At the conclusion of the Hungarian State Opera’s performance of Johann Strauss II’s operetta Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron), which my wife and I attended during a recent five-week research visit to Hungary, the orchestra broke into a performance of Éljen a Magyar! (“Long Live the Magyar!” [Hungarians]), a song that was not a part of the musical but which had been composed years earlier by Strauss and dedicated to the Hungarian people.
Strauss, an Austrian, composed the work in the wake of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, which restored both the territorial integrity and historic constitution of Hungary after an extended period of increasingly despotic Habsburg rule; it is therefore a song rich with historical resonance for Hungarians. The Gypsy Baron itself is a complicated tale surrounding the victory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire against the Spanish—one that serves as a celebration of both the traditional Hungarian nobility and Hungarian peasants.
The audience, which packed the 1,800-seat venue, the largest theater in the country (a “working-class” opera house with tickets going for as little as $6), broke into an energetic rhythmic clapping known here as vastaps, or “iron clapping,” as dancers whirled around in various Hungarian folk steps. There was a genuine energy in the opera house: a palpable pride there in being Hungarian and being heirs to the history being told.
The entire performance was a tribute to national conservatism and the arts.
The Gypsy Baron is widely regarded as one of Strauss’s best works, but while it is occasionally performed in the United States, it is not exactly a household name among non-aficionados in America. In Hungary, it has been a standard member of the operatic canon since its original 1885 production in Budapest, which Strauss himself conducted. The Gypsy Baron shows that a piece of art that references a people’s history can have a much greater value in a particular setting than does a deracinated and abstracted art piece, which is not received any differently in Boston, Beijing, or Budapest.
The entire performance was a tribute to national conservatism and the arts, and it is no coincidence that this sort of work has flourished under the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, whose administration has ripped up the conservative playbook (Cut arts funding! Cut university funding! Cut journalism funding!) and instead invested heavily, both directly and indirectly, in cultural fields. In 2019, Hungary spent more than twice the EU average of percentage of gdp on culture: at 1.2 percent the highest in Europe, up from a middle-of-the-pack ranking when Orbán took office in 2010. He has referred to the concert halls and theaters of Budapest as “temples of national culture.” The historic national opera house in Budapest reopened in mid-March after five years of very expensive renovations that restored it to its former glory. The gala ceremony was attended by a who’s who of Hungarian government notables, including Orbán, the incoming and outgoing presidents of Hungary, and the influential justice minister Judit Varga, all of whom were eager to highlight their attendance on social media. It is impossible to imagine a right-wing American government going so far out of its way to celebrate high culture.
Orbán’s cultural assertion has caused a tempest in the teapot of the insular arts world and has especially enraged the Left, which understands the importance of maintaining control of the commanding heights of culture as both critically important and their birthright. Orbán has rewritten that rulebook, and audiences have responded, buying a record 8.7 million tickets to theater performances in a country of just 9.8 million people, an audience that on a percentage basis, even accounting for repeat ticket-buyers, dwarfs the 15 percent or so of Americans who attended live theater last year, despite Americans’ much greater discretionary income.
Of course, while state-supported arts can play a highly valued role in unifying a nation and its people around its history and traditions, artistic expression that does nothing other than exalt a nation’s values and history runs the risk of descending into kitsch. A vibrant national arts scene should primarily elevate and unify, but there should also be room within it to extend and reexamine national identity and history.
American and European arts establishments relentlessly mock the majority religion, values, and culture of their homelands while frequently debasing aesthetics itself. While there are invariably some failures of taste and discretion in Hungary, the country’s artistic leaders seem, by and large, to have struck that balance successfully. And of course art need not be about politics at all.
In contrast to Hungary’s expansive approach, much of the leftists’ “critique” of art—which they demand be funded by the public but target only for the applause of its fellow travelers—is about as intellectually daring as a Mickey Mouse cartoon, and perhaps of lesser artistic quality.
Orbán does not view the promotion of culture as a mere one-election issue but as a long-term civilizational one.
In common with many of his government’s other initiatives, Orbán does not view the promotion of culture as a mere one-election issue but as a long-term civilizational one. The arts were lost over decades and must be won back over decades. Orbán has put allies in charge of arts events, but they are not dilettantes. The State Opera Director, who was directly appointed by Orbán, is, according to even the skeptical New York Times, “a trained opera singer with a deep knowledge of opera and a showman’s knack for audience development initiatives.”
Orbán’s administration reopened another opera house in Budapest (something not sustained by even some of the world’s biggest culture cities), and the Hungarian National Opera has held more performances, and of more different works, than any major opera company in the world in recent years, a remarkable fact given that Budapest is barely in the world’s three hundred largest cities.
Further, the national opera has at times made daring artistic choices that have challenged political correctness, for example remaking Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with a mostly white cast (moving the setting in place and time to an airplane hangar in a contemporary refugee camp—a not-so-oblique reference to the 2015 European migrant crisis). This is exactly the sort of casting decision that is actually artistically daring (unlike countless contemporary resettings of Shakespeare, often with the explicit goal of casting minorities) but will never win plaudits from left-wing critics. Two years ago, the national opera chose a theme of Christianity for its season, because, as the artistic director noted, “In Europe even atheists are Christian.”
This approach has resonated with Hungarian audiences. Theaters in Hungary, where attendance dropped approximately 20 percent from the time of the fall of communism to when Orbán took office in 2010, have seen a doubling of performances and ticket revenue and a near doubling of attendance. In that same time, employment in the theater arts has grown almost 30 percent. As one bitter left-wing critic noted: “The real Kulturkampf, the struggle for culture, began in 2010 but in three or four years, it basically ended in full victory [for the conservatives].”
Invariably some leftists in the artistic establishment have fired back with tales of oppression, which segments of the international media have been happy to amplify, but Orbán and the Hungarian arts establishment have not limited what can be played. They have only changed the nature of what the government supports. If politics is downstream of culture, culture is nevertheless downstream of funding. And the current arts environment in Hungary is hardly sterile or “safe”: a week after seeing The Gypsy Baron, I went to see a play at the Hungarian National Theater that was as edgy and determined to épater la bourgeoisie as any avant-garde New York black-box theater production.
Stage musicals are also popular on the Hungarian cultural landscape. A recent performance of Cabaret was praised by my urbane hosts as the best they had ever seen. Even more notable was the success of Fiddler on the Roof, a classic bit of Jewish nostalgia for the “old country” being staged at the Budapest Operetta Theater. This follows a few years after the same theater put on what was described as “the first ever Klezmer musical” (Klezmer being a traditional Jewish music form from Central Europe), which went on to tour Israel. That such projects are taking place under the auspices of a government accused by its opponents of sotto voce anti-Semitism only points toward the absurdity of those charges.
If politics is downstream of culture, culture is nevertheless downstream of funding.
But perhaps it is the new House of Hungarian Music, a museum in Budapest’s City Park designed in a modern but aesthetically pleasing style by the noted Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, that best captures the Hungarian artistic moment under Orbán.
It comes with both a performance space for musical artists and an attached exhibition space containing one of the most effective museum presentations I’ve ever seen, walking patrons through immersive audio-visual experiences of centuries of Hungarian and other European music. Hungarian folk music and the Hungarian nation are celebrated, and classical music and composers take a starring role, but also respectfully featured are more modern anti-traditionalist composers such as Schoenberg.
The museum is to be the heart of a new museum district in the park, which had fallen on hard times and is currently at the center of one of Europe’s largest redevelopment projects. I only discovered it—it having just opened—due to a prominent hit piece against it in The New York Times, largely consisting of rants from leftist opponents who were upset that Orbán’s cultural vision rather than theirs had been executed.
In his remarks at the opening of the museum, Orbán made it clear that he understands the political stakes of his cultural project, noting that “the political workers of the Left defended that which was dilapidated, derelict, and unworthy, and opposed that which is beautiful, is of the highest world quality, and elevates the spirit.” Actual visitors seem to agree with Orbán, giving the museum rave reviews on Google.
Orbán noted pointedly that while similar venues elsewhere in Europe were closing amid covid and other crises, “it’s time for us to establish that we Hungarians are in a phase of cultural expansion, crisis or no crisis.”
While the national contexts are, of course, different, there is still much for the American Right to learn from the Hungarian example. The U.S. government spends $1.4 billion annually on culture. Arts organizations and wealthy conservatives spend billions more. There is no reason that we cannot work to ensure that we are funding art that respects and engages with, rather than mocks, our values and traditions.
Hungary’s leadership realizes the stakes of these cultural battles. In a 2017 speech to the winners of the Kossuth Prize in Hungary (Hungary’s most prestigious state award), Orbán noted that “Europe is on the verge of times which will be great, but full of disruption: the hierarchy of nations will be re-arranged; culture is important, and in the future, it will matter even more.”
He said that Hungarian cultural output faced twin threats from multiculturalism and mass migration that could turn both Hungarian culture and Hungary itself into an undifferentiated mass: “During the unsettled times ahead, the quality and attractiveness of our national culture will be a trump card in our hands.”
“Long Live the Magyar!” indeed.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 10, on page 35
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