{700.} Folk Culture Today and Tomorrow

In class-based societies not only the entirety of the nation is divided into two classes, but culture as well. Accordingly, two readily definable cultures live next to each other in every capitalist nation: one is the culture of the ruling class, the other is that of the working classes. This was the case in feudal society as well, although in the Middle Ages the differences were not nearly of the size of later centuries, as a significant part of the nobles and landlords could neither read nor write, and so could gain their culture also by way of oral tradition. For this reason, their culture was very close to the culture of the peasantry. Although belonging to the upper house of magnates, Bálint Balassi, the outstanding poet of the 16th century, was still a virtuoso artist of the shepherd dance, and it is recorded that he danced before the royal court.

With time, the culture of the ruling classes increasingly departed from that of the people. That the schools assured literacy and cultural opportunities primarily to the privileged, which at the same time meant their joining universal European culture, played a significant role in this change. Something from all this could filter down to the illiterate peasantry only by passing through certain intermediaries. Therefore, the large masses of the peasantry had to rely primarily on their own resources in every area of life. Thus in production, culture, and art they created their particularly coloured peasant culture, which was defined by the historical past, by the present, and by socio-economic circumstances, so that consequently it was regionally diversified.

One of the most important characterizations of this culture is bequeathing, turning to tradition, that is, the phenomenon of passing on from generation to generation the totality of a culture or certain elements of it orally and by other means. These elements were not recorded in writing for centuries. Another characteristic also attached to bequeathing tradition is its extreme changeability, and at the same time its ability to preserve archaic traits. The contradiction is only on the surface, because while certain elements adamantly maintain themselves, others, for example songs, tales and legends, are shaped by their performers according to their ability; they connect certain elements and motifs according to their own knowledge and taste, and thus content and form change and become more nearly perfect in the performance of certain outstanding individuals. This was so in the area of material culture also, since during the centuries there were many peasant men, blessed with excellent technical ability, who shaped and made perfect implements such as the hoe, the plough, or the cart, thus raising the level of production.

Reciprocity between the two cultures occurred within every area of life, as we have mentioned in many parts of our book. We can show, from the 18th century on, increasingly more elements that moved, to a certain degree consciously, into the culture of the ruling classes. {701.} Attention really turns to the peasantry and their culture in the first half of the 19th century, with the appearance of some poets who themselves came from among the peasantry. It is at this time that the discovery and increasingly systematic collecting begins, the recording and publishing of Hungarian folk poetry. In this period János Arany, Sándor Petőfi, and many others not only introduced folk themes into their poetry but also implanted the language, form, and expression of the folk. Thus certain of their poems became folksongs, while sometimes they themselves took over lines, and perhaps stanzas from folk poetry, so that in some cases it is difficult to ascertain if one or another folksong came from among the peasantry into the work of the poet or the other way around. This can be considered an intentional procedure practised regularly by poets. Once Sándor Petőfi told János Arany that he would give a good part of his poetry in exchange for being able to condense his sentiments into a few round lines as folksongs are capable of doing.

From the end of the past century there have been numerous experiments at incorporating folk traditions into the national culture in the area of folk music, folk dance, and ornamental art. István Győrffy, the outstanding Hungarian ethnographer, interested himself most widely in this question. He wanted to confront Hitlerist expansion with folk culture. In the last work of his life, entitled Folk Tradition and National Culture (1939), he endeavoured to make folk tradition the foundation of Hungarian culture. Though today we do not agree with all of his basic statements, we still must say that numerous of his valuable and useful recommendations have been realized during the last decade.

The greatest achievement was that made by the composers Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály and László Lajtha, who raised folk music to the rank of written music. They were at the same time outstanding researchers and adapters of Hungarian folk music. Zoltán Kodály wrote in 1937: “Folk tradition did not fulfil its role by taking care of the musical life of the people. It is still close to life. It contains the kernel and the design of a great national music culture. The development and completion of this is the job of the educated class. But they will have the strength to do it only through spiritual unity with the people.”

We could go on listing examples of how the most outstanding scientists of Hungarian intellectual life and Hungarian anthropological sciences have attempted from as early as the end of the last century to build folk culture into national culture. That this did not succeed always, or succeeded only in certain areas, followed from the structure of society, from economic conditions, that is to say, from the essence of class society.

Let us see what, after certain experiments and antecedents, the role of folk culture is in socialist society, in socialist culture. In order to find directions in this extremely complex question, we need by way of introduction to clear up a few questions. First of all, socialist culture does not arise ready made, nor is it the invention of experts, but “it has to come into existence by way of that normal development of accumulated knowledge, which mankind has worked out under the pressure of capitalist and bureaucratic society” (Lenin). As we have seen, culture was divided into two parts in a capitalist society, as was the entirety of {702.} the nation. This division is eliminated in a socialist society. Thus it is without doubt that the culture created by the working class from their own resources during the centuries of oppression must also play a serious role in the socialist culture that extends to the entire nation. Today, the method of this and the way about it is not entirely clarified yet, and we see only the outlines.

And here is where the question of instinct and consciousness emerges. In the development of societies preceding ours, instinct played a definitive role. People were not acquainted with those laws and rules of development by which economic life, society and culture came about; therefore they could not take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. This is especially true of folk culture, which was not recorded in writing and was passed on orally. The outstanding singer, story teller, wood carver, or potter created instinctively, without “expertly” knowing, or being familiar with the inner process of creating and its developmental laws. Consciousness is a characteristic feature of the building of a socialist society. We know what we want and we determine in what way we want to achieve it, and what laws, what rules we must apply and take into consideration. This is true in relation to building socialist culture as well.

Consciousness must be expressed first of all in selection. What do we want to incorporate into our new culture, and what shall we leave behind? In connection with this, let us get acquainted with the concept of progressive tradition. The adjective “progressive” means that those traditions are valuable for us which speak to the entire society and nation, which are in accord with our educational objectives, and help to realize these as soon as possible. Therefore, wide-ranging expert knowledge, a clear definition of goals, that is to say, consciousness, is necessary for such a selection.

Everything of value can be and must be made use of in socialist culture. Part of the agricultural techniques of the folk can equally be built into more highly developed forms of agriculture, horticulture, and animal husbandry; collective farming would commit the greatest sin against itself if it cast away usable, well-tried experience. And we do not believe that these well-suited local experiences would hinder, or make altogether unnecessary, the results of modern socialist agriculture. Today, of course, nobody wants to thresh with a flail and plough with a cow instead of a tractor, in the interest of the old techniques. This usable knowledge refers mostly to soil conditions, and to the local knowledge of climates. Since, for example, collective farms themselves determine where, when, and what to plant, crop yields have increased significantly.

313. Decorated gourd, 1969 Made by Mihály Tóth, Master of Folk Art

313. Decorated gourd, 1969 Made by Mihály Tóth, Master of Folk Art
Segesd, Somogy County

314. Cigarette-case Made by István Kálmán, Master of Folk Art

314. Cigarette-case Made by István Kálmán, Master of Folk Art
Balatonfenyves, Somogy County

315. Water-dipper Made by Dénes Sztelek, Master of Folk Art

315. Water-dipper Made by Dénes Sztelek, Master of Folk Art
Palóc region

Folk culture, as we have said, is the creation of illiterate people, using only oral tradition, and arose amidst a great deal of hardship. But oral tradition creates new works in traditional style only up to the time when it reaches a certain cultural level. After stepping out of illiteracy, the people of the villages still create culture, but this is no longer the world of folksongs and folk tales. We can rightly say that between the two world wars there was a great deal of refuse (sentimental chapbook novels, bad films, corny music, etc.) in urban culture given to the village by {703.} capitalism; all this did not mean a cultural ascent for the village people; compared to these products of capitalism, classic peasant creations of well-defined form and passionate power were unattainable heights. But we need not worry about the village today, for peasant ascent in the area of culture is not a slogan any more, it is living reality. The culture created {705.} by socialism in Hungarian society in the most varied areas of cultural life really leads our peasantry along the road of development.

In practice, the great work of incorporating folk tradition into socialist culture may be divided into two parts. The objective of ethnology, as a historical science, is to examine the traditional culture of the working classes in different periods and in different social formations. In the course of collecting and processing its material, ethnology attempts to grasp the whole culture, trying to place even the details into their place. It follows that every detail of the working people’s life is of interest; research does not select, and it does not carry out observation as, for example, what trait will prove usable, what not, from the viewpoint of the future. That is, its task is to provide as much material as possible for the purpose of historical knowledge, and to provide a most plentiful choice for progressive traditions to pick from for future use. It happens only as a rare exception that an excellent collector is also an adopting artist, able to build into the new culture the traditional elements of the people, as we can see in the case of folk music researchers and in the case of folk dance.

Opinion varied for a long time regarding traditional folk culture, its elements, and how and in what way it can be built into the new culture. There were some researchers who claimed that no changes should be made, but that folk culture should be received with both content and form preserved. They consequently wanted to teach wood carvers and potters to copy the old classic pieces, and at best, to imitate them. Those who recommended this did not know at all, or grossly misjudged, folk art, since one of its major characteristics is constant change and reshaping. The creative folk artists themselves felt this and protested against stagnating with their talent on the level of mere copying. Folk culture, therefore, is not to be copied, but to be lived and further developed, because the opportunity to do so is there.

Great European composers, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, learned from folksongs just as did Bartók and Kodály, but the historical strata of folk music are also bound by the effects of professional European music. And the peoples living in close proximity and suffering under the weight of the same fate have continually passed on to each other their cultural treasures. Bartók analysed in detail how much the Hungarians gave to the folk music of neighbouring peoples and how much they received in return. Furthermore traditional folk culture also changed continually through its history and is inseparable from the historical development of the Hungarian people. Why should we want to lead it back to ancient forms, in part living, in part already only reconstructed, and fix it there? On the contrary, the more courageously cultural mass movement approaches the topic, the more courageously it continues to build on the folk forms, the more it enhances the birth of new forms of folk culture. Just as the people continued to build the old tradition in their small, illiterate communities, and just as they kept reacting vigorously to new things, so the task today is similarly to aid the development of the nascent culture, and we cannot be satisfied with simply repeating the foregoing forms of folk art.

316. Puzzle jug

316. Puzzle jug (csalikancsó) Made by Imre Jakucs, Master of Folk Art

After all this, it is worth while to take a moment and look at what kind {707.} of results have been born recently in the area of incorporating the traditional elements of folk culture into today’s culture. Our experiences so far have shown that fewer opportunities are offered for this activity in the areas of social and material culture than in the area of intellectual culture or folklore. Therefore, we shall mention a few examples only from the latter.

Ornamental folk art (cf. pp. 363–420) has again come to the fore, especially during the last two decades, in spite of the fact that between the two world wars many branches of handicrafts disappeared, especially the most artistic kinds. Ornamental folk art has begun to flourish again, and it has often been possible to revive even those branches which earlier had died out completely or partly (leather work, appliqué, szűr making, etc.). However, this new ornamental folk art differs, naturally, in many ways from its predecessors. This difference is partly expressed in the wealth of form, and more so in inner content and technique. Earlier, the peasant or handicraft master worked instinctively, that is, unintentionally followed the road prescribed by tradition; today, he is working increasingly more consciously. This consciousness was first expressed in the faithful or little altered way of decoration, in colours, and composition, but today the best artists not only apply new elements but also invent individual compositions. New basic materials and more highly developed techniques, supported by experience as well as by artistic talent, further underline this line of development.

The function of objects of ornamental folk art has also fundamentally changed. Earlier, these were consumer objects or vessels for everyday use, and their makers tried to make them more attractive with ornamentation. Today, however, it is not the function but the ornamentation of the objects that has become primarily important, while the meaning of the function has become completely rudimentary. This explains why these objects today are not made any more for peasant house-keeping–which itself has undergone a fundamental change–but serve to make city homes more attractive and homely. All of this clearly shows that ornamental folk art today is approaching the arts and crafts; therefore today we often call it popular applied art (népi iparművészet).

Formerly, folk artists worked for their immediate surrounding (family, village, region). This meant that the lesser or greater community could directly express its approval or disapproval, and so could directly influence the craftsman’s work. Today this happens in a different way, since the most outstanding creators of folk art and craft are known by the entire country. The best among them receive the honorary title of “Master of Folk Art” each year and their experiments are regularly supported. At the same time, the immediate control and guidance of the larger community is made felt on their work only by transmission. A smaller circle of artists and professional ethnographers express an opinion on their work, while the only way the artists can learn the judgement of the community is through how well they sell in the shops. From this example it is clear how many theoretical and practical problems arise even in areas where both professional know-how and material support are available (cf. Plates LVI–LXV).

Let us now turn to the children’s games, music and dance, where we {708.} meet with another question. We had thought that internationally well-known games have completely erased former village children’s games from memory. Such indeed eclipsed the larger part of so-called folk sporting games. An experiment, promising success, was initiated only recently in reviving various ball games of folk origin. The singing children’s games of the youngest ones–the nursery-school age (3–6 years)–are drawn increasingly from folk traditions, especially during the last decade. This is particularly important since more than 70 per cent of the little ones attend some nursery or day-care centre where they are taught nursery rhymes, children’s songs, and games largely of peasant origin. These children, when grown, will most certainly show greater susceptibility towards folksong and folk music than the preceding generations from the cities and often even from the villages.

Zoltán Kodály called folk music the “musical mother tongue”, and because he was not only a great folk music researcher and composer but an outstanding musical educator as well, he did all he could in the interest of the most extensive incorporation of Hungarian folk music into the entirety of Hungarian musical life. Today we speak of the “Kodály method”, and its pedagogical methodology is known and practised not only in Hungary but all through Europe and even beyond it.

317. Bowl Made by Mrs. B. Szkircsák, Master of Folk Art

317. Bowl Made by Mrs. B. Szkircsák, Master of Folk Art

318. Water jug Made by János Horváth, Master of Folk Art

318. Water jug Made by János Horváth, Master of Folk Art

While the acquaintance of children with folk music seems to be reassuring, we have failed to reach real results among the adult generations. However, even here we can speak of new initiatives during the past years. Such, for example, is the movement of the “Peacock Circle”, which received its name from the peacock that plays an outstanding role not only in folksong but in the motif treasury of ornamental folk art as {710.} well. These circles have been formed mostly in villages or in smaller towns, and especially welcome those older members who are themselves still familiar with the folksong treasury and folk music of the village or region and can pass it on to interested young people. Today hundreds of such circles function all over the country; from time to time they participate at meetings regionally and nationally, and with the help of radio and television, the best of them become known to the whole country. The great value of the Peacock Circles is that, because of them the villages themselves become aware of their own values. Where earlier not much else besides operetta songs and hit-tunes could be heard, today folksongs are again increasingly popular. This movement helped the revival of certain customs to a great degree–among them the wedding–which is unthinkable without singing. Today collective farms organize some of the village weddings, and the old songs, rhymes, and customs, rewritten according to the situation and circumstances, are increasingly growing roots.

In some respect, the situation is again different with folk dances, since from the middle of the past century the simplified csárdás largely unified the previously rich dance tradition. This is why a large part of the strata of old dances with a long past was already lost by the turn of the century, when dance teachers appeared in the villages and domesticated there the modern European dances of the age. The excellent researchers into Hungarian folk dance of the last decades had to mine the old material from ever greater depths and with even greater difficulty than did the researchers into Hungarian folk music a few decades ahead of them.

Village folk dance groups were created as early as the 1930s; then in the 1950s there were hardly any Houses of Culture which did not have a dance group. These tried to stage not only local dances but also to display local folk costumes. However, most of them did not rise to sufficient artistic levels and stopped at the point of having learned a few dances still known to the older people. However, we can now witness not only the performance of old dances by excellent folk dance ensembles who give authentic performances of the dances, but choreographers of these ensembles also create new works by applying suitable elements. Thus new culture has arisen on the old foundation.

Film, radio, and television play a vital role in making folk dance and folk music familiar to the public. Films introducing one or another branch of folk culture are made in good numbers and can be seen by the public in cinemas or on television. Folk music constitutes a very significant part of the musical broadcasts on the radio, and the regularly returning programme series also introduces the folksong treasury of certain regions. Television has accomplished much in the way of introducing dances and those traditions where visual experience is indispensable.

319. Embroidered coverlet, detail. Made by Mrs. M. G. Tóth

319. Embroidered coverlet, detail. Made by Mrs. M. G. Tóth
Tura, Pest County

Besides good examples–and we could continue to enumerate them, let us mention some that we look upon with reservations. Here we are thinking; among others, of that wave of fashion in the wake of which some people have tried to acquire objects of folk art in masses, and stuff their apartments with them. An institutional version of this is when in a restaurant or especially in the so-called csárda (tavern) the walls are {711.} hung with too many objects of folk arts and crafts of unequal quality. Furthermore, uncomfortable chairs and tables try to imitate certain rural predecessors. Added to all this is the professional and artistic dilettantism expressed in the entire interior that makes such furnishings worthy of the adjective “national trash”. Here two things meet or, rather, clash with each other. There is a wide range of interest in and definite demand for ornamental folk art and for old forms of furniture on the one hand, and there is a lack of knowledge that is expressed in selection, overcrowding, and disproportion on the other. This poses a serious danger, since for the well-meaning but ignorant person this can give a false impression of what should be incorporated of the progressive traditions into the new culture.

Ethnology as science, a thorough acquaintance with folk art and old traditions, must also be placed at the service of education. Knowledge of folk culture brings the lesson of what excellent art our predecessors were {712.} able to create under very difficult economic and social conditions, such work that can justifiably be listed among the nation’s universal values. At the same time, it also appears that this culture is characteristic of the Hungarian people in its entirety, while certain elements of it unite enormous territories across linguistic, ethnic, and political boundaries. But it is clear that other peoples, too, possess folk culture, which, although different from that of the Hungarians, is similarly precious for the people who created it. So the knowledge of folk culture can be a source of national and international education.

The active period of folk art is still alive in certain areas. Its effect is important both from the social and artistic points of view, and it seems as if this effect has increasingly intensified during the last decades. We cannot look upon a significant part of the elements, the visual and creative method of folk culture, as dead material, since it flows into the culture of the future. Today we do not yet always see clearly the ways and means of this flow, but from the summation of numerous up-to-date results and initiatives, we are learning more and more about the natural laws of development.