Totalitarian Interdisciplinarity: Critical Art Practice and Post-Socialist Cultural Politics

Many practitioners of the contemporary arts in the United States and Western Europe have embraced a programmatic interdisciplinarity as an integral aspect of their artistic practice, and in parallel, research into the arts has developed a number of interdisciplinary tributaries, including new museological studies and visual cultural studies. Such developments, similarly, have not been lacking in the artistic and art-scholarly spaces of former socialist, „East Bloc” or „unaligned” nations. However, given the particular histories-nationalist, fascist, socialist, and post-socialist-that have transpired in these countries, the nature and content of contemporary interdisciplinarity may be significantly different than apparently similar cases elsewhere. Without suggesting that artists working in these contexts have not been influenced by or in dialogue with international tendencies in the art world—quite on the contrary–I wish to examine a certain national and / or geo-political regional inflection to interdisciplinarity, which in turn involves working through in determinate ways aspects of the socialist political and cultural past.

In recent art-critical discussions, interdisciplinarity in the arts is often seen as a response of opening up the arts-and art scholarship-from the closure traditional and modernist presuppositions about medium specificity, decontextualized forms and styles, and context-insensitive narratives of „art history.” While it is indeed true that traditional and modernist criteria operated (and in many cases, continue to prevail) under socialism and in post-socialism, another cultural vision has also provided a different, rather paradoxical impulse for interdisciplinary investigation: totalitarian culture and the totalitarian conceptions of cultural politics that legitimated it. Both Nazi-fascist culture and–above all–Stalinist culture have provided material for contemporary post-socialist projects that mix artistic practice with historical and museological reflection. These projects are, in a certain sense, by nature „interdisciplinary” because of the unifying, concentrating nature of totalitarian conceptions of culture they take as their object of reflection or as even their formal inspiration, in however ironic and critical a viewpoint. Such artists investigate historical forms of totalitarian culture which, in instantiating the programmatic desire to remake the whole domain of culture and everyday life in the image of the ideology of the total state, already programmatically blurred the disciplinary boundary-lines between image and discourse, art and publicity, education and political indoctrination, visuality and performativity, and popular and elite culture in collectively lived space. Moreover, their works have reflexively employed precisely the discipline-crossing (multi-)media in which the greatest utopian aspirations were originally invested by artists in the totalitarian epoch, namely, architecture and film (or its latter-day avatars in the digital sphere).


Peter György notes that after the imposition of dictatorship in Hungary in 1949, the adjective “Soviet” took on an omnipresence in many spheres of cultural life. In his examples of Hungarian publications started during these years, we catch a glimpse of a monistic will to heal, or forcibly reunify, the division of labor and the autonomization of the specialized, professionalized disciplines that were conceived to be the hallmark of modernity in the classical social theories of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim.

Soviet Culture, Soviet Architectural Review, The Soviet Village, Soviet People, Soviet Youth, Soviet Applied Arts, Soviet Art History, Soviet Ethnography, Soviet Linguistics, Bulletin of Soviet Medicine, Soviet Archaeology, Review of Soviet General Industries, and Collected Studies on Soviet Law.

The word “Soviet” here functions as a signal that any division between spheres of knowledge and culture, and any incommensurability or incommunicability among their respective discourses, is only apparent. The governing heights of the Party-State and the diffusion through centrally coordinated organs of science, culture, economy, and everyday life sought to guarantee that everything was connected to everything else in a maximally productive way. As Claude Lefort writes in his essay “The Logic of Totalitarianism,” “What is being created is the model of a society which seems to institute itself without divisions, which seems to have mastery of its own organization, a society in which each part seems to be related to every other and imbued by one and the same project of building socialism.”

I will be considering two main examples from Hungary that engage the legacy of Hungarian socialism and its relatively brief totalitarian aspirations during its first phase (from 1949 up to 1953, along with the Soviet invasion in response to the 1956 uprising). George Legrady’s digital „Anecdoted Archive from the Cold War,” which superimposes a personal collection of Eastern European and Communist materials with the virtual floor plan of the now-closed Museum of the Worker’s Movement, a socialist educational and propagandistic display;


and Attila F. Kovács self-reflexively totalitarian, architectural-museological and propagandistic Gesamtkunstwerk, the Budapest „House of Terror” on the historic Andrassy Avenue which was opened by the right-wing government of Viktor Orban in the midst of the contentious 2002 elections that brought the socialists and free democrats into the tenuous and temporary leadership of the Hungarian government.


To anticipate my conclusions: despite being made by first-rate artists and being, as such, works of optimal technical quality—Kovács “Terrorhaza” particularly is a brilliant tour-de-force of design—I would judge both works as less-than-full artistic successes. Yet not because they are not “good” works of art, as quality products of sincere, intelligent artists, but rather because in light of their relation to their historical and political contexts they are —to apply ironically an old Marxist terminology— “objectively untrue.” That is to claim also that their shortcomings, and the reasons for it, may be more revealing and interesting as a “reflection” on totalitarianism than any direct success in coming to terms with it might have been. It points to the conceptual instability of the notion of totalitarianism, which raised difficulties even for its most brilliant formulators, such as Hannah Arendt and Claude Lefort, for its disquieting combination of innovation and extirpation of creativity, its totalizing and atomizing impulses, its claims to omnipotence and internal inefficacy. One is inclined to agree with Slavoj Žižek when he claims that “the notion of ‘totalitarianism,’ far from being an effective theoretical concept, is a kind of stopgap: instead of enabling us to think, forcing us to acquire a new insight into the historical reality it describes, it relieves us of the duty to think, or even actively prevents us from thinking.”

Moreover, their difficulties in reflecting artistically on totalitarian culture points us back to a basic issue of interdisciplinarity, the degree to which success in moving across disciplinary lines and fusing the hermeneutic horizons of specialized discourses and practices depends on particular constellations of institutional and political forces. Without an authorizing framework, interdisciplinarity can fall into mere dilletantism or arbitrary montage; yet if that authorization is too strong, it becomes a compulsory fusion that overwhelms the internal criteria of scientific knowledge, instrumentalizing it in the name of an ideological project, as with proletarian science or more recently, the merger of theology and biology in the notion “intelligent design.” To a crucial extent, interdisciplinarity hinges on the relation between relatively impersonal, falsifiable, and iterable domain of knowledge and the collective, institutionally articulated “subjectivity” that authorizes it and renders it socially communicable. I want to suggest, then, that it is not accidental that Legrady’s and Kovács’s works between two key metaphors for how totalitarian culture was individually experienced, chance and terror, for “totalitarianism” is a kind of non-conceptual placeholder term for a range of pathological extremes in this relationship between knowledge and collective authorization. Chance is the avatar of total historical contingency (here marked by the allusion of Legrady’s title to Daniel Spoerri’s Fluxus-oriented work from 1962, the Anecdoted Topography of Chance),


while terror marks the logic of inexorable historical necessity. The conception of totalitarianism represents a short-circuiting between these two polar extremes. In totalitarianism, chance and terror become indiscernible as authorizing instances of knowledge and culture, which in turn reflexively creates problems for giving a representative theoretical or artistic account of that which has been designated by the term “totalitarian.” And herein, in the “objective” historical material itself, and not in any shortcoming of the artists as thinkers and practitioners, lies the problem of Legrady and Kovács in the works I will now discuss.

George Legrady, An Anecdoted Archive From the Cold War, 1993

George Legrady was born in Budapest in 1950 and left Hungary with his family in the wake of the 1956 uprising; he grew up in Canada and now teaches digital arts at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Legrady speaks of An Anecdoted Archives From the Cold War as a “non-linear index” that allows access to Cold War history through his own “particular hybridized history in relation to the Cold War.” The “anecdoted archive” is closely tied to his personal family history and incorporates several intimate items: home movies, artifacts, ID cards, drawings of family memories, photographs of their residence. Yet also included are items of more distant connection, including propaganda materials, official photographs, street signs, books, money, and so on. It is the conjunction between the materials and the contingent, but not arbitrary meanings they generate in their shifting associations that are of interest to Legrady.


In his discussion of the work, Legrady has made explicit his interest in the disclipinary or classificatory aspect of the work, which is also signaled by his use of the metaphor of the museum, through the incorporation of the layout of the floor-plan of the defunct Museum of the Workers’ Movement as the virtual “architecture” of his digital design.


(Notably, also, for a decade following the closure of the Museum of the Workers’ Movement, the space in the Buda Castle housed the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, which makes Legrady’s mapping of his own contemporary digital art onto pre-digital propaganda all the more resonant.) About the classificatory aspect of the work, he has pointed to his interest in Foucault’s account of classificatory change in The Order of Things. He also notes how, after 1989, with the simultaneous fall of the Berlin Wall and the death of his father—a loss of a whole symbolic order, as it were–digital technology offered a re-mediation of the broken connection of the personal and historical:

The project’s primary intent was to give coherent form to the diverse set of references and ‘invested objects’ at hand that defined my sense of history following the collapse of the Berlin wall which coincided with the death of my father. I am not a historian, sociologist, archivist, or museologist but made use of methodologies borrowed from these disciplines to produce this interactive archive. It is not intended as an official history. It is rather about a way to situate stories through technological media. For instance, to create a platform where one’s stories can engage in discourse with official history since one of the capabilities of the digitization process is that it reshapes information, erasing differences traditionally easily identifiable as belonging to official or personal documents.

Legrady goes on to discuss the non-linear, interactive quality of the archive, which renders the meanings of history not necessary but contingently possible, a product of chance and choice. In this sense, the anecdoted archive—as opposed to the official propaganda museum that it supplanted—becomes an allegory of liberal culture, in which individuals make of the archive what they can and will:

Another component of the project was to explore the transformation of narrative construction and the play between diverse ideological sub-texts effected through the impact of digital, non-linear media. Not only to produce a work that raises questions about the politics of story-telling but also to consider the politics of audience reading. Based on chance, and the choices that viewers follow, each viewer walks away with a slightly different story from this Archive based according to their own ideological beliefs (family life, communist propaganda, pro-Western, etc.). In other words, the sequence and choices that each viewer selects becomes a visible reflection of their own cultural / political perspective.

Despite this liberal interpretation of his medium, effectively allegorizing digital interactivity as an “open society,” a tension persists between the two statements just quoted. For in a certain sense, Legrady ascribes to the new artistic technologies a utopian ability to overcome—or at least mitigate—the splits that constituted his own family history (and perhaps in a more personal sense, to pay memorial homage to his recently deceased father). Notably, however, he discusses such an overcoming of this division in terms that could be taken to describe the very cultural and political dynamics of totalitarianism, its erasure of the differences between the official and the personal, the collapse of the distance between the ideological-political and the “social” sphere of production and everyday life.


It would be both false and unfair to exaggerate the degree to which this “totalitarian” trace is actualized in Legrady’s archive, as if his “anecdoted archive” sinisterly bore out Žižek’s assertation that “The digitalization of our daily lives, in effect, makes possible a Big Brother control in comparison with which the old Communist secret police supervision cannot but look like primitive child’s play.” It must also be admitted that the “freedom” offered by its interactivity—especially viewed from the distance of fifteen years of rapid development of digital arts technology–remains limited. What is of greater consequence, and perhaps the most authentic achievement of the work, is the unresolved coexistence, and the contingent relation, of these opposed impulses in a work dealing with the socialist historical legacy. Legrady’s work remains, to use Adorno’s famous metaphor, in torn halves that do not add up to a whole.

Attila F. Kovács, House of Terror, Budapest, 2002

Attila Kovács, born in 1951, is almost the exact contemporary of George Legrady, although unlike Legrady, he remained in Hungary and was associated with the skeptical, semi-dissident art scene of late socialism. He designed film sets for such directors as István Szabó, Sándor Pál, and András Jeles, including his renowned “Stone Room” for Jeles’s banned film Dream Brigade,


which as Peter György has pointed out, offered one of the most effective images of the stagnation of society in the late Kadár period, while resonating with other Central European socialist bloc works of this period such as the “Dead Class” of Tadeusz Kantor.


Kovács also helped Jeles create a brilliant visual allegory of a ritualized, orthodox bureaucratic society in the Byzantium section of the film The Annunciation, which also includes an episode representing the terror in the French Revolution. His 1987 exhibition Necropolis presented geometrical, industrial forms in tarred metal as sculptural depictions of the static, lifeless space of the late socialist environment. He has done several important theater and opera set designs, including that test for any artist of the Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner’s Ring;


he also is a notable architect and interior designer for private and commercial spaces. Most recently, Kovács has designed a satellite museum of socialism in Hódmezövásárhely, in southern Hungary, called Memory Point; it opened in 2006.

The Budapest House of Terror, however, remains his most ambitious and achieved work of art, and it is by this work that his reputation will undoubtedly be measured. The Terror House opened in the midst of the election campaign in February 2002, with a rally of Viktor Orbán’s supporters outside, a videotape of which now culminates one’s museum visit. It is important to emphasize this post-socialist political context, because there are many respects in which the presentation of the history of “terror” in Hungary is keyed to lead up to an anti-socialist party argument in the present, in which today’s socialists are depicted as the immediate heirs of a grim tradition of terror, and Orbán, a perfected instance of what Solzhenitsyn termed the Egocrat, is the elected savior from it.

Viktor Orban Hungarian national gallery

Kovács’s architectural and display designs are not only spatially complicit with this tendentiously ideologized historical presentation, they are powerful, compulsory, dynamic embodiments of it. Although clearly a walk through a museum in present-day Budapest is a far cry from the real fear and violence people suffered during the years of the dictatorship and the crackdown following the 1956 revolt, the point still remains: while seemingly denouncing the history and means of terror, the museum itself draws its aesthetic sustenance from totalitarian means, including terror.


I believe this to be key in two key senses. The first is epistemic, and relates to the question of interdisciplinarity raised at the beginning of my paper. This multi-talented, multi-medial artist has put all the means at his disposal, from architecture to scenography, and from sculptural installation to digital technology, in the service of a monolithic pseudo-historical narrative. Interdisciplinarity is thus subsumed by a tautological intent, to demonstrate viscerally that terror feels terrible, and that “socialism” is the proper name of this gut feeling. In case it be thought that I am exaggerating the crudely tautological nature of the message that underlies the museum’s sophisticated aesthetic means, consider this quotation from the International Herald Tribune attributed to Maria Schmidt, an historian who is the museum’s director and an adviser to Viktor Orbán: “Is there anything in history that is not related to politics?. . . .The political motivation of those who work here is to show that the system of terror was terrible — the Communist terror was terrible.”


The other sense in which the museum mimics the logic of totalitarianism is in its purgation of contingency by imposing a spatialized necessity onto the historical past and present. Artistically, the tautological, yet compulsory nature of the content is realized in a completely spatialized image of Hungary’s recent past and contemporary history, which is petrified into a unchanging, unambiguous geometry of political fear.


This already begins with the choice of the museum’s location, 60 Andrassy Avenue, which possesses a special genius loci, having been the offices first of the Nazi collaborationist Arrow Cross movement, then the Gestapo headquarters, then the Communist secret police headquarters and interrogation center; in the later, less repressive Kadár years, it was a communist youth center. Although it might be argued that this history makes it appropriate as a site of memory, it also mobilizes this history as part of its aesthetic frisson of terror. One is meant to enter it as a haunted space, and though there are a few rooms dedicated to the Arrow Cross movement, the spectre haunting it is definitely that of communism.


Moreover, the choice of the genius loci is not an innocent one with respect to the history of terror in Hungary. By focusing on the Arrow Cross movement, which took over the building in 1937, it could be conveniently forgotten that there was already a substantial history of terror in Hungary that preceded this period, including Red terror during the short-lived socialist commune of 1919 and the White terror that followed under the Horthy regime, which saw, for example, anti-semitic pogroms as well as the institution of forced labor for Jews well before the Arrow Cross collaborationist regime was established. Yet Admiral Horthy has been canonized by the right as a patriot and national saviour, rather than a clerico-military fascist strongman and, in his own way, an important ally of Hitler.


The museum depends on a highly codified, obligatory pathway through its displays, including a compulsory final descent from the first floor in a slow elevator into the basement, where dungeon-like interrogation and torture cells are on display.


In an literally architectural sense, the House of Terror instances that defining feature of totalitarianism that Claude Lefort aptly called “the phantasmagoria of the Plan.” Indeed, the floor plans are included on the Terror House’s web site, and incorporated into them are arrows indicated the obligatory pathway museum visitors must follow, in order to animate the intense but iterative messaging of the displays and spaces.


The plan incorporates the museum spectator into its artificial, sublimely overpowering body, which is traverse by strange bursts of light and sound, material textures, colors, and darknesses. In one of the most wonderful parts of the museum—truly a satirical sculptural environment of genius—this bodily metaphor is even concretized with a rubberized wall representing bricks of pork fat, referring to a campaign of agricultural expropriation in which Janos Kadár had a hand. The message is that Kadár was part of the pre-1956 dictatorial terror as well as the presiding figure of post-1956 “Goulash Communism.” Therefore, his successors—such as Orbán’s election rival Péter Medgyessy—are also heirs of terror. From vantage after vantage, the same statement is repeated: socialism is terror, and terror is terrible.


A Provisional Conclusion

In the museological artworks of both Legrady and Kovács, we detect that the primary problem of the artists in confronting the material of totalitarianism is not, first and foremost, a technical one. Both have executed technically very accomplished and impressive works, to the point that it would hardly be an exaggeration to call Kovács’s museum design a flawed masterpiece. The primary problem, instead, is what György Lukács called “perspective”: namely, what stance does the artist take towards his material in order to achieve a “true” presentation of it, in which it may appear in its full social significance. One is tempted to translate the respective approaches of Legrady and Kovács, chance and terror, into Lukács’s Hegelian vocabulary, and argue that they fall into the twin, but complementary traps of subjective immediacy, in which the links between the individual artifact or memory and the historical context remains arbitrary, and abstract subjective idealism, in which the necessary linkage of individual and history imposed and willful.


Certainly other approaches are possible that would offer different solutions to the problem of perspective, and one can imagine more satisfying treatments of this historical material. However, we should also be led to ask whether it is merely accidental that these two Hungarian artists of the same generation, both making museological works about that country’s socialist legacy, should have foundered on this problem of perspective. The thinking and feeling subject, as Adorno reminds us, is also an historical product and is, like the work of art, a complex resultant of relations of domination. Perhaps beyond any subjective shortcoming or artistic error, in the limits of these works we glimpse one of the subjective costs of the history of totalitarianism, its trace in the blind spots of those artists who have most resolutely attempted to look it in the eye.


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