The concept of folk art is complex. It includes the peasantry’s built environment, furnishings, clothing, the system of decorated objects (used for the expression of symbolic content, as elements of customs and rituals, on holidays and special occasions), the aesthetics embodied in objects (body ideals, shaping their environs), and the ornamental repertoire of decorative arts that show various historical and regional influences. As part of the intellectual knowledge of the peasantry traditionally transmitted through generations, folk art includes genres of oral folklore,1 but the vocal and instrumental music and dances of communal and family rituals, celebrations, social gatherings and merrymaking associated with the church calendar and marking the transitions of human life are also an important part of the culture.
The term ‚folk art’ is controversial and inaccurate in many respects, and its use is justified only by its common use in vernacular and scholarly language. The word ‚folk’ and its combinations, such as ‚folk knowledge,’2 ‚folk art,’ ‚folk costume,’ ‚folk dance,’ etc., are expressions peculiar to the linguistic thinking of the second half of the 19th century, which are now considered inaccurate and are becoming increasingly displaced from social-historical terminology which requires precise technical terms and now prefers the expression ‚peasant art.’
In history and ethnography, there have been decades-long debates about what (and whom) the ethnographic concept of ‚folk’ covers, and how its content can be defined from economic and socio-historical perspectives.3 How is the value system, culture use, representational and prestige sphere of certain layers of European late-medieval, early modern feudal societies organized into structures that can be called traditional, and how does this compare to the traditional culture of the peasant strata and serve as a model for them?4 Since when, in which period, which contexts, which regions of Europe can we speak of a broader vernacular, popular culture?5 Where is the border between popular, provincial, craft, homecraft, local peasant, applied folk art,6 naive art and art brut (outsider art) creations?7 And last but not least is the question whether the expression ‚folk art’ can be used in the interpretation of contemporary phenomena.
Throughout history, until the turn of the 19-20th century, the vast majority of Hungary’s population made a living in agriculture and animal husbandry; they lived in villages, in market towns – less commonly in settlements on chartered territories – and a small portion was occupied in the handicraft sector serving the needs of the countryside. In different historical periods, the rural population can be divided into several layers and groups based on economic stratification, legal status, settlement type, dominant activity, income source (household structure). At the end of the 19th century, this population collectively called peasantry constituted approximately 80-90% of society, and its proportion was above 50% even after World War II and up until the communist collectivization.
Its quality of life was defined by what sociologists call a ‚value-oriented’ and ‚subsistence’ mentality (as opposed to a market-oriented, acquisitive, amassing habitus). Their relatively closed local communities were self-reliant even in the sense that they created their own community order, institutions, and specific cultural expressions. The individual was surrounded by a rich network of contacts, and their lives were made more bearable by replacing the lack of material goods by non-material community values such as social gatherings, solidarity, reciprocity, common moral, liturgical and cultural norms and practices, the strong emotional ties of belonging to a small community (family, kinship, fictive kinship, neighborhood, age group, occupational, leisure, local and regional group).
The expressive, ritualistic, aesthetic, and artistic expressions of the culture of these layers and groups are sometimes more independent, other times more closely related to the expressions of the material and intellectual culture of other social classes (elite, middle class), the style periods and trends of high art.8
Emerging from late medieval and early modern antecedents, Hungarian peasant culture, diverse in its regional variants, flourished in the 19th and early 20th century9, and the process of its 20th-century transformation and disintegration has been ongoing until recently. The transformation of rural society – due to industrialization, modernization, urbanization processes and ideologized agrarian policies dictated by political regimes – and the process of abandoning peasant culture (acculturation) were inevitable.10 Thus, from the second half of the 20th century, it is less and less relevant to speak of folk or, more precisely, peasant art.
Historical Hungary in the Carpathian Basin, the geographic center of Europe, has been receptive to influences coming from all directions, and it was characterized by complexity in the cultural-geographic sense. Numerous phenomena have had their northernmost or southernmost, easternmost or westernmost areas of distribution here. The overlapping distribution areas present a particularly dense structure and concurrence of certain phenomena.
The folk art of the various landscapes preserved and combined a number of historical, stylistic and ethnic influences. The regional and local variations of cultural elements preserved the imprints of many prior (European/Eurasian) historical, ethnic and stylistic influences as inclusions. Thus, relict phenomena often form cultural complexes of phenomena in an intricate way, combining with each other. From these, timelines can be drawn with the help of scientific research.
Part of this preserved historical legacy originates in a time in European culture before the processes of embourgeoisement and urbanization homogenized and simplified art into entertainment, and it helps to recall the former motif abundance that has since vanished elsewhere but is still preserved in Europe’s rare peripheries and relict regions (such as variants of Renaissance couples’ dances preserved in the Transylvanian folk dance material).
Over the centuries, the Kingdom of Hungary has become a multiethnic country. Essentially until modern nation-building endeavors, there existed in the region a centuries-old and proven practice of coexistence striving for complementary occupational specialization and cooperation. In multiethnic areas and contact zones, ethnic groups living side by side specialized in complementary activities, and their mutual economic interdependence fostered accepting and cooperative behavioral patterns and a series of culture-forming interactions in everyday human relationships as well. Therefore, in many areas of folk culture, complex interactions and common cultural elements can be observed in the region (e.g., the Hungarian-Romanian-Saxon- Gypsy-Jewish-Armenian interactions in the culture of the multiethnic Transylvanian Plain/Mezőség).
Surprisingly, in the Middle Ages, the difference between a nobleman’s and a peasant’s lifestyle was not as conspicuous as in the 17-19th centuries. The more uniform folk culture of the Middle Ages, while adopting European influences, preserved many oriental elements, which the nomadic ancestors of the Hungarians brought with them to the Carpathian Basin at the turn of the 9th and 10th centuries from the Proto-Turkic peoples of the Steppes. About 350 years after the Hungarian conquest, the oriental peoples (Cumanians/Kun and Jazygians/Jász) arriving on the Great Plain with the last wave of steppe migration in the 13th century strengthened the survival of oriental elements in the medieval Hungarian kingdom. Some elements of this archaic knowledge and tangible heritage persisted for a long time in animal husbandry, horse culture (e.g., oriental saddle), warfare, leather processing (the so-called ‘Hungarian style’ of hide tanning with alum), textiles, clothing, music and dance (leaping and instrumental dances), and in folklore. Some pre-Christian beliefs (e.g., táltos belief, dual soul belief) and certain folklore genres, such as nursery rhymes, dirges, ritual songs (e.g., regölés minstrelsy), or some folktale types and motifs (sky-high tree, Fehérlófia/ Son of the White Mare) persisted until the 20th century. The basic melodic repertoire of the pentatonic Hungarian folk music is also a peculiar ethnic characteristic whose parallels should not be sought in the immediate European surroundings, but father east, among the Steppe peoples and in Central Asia.
Despite all its local peculiarities, with the adoption of Christianity, Hungary committed itself to the Western European social and economic model. The feudal legal status of the bonded peasantry, along with the right to move freely, aligned with the western pattern. Hungary’s late medieval flourishing was influenced by several factors, but one of the driving forces behind the development of market towns, the market and industry, and the balanced lifestyle of the general population was the more liberal serf peasant development coinciding with Western Europe. In the Middle Ages, a number of European innovations found their way into the lifestyle (e.g., in horticulture, carpentry, ceramics, tiled stove making and weaving) and intellectual culture (e.g., ballads, certain types of songs and folktales, Renaissance twirling dances) of commoners.
In the 16-17th c enturies, t he d evelopment w as t hwarted b y t he 150-year O ttoman occupation, on the one hand, which desolated hitherto prosperous regions, and by the Hungarian nobility’s desire to monopolize the agricultural market and to curtail the rights of peasants and burghers on the other hand, and the period resulted in the extreme impoverishment and, not incidentally, the physical destruction of half of the Hungarian population. However, in Habsburg-ruled Northern and Western Hungary (less exposed to acts of war) and the Principality of Transylvania (a loose vassal of the Ottoman Empire), this period was the golden age of Reformation and Renaissance. Late Renaissance art, exceptionally long-lived in Hungary, did not remain within the gates of the noble courts but extended to the whole society and became the determinative style of the material and intellectual environment of everyday life.
At the same time, with the efficient involvement of merchants, oriental and Levantine cultural goods flowed unhindered from the Ottoman Empire to Hungary. The late Renaissance Hungarian floral textile and clothing culture integrated the oriental
influences just as much as those from Western and Southern Europe, and created a sort of local style. Many regions of Transylvanian folk culture (e.g., Kalotaszeg, Torockó, Szék, Transylvanian Saxons, Csángós of Hétfalu) have until recently preserved this late Renaissance style of aesthetic. Not only because in Transylvania, compared to the cent-ral regions of Hungary, some older customs have survived longer, but perhaps also because Transylvania found its aesthetic ideal in the crystallized style of its historical golden age – a multi-religious, multiethnic independent state. Through the centuries, craftsmen and peasant creators looked up to the designs, symbolism, motifs and use of color in the art of churches and castles as an example. The carpentry art of church turrets and belfries that built upon late medieval traditions, the pictorial representations in church interiors and graveyards that changed during the Reformation, the decorative elements of church furnishings, pulpits, painted cassette ceilings, and the embroidery motifs of Communion Table linens have all had a significant effect on the tastes of the peasant, rural and urban population. The traces of this can be detected from ornate wood carvings to glazed ornamental pots, from the varied and symbolically meaningful festive outfits to the painted-etched ornamentation of Easter eggs, and the woven-embroidered motifs of textiles. Transylvania’s most beautiful outfits with their slender, elongated shape, Renaissance style shirts, the embroidery motifs and ‚pleating’ of the yoke, and front-laced bodices preserved the memory of this late Renaissance dress culture. Transylvanian instrumental folk music and the configuration of a string ensemble itself reflect the musical life of the chamber musicians of noble courts. Transylvania’s most beautiful improvisational couples’ dances, the so-called twirling style dances with abundant patterns (Hungarian, Romanian) are also guardians of the fashion of this era.
The exsanguinated central areas of Hungary were liberated from Ottoman rule at the turn of the 17-18th century in an international effort led by the Habsburgs, who then treated the country as a province conquered by force of arms. It took decades to re-cultivate the desolated lands and to repopulate the deserted villages and towns. An era of political reconciliation and lifestyle consolidation came during the long reign of Maria Theresa (1740–1780). When decorative prestige items crafted by artisans began to appear in peasant households, it was a sign of the economic recovery of the population. (An eloquent proof of this is that the earliest objects of ethnographic museum collections date back to the middle of the 18th century, and the number of ornamented objects of peasant origins gradually increases from then on.) The spread of 18th- and 19th-century agricultural innovations, the grain and wool boom of the early 19th century, the cultivation of fields gained by river regulation, and a series of reforms that relaxed the feudal dependence of the peasantry were all beneficial and provided an economic and social foundation for the flourishing of folk art in the mid-19th century.
The new peasant taste first spread to the regions more open to innovation, then to the entire Hungarian language area; its essence lied in the accumulation of decorative objects, the multiplication of festive occasions, the emergence of artistic creativity and experimentation. This is when peasant houses first started to make use of a ‚front’ or ‚clean room,’11 which exhibited the bridal trousseau of painted furniture, textiles and glazed ceramics, and which they only used on major holidays.
There were conspicuous differences between the culture of the peasantry and the nobility as well as urban population of the time. Although the peasantry sought to emulate contemporary elite culture, we cannot speak of simple appropriation or following fashion. The peasantry did not just adopt external influences – they shaped them to their own image through creative forces. In comparison to the western regions of Europe, this relatively late-flowering Central European peasant culture manifested in robust, articulate forms of expression with distinct, original aesthetics, greatly divergent from high culture. From the middle of the 19th century, the peasant self-awareness gaining strength with the emancipation of serfs motivated a gust of creativity in various genres of creative arts, which was expressed in numerous ways from music to dance to oral folklore.
Besides a complexity of genres, this era of folk art (which ethnography calls ‘new style’) is characterized by a diversity of regional and even local varieties, nuanced expression, and rich symbolic content. Some genres feature a high degree of variability, creativity and improvisation.
The more uniform, ritualistic and communal culture of the preceding feudal period had diversified, the macroregional zones of the former guild and industrial centers dispersing into microregional versions. Hungarian ethnography considers at least 200 regions, but within them almost every settlement has created its own special features, primarily in terms of clothing, which has become an important means of expressing local consciousness. (Although their folkloristic discovery caused some of the famous regional styles – such as Kalocsa and Mezőkövesd – to be almost stereotypically identified with Hungarian folk art in public thinking, folk culture can only be grasped and understood in its regional varieties.)
The rich set of objects expressed the nuanced contents through a multifaceted signal system. With the growing number of garments, there appeared a variety of materials, colors and ornaments in women’s wardrobes, all of which carried a special meaning. By pairing various pieces of garments, the wearer was able to create a variety of outfits, and the variations within the whole community could be innumerable. The outfit indicated the wearer’s age, marital status, social rank, hinted at the occasion, the locale, the mood of the wearer, and competent insiders – i.e., members of the community – could read them like an open book.
The importance of the role of individuality increased in this period. The intent of expressing artistic self-awareness intensified, and more and more creators could be identified by name. Peasant art was no longer, or not just, community-based art; it allowed for the creativity of exceptional creative personalities, but in a way that such creativity could still be fulfilled within the traditional frameworks. There was a slew
of stylistically diverse versions of creative performances, not only within a region but even within a community. Due to the advance of individual talent, some genres were characterized by a rich repertoire, a high degree of variation (embroidery), and even improvisation (couples’ and men’s dances). Despite the fact that the improvisational nature observed in many of the genres allowed for self-expression, individuality did not yet break the boundaries, it remained within them, it was not yet individualized. Exceptionally skilled creators, fashion-dictating ‘famous girls’, innovative seamstresses, skillful craftsmen, storytellers, song bearers, ‘prime’ dancers and musicians were all identified by name in the communities, in their immediate and wider surroundings. (It is well-known to researchers of folk culture that the most prominent bearers of certain genres, the guardians of archaic knowledge strata and archaicisms can be certain social, occupational or ethnic groups, such as servants, shepherds, or Gypsies. The deservedly acclaimed Hungarian school of performer-centered folkloristics, ethno-musicology and ethno-choreology has explored the exceptionally rich – even in international comparison - knowledge and repertoire of numerous creative personalities.12)
Creativity has been manifested not only in tangible material culture; music and dance have also undergone a serious style change. The 19th century was the era of the fresh tempo giusto csárdás and verbunk and their triumphant spread throughout the whole of the Carpathian Basin and even Central Europe. Changes occurred in genres of verbal folklore, too, in favor of the more personal lyrical songs and soldier songs instead of the earlier songs associated with rituals and customs. At the same time, the anti-Habsburg war of independence of 1848–49, supported by the general public, created the expressions and symbolism of a unifying national consciousness in peasant art, too.
After the Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867, the economic and legal modernization of the country accelerated significantly. The labor demand of the rapidly developing industry, mining, urbanization, railroad construction, river regulation, and the capitalizing landed estate system led to the increased stratification of rural society and the impoverishment of large masses. Part of the crisis syndrome was the large-scale emigration to North America (starting in the 1880s), as many hoped that their earnings would provide a more secure basis for their peasant existence at home.
In general, it is true that the adoption of lifestyle innovations accelerated from the 1880s and 1890s. As a result of versatile acculturation effects, the abandonment of peasant culture among Hungarian and non-Hungarian peoples of the Carpathian Basin was a long process taking place throughout the 20th century. The regionally and locally diverse pattern of peasant culture also depended on the changing dynamics of the acceptance of innovations. The willingness of certain microregions, local communities, and peasant strata to accept or reject changes varied. Differences in mentality manifested in the divergent responses and adaptation strategies to the challenges of modernization. This is one of the reasons why the process of the disintegration of traditional culture in the country’s different ethnic and regional groups can be described in different periods, with different motivations and stories.
It can be observed in many places that traditional culture flares up with a last blaze before its disintegration. It was exactly through industrialization, urbanization and modernization that the financial background for the excessive use of objects was created. At the same time, while adopting some of the bourgeois models, the peasantry’s more vivid interaction with a socially divergent medium and its contrast experience also strengthened its own identity. Therefore, as can be seen in many examples, before the ‘demise’ of peasant culture, the community turns to its own culture with special attention and awareness (e.g., the ring of horticultural villages surrounding big metropolitan centers that supply the cities with food, such as the villages along the Galga river and Gödöllő near Budapest.). This late ‘rustic’ style was excessively ornate, the entire surface of the object being covered in fragmented, overcrowded patterns, the factory-made materials and industrial paints creating a robust, vibrant color effect. The aesthetic principles of this late peasant artifact creation were determined by local tastes, which may appear to be of questionable quality to the external, connoisseur eye approaching it through the aesthetic discernment of high art. However, a researcher with a social anthropological approach to the phenomenon should be aware that we can speak of a living peasant art and wear as long as the local community that creates the culture has the need, the knowledge, the skill, and an active community control based on which creators – be it men and women producing the objects of their physical environment and their trousseau manually, with home techno-logy, or craftsmen doing market production based on the demands of peasant buyers – can embed, adapt and shape to their likeness the external influences in accordance with the coordinate system of the local aesthetic.
During the period between the two world wars, rural Hungary was struggling with escalating social problems, and the agricultural population was suffocating under the constraints of the semi-feudal landed estate system. The larger part of the countryside was by then characterized by a more urban style environment, from which, in isolated instances, the peasant population of some microregions and settlements had managed to withdraw itself for a short while. (At the same time, whether the rural population wore colorful or lackluster urban clothes, locals called their own garments “peasant clothing” and considered it their own, so it possessed the emotional surplus and identifying ability of “our wear” and outwardly clearly showed the social affiliation of its wearer.) In communities where an almost anachronistic late blossoming of peasant culture occurred, it was primarily women’s wear that became more colorful, and the system of dressing became capable of expressing more nuanced content than ever before. In many cases, men’s wear was shaped by First World War experience and the more mobile lifestyle of men. At the same time, men encouraged and created the economic basis for their wives and daughters to express their social rank and awareness through traditional clothing. (Besides the modernizing and socially more active men, the role of conveying traditional values in the life of the family and community was fulfilled by women, as custodians taking care of clothing, textiles and furnishings, the kitchen, childcare, family celebrations, and religious life.)
In some places, the staged and festival-like showcasing of clothing that served to attract the attention of the urban tourist has also become typical (e.g., Boldog, Tura, Kalocsa). The Gyöngyösbokréta (Pearly bouguet) movement of the 1930s and 40s reinforced this phenomenon, bringing village dance groups to Budapest from all over the country (including the reannexed territories) to present their local traditions to the capital’s upper-class audiences on the stage of the City Theater and at the St. Stephen’s Day procession.
Paradoxically, alongside and in spite of the transformation of the peasantry in the socio-logical sense, peasant self-awareness, value systems, worldview and culture invariably remained in the focal point of the aspirations of rural populations for a long time. The embodiment of the ‚self-reliant’ farming life – in which a self-sufficiently farming peasant makes decisions regarding his own land, animals and work equipment – became the lifestyle and culture of the middle peasantry. This middle peasant existence was an example, a dream to achieve, for millions of people even in the 1950s. (This ideal – of a family estate’s sustaining capacity and facilities being in line with the size and workforce of the family – was achieved only by a few, despite all efforts.)
The abandonment of the superficies of peasant culture was not caused by the cataclysm of the Second World War. In fact, the post-war reconstruction and land distribution actually brought a ‘re-peasantification’ in a sociological sense. The communist revolution in 1948, however, brought the political persecution of the peasantry, its economic undermining, the total social devaluation of the peasant existence, the feeling of „it’s not good to be a peasant”, which not even the Janus-faced cultural policy of the 50s with its demagogic slogan of laborer–peasant friendship and iconic representation of the countryside’s ‚socialist realist’ idyll could ease. The disintegration of peasant society and culture, the abandonment of the identifying superficies of peasant existence intensified at this time, and the forced cooperativization of 1959–61 then definitively and irretrievably swept it away.
The consolidation of the 1960s, mass social mobility, ‘women’s employment’, the politics of raising the standards of living, creating the conditions of socialist ‘consumption’, and the power of the examples broadcast by new media set the village youth at a crossroads. The countryside became culturally divided in the 60s and 70s. The small community of tradition bearers observed the stages of decay with painful awareness. At the same time, even the first generation of „disrobers” (those who abandoned traditional wear) looked back with nostalgia, with strong emotional attachment. „Com-memoration”, chronicling „the way we were” arose as a generational longing. The last of the women to retain their traditional wear but unable to pass down their wardrobe and their knowledge tried to find ways to emblematize the values of the vanishing culture for their families and their surroundings.
From the second half of the 19th century, there was an increasing amount of scholarly attention directed at peasant culture. Hungary is also in an exceptional position in that here, in Central and Eastern Europe, near Germany, on a strong positivist basis and amidst the so-called Volkskunde-type (studying one’s own culture) national sciences, ethnography, musicology and museology have been institutionalized quite early, in the second half of the 19th century. This scholarship looking back on at least 130-150 years of history began, and continued for many decades, at a time when folk culture still functioned as an organic whole, as a system, and the phenomena could still be observed. The archived knowledge that captured the peasant life, the exemplarily documented, organized and analyzed object, image, sound and film collections are exceptionally rich even in international comparison. There have been internationally recognized achievements in certain fields, such as the folk music research conducted by Béla Vikár, Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, László Lajtha and their students, the folk dance research hallmarked by György Martin, the folkloristic personality research connected to Gyula Ortutay and his disciples, the exploration of the world of complex complex system of objects defined by Edit Fél and Tamás Hofer (e.g., monographs about the Reformed Presbyterian village of Átány), or the study of the history of
objects and ethnographic museology associated with Klára Csilléry, Mária Kresz and others. The amount of material collected is also outstanding. The textile collection of the Ethnographic Museum is, for example, the largest in Europe, and its ceramic collection is the largest in Central Europe. The volume of the Hungarian vocal and instrumental music repertoire systematically arranged by melodic type (with about 300,000 collected and 150,000 transcribed melodies) is also globally unique.
In parallel with scholarly interest, folk art has also been the focus of art and public interest from time to time. The discovery of folk art was an important inspiration in the creation of a national culture. The phenomena of ‚folklorism’ are specific products of the convergence of ‚rurality’ and ‚urbanity,’ which indicate the way in which the middle and upper layers of non-peasant society have created an image of the peasantry and its culture that is significantly different from theirs. In the course of building a nation and creating a modern ethno-national culture in the 19-20th centuries, some of the elements of the newly discovered peasant art, hitherto terra incognita, were selected, adapted, stylized and incorporated into the inventory of national culture.13 The newly contextualized, reinterpreted motif/form/theme/sujet received a specific added meaning, symbolic content, and became part of the expression of the national self-image. The image of the countryside sought after and presented by the elite, by artists, scholars and tourists, and the market processes that emerged due to such interest had repercussions in the society of the communities that created the culture, shaping their art and homecraft industry.14
Folk traditions have been discovered and revived in numerous waves, one of which was a grassroots revival movement of folk music, folk dance and folk craft that began in the 1970s at the initiative of urban youth. The ‘táncház (dance house) movement’ was named after its effort to reinterpret the tradition of village dances in an urban environment. The remaining latter-day scenes of peasant culture were reached by the village discovery of the 70s at a time when an old generation possessing traditional knowledge was still alive. The quest for original traditions encouraged the best of the movement to learn
the rich set of dance and music motifs, techniques and performance styles from the last remaining village musicians and dancers in Hungary and beyond its borders, in the villages of lands inhabited by ethnic Hungarians.
The movement that married folk craft, folk music and folk dance offered a refreshing alternative to the ideological, controlled socialist youth activities of the 70s and 80s. The vibrant sound of the newly discovered authentic music, the liberating feeling of improvisational movement, the joy of creative activity, and the social experience of the fellowship of like-minded young people all contributed to a critically minded young generation’s expression of rebellious worldviews. The folk art movement as a pheno-menon can be interpreted as a nostalgic counterculture to the Goulash Communism of the Kádár era.
One of the keys to the success of the movement was the significant intellectual and research guidance,15 which provided the background to the unparalleled work that resulted in amateurs and experts working together (under the leadership of György Martin) to collect and archive a vast treasury of living folk music and dances still found in some parts of the Carpathian Basin. Notable personages of the movement created a special music and dance pedagogical method for transmitting the authentic musical sound and improvisational dance (Sándor Tímár and his disciples), a worthy companion to the Kodály method. Its essence lies in the pedagogical process in which the authentic knowledge (dance, vocal, instrumental) can be learned in a creative and improvisational manner by understanding the stylistic intricacies of voice production, playing method, and performance style. Thus, it results in a living knowledge comparable to native language knowledge and, even if in another context, it ensures the continuity of the transmission of tradition.
The social context may have changed but, similar to village dances, in the cities dancing has remained an improvised, fun community entertainment of young people with live musical accompaniment. The fresh experience of the lively dance discovered by the amateur movement has also transformed theatrical dance art, creating a new dance language, sensibility, and expressiveness.
Since the regional organization of culture has deeper historical roots than the 20th-century national borders, Hungarian folk art cannot be comprehensively understood and represented without taking into account the culture of ethnic Hungarians inha-biting territories that were annexed to neighboring countries in the 1920 collapse of the Monarchy. In Transylvania, where more archaic customs have inherently been preserved, such an example would be Kalotaszeg, one of the most famous Hungarian ethnographic landscapes, which has been among the first to be discovered in the late 19th century and has maintained living folk art traditions to this day, or the village of Sic/Szék on the Transylvanian Heath/Mezőség, one of the last remaining communities in the Carpathian Basin with a living practice of wearing traditional dress – and the example and inspiration of the whole táncház movement – where cultural change has been taking place in front of our eyes over the past 25 years.
It was logical for the táncház movement to turn its interest towards the outlying Hungarian territories, where the minority existential situation and the particular development path of the neighboring countries may have extended the preservation of traditional peasant culture by 30-40 years. Pilgrimage to the sources of living folk culture beyond the national borders also revealed the life situations of the minority existence that were never spoken of before. The mutually supportive cooperation between the movement, the scholarship, and the ‘discovered’ village showing off its own culture was unparalleled.
Members of the so-called nomadic generation folk crafts movement that was gaining ground around the same time were also motivated by the preservation of the traditional knowledge of vanishing crafts. In contrast to the template-based market production practice of socialist-era homecraft cooperatives that left the patterns of folk art devoid of meaning, they explored the deeper, meaningful layers of peasant culture, the possibilities of preserving natural object creation and traditional complex knowledge. They produced textbooks that are indispensable to this day, launched craft workshops, playhouses, creative camps, fairs, exhibitions, and revived several crafts that were on the brink of extinction.
In addition to encouraging the recognition of the values of one’s own traditional culture – but also through the experience of personal encounters in the terrain, in clubs, in art houses, at festivals – it also drew attention to the traditional culture of the nationalities living together, and created an attitude of openness, acceptance, and appreciation of the traditions of other peoples, which has been the peculiarity of the movement from the beginning. Southern Slavic, Romanian, Bulgarian, Greek, Slovakian or Polish Gorale traditions were just as much part of the táncház experience as was the Hungarian music and dance material, and the revival of traditional Gypsy and Jewish music also started within the táncház movement in the 80s.
In parallel with its growing popularity, the táncház has also gained international recog-nition. For diaspora groups of Hungarians throughout the world, especially for the younger generations, the common language of folk music and folk dance has helped build networks and break down boundaries. Indeed, to date, the folk music and folk dance movement is one of the best functioning cultural links for all Hungarians. Furthermore, many international enthusiasts, from Sweden to the Netherlands, Switzerland to Argentina, and from the USA and Canada to Japan, have joined the ranks because of the technical complexity and improvisational character of Hungarian folk dance.
The popularity of Hungarian folk culture was measurable in an international context during the one-time special occasion of Hungary’s presence as guest of honor at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington in 2013. The two-week-long folk culture event on the National Mall in Washington was attended by 1,2 million visitors. The Hungarian festival program – which presented traditional knowledge both on the local tradition bearer level and of the revival movement with the participation of some two hundred outstanding musicians, dancers, craftsmen, cooks, museum educators and ethnographers – was a memorable success. It demonstrated the power with which the authentic, no-frills interpretation of Hungarian folk culture can affect an unbiased audience with no preconceptions.
More than 45 years after its inception, the táncház movement is today a multifaceted, complex and institutionalized movement with countless ensembles, dance houses, clubs, folk art camps, hundreds of children’s and adult dance groups, and various levels of folk music and folk dance instruction from kindergartens to universities. The power of the movement lies, among other things, in that it provides everyone who feels inclined with an artistic and creative activity that can be accessed as part of a democratically available community experience which supports harmonious personality development that emphasizes individual creativity. For ensuring the active, authentic practice of preserved traditions, the UNESCO recognized the „táncház method” in 2011 by inscribing it on the Register of Good Safeguarding Practices as „a Hungarian model for the transmission of intangible cultural heritage”.
Through the UNESCO-initiated institutionalization of the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage, communities that value their traditional knowledge and practices and have the need and established methods for regularly practicing them and transmitting them can be added to the national or international representative list of intangible cultural heritage. Several of the once famous ethnographic landscapes, such as Kalocsa and Mezőkövesd,16 can be found on the national list, most being notable not only for their previous acclaim, but also for their current creative spirit which is still nurtured by the surviving tradition of a mentality and aesthetic need emphasizing the value of artistic expressiveness in its value order, which created the once distinctive culture.
In the last 25 years, dynamic changes have also taken place in the more traditionalist areas of the Carpathian Basin beyond the borders of Hungary, such as Transylvania’s last token landscapes with traditional garb, once the ‘pilgrimage sites’ discovered in the momentum of the táncház movement. The process, nature and logic of culture change differ in many respects from the processes that took place in Hungary some decades earlier. There are examples of young people who – while still enjoying the opportunities of an expanded world (and the consumer goods globalization brings) like anyone else in the world – are trying to encourage the revival of the tradition by consciously returning to it while their grandparents, from whom they can learn, are still around. In many cases, family and community rites of passage are accompanied by a system of customs that is more nuanced than the one in Hungary, in which a set of traditional clothes still plays an important symbolic role. The material culture, the dual (modern and traditional) prestige hierarchy of the trousseau helps to preserve and recreate through ‘demand’ some of the traditional objects. The main community institutions, the church and the school, which also call for the preservation of traditions, remain important public spaces for local minority public life. Certain particularly significant elements of tradition fit harmoniously in the line of customary occasions. The next 10 to 20 years will determine whether the surviving/revived tradition will continue to be successfully transmitted and accepted. Of the once rich clothing system, will at least one special occasion costume-like outfit of a fixed formal design that can express the wearer’s regional/local/ethnic identity survive? And will any of the characteristics of these emblematic ethnographic landscapes survive in the growing ring of business districts, industrial and residential parks around Cluj-Napoca or Târgu-Mureş?
Since the regime change, not only the revival folk dance and folk music life have been institutionalized in Hungary, but the contemporary folk handicrafts movement as well. The experience of the last decades has shown that Hungarian craftsmanship – just like the táncház movement – is unique even on an international level. With more than 4,000 members, NESZ (Association of Hungarian Folk Artists), the organizer of the long-established Festival of Folk Arts in the Buda Castle, is an umbrella organization for folk crafts in the Carpathian Basin. As a non-governmental advocacy organization, however, its task is far more than that. NESZ and the Heritage House, also founded after the regime change, play an important role of guidance, quality control, taste making and mentoring through courses, grant opportunities, contests, exhibitions, and a system of rating, jurying and remuneration. Yet, despite all civil efforts, the state of handicrafts in Hungary deserves more governmental17 and public attention.18
Recently, in addition to the traditional crafts movement, young college graduates of applied arts and architecture have been experimenting with the re-thinking of folk traditions. There are many architects, fashion designers,19 textile artists, jewelers and designers who are bringing back the aesthetics, shapes and colors of peasant objects into our everyday life, into our environment in a competent and discerning manner.
Today’s village tourism, rural development and Hungaricum movement are also favorable for the revival of local traditions in a festival-like manner, for the emblematization of certain elements of tradition. With environmentally conscious thinking coming to the fore, the environment-friendly practices of former peasant farming are beginning to be explored, and there are examples of the creation of organic farms in harmony with nature, energy efficient eco-houses, and eco-villages as well.
This exhibition offers a selection from the works of the most outstanding masters of contemporary “folk” craftsmanship in the Carpathian Basin. The masterpieces are from the last ten to fifteen years and represent the rich diversity of genre, technique and creativity that characterizes the craft movement. The exhibited objects are works of a creative community that is empowered by impressive professional competence and in-depth ethnographic, historical, and handicraft knowledge. For almost every object, a separate study could shed light on its genesis, on the background of the heritage
being reconsidered in the process of creation. The creators possess a „native” know-ledge of traditional regional styles, techniques, shapes and motifs, while courageously experimenting and seeking to find an individual voice and to create unique works with artistic value. The intention of the organizers of the exhibition was to let the beauty, quality and harmony of the masterpieces presented here draw the audience’s attention to the timeless aesthetics of traditional material culture. Our aspirations, we believe, have reached their goal. The high artistic quality, the proportional, harmonious composition, the meticulous, careful handiwork, and the perfection of the workmanship of this exhibition represent the high standard „customary” of the creators; after all, Hungary is a „superpower of folk art,” which we can rightly be proud of and marvel at time and time again. The objects exude the time spent on them, the touch of the master’s hand, the familiarly unfamiliar taste of the tradition polished by the knowledge and aesthetics of the predecessors but taking a new form through the individual creator’s ideas. These items might be unique personality-reflecting accessories in our wardrobe, and they might create a warm, homely feeling in our everyday environment.
Today, in the midst of easily available and easily discarded products, quality handicraft items that serve and connect the generations represent non-deteriorating values. „Slow food,” „slow travel,” „slow city,” „slow living” ... – to slow down, to allow some time, to pay attention to ourselves and each other: this is the old-new wisdom of living that has become the aspiration of ecologically-minded and health-conscious people. May our lives once again have a tolerable, soul-friendly rhythm and a human-scale dimension. The principle of „less is more” is about quality-conscious choices and true value-orientation. The new renaissance of handicrafts all over the world is a part of this awakening, and Hungarian craftsmanship can also contribute to this value creation with its respect for traditions and superior knowledge.
We hope that there will be more and more people in Hungary who will regard our tangible cultural heritage as a value, able to reconcile it with the frameworks of their contemporary modern lives without any incongruity, and happily enjoy the knowledge and aesthetics that traditions offer.
1 For example, sayings, rhymes, prayers, legends, tales, songs, ballads, texts of dramatic folk customs, greetings, dance poems, etc.
2 ’Népisme’: Czuczor Gergely – Fogarasi János: A magyar nyelv szótára. [Dictionary of the Hungarian Language] Pest: MTA 1862.
3 See, for example: Sándor Eckhardt (ed.): Úr és paraszt a magyar élet egységében. [Lord and Tenant in the Unity of Hungarian Life] Bp. 1941., Lajos Vargyas: Miért és hogyan történeti tudomány a néprajz? [Why and How is Ethnography a Historiography?] Néprajzi Értesítő 1961, XLIII. 5–20., etc. Hereafter, only some authors will be mentioned; no further detailed bibliographic data will be given, as they would exceed the available space.
4 See, e.g., the questions raised by the French Annales School, which studies the history of everyday life, or the works of Fernand Braudel, Paul Zumthor, Roland Barthes, Konrad Köstlin, Bertalan Andrásfalvy, László Kósa.
5 See the writings of Peter Burke, Hermann Bausinger, Jenő Szűcs.
6 Of those listed here, the concept of ‚applied folk arts’ requires clarification. The term was introduced by ethnographer Mária Kresz in 1952 in Győr, at a conference of the Hungarian Ethnographic Society and the Folk Art Institute. The conference opened a new era in the evolution of „living folk art:” they submitted a proposal to the government for the establishment of organizations that would unite still practicing „folk artists.” As a consequence of the political resolution, the National Association of Homecraft and Applied Folk Arts Cooperatives (HISZÖV) and the Applied Folk Arts Council (NIT) were established in 1953. The work of the state-created, partially ideological, socialist homecraft movement, which had been put in the service of current policy, was later much maligned. The term ‚applied folk arts’ may be a peculiar coinage reflecting the period, but it also expresses the transitional status of objects taken out of the traditional ethnographic context – but not yet ‚sui generis’ creations – which refers to the character of functional objects approximating applied arts. The objects lacked the sophistication provided by higher education, but the cooperative workers, who partly brought the traditional knowledge from home and partly acquired it in the courses, were provided the necessary background knowledge by a team of professional designers and experts. After the change of the regime, the homecraft cooperatives were dissolved, with the exception of the Hevesi Handicraft Cooperative.
7 These are questions of art theory that we do not have the opportunity to explain due to space limitations.
8 See the writings of Lajos Fülep, Edit Fél, Arnold Hauser, Tamás Hofer and Lajos Németh.
9 The 19th-century golden age of folk art in the Kingdom of Hungary and among other Central European peoples was significantly delayed in comparison with the western and northern regions of Europe, where a more uniform popular culture was already in place, influenced by a more profound embourgeoisement that took place a hundred to two hundred years earlier.
10 See the writings of Ágnes Fülemile, László Kósa, Tibor Valuch.
11 Instead of the bipartite room-kitchen(-larder) house, a tripartite house of room-kitchen-room arrangement came to be used at the end of the 18th century in some areas and then spread to the whole area over the next 100-120 years.
12 For example, the leading scholar of Hungarian folk dance research, György Martin wrote a full monograph about a particularly knowledgeable practitioner of the most sophisticated men’s solo dance, the Kalotaszeg legényes (lad’s dance), István ‚Mundruc’ Mátyás of Magyarvista, whom he had studied for 30 years. From Mundruc alone, György Martin collected hundreds of motifs of the virtuosic, improvisational legényes requiring great technical skill.
13 See the writings of Tamás Hofer, Eszter Kisbán, Kincső Verebélyi, Lajos Németh, Katalin Sinkó, Katalin Keserü and others.
14 See the writings of Zoltán Fejős, Márta Fügedi, Ágnes Fülemile, Imre Romsics, Zsuzsa Szarvas and others.
15 Similarly to the initial period of the táncház movement, the folk art movement and scholarly institutions are mutually helping each other and trying to influence public thinking. This exchange-readiness was demonstrated, among other things, by the conference organized jointly in 2011 by MANÉTA (Hungarian Folk Art Council), the Institute of Ethnology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and the László Teleki Foundation, titled Tradition – Heritage – Public Culture. The Place and Future of Hungarian Folk Art in the Carpathian Basin. Diószegi, László - Juhász, Katalin (eds): Hagyomány – Örökség – Közkultúra. A magyar népművészet helye és jövője a Kárpát-medencében, 2011, Budapest. 16 The nomination of Mezőkövesd was accepted by the National Committee in 2010, and it was then inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2012.
17 Secondary level vocational education has collapsed since the regime change, and OKJ (National Training Register) courses have not been able to completely fill the void thus created. Tertiary level education is still missing in the teaching of handicrafts, while the teaching of folk dance and folk music at the university level is already in place. The lack of higher education in the crafts sector cannot be replaced by university degree programs in applied arts and restoration because, due to partly understandable reasons, there is insufficient attention paid to practical technical training and the teaching of the history of peasant and ethnic art. Most craftsmen cannot professionally practice their chosen vocation because the market and the tax system do not provide them with a viable career path. Even though he movement may have saved a lot of vanishing crafts from extinction, they may be in danger once again if there are no devotees among the young people who would not only be willing to immerse themselves in the tricks of the trade, but could also make a living from it.
18 The situation report given at a 2011 conference by Balázs Balogh, director of the Institute of Ethnology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences who chaired the National Cultural Fund’s (NKA) Board of Trustees for Folk Art several times: „The social acceptance and prestige of folk culture and its place in the public consciousness is characterized by a kind of duality. Interest in folk culture may have a more than 200-year history in Hungarian culture, and folk culture may have become a cornerstone of our modern national culture, but the social attitude toward it is still full of contradictions. Even today, the typically keen pro and contra opinions are charged with a variety of historical antecedents and prior political-ideological overtones, and many prejudices make its evaluation difficult. Folk artists are successors of a great intellectual heritage, and there is constant attention on folk culture among a wide audience, yet the general image of folk culture in Hungary is characterized by superficiality. The relation of folk culture and the folk art movement to high culture and art as a whole is peculiarly similar to the place of ethnography in social sciences: they provide world-class performance – yet they must struggle for widespread social acceptance, artistic and academic prestige, sometimes even their existence.” (See page 12 of the book mentioned in endnote 15.)
19 Since the change of political regime in the early 1990s, some social need for wearing dresses that reflect Hungarian historical or folk traditions has emerged. The revitalization attempts, even if not too overwhelming, are present. There are designers, tailors and salons – although not numerous – that approach the cuts, fabric quality and decorations with competence and sufficient quality discernment. In recent years, partly thanks to the popular Gombold Újra fashion contest, several well-trained, young designers have reconsidered Hungarian clothing traditions creatively, reconciling them with today’s fashion trends.