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The agora and the basilica

The scene from the New Testament (John 18), when Pilate asks the Jews gathered in front of his house which of the condemned he should set free in honour of the Easter festival: Jesus or Barabbus? The dourly wise writer Karinthy pens a surprising twist to the story. Although each individual shouts Jesus, the square is nevertheless filled with the name of Barabbus.

In other words, the cry and the public outcry come into conflict with each other, and the “common” suffers a moral defeat. It becomes the synonym for the MASSES – angrily demanding Barabbus, the wrong one – which is at a level below the intellectual average of its constituent elements, the individuals, and is a dark, unpredictable force independent from, or perhaps opposed to, the sum of their intentions.

At least, in the eyes of such cleverly disillusioned, independent personalities, jealously guarding their outrage, as Karinthy and his whole generation. And like every intelligentsia since then has liked to see itself.

The constant devaluation of the voice of the COMMON man, the of it, and its conceptual relationships and emotional entourage, with the MASSES was more or less complete by the middle third of the 20th century. The dictatorships, whether deemed or otherwise, changed the community into a faceless mass, just like the technical civilisation that broke away from personality, blurred all differences (common taste = the taste of the masses).

Here, perhaps a little later than in countries to the west of us. Because one more century before, when over there it was personal sensitivity that triumphed, here the brightest intellects vowed to serve the COMMON good. Like the 19th century poets, whose sometimes whinging, sometimes thunderous verse would, to today’s tastes, seem a bit like leader columns in a newspaper. But the nation nevertheless counts them among its coveted treasures, which is also how we would regard the gesticulating public sculptures of the Hungarian Reform Era, permeated with patriotic feeling… if there were any. But there aren't, because we did not have the mature sculpture necessary to express the modern, public-space “here and now” ideas that serve the common good.

And by the time a properly trained generation of sculptors was ready to start work – roughly in the period between the Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867 and the thousandth anniversary of the Hungarian state – the ideas of the Reform Era and the 1948 war of independence had faded, worn out in the political in-fighting. So an intellectual asynchronism could be the reason why that westward-leaning intelligentsia, looking around at the turn of the century, had good reason to feel that our public spaces were starting to be overcast by the shadow of cliché.

And once our COMMON voice had been besmirched, sure enough its suffixes, such as SPACE and -PLACE, were also contaminated. Because, sure enough, the confabulation of these two other concepts: common space and commonplace – like a geological process going on underfoot – has been happening ever since. If we assume that this orientation unconditionally negative – although I have tried to show its causes above – I believe that this word of ours, commonplace, even without a hyphen, is complex enough to warrant closer scrutiny. Let’s walk around it, like a public sculpture.

At fi rst glance it seems that commonplace is by no means as solid a thing as stone or bronze. Rather, it is malleable and pliable, and gives off a sulphurous odour, like gushing lava. While in motion it suffocates everything, then it either leaves barren desolation in its wake, or grows grapevines. Or it may be incorporated for thousands of years between the stones of strong cities.

It is not as unambiguous a concept as, for example, kitsch. Rather, it is the slow insinuation of a new view, an original idea, into everyday thought via the maelstroms of semi-educated fashion. But by the time the masses can finally make use of it, its original sense has become obscure. It either gets thrown onto the scrapheap of words, or… crystallising into an eternal truth as an unnoticed turn of phrase or a commonly used metaphor, it blends seamlessly into our day-to-day lives.

The sculptor, of course, in his creative isolation, has to attempt to pour the bubbling, boiling idea into a mould. In doing so, he knowingly runs the risk that the as its sets the material could become opal-sheened obsidian, but could also turn out to be crumbling ash and slag.

The sculpture of bygone eras was not threatened with the prospect of this intellectual decay. Because in the first millennium and a half of Christianity, and before it, the commonplace mainly existed in a crystalline form. Thoughts steered the day-to-day lives of these eras not as individual, perishable zeitgeists, but in the form of eternally valid representations, and the same was true of their art.

It is only recently – I could say – that a newly born idea or political intent has wished to be embodied, as something declining and commonplace, floating on the boundary between immortality and non-existence, first in words, then in statues. So the sculptors of this century have almost always been faced with an intellectual asynchronism. And the difficulty arose not from the form, or the technique, but from the verbal definition of the task. Because the commonplace is first and foremost verbiage; and a sculpture is only as commonplace as it is describable in words.

The architect, the creator of our public spaces, avoids verbiage, that amorphous, moving state of the commonplace, and only builds from its crystallised variant. From flat, but enduring little validities, like granite blocks, he raises new, substantial structures. The sculptor, on the other hand, experimenting as he sees fit in his workshop with the hot lava of ideas, takes fright upon venturing out into the public space. He mumbles a defiant verse of poetry, then as the National Anthem strikes up, although ashamed, he pulls himself to attention.

Because being a COMMON man, designing a sculpture for a COMMON space, perhaps weighing up the truth of the COMMONplace… to do this you need at least as much courage as our bear-hugging reformation-era poet Berzsenyi, who dared to explore Horace’s idea of the Aristotelian “golden mean”.

(Unpublished text, an extract of which was published in: COMMON SPACE, COMMONPLACE. An exhibition by Károly Ócsai, sculpture. Újpest Gallery, 16 February – 3 March 2001, page 1)