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The Velvet Prison: Artists under State Socialism.

The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism.

Miklos Haraszti. Basic Books, $14.95. Lenin once said that he was afraid to listen to Beethoven because the music made him feel like caressing the people's heads when he needed to beat them. In his chilling exploration of state-directed culture under socialism, Miklos Haraszti, a leading Hungarian dissident, shows that post-Stalinist Eastern European leaders have developed a new and uniquely effective method of cultural control: they beat heads with a caress.

At a time when Soviet citizens and Western observers alike are trying to figure out just what Mikhail Gorbachev means by "glasnost," the new English translation of Velvet Prison is not reassuring. Haraszti argues that the experience of the Hungarian intelligentsia suggests an overt loosening of state control may be the harbinger of subtler, more manipulative constraints. Even worse, a loosening may indicate that the intellectuals have been so thoroughly co-opted as to make censorship obsolete.

The plight of the artist under totalitarianism is a familiar subject, but Haraszti shows just how artists have been co-opted. The state tests prospective artists at an early age for ability and docility. The special art schools, where most Hungarian mothers would love to send their children, use a small stick and a big carrot. State teachers condemn any work that is ambiguous or demands individual interpretation. But if they graduate, the pampered prodigies are granted lifetime job security and a guaranteed market as well as a comfortable social position among the state elite, drawing a white-collar salary and attending luxurious retreats.

The state encourages its artists to borrow not only from their prerevolutionary heritage but also from the West. The only condition: be it cubism, literary minimalism, or rock and roll, a style borrowed from the West must be sufficiently banal to be useful. Even Rambo, Haraszti muses, may someday have a place in Hungarian culture.

In order to capture the mind-set of this "soft" censorship, Haraszti has done some co-opting of his own. The book is written in the language of the state artist and is structured like a manual/manifesto of "socially committed art." But through the dull ideological polish shines Haraszti's biting sarcasm. The author points out that in a directed culture real meaning must be read "between the lines," and he has created a brilliantly artistic book that makes the reader do the same.

Haraszti admits that Velvet Prison is a pessimistic little book. After hearing about the recent Moscow International Book Fair, where dissident Soviet writers were invited to mingle with prominent Soviet censors, I can't help but wonder if Gorbachev is borrowing more than just agricultural reform from Hungary.
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Author:Willrich, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1988
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