in Hungary?

That’s a tricky question to answer. It’s not just about whether people invite me or not. It’s also about the fact that there are very few places from which you can accept an invitation – and the reasons for that are very different. For instance, a place might be supported by the Hungarian Academy of Arts. There are also very few opportunities for Hungarian and foreign authors who think critically. Surprisingly, two Hungarian art publications printed reviews of Eastern Sugar, the work I recently exhibited at Kunsthalle Bratislava. But I’d be lying if I said I often received invitations. I recently decided to accept an invitation to exhibit at the Ludwig Museum in Budapest. It will take place in late September and feature my 2015 work Statement.

What’s the piece about?

It’s a video installation featuring five conversations with artists who are known internationally and were born or live in countries bordering Hungary. In the conversations, I ask them about the degree to which intellectuals and artists are responsible for poor decisions in a nation’s history. Together, we discuss whether we are once again witnessing these kinds of poor political decisions – and if so, whether we can have a positive influence on decisions. The Ludwig Museum, which is partially state funded, has recently been the target of explicit criticism by ideologues in the media. By agreeing to exhibit my work there, I’m supporting its critical position.

Original in Slovak. First published on 10 September 2018 on Denník N.
Translated from German into English by Jen Metcalf.

This text is protected by copyright: © Mirek Tóda / Denník N. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: The opulent “Pancho Arena” in Viktor Orbán’s hometown of Felcsút was inaugurated on 21 April 2014, when Real Madrid Under-17s and the local Puskás Akadémia FC met. The stadium holds 4,000 visitors – more than twice as many as the village counts residents. Photo: © Attila Kisbenedek / AFP / picturedesk.com.