It is amazing how shortsighted people can be when their hearts, for one reason or another, are set on a project. This is what happened to Péter György, aesthete and media researcher, who since 2000 has been the director of the Media Center at ELTE.
He never hid his suspicions of Viktor Orbán’s political designs and his contempt for the political system he built. He was the first person who publicly expressed his misgivings about Viktor Orbán’s less than transparent use of the money Fidesz received from the sale of a building the party had acquired from the Antall government. A video of that 1993 exchange is still available, in which the outraged young Orbán makes an impassioned defense of his reputation. As we learned later, by that time Orbán’s father had already received a sizable “loan” from the secret coffers of Fidesz. No one should doubt Viktor Orbán’s theatrical abilities.
Great was the surprise in April of this year when people discovered György’s name among the signatories on a statement endorsing the Orbán’s government’s plan to establish a museum quarters. Even a cursory look at the list of names, which includes a hockey player, reveals that most of the signatories are supporters of Fidesz and the government. What was Péter György doing in this group?
Soon enough György answered this question in several articles in Élet és Irodalom. For György, museums–all kinds of museums but especially museums of fine arts–are vitally important in spreading appreciation of the arts. In his opinion, the system of museums devised during the Kádár regime no longer reflects the modern role of museums. He admitted that after 2010 the Orbán government destroyed the existing structure without replacing it with something better. Yet he embraced the idea of a museum quarters, which originated with László Baán, the successful director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. Among Baán’s accomplishments, the museum’s 2010 exhibition “From Botticelli to Titian” was visited by 231,000 people, which propelled the museum to seventh place in the western world in the number of visitors that year.
György became Baán’s chief adviser, which largely explains why he wholeheartedly endorsed the erection of seven new buildings in Budapest’s City Park, where demonstrations ever since February against the destruction of hundreds of trees “have become the symbol of political resistance.”
György’s initial mistake was that he refused to see any connection between Viktor Orbán’s pathological desire to move part of his government to the Castle District overlooking the city and the resulting necessity of moving the National Gallery elsewhere. György hates the plans for the Castle District, which will result in “emptying” the area of any meaning. The reconstructed buildings will be mere facades of a world that no longer exists. It will be a monstrosity, but, says György, that has nothing to do with the marvelous idea of having several museums all in the same place. György’s models are Berlin’s Museum Island and Washington, D.C.‘s Museum Mall, but what he forgets to add is that both developed over decades. In fact, Museum Island’s first building was erected in 1834 and the last in 1930. The same is true of Washington, where the buildings were erected between 1910 and 2003. Both developed in an organic and natural way.
György was so enamored with the idea that he even forgot about the unsavory way in which the Orbán government transgressed regulations to achieve its aims. Exceptions to building codes were approved, protests were ignored, and attempts at a referendum on the project were blocked. The government, I guess, thought that eventually the demonstrations would stop.
Moreover, György most likely didn’t even realize that he was repeating Viktor Orbán’s undemocratic arguments when he claimed that endless arguments over large city projects shouldn’t be allowed because that would only result in inaction. Nothing would be built if we listened to contrary voices. I hope György remembers the infamous speech Viktor Orbán made at the Kötcse Fidesz picnic in 2009 where he outlined his vision of a central political power as a great improvement over the endless political debates in a democratic political system. How much better it is to have a strong government party without real opposition.
In several of the articles in which he answered his critics György argued that his support of the Liget project has nothing to do with politics, even if it has a tangential connection to the Castle project he hates. Although he believes that Orbán is taking the country in the wrong direction, the Liget project is a monumental one, which will serve the country well. By now, however, it is impossible to separate the two issues. The presence of skinhead security guards who use undue force against the protesters while the police look on has created an entirely new situation. Something that started as an environmental movement has become political resistance to the Orbán government. György has been caught in the middle.
As Balázs Böcskei and Márton Vay pointed out in Népszabadság the other day, in Hungary “anyone who wants to go through with such a huge and worrisomely non-transparent investment has to count on participating in immeasurable corruption, and the indirect justification of a political thinking and cultural policy which in this situation means the unwanted support of illiberal democracy.” In brief, György, without ever wanting to, has ended up supporting the current regime. Moreover, the authors claimed, the whole project will have the same kind of shadow cast over it as the National Theater, whose construction during the first Orbán government was forced through just as is happening with the Liget Project. György didn’t answer this opinion piece, which was intended as an open letter, and instead called the authors’ attention to his earlier writings on the subject.
Péter György is slowly acknowledging that his enthusiasm for a great artistic project carried him away, that he failed to take into account that behind this project stands an illiberal, dictatorial government. And that the museum quarters will probably end up like other large architectural projects of the government–hated or unfinished. It’s enough to think of the Memorial to the German Occupation or the House of Fates, which still stands empty.
Nonetheless, György remains loath to abandon the project. In an interview in today’s Magyar Narancs he admitted that “what is happening in the Liget is unacceptable to me. If you like, it is a reason for divorce.” But it seems that if the skinheads disappear, he is ready to continue work on the project. He still maintains that “if we held fast to democratic procedures … nothing would be built because there would always be somebody who doesn’t like it…. The problem is that Liget has become a symbol of the hatred toward the Orbán government.”
So, what next? By now György is convinced that no “professional debate” can be resumed “on the ruins of such a war,” and therefore he will wait it out and decide what to do next. He even acknowledges that the whole project might be scrapped. This “might be a political necessity … which would mean this project cannot be accomplished in the Fidesz-created, empty, culturally regressive and totally useless symbolic political space [which produced] the House of Fates, memorial on Szabadság Square, Hóman statue, [and] the totality of the Castle District.”
György is an intelligent man and someone who is intensely interested in politics. I don’t know how he allowed himself to be caught in the cogs of the Orbán political machinery. He should have known that Orbán has no concern for the arts, that György’s cherished project is only a vehicle for the power-driven prime minister to carve his name into the very architectural fabric of Budapest.