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On artists and state censors. Editor's essay

THE Artist as creative individual and the Censor as anonymous reinforcer of taste and ideology: This opposition, only seemingly objective and of recent origin, is on the way out, anachronistic. The successful artist serves the state. George Orwell? No, this argument is at the center of a brilliant new essay on censorship, The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism (Basic Books, New York, 163 pages, $14.95), by the Hungarian dissident Mikl'os Haraszti.

Haraszti distinguishes two stages of censorship behind the Iron Curtain - pre-Stalin and post-Stalin. In pre-Stalin censorship, the censor and the artist are polarized, antagonistic; in post-Stalin, or ``total'' censorship, they exist in a symbiotic relationship. The socialist state depends on the artist to help ``direct'' the culture. Coddled by the state, relatively free from worry, the artist is only too happy to do so.

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Born in Jerusalem, Haraszti moved to Hungary with his parents when he was 3 and now lives in Budapest, where he co-edits Besz'el''o, the journal of the democratic opposition. As fellow Hungarian George Konr'ad says in the foreword to Haraszti's book, he's ``a dissident who mocks himself.''

Poet, sociologist, and political activist, Haraszti has suffered not only at the hands of the state censors, but also, as Konr'ad relates, at the hands of his fellow ``dissidents.'' His mother was ``beaten to death by ... a young man he had rejected as a disciple.''

Like Konr'ad's ``Antipolitics,'' Haraszti's ``Velvet Prison'' has been shaped by a patriotic vision of freedom betrayed by the victorious ``superpowers,'' once at Yalta, when Central Europe was divided up and the Iron Curtain dropped, and again in 1956, when the abortive Hungarian uprising taught freedom fighters the futility of resisting Soviet tanks with rocks and words.

But 1956 seems a long time ago. Now, Haraszti says, the artist is looked on as an ``expert in subjectivity.'' By putting himself at the service of the state, the state artist avoids the pitfalls of solipsism - romantic individualism - and advances the goal of the state - to perpetuate itself.

Throughout his book Haraszti ``confesses'' the sins of his past. He tells us that once he tried to ``make direct contact with the public by circumventing the state.'' Of course he failed. His book is a manual for the new, self-censored, state artist.

Or is it? The fine, ironic edge of this book cuts many ways. Haraszti writes: ``My art elaborates on the autonomy and solipsism of the whole of society because the individual's autonomy and solipsism are now extinct.''

In the afterword (written in 1987, four years after the appearance of the French edition of the book), Haraszti says: ``...for decades Hungary has been a textbook model of a pacified post-Stalinist neocolony. This fact has not been lost on Mr. Gorbachev as he attempts to wrap more velvet on the bars of his prison to create a less primitive and more manageable order in the heart of his empire.''

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In the socialist state, artists play at the margin of socialist culture, making the state legitimate there; or they operate at the center, helping further the social coherence that is the goal of the self-perpetuating state. ``Experts in subjectivity,'' ``one-dimensional adventurers,'' according to Haraszti, state artists keep the state culture alive in the ever-changing world.

``The Velvet Prison'' raises questions: Without values that transcend the state, is art possible? But are not such values the kind that justify censorship? Is the solipsism of the socialist state as good for mankind as the solipsism of a few ``crazy artists''?

Anyone - artist, intellectual, teen-ager - prone to cry ``That's censorship!'' should read this book - which means just about everybody.

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