Boycotts and government PR: The debate on Hungarian state-sponsored klezmer concerts in North America

This past weekend, Anna Bayer, who runs a Facebook group called Hungarian Americans for Democracy, noted in what was a very tame post, that a North American concert of the Glass House Orchestra and Frank London, a musician and composer of Klezmer music, were being used by Hungary’s openly and virulently racist, authoritarian Orbán government as a public relations stunt, to help repair its image. Ms. Bayer wrote:

“This concert tour is sponsored by the Hungarian government. They use Frank London, the Glass House Orchestra, Muzsikas and many other great artists to disguise the racist, anti-Semitic politics of the Hungarian government. Please note that the (…) concert of Muzsikás and the Glass House Orchestra (Sixth and I) is part of the Orbán government’s PR in the US and Canada.”

That sounds to me like a completely innocuous message, an expression of concern about a government that is using klezmer concerts in North America to move the attention away from the fact that Fidesz has just finished plastering the country with nearly a thousand billboards that overtly connect immigrants with terrorism and suggest in no uncertain terms to Hungarians, that foreigners are trying to steal their jobs, destroy their national culture and break their laws. Fidesz tells us: foreigners and minorities are criminals by default, so be afraid! But once you’re done fretting, rest assured that our government will save the country from the strangers and minorities lurking at our gates. A Catholic priest in Hungary called this government hate campaign “poison.” These billboards offer the backdrop to the government-sponsored Holocaust commemorations and Klezmer concerts. And Ms. Bayer simply pointed out that the arts community is being used as a prop and communications device at these concerts.

I didn’t think that Ms. Bayer’s comments would elicit vitriol from Mr. London, and also a complete misinterpretation of what she wrote (she never insinuated in any way that Mr. London was a racist or an anti-Semite).

Mr. London posted the following response to Facebook:

“I don’t know what kind of idiot or who this brainless person named Anna Bayer is, but I have to admit that I have never been called ‘Racist, anti-Semitic’ before. Kind of enjoying it. Thinking about how exploring, celebrating and performing the particular folk music traditions of Hungarian Jews (and Roma, Carpathians, Transylvanians and Hungarians) is ‘anti-semitic’ or ‘racist’? This semi-sentient person is referring to an amazing concert of Hungarian Jewish music by the legendary group Muzsikás and the new avant-traditional Austro-Hungarian band, the Glass House Orchestra. (…) By the warped perverse logic of this person, the fact that the Hungarian Cultural Institute is sponsoring it damns this remarkable event. (…) There are many people in Hungary who reject the Orban government’s philosophies and policies, and celebrate and embrace the gorgeous multicultural landscape that is Hungary.”

It’s wonderful that there are artists like Mr. London who play a major role in preserving and celebrating a part of Hungary’s multicultural heritage. But it’s naive to think that the widely criticized, deeply controversial, recently condemned (by the European Parliament) Hungarian government infamous for putting up billboards that would give France’s Front National a run for its money would not use such a concert of Klezmer music and the Holocaust commemorations in general as a public relations blitz aimed at repairing or at least moderating its image abroad. Art is not produced, exhibited, financed and enjoyed in a vacuum. Hungary’s chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and its Klezmer concerts serve political public relations purposes. Given the Orbán government’s dismal perception internationally (and especially in Washington), it is to be expected that such concerts would not be an example of l’art pour l’art.

Boycotting major cultural and sports events, in order to protest authoritarian regimes, isn’t a new phenomenon. There will always be talented artists who are willing to cooperate with  authoritarian regimes, perhaps because they are not looking beyond their art, at how their work is being used for didactic political purposes. They have the right to cooperate, just as activists have the right to protest these government efforts, no matter how beautiful, rare or valuable the art being presented or performed happens to be. Mr. London’s embrace of what truly is a gorgeous historical multicultural landscape in Hungary is commendable, but his name is being used to camouflage the screaming billboards and slogans that now deface that landscape.

Photo: newmusicworld.org

Photo: newmusicworld.org

7 Comments

  1. Charlie London says:

    “I have never been called ‘Racist, anti-Semitic’ before. Kind of enjoying it.”

    Mr London (!) clearly has trouble with his reading and understanding – I bet his lips move when he reads.

    And “kind of enjoying it” shows extreme ignorance of the suffering of minorities and crass indifference to the history of his music genre.

    Stick to music, Mr London.

    Politics and humanitarian considerations are not your bag.

    You give Klezmer music a bad name.

  2. András B. Göllner says:

    The political purpose of RCA Viktor’s Klezmer road-show is clear: to divert attention from the company’s horror show back home. It is foolhardy, however, to take this out on the musicians themselves. Rather than boycotting them, one should attend, give them a well deserved and warm applause, but go to the concert half an hour earlier, invite some journalists along, and walk about with big placards that transmit simple messages such as the following:

    “Three Cheers to Klezmer. Bronx Cheer for Orbán”.
    “Respect for diversity is not a PR stunt but a sacred trust that begins at home !!”
    “Stop treating multiculturalism as a disease to be eradicated in Hungary Mr Orbán !”
    “America is not your Potemkyn village, Mr Orbán !”

    In addition to this, perhaps Anna Bayer and her friends could hand out flyers to the people in the concert hall, which highlights in a few simple sentences the Orbán regime’s North American efforts to whitewash its anti-democratic practices in Hungary.

    A small comment to the author of the essay: It is a misnomer to label the Orbán regime an “openly and virulently racist” regime. That’s overkill. One of the defining characteristics of the Orbán regime is that it is NOT openly racist. This regime desperately tries to hide or mask it’s racism, its anti-democratic character – and the Klezmer road-show is one of the tools it uses for this purpose. It is also not the engineer of virulence. It simply accommodates it, encouraging others to do its dirty work. Gábor Vona and the Jobbik are the products of FIDESZ’s incubator house. The reason why RCA Viktor gets away with murder is simple: it wears a mask. Orbán’s is the most deceptive predatory regime within the EU today. It is, as Jan Werner Müller of Princeton University quite aptly said, a Trojan Horse.

  3. The reason why RCA Viktor gets away with murder is simple: it wears a mask. Orbán’s is the most deceptive predatory regime within the EU today.

    Now precisely THIS is the hate-mongering style and content why, the Hungarian electorate would any time vote for Orbán than the “tolerant” leftlib, on top of latter’s utter political and economical incompetence.

  4. ” The reason why RCA Viktor gets away with murder is simple: it wears a mask.”
    I don’t think he eventually will be able to get away with it. He is busy hunting down all his old friends who seem to have enough of him, and as for the mask, it’s not because he is wearing it’s because only very few can see him through and no one has torn the mask down yet. But it’s going to happen. Maybe just here.

  5. Could someone who attended the Klezmer Show Show (sic) yesterday report what Irwin Cotler said in his speech?

  6. The Witch of Endor says:

    I think I’m going to postpone my European vacation for awhile…I have this uneasy feeling that things aren’t going to be terribly welcoming very soon. Between the USA’s plans to relaunch the Cold War to keep the dollars flowing into Dicky C’s Halliburton coffers, Greece about to pull out of the EU and shut its borders (per a dear Greek friend heading home to Greece this week) leaving its fascists free to wave their flags and do their worst, and the fact that I’m sure that there is a road show of Cabaret rehearsing Tomorrow Belongs To Me at a Jobbik keg party in Tiszavasvári this week, resplendent in their Arrow Cross uniforms, my Spidey sense is all atwitter.
    Is there really no one left in Europe to stop this horror from happening AGAIN, or is racial hatred just endemic in the population there?

    • “…to stop this horror from happening AGAIN…”? It looks to me they are just working on it to happen again. I just don’t know if they want chaos or some controlled “demolition” – if they can do anything for a better outcome after all.

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