- György Vashegyi and György Fekete / MTI photo: Zoltán Balogh

„We are proud to have had such a president."


It is seldom given in the life of a cultural politician that the creation of two dominant cultural institutions have been tied to his name. György Fekete was given this: he was one of the founders, then the first president of the National Cultural Fund, then almost two decades later he was instrumental when the Hungarian Academy of Arts became a public body, and he was its president for two terms. We asked György Vashegyi, who followed him in this post in 2017.
- How grateful or ungrateful is it to inherit the post of such an iconic figure?
- President György Fekete and I also came from the art world, but he also had a significant, decades-long role in public life and even cultural politics before becoming the President of HAA. I am convinced that this benefited the public body. Since the work at HAA, which started in 2011 building a constitutional public body required such a man who also had serious experience in state administration. I'm a person with a different kind of disposition, I was "only" an independent artist in the first 47 years of my life: I probably wouldn't have been nearly as fit for the job as he was. Now that we've lost him, one immediately feels stronger than ever that he has set the bar very high for all of us: together with my fellow academicians we must do our job with dignity according to this high standard, and that is no small challenge.

- How was your personal relationship with him? How long have you known him?
- During the Antall government, when he was Secretary of State for Culture, I was in my early twenties, so I only knew him as a public figure through the lenses of the media. My mother, a textile designer later told me that she met György Fekete when he was an art teacher at the time during her university years, and that he was her industrial consultant. I only met him in person after my election as an academician. I first talked with him more seriously when as an academic around the fall of 2015 I asked for his presidential help to accomplish my beloved plan, the establishment of the Symphony Orchestra of Hungarian Musicians Across the Border. He was very open and supportive: with the support of HAA we made the project a success, the orchestra was formed in the summer of 2017, and has been performing every summer since then.
When the period of preparing for the reelection of officials came in 2017 he, as I feel this to be right, was spectacularly absent from this process. He certainly had an opinion but did not take a position on the candidates of academic posts. When one of my fellow academicians unexpectedly nominated me as President in June (and after a few days of thinking I accepted the nomination), I naturally asked for an appointment with him so that I could introduce myself to him as a presidential candidate. We had a very good, long and instructive conversation, but he kept an equal distance, I think, from all the candidates. But since I was elected president, we developed a very good partnership and even friendship in a matter of moments. I learned a lot, a great deal from him over the last two years. I often asked him questions and he always gave me very good advice.

- When HAA became a public body, he was attacked very much for some of his statements. How did you experience these?
- Like I said, I wasn't close to him at that time, but we talked a lot later, sometimes about that too. My opinion on this now is as follows: motivated by a desire to do the common good, he also embarked on a career in public life at a time when one had to read a page and a half of reasoning or a full interview. Or at least in the euphoria of system change, we had illusions about this: in the Hungarian People's Republic it was possible to think before 1989, but about a lot of important things strictly in ourselves. (I suggest the younger generation for checking up on the contemporary joke "The Five Laws of Socialism," and if they find it, take it bloody seriously right away - because good jokes are just that.) Back then one hoped for a lot around the first free elections. And lately, at the more and more astonishingly accelerated pace of media, which has been pushing communication in an incredibly superficial direction, his much-quoted half-sentences, typically snatched and glued together from completely different contexts, received a great deal of criticism. Reading the interviews with him in their entirety gives a completely different picture of him. And now I'm not even talking about the concept of "fake news" created by the media. When, for example, I was confronted with such "quotes" by him during my interviews, which were mainly unknown to me because they simply did not exist (later we checked these very closely). He never anywhere said something to which I was then asked to react. Se non è vero, è ben trovato: just as the alleged plowing and salting of Carthage in history books…
So for anyone who has questions about György Fekete's presidential statements, I respectfully suggest reading the interviews with him in full, or read his own writings. For example his book entitled Homeward - Report on the Wanderings was recently published. This unfolds the image of a classical artist-intellectual who is understanding and sensitive to others.
On several occasions - personally to me, but also in his interviews - he said anyway: he was not happy that he had to take on a political role in the 1990s, although he considered it a necessary and right decision. Not only was he not happy about this, because it took a lot of time and energy away from artistic work, but because he resented from the bottom of his heart the attitude often demanded in politics that things should be accepted or rejected en bloc on the basis of political affiliation. He certaily liked to see the thing itself: that's how we knew him. As a member of the final committee of the HAA's three-year scholarship, for example, he evaluated the applicants' work with incredible attention and empathy keeping in mind only the standard, the artistic quality.
Obviously, there were very important values ​​for him: he couldn't accept it, for example, when someone insulted national or Christian identity, disguising it as free art. By the way, I do not accept this either, and I even firmly reject it: I see artistic freedom as a complete misunderstanding, often based on ignorance, but often conscious and conceptual. György Fekete was a deeply believing Calvinist. I am a believing Catholic, and Christian values ​​were a common ground for us.

- To what extent did HAA succeed in fulfilling the mission that Imre Makovecz and then György Fekete dreamed of?
- I did not know Imre Makovecz personally, although we had many acquaintances in common. So in answer to this question I can only say what my vision is for the mission of HAA - which is very much in line with that of György Fekete. The point can be summed up in the fact that the academic representation of Hungarian art, which was taken away in the late 1940s, at the beginning of the darkest period of the Soviet occupation and the communist dictatorship, had to be returned. It is well known that Zoltán Kodály was the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences when the art departments were expelled under Soviet pressure, so the character of the Academy, once founded by Széchenyi, changed fundamentally. Kodály could only do that he did not go to the "decisive" general assembly of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences as chairman. This was an extremely emphatic acton on his part, a sign that he did not agree at all with the ongoing processes. Only more than 40 years later opened an opportunity for the reexamination of this catastrophic decision when the political landslide of system change paved the way for this.
The deeply unjust and unjustifiable dictate of Trianon cut the limbs of millennial Hungary 100 years ago without anesthesia: for a hundred years we have had neither hands nor feet, yet this is how we sometimes participate in running races, which are so difficult to win. It is easy to see that in the absence of significant physical resources, we need to focus on the intellectual space, science, and the arts. It is absolutely right that Hungarian science has academic representation, and Hungarian art had to be given it back. I also deeply agreed with György Fekete on this. He said many times that we are in a construction process: this was emphatically true for 2017, when I took over the presidential baton from him at the end of the year. Today, in terms of infrastructure, HAA has much less to build, so we, too, can focus even more on the spiritual matters. We have a lot of innovative ideas and suggestions for Hungarian cultural policy.

- Returning to the transformation into a public body: there was a consensus that Hungarian art deserves academic rank, the disagreement was why it should not be an academy operating within the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
- Here, too, there are several basic errors. When it first emerged seriously after 1990 that something could and should be done for this, Domokos Kosáry (then president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences) and Imre Makovecz sat down to discuss this. The two excellent people, who thought quite differently about the world and were quite self-righteous, got into a serious disagreement, and then they both chose their own paths. In 1992 Makovecz founded the Hungarian Academy of Arts as a civic association, and two weeks later Kosáry registered the Széchenyi Academy as an organization attached to the secretariat of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. So the Hungarian Academy of Arts was established first, then the Széchenyi Academy was established, all of this is confirmed by documents.
From 1992 to 2011 (until HAA became a public body) the Hungarian Academy of Arts and the Széchenyi Academy existed in parallel. Out of these 19 years Hungary had left-wing governments for 12 years, with a two-thirds parliamentary mandate during Gyula Horn's term as prime minister. Again speaking on my own behalf: as an independent artist in my thirties, I would have been personally glad to have any left-wing government making a large-scale commitment to Hungarian art, which would have been very good. They didn't do that. However, when a Hungarian government had a two-thirds mandate again in 2010, then in a right-wing Parliament, they embarked on this great task and set up the public body in 2011. I think that was a very good decision.

- György Fekete mentioned in an interview in 2013 that he had plenty of plans for the next ten years as well. Among these the establishment of a Hungarian architectural museum was a matter of heart for him. Do you think this can be accomplished?
- Undoubtedly, we have been given a difficult task: to "re-establish" a museum that has existed on paper for 50 years, topping it with the complex problems of Hungarian monument protection is no small challenge. But we are also making good progress: and although the unexpected loss of our Honorary President makes our work particularly difficult, our aim is to create a truly modern 21st-century museum, both in terms of its spiritual content and its physical infrastructure.
György Fekete was a man who would have had good and beautiful ideas not only for the next ten, but also for the next two hundred and fifty years, and he could have worked on these enthusiastically and successfully. He turned to everyone with incredible devotion, diligence, attention - I knew him as an extraordinary person.
Of the decisions he made as a politician in the 1990s, it is customary today to highlight the founding of the National Cultural Fund. Indeed this in itself was a major achievement comparable with a significant oeuvre. Even his then disputed decisions, looking back from the perspective of so much time, proved to be clearly correct. I am convinced that this will happen with the elements of his presidency that have been criticized. He had an extremely rich career, his diligence and tireless desire for action can serve a brilliant example for anyone. And we, the academicians of HAA are proud to have had such a president.

The interview was made by Ágnes Bálint (kultura.hu)
2020. május 5.