Art and Humanism: An Act of Vandalism in the Cold War

/ by Michael Clegg

On the afternoon of Sunday, 15 March 1953, Laszlo Szilvassy entered the Tate Gallery in London. It was 5 o’clock, just before closing time. Within the cool, imposing halls Szilvassy paused, considered and gently picked up a prize exhibit. Then he grasped the piece with both hands, twisted and bent its thin wires, and dropped it to the floor. Retrieving it, he called to an attendant and passed over the broken remains, along with a written statement.


The artwork was Reg Butler’s winning entry in an international competition to design a “Monument for the Unknown Political Prisoner.” It was intended that this design would be reproduced on a massive scale, to overlook the border in West Berlin and, although unknown at the time, the whole competition had been backed by the CIA. Following the attack Szilvassy, a refugee from Hungary, was taken into custody, where he remained for a month. At his trial, he pleaded guilty, but refused to retract his action. The chairman of the Session Court threatened a long prison sentence, but noted how the defendant had “suffered much” at the hands of both Nazis and Communists, and finally Szilvassy was discharged.


In his statement, Szilvassy cast his action as a defense of human value against the brutality of Butlers’ abstract structure. “Those unknown political prisoners have been and still are human beings,” he wrote. To reduce them “into scrap metal is just as much a crime as it was to reduce them into ashes or scrap. It is an absolute lack of humanism.” However, at the time there was no attempt to engage with this argument, nor much interest in how Szilvassy’s own story might have motivated his action. Kenneth Armitage, another young British sculptor, typified the art-world response in a letter to a friend in Italy: The furor was simply an addition to Butler’s triumph, Szilvassy merely an angry Hungarian.


In the years that have followed, the story of Cold War intrigue behind the “Unknown Political Prisoner” competition has become a cause célèbre, but Szilvassy’s action, and his passionate denunciation of the prize-winning work’s anti-humanism, have continued to be passed over with embarrassment or hostility. This is, I think, both unjust and mistaken: Unjust because, in the febrile atmosphere of post-war art politics, his position was, at the least, reasonable; mistaken because it has been a missed opportunity to reflect on ideas about humanism and art, and on how these have shifted in subsequent decades. I want to go some way to redress these points, and that means first returning to the competition to design a “Monument for the Unknown Political Prisoner.”


The Institute of Contemporary Arts, known as the ICA was, on the face of it, an unlikely candidate to run a competition for a monumental sculpture. Founded just a few years earlier, it was a self-consciously avant-garde institution, better known for surrealism than administration, though it had weight within the art establishment. The international politics of the event were particularly tricky for it to handle. The competition’s prospectus emphasized the “universal significance” of its theme, but the refusal of the Soviet Union and her allies to participate soon positioned it alongside other Western condemnations of Soviet labor camps and Eastern European tyranny. This ideological edge was cemented when Ernst Reuter, the mayor of West Berlin, offered to site the winning entry in his totemic city.


Running the competition brought the ICA generous funding. At the time, the money was attributed to an anonymous American industrialist. But scrupulous work in the archives, led by art historian Paul Burstow, has identified the anonymous patron as John Hay Whitney, an oil millionaire and a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Burstow’s detective work, however, has gone further, establishing that Whitney worked with the CIA, and corresponded with CIA staff, about the Monument. The papers make clear that Whitney’s own contribution was modest, and that “friends” who provided the remaining funds were almost certainly CIA officers, with a likelihood that this is where the idea for the competition started. It had, after all, a number of attractions for the US Government. The finished sculpture would stand in a tradition of American monuments to liberty, from the Liberty Bell to the eponymous New York Statue, but this time with an international face, proclaiming the US as the guarantor of freedom worldwide. Moreover, by encouraging works in a modernist style that was proscribed to Soviet artists, it would embody those freedoms in its very aesthetic. It was this source of funding which eventually led the project to unwind. Political sniping at Butler’s winning entry in Britain, tacitly approved by Prime Minister Churchill, aggravated the CIA’s own uncertainty that such an uncompromising design would be the propaganda coup that was hoped. As a result, its financial support was withdrawn and the chance to build on the Berlin site lost.


With these Cold War maneuvers unknown in Britain, the competition nonetheless became embroiled in a fierce culture war. Leading the attack was John Berger, who was later to become famous for his television series “Ways of Seeing.” Berger’s objection was two-fold. First, he saw the competition’s stated Cold War non-alignment as an obvious falsehood. Second, he believed that the predilections of the ICA and the judging panel meant that it would crown abstract art as the official style of the West, and as such was a victory for obscurity, elitism and the illusion of an art that was politically uncommitted. Berger sought instead an engaged, popular art of a kind he saw realized by Guttuso in Italy or Fougeron in France.


The ICA’s reaction was splenetic, caricaturing Berger as a barely-concealed Soviet fellow-traveler who put art second to ideology. Berger, however, had allies amongst artists themselves. A strong voice was that of Peter Peri, known for his figurative concrete sculptures, and someone with first-hand experience of political oppression. Peri, originally Ladislas Weisz, was also Hungarian by birth, and had fled antisemitism and anticommunism, eventually settling in Britain in the 1930s. He took on the competition’s assumptions directly, arguing that the idea of a political prisoner is always relative: After all, he noted, Hitler was imprisoned for his political beliefs. However, Peri had indeed surrendered any critical perspective on Soviet power, and on Hungary in particular, claiming that freedom had a different meaning in the “New Democracies” of Eastern Europe. In 1950, three fellow British artists had gone to Hungary as guests of the government, and reported back on a paradise for artists and workers alike. The former enjoyed the material benefits of a guaranteed salary, state prizes and communal studios; the latter had the cultural plenty of open air Shakespeare, factory orchestras and a visual art that was, in contrast with the West, intelligible and replete with social optimism. When, two years later, a booklet based on these experiences was published, Peri gave it a fulsome review: What could the British artist feel, he asked, but envy? Berger himself guarded his intellectual independence more jealously. Yet, when the Red Army crushed the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 - and the British Communist Party lost a third of its membership - the art critic, with characteristic perversity, threw in his lot with the new Soviet-backed government.


If the intrigues surrounding the “Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner” competition are tortuous, but well-established, Laszlo Szilvassy’s personal story, and its place within the wider history, is more obscure. Something of it, though, can be pieced together from the reports of his arrest and trial, both published and unpublished. Szilvassy was 28 in 1953 and formally stateless, having arrived in Britain five years earlier. In Budapest, he had worked as a set designer in the Hungarian State Opera House, and he was just beginning to revive this career with the London ballet companies, whilst also pursuing more menial jobs and occasional painting. Harder to ascertain is exactly what happened to him during the war, and in the Communist take-over of Hungary. Szilvassy himself told a detective, “I have been a prisoner behind the Curtain, and I was put in prison by the Germans,” while at his trial, the defense counsel told how Szilvassy had been caught and imprisoned in a mass arrest in Budapest during the Communist coup before, “on the night of a storm,” he had managed to cross the border and reach the West. During the war, counsel said, he had been “under the heels of the Germans,” but no more detail was reported. Recalling events in the 1980s, Vera Traill, the only member of the public on the scene in the Tate, and a witness at the trial, recalled how Szilvassy had explained to jurors that he had been in a “concentration camp,” and that the experience bore no relation to Butler’s sculpture. However, it may be that the reference to a concentration camp reflects a broader post-war use of the term, to describe a German wartime internment center, rather than the designated Nazi Konzentrationslager that we think of today.


In 2012, a Canadian citizen named Laszlo Szilvassy died after a successful career as a stills photographer in the film industry, and as a muralist and sculptor. He had emigrated from England to Canada in 1967, but was born in 1925 in Hungary, where he had started life as a designer for the Hungarian State Opera House. On this evidence, it seems that Szilvassy was able to forge a successful life in a third country, through his own initiative and talent. In 1953, however, the British art world offered him nothing. On the one hand was a new establishment represented by the ICA, eager to advance its position through prizes and patronage, but whose aesthetic said nothing to the Hungarian’s bitter experiences and their continuing consequences. On the other were artists aligned with the political left, who shared these misgivings, but were close to throwing in their lot with his former jailers. In this context, the idea that Szilvassy chose to align himself with – the idea which he saw as justifying his act of destruction - was humanism.


“Humanism” is a word with a complex history and fractured, overlapping meanings. Today, we think of it primarily in relation to an ethical system - asserting human dignity without recourse to God – or possibly as a tradition of classical learning. It is not a word with much punch. In the 1950s, however, “humanism” had become currency in the art world battle between radical modernists and their critics. What Szilvassy meant by the term needs some teasing out and a little speculation, a task made difficult by the loss of the statement he handed in at the Tate. It’s reasonable, though, to interpret his choice of “humanism,” rather than, say, “humanity,” as intentional: It wasn’t only an absence of human sympathy that he found in Butler’s work – despite Butler’s intentions - but a failure to align with a wider system of human values. Faced with terror and the arbitrary and malignant use of power, Szilvassy had sought meaning in the world on the scale of the individual, in order to salvage some sense of self. Humanism, too, fought back against the totalitarian by emphasizing particular, individual experience. Looking at Butler’s statue, and thinking of its final, massive form, Szilvassy found nothing in its geometric abstraction or industrial materials that communicated to him on that level, only another instantiation of the arbitrary and the uncontrollable.


Surprisingly, Szilvassy had an ally in Wyndham Lewis. Lewis had once been the enfant terrible of Vorticism, but in 1954 he published The Demon of Progress, in which he placed Butler’s “Monument” at the center of an argument against the “Coming of Non-Humanistic Art,” and gave a rare sympathetic account of the actions of “the young Hungarian.” On the other side were those critics for whom humanism was a spent force, blocking progress. Lawrence Alloway, later assistant Director at the ICA and then senior curator at the Guggenheim, dismissed the irrelevance of an old-guard of humanist cultural cognoscenti who, he felt, merely spoke for and to each other. Alloway’s use of humanism as an all-purpose insult can make it hard to understand what he actually means by it, but the word seems to stand for a combination of a narrow interest in the human form, a timid avoidance of mass communication, and a deference to tradition and inherited high culture.


Whilst the debate can thus seem like a dialogue of the deaf, each participant defining humanism for themselves, as accusation or defense, there was substance to the differences. A Nietzschean strand in modernism rejected the very idea of humanist values, but Alloway and his ICA colleagues simply placed their interests elsewhere. They were concerned with how art could function in a new age of mass media and consumption, and saw humanist aesthetics as an obstacle to this. How to communicate and give meaning to the sufferings of the previous decade, or of Eastern Europe, where humanism could be an idea passionately held, lay outside these interests.


Humanism, as a word and a concept, has not disappeared from contemporary debate. It remains an object of criticism for those philosophies which deny reality to human nature; whilst many continue to describe themselves as humanists, across its many meanings. Yet its centrality to cultural debate in the 1950s now feels quite alien. Giving due attention to Laszlo Szilvassy’s story – whatever one’s feelings about his act – is a reminder of that debate, but also of a moment when the idea of humanism resonated beyond academics and critics, and when, allied to depths of personal experience, it could motivate iconoclasm.

Michael Clegg

studied English at Cambridge and took a PhD in Cognitive Psychology at Glasgow.  Having worked for the UK Government he is now a freelance writer and once again a doctoral candidate, this time in Art History at the University of Birmingham.