Subversive Practices

János Rainer M. - Exhibition opening at Trafo Gallery, January 28, 2010

Subversive— disruptive, destructive. Such are all changes of paradigm in art (or other fields). Such are those who seek new answers to new problems, a new language, a new medium to express themselves, even a new recipient for their expressions. Perhaps all true, original artists are disruptive and destructive by nature, attempting to stand things on their head, or the opposite, as Marx did to Hegel—and “pass me a cigarette,” as Géza Disruptive Bereményi lightly remarks in his song Tamás Subversive Cseh, so disrupting the cliché language of Weltanschauung.

Disruptors are suspect ab ovo, and under certain conditions more suspect still if they do this (something) lightly. Under certain conditions they are suspect ab ÁVÓ.

I think it is mainly because of those certain conditions that I am as a historian here now. Such conditions allow any outside authority—let’s say a dictatorial political system—to brand certain gestures as subversive according to its own system of language and ideas, and to treat them in line with its norms and institutional and other modes of behaviour. In worse cases it takes the disruptor in hand, in better the problem.

Those who brought the systems into being did not invariably or inevitably see those making certain gestures as disruptors. In some cases they saw them as helpers. The ideologists, politicians and generals of the dictatorial systems and their intellectual auxiliaries (for there would be plenty of those) were at once outright determinists and voluntarists. For one thing their rule was an inexorable necessity, an institutional embodiment of the inexorable logic of God’s will or historical progress. For another they and they alone were fit—had a duty by their will and with their apparatus to instigate, speed up, even invent the work of this imperative or logic, and then carry it out. To their mind, individuals and their gestures could only be gauged within that functioning system. Within the very limited yet quite unbridled freedom they allowed themselves, they were insensitive to the will and determination of others: theirs was autotelic freedom.

This inordinately functional outlook led to constant problems of definition. As time and accomplishment of the Great Plan progressed, there had to (1) define continually the situation of the various phenomena in relation to it, and (2) work out how they related to it.

So innovations mean a lot of hard thinking, and even more the unpleasant individuals who have not changed over to sailing among pre-defined concepts, or who have not sailed at all. For it is one thing, let us say, to depict in supportive terms the sufferings of the workers (or anyone else) at a previous stage in History, but quite another to do the same when the Plan is at an advanced stage.

The problem is exemplified by the following extract:

Strictly confidential!

I[nterior] M[inistry]. Directorate of Division III,
Sub-department 2/b. of the Group III Directorate

Re: Note from codename ‘Schwitters’


[Sub-department 2/b of III/III dealt with interception of anti-youth reactionary forces.]

“Looking at the philosophical side of happenings” [English word used] “they represent nihilism, darkness, proclamation of irrationalism, denial of healthy human activity. Their religion is violence and hysteria. Practical manifestation of them serves to shock citizens and promote exorbitant decadence. The American variety of this led in its final stage to a deluge of acts of violence, mass enjoyment of drugs, and open clashes with the police.”

This sentence had been transferred unchanged into the summary from an informant’s report. The agent codenamed “Mészáros” wrote in 1966 of the first happening in Hungary. To the transferred sentence he appended originally, “This is not influenced by the fact that they also made out of it a pro-Cuba demonstration, to the annoyance of the police and the authorities, because the aim and the groups behind it may be useful there—although this is doubtful as well.” This the assessor changed as follows:

A happening in the West is a gesture for ‘shocking citizens’ that can be called a fancy to relieve boredom. In Hungary it can be assessed as a turn away from active, constructive activity, and as such an activity that belongs to the politics of loosening up...

He then “tightened” the definition in the following bloc of content and presented a plan for treating it:

It can be established from the above that the spread of happenings is a phenomenon damaging to the intellectual and political development of youth, inimical to progress, and intended to assist the imperialist circles’ policy of loosening up.

  • Further spread of happenings must be prevented, to reduce the damaging effect on youth.
  • main organizers of happenings in this country and any foreign contacts that emerge must be placed under observation.
  • The happening organizers must be prevented from appearing in public; it must be rendered impossible for them to utilize public forums for spreading and popularizing happenings.

The first Hungarian happening differed somewhat from the creations seen here but it is still possible to draw a comparison.

The first defining element is to decide the sphere of persons. Who came under observation? This established the points in the bureaucratic system on which the fine work of defining the object fell. Since the creators— Gábor Altorjay and Tamás Szentjóby—and the public interested[1] were all young or seemed so, the answer was a section of a generation.

The next question is to contrast the phenomenon with the requisite section of a normative self-portrait of the Soviet-type system. This on the one hand had youth developing, in the required direction: intellectually, politically. On the other hand—until it developed? while it was still developing?—it produced actively (constructively). At first sight what the young people were doing appeared to make no sense. Functionally it was not interpretable. That in itself was a problem.

The third defining element is the question of origin. “Mészáros”—who himself took part in similar acts—included in his original description to the Western patterns for the gesture. He also pointed out cautiously that the thing might be functionally “useful” in its original context. Contacts with progressive artistic trends in the West—this was after 1956 and even after the famed arts-policy guidelines of 1958—were not necessarily a-functional. Or course this also called for treatment—above all for observation.

But at the same time, Western goods were slipping across the border unobserved. That is why the label was uncertain. After all, there was nothing functionally wrong with shocking Western citizens, far from it. The situation was similar, one would think, with the clashes with the police and the authorities. One would presume there might not exist a little force solidarity here. And the signs are that it did—in 1968 of all years. III/III/2b overlooked its informant’s cautious supposition about usefulness.

Unregulated discourse across the Iron Curtain was labelled loosening up in the post-Stalinist period. Essentially, there was a conscious endeavour behind such seemingly spontaneous flows from West to East. The former was sending across not spies, saboteurs or organizers, but seemingly harmless things. Art, for example, which does not take the form of a respectable panel picture where I can then see what is on it. Instead, something else, for instance, there is this man who digs himself into a garden, not even his, and sits there typing. The purpose of this is to break up, to loosen the functional system of youth—development—intellectually, politically—creative work.

A precise definition provides the key to treatment. There is available a bureaucratic system that mirrors the conceptual system—youth organization, party organization, publishers’ readers, basis, jury, local council industrial and commercial department, ultimately III/III/2b and what happens after it—bureaucratic practice (guidelines, comments, condone—constrain—support, favouring policy, and finally a plan of action: reducing the harmful effect, bringing under observation, breaking up, prevention, etc.), and educational publicity (if unavoidable, the press, after suitable briefing).

In fact the subversives of the 1960s in Hungary were lucky. They were spoken of only in paramilitary terms in darkened offices, as ones in the service of loosening forces, ones who had come under the influence of opposition/inimical elements. They might have been sent to Recsk or herded into stadiums, never to be heard of again. They were lucky, thanks.

We look back today on those subversives after a number of changes (political and other). Again we are tempted to pigeonhole—as scholars, for instance, will play with the categories of resistance, dissidence and opposition. This is permissible; they are necessary and useful pigeonholes. But they are a bit rigid, a bit military or paramilitary. Those who dispute the courage of the subversives, who generally dispute their consciousness of what they did, who present their gestures as relative, are in my view ill-informed and ill-intentioned. But it may be superfluous to paint a vision of a partisan army, and endow the mounted figure of a counter-Chapayev with the noble features of Miklós Erdély. The works remained here and with them the powerless freedom and loosening of all upheavals. We can remember the past—which I recommend—but we can easily forget it as well. It would be a mistake to forget the danger that lurks in every upheaval.



[1] They too are seen here:
The first comment rightly notes, “My God… what treasure!