Our knowledge of the world is largely mediated. That which is beyond our own sphere of experience is passed on to us. In addition to natural intermediaries – sounds, speech, gestures – this mediation is achieved increasingly via media technology, regarding which participation and significance continue to grow, along with the diversion of the context of modern life.
This mediated perception is not only medial and conveyed by media technology, but also strongly culturally conditioned. A classic example is provided by Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy, citing the findings of British anthropologists who conducted research in Central Africa in the 1950s. During the screening of a short film, it was found that viewers only became aware of details with which they were already familiar, and not of unknown elements or of the movie as a whole.
Protest in Budapest against the whitewashing of Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. Szabadság tér / Liberty Square, 4 July 2014. Photo: Karli Iskakova. Source:Flickr
Difficulties in the perception of the whole are not restricted to media. For instance, the cultures of central Europe also appear to have perceptual problems. It was recently revealed that the features and events of the region are shaped by factors that have been present for long, that is, rooted in the deeper layers of history. I would like to highlight two consequences of this long period, namely a limited perception of space and a peculiar sense of time.
The Timewheel located near Budapest’s Mucsarnok (Palace of Art) is, according to Wikipedia, the largest hourglass in the world. The structure in fact consists of a wheel with an eight-metre diameter and a width of 2.5 metres. It is to be turned every year, although according to János Herner, who came up with the idea, it was initially designed to be a moving structure: “The aim was to visualize time plastically in space, so the 60-ton hourglass would not just be installed, but also roll slowly – hence the shape. It would thus move from the Kunsthalle Budapest to Ajtosi Dürer Road in eighty-seven years”, said Herner.
Other similar attempts were made around the millennium to somehow counter a shrinking of sense of time and an increasingly narrow present, and to translate them into an appropriate form. One of these attempts was the sizeable clockwork called The Clock of the Long Now. Built tentatively first as a two-meter prototype, it was developed by the Long Now Foundation. The idea was conceived by inter alia computer scientist Daniel Hillis, who developed the parallel supercomputer, Stewart Brand, founder of the Global Business Network, Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired magazine, and Brian Eno, composer and artist.
Unlike the Timewheel in Budapest, The Clock of the Long Now does not have to be turned annually but only once every century. This is not surprising, given that the founders of the Long Now Foundation take 10,000 years as a single unit of time. The organization also has other long-term projects: a library for The Long Now and the Rosetta Project, an archive for endangered languages… as approximately 90 per cent of languages spoken today will disappear in the next 100 years.
Although the Timewheel is designated to express the passing of time, in this case, it is its spatial attributes that are noteworthy. János Herner explained in an interview: “We previously conducted a survey with 200 respondents, 100 Hungarians and 100 from other nationalities (architects, professionals working in the tourism industry, etc.). We asked if a diameter of eight meters is too much or too little. The result was perplexing: of 100 foreigners, 97 asked why the wheel was so small, while 92 Hungarian respondents asked why it was so big.”
A monument seeking to demonstrate the significance of time in space must be monumental. One may feel that a diameter of eight meters is not enough in this case. The Timewheel occupies a significant location; for the otherwise outstanding background to fade, one has to go very close to the monument. To achieve the desired effect, the scale would have to be very different. Given the surroundings, a diameter of between 20 and 30 meters (that is, the height of the houses on other side of the square) would have been necessary.
The world of the small-angle approach is also reflected in an everyday context, especially in the case of the most widely used media, as in news programmes, in which international events are marginal and mentioned only briefly. As far as proportions are concerned, none of the various political orientations deviate from this norm.
Writer Gyozo Határ, who spent half his life in London after 1956, said a few years ago in a radio interview: “The Hungarian elites can hardly see the world because of their provincialism.” Astounding as it may sound, the statement is in fact easier to prove than disprove. But I will not go into detail regarding the often incredible contemporary Hungarian reality, where this type of mindset manifests itself in all its depth and width. Simply put, “the country revolves around its own axis”. This was even expressed by the prime minister himself, more than once. There is a country that has its own axis and, according to its Great Guide, it in fact rotates around it. Not even the Earth can compete with such an orbit.
The explanation for this is to be found in the significantly different evolution of the modern concept of space in central and eastern Europe, in contrast to other European regions. The process started around 1500 with the dissolution of Christian-Latin universalism and the emergence of literary cultures in national languages. The emergence of such national/cultural spaces took place simultaneously with European expansion and the subsequent revolution of space, whereby not only individual travellers but almost all strata of the seafaring nations came into direct or indirect contact with distant continents.
In his monumental book about the Mediterranean Sea, Fernand Braudel remarked: “Mediterranean civilization spreads far beyond its shores in great waves that are balanced by continual returns. What leaves the sea comes back and then departs once more.” Seafaring people thus developed a broader worldview, as opposed to those who did not have the exposure to such experiences. The situation has remained unchanged ever since: if a country has maritime borders, or even overseas territories, its inhabitants are inclined to look at the world more globally than provincially. For some decades, with the help of satellite images of weather forecasts, those who otherwise have no seas as national borders, or could not even experience a stroll along the coast, could gain insight into the true proportion of local and national dimensions and magnitude on a daily basis.
After the heavens retreated along with Christianity and its universality to the background, the Earth, primarily in the form of native soil, came to the foreground. This was even stronger in places where there was no sea at all. “A new cry resounds: the Earth, the territory and the Earth! With romanticism, the artist abandons the ambition of de jure universality and his or her status as creator: the artist territorializes, enters a territorial assemblage”, claimed Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.
This is exactly what happened with the Romantic poets of the central European nations, who were not only authors of poetry, but also designers of national identity construction, using legends and epic origins in their poems. In the religious vacuum of the Age of Nihilism, new worlds of beliefs thus emerged with national gods and the worshipping of saints and sacred spaces. The poet-priests proclaimed their fantasies and wrote lyrics of new national liturgies. The echo of their ideas about the world can be heard at any public meeting or school celebration and all national prayers ever since.
In Hungary, for example, Mihály Vörösmarty was a poet of the inner circle of Hungarian identity designers. Generations have had a deep-rooted fear of space and the world instilled by his “national prayer”, entitled Szozat (literally: “warning”). Even children know the admonition of the refrain: “In the great world outside here, there is no place for you.” It must be noted that the poet himself never had to face the “great world outside”: thanks to Austrian officials and border control he never had the chance to cross the borders or to look at the open sea, just like most of his colleagues and fellow countrymen. There were only few exceptions, for instance, Count István Széchenyi, the “Greatest Hungarian” – whose mother tongue was in fact German – who managed to visit England due to his father’s high position in the Viennese court. In addition to the aforementioned circumstances and events that formed the eastern European notion of space, there is one more issue to be considered, specifically in the Hungarian context.
After the Treaty of Trianon – one of the peace treaties of the Paris Peace Conference that formally ended World War I – the Kingdom of Hungary suffered an enormous loss of territory: more than two-thirds were given to its neighbouring and newly independent states. These annexed, mostly non-Hungarian populated territories probably would have had no significant effect on ideas of space, had there not been a very peculiar social development in the previous half-century. In this period, as social scientist István Bibo has noted, the impoverished gentry – more than ten per cent of the total population – played an important role: “a large number of the nobility held the managing and intellectual functions of [various] authorities. […This] secured the consciousness of nobility a dominance over that of an intellectual role.”
Apart from the citizens directly affected, who suddenly found themselves in new neighbouring countries, it was the nobility that was hit hard by the most negative consequences of the territorial losses, as the reduction of the country also meant the disappearance of their range of influence and power. These events – which, as it was described at the time, “mutilated the national body” (nemzettest) – were perceived by nobility as damaging to their identity. The “gentry middle class”, as they called themselves publicly, particularly felt this to be the case: it was restricted in the narrower space of the new national borders, and fell into a mix of revenge and resentment in the period between the two world wars. However, it was crucial to the dominant position and spatial perception of those in power that this sense of space was medially widespread. This was manifest even in the way the country was labelled; it was publicly referred to as “Mutilated Hungary” (Csonka Magyarország).
In addition to its peculiar perception of space, the country also has a specific concept of time, especially concerning the historical past. This was even enshrined in Basic Law through the crafty exclusion of the 1944-1990 period. The explanation was that in those years, Hungary was occupied by foreign powers. As it was not a sovereign state, it is not responsible for the events that occurred on its territory. A half-century must therefore be stricken, because, according to this convenient theory, it does not belong to Hungarian history.
In accordance with the aforementioned concept, Parliament Square was also recently restored to its 1940 state and renamed the “Main Square of the Nation”. It is now adorned with replicas of earlier monuments of questionable politicians. This historical kitsch has not only been reconstructed but further developed and expanded upon. Not far from parliament, on Szabadság tér (so-called Liberty Square), a new structure called the Monument of Occupation is to be erected and inaugurated on the anniversary of the invasion by the troops of the Third Reich – otherwise an ally. In fact, after the invasion of the Wehrmacht, Miklos Horthy, head of state at that time, stayed in power and continued as the “Imperial Regent” of the country, and was regarded as “Hitler’s last satellite”.
The monument is problematic not only because, as formulated by Jochen Gerz, it is “a reflection of society”, but because “it reminds society of the past and its own response to the past – and in this case, the latter is the most disturbing”. As a work of art, it is just as embarrassing as it is inept as a monument. With a tympanum and classical columns in the background, it portrays an angelic figure being attacked by a large bird. The broken row of columns and the figure of Archangel Gabriel, are reminiscent of the monument at Heroes’ Square. In this case, Gabriel symbolizes the surrendered, innocent, and vulnerable Nation of the Magyars, while the bird is the imperial eagle of evil. It is in fact a very “primitive allegory”. As art historian Rényi András has noted, it is so primitive that it can be interpreted even by the “simplest child of the folk”.
It is strange – in its own right – for the occupation of a country to be commemorated by a monument. It does not suggest an underlying inclination toward collective masochism, but rather presents a false and historically revisionist narrative. According to the planned inscription, the monument is to be dedicated to “the memory of all victims”. According to András, however, “directly, it asserts nothing about the Jewish Holocaust, nor the responsibility of Hungary; instead, it speaks in a different register: not about the loss of Hungarian people, but worries concerning the loss of Hungarian sovereignty”.
The true meaning and particularly elevated feature of the Monument of Occupation rests in its location: it can be found directly at the entrance/exit of an underground car park, serving basically as its facade – which adequately expresses the subtlety of its creators. Incidentally, this considerate choice of location for the “underground car park monument” is again motivated by a mendacious view of history: it is intended to be the counterpart of the Soviet Liberation Monument at the other end of the elongated square. The structures are positioned symmetrically in relation to the main axis of the square.
The aesthetic sensitivity of the head of the government was manifested earlier on in his first term, when the construction of the new National Theatre initiated by the previous government was stopped, and a new theatre had to be built in the post-Soviet style of a Kazakh cultural centre. Since then, his fine sense of style as well as his tendency toward Orientalism have been on display, especially at the inauguration of the national totem pillar in the National Memorial Park of Opusztaszer (a national mythological Disney Park), where he called the Magyars the people of the totemic bird Turul.
Not only do all these examples show the aesthetic and historical imagination of politicians, they are also representative of Hungarian popular opinion. Nominally, populist politics ensure vox populi: opinion polls among millions are created and funded by the state annually. The results are carefully evaluated and exploited with the help of progressive American PR techniques, and especially the help of experts flown in from the United States. A solid foundation has thus been built – and will be further developed along with strategy and tactical manoeuvring – upon the narrowest common denominator. This is indispensable when one considers historical policy and monument aesthetics representative of the broad strata of the population, not only of few politicians.
Occupied or obsessed?
The intention of the Monument of Occupation, namely to deflect responsibility for the horror of World War II and conceal the active participation of state authorities and a significant percentage of the population, is embedded in a long tradition. This is not merely a matter of governmental mendacity, but the reflection of a deeply rooted finger-pointing mentality that says the culprit is always somebody else.
The facts tell a different story. In the case of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the outcome was not only due to Adolf Hitler – on the part of Austria – but also to the first anti-Semitic party in Europe – on the part of Hungary. Modern institutionalized anti-Semitism was created after the collapse of the monarchy: the first “Jewish laws” were already in force in sovereign Hungary in the 1920s. Among others, there was numerus clausus concerning the state and university administrations, followed by more laws confining the Jewish population in 1938, 1939 and 1941,when there was still no foreign occupation in sight. Hungarian troops also took part as allies of the Third Reich on the Eastern Front, and the dead soldiers are designated as “the heroic dead” today.
That the recent past has not been processed is evident not only in today’s virulent anti-Semitism, but also in the fact that a significant part of the population considers the Holocaust a “Jewish issue” perpetrated by a foreign power; in any case, “the Jews” are not real “Hungarians.” Somewhat peculiarly, Imre Kertész described this in his novel Fatelessness with caustic irony:
The gendarme […] had been impelled by good intentions, coming merely to impart the news, “Folks, you have reached the Hungarian frontier!” He wished to take the opportunity to address an appeal, a request one might say, to us. His behest was that insofar as there were any monies or other valuables still left on any of us, we should hand them over to him. “Where you’re going”, he reckoned, “you won’t be needing valuables anymore”. Anything that we might have the Germans would take off us anyway, he assured us. “Wouldn’t it be better, then”, he carried on, […] “for them to pass into Hungarian hands?” After a brief pause that struck me as somehow solemn, he then suddenly added, in a voice that switched to a more fervent, highly confidential tone, which somehow offered to forgive and forget all bygones: “After all, you’re Hungarians too when it comes down to it!”
A fierce protest against the Monument of Occupation took place every day for months; the site is therefore constantly guarded by dozens of police officers. There were clashes and arrests, and the survivors of concentration camps were also involved. A “living monument” was formed by an existing circle of artists and art students that organized lectures and discussions at the site every afternoon. However, it should be noted that the protest had relatively few participants and the population has little knowledge of it. This, of course, relates to the peculiar situation of the Hungarian media.
Monuments, media, message
“Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now.” These are opening sentences of Marshall McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951). The era described by McLuhan occurred in Central Europe almost half a century later than in North America. The delay in the central European region, which was already considerable due to its reluctant transformation to modernity, was exacerbated by the decades of the glacial period created by “socialism”. It was only in the 1990s, with the privatization and growth of the media, that the aforementioned era started. It was in fact the first time that thousands of highly qualified individuals operated the media, not least to manipulate, exploit and control it. The implications are obvious. The Italian example shows, in particular, what the consequences will be if control of the Fourth Estate is left to the so-called free market, and thus to contingency and manipulation. By purchasing a great portion of media market, one gains access to votes, the government and the state.
In the land of Berlusconi’s best friend, the situation was similar but displayed significant differences: the state was used to provide the necessary financial resources to ensure that the media could be purchased. The so-called “Young Democrats” made their first millions through the sale of their assigned party headquarters. Subsequently, part of their capital was invested in the media industry. During their first term as the governing party, not only did they immediately acquire the second largest daily newspaper, but also established other media and proficiently equipped them with the help of public funds.
One can observe the sustainability of national traditions in the development of Hungarian media. In the late 1990s, Mark Palmer, former US Ambassador to Hungary, made the best offer to purchase one of the two largest television channels, but the deal fell through due to an anti-Semitic coalition of the then ruling left and right-wing opposition. The consequences have been devastating. They affect not only the collective public mindset, but also the perception and interpretation of the individual. Consider the story of one of my art students, whom I recently asked in a seminar to analyse a photo entitled Covered Warrior, (by Gábor Gerhes, 2004). Despite the fact that the clothing and the colours clearly alluded to Middle Eastern cultures, he interpreted the image as a portrayal of a Hungarian setting. I ask myself: “Why?”