Questions of art and propaganda loom large in the public imagination, perhaps more today than at any moment in history. Consider for example the intensification of visual and screen culture globally, connecting traditional forms of media (photography, film, print, painting, drawing, etc..) with emerging media forms (digital, social media, immersive, virtual, memes, etc..) at the same time that proclamations around "fake news" and the veracity of media's claims to truth grow exponentially. It is a potent and dangerous combination that brings to mind the culture wars that took place between and within communist and non-communist countries during the twentieth century. Art and culture, as a unifier and divider of nations, was actively deployed and weaponized to achieve targeted political ends.
What is the role of the artist in these situations? How can they intervene, question, bring awareness, or even find a way to participate and subvert the status quo? These questions have animated my own research interests for many years and I have worked to understand the emergence of modernism and the avant-garde within the context of the fraught political landscape of Europe as it transformed from the late nineteenth into the twentieth century. Critically, what I have come to believe is that there is much to learn about the current state of global relations, tying the cultural to the political, by studying historical events connected to rise and fall of Soviet-controlled Eastern bloc countries.
As Central and Eastern Europe, and Hungary in particular, has been a big focus of my research to date, I recently accepted an invitation to review Christina Cuevas-Wolf and Isotta Poggi’s edited collection Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary. I invite you to read my review and reflect on the themes raised in the book (I have embedded the PDF below and it can also be found here) and consider what parallels can be drawn to today's political climate. This is especially pressing as the broader authoritarian resurgence in Central and Eastern Europe, linked to the cultural policies of political leaders, continues to grow. Since at least 2010, for example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s mainstreaming of the far right within the framework of Hungarian cultural politics and policies has been both alarming, but understandable and predictable, given Hungary’s tumultuous history connecting victimhood and ethnocentrism within the context of politicized art and cultural expression. It is also this model of authoritarianism that is admired and replicated in many of the recent policies adapted by the Trump administration in the U.S.
As I argue in the review, a close and more nuanced reading of how propaganda and "socialist realism" evolved during the Cold War is crucial, together with offering alternative histories and theories of the avant-garde, and a deeper dive by art historians into the contingent nature of art and culture under Soviet-backed regimes. As the book makes clear, artists living behind the iron curtain did not operate as a monolithic whole, and the forms of subversion and response by cultural practitioners outlined in the book provide powerful lessons for today's artists.