Revolution without an Agenda

15. 3. 2017

In November 2015, Piotr Gliński became deputy prime minister for cultural affairs in the government of Beata Szydło. Giving the position of deputy prime minister to the minister of culture—for the first time since 1989—was meant as a signal that PiS would treat cultural matters extremely seriously and would deal with them at the highest governmental level.

The nomination of Piotr Gliński surprised many people. This sociologist, researcher of civil society and green movements, had not been known for any activities in the area of culture. At the beginning, those not voting for PiS breathed a sigh relief after this nomination. They thought that the former member of the liberal Union of Freedom party, not identified with the right-wing hardliners, meant a relatively “mild sentence” for culture. Meanwhile, PiS supporters saw in him an embodiment of hope for transforming Polish culture in a nationalist, conservative, and Christian vein, a (counter)revolution changing not only the elites, but also the way of thinking about culture.

A year later, both groups may feel disappointed. From the very beginning Gliński consistently dashed any hopes that his office would run a conciliatory policy towards the cultural community, that he would defend it from the assaults of his political camp. He started his tenure by trying to censor a show in the Polish Theatre in Wrocław and after this earthquake the tension only grew. The supporters of PiS may feel just as disillusioned. Although Gliński has not refrained from conflicts with the cultural community, although he was not afraid to voice controversial opinions, although he managed to “recover” such institutions as the Book Institute or the Adam Mickiewicz Institute for PiS, it is difficult to see any coherent, strong vision of transforming Polish culture.

Even within the government system, Gliński’s ministry is only one of three centers for cultural policy. The second one is the network of Polish Institutes, entrusted with cultural diplomacy across the world, subordinated to the foreign ministry and specifically to Deputy Minister Jan Dziedziczak. The third center is the Polish Television run by Jacek Kurski, who in all likelihood has survived the unsuccessful attempt to dismiss him by the National Media Council and is confidently marching towards victory in the “independent competition” for the new president of TVP.

Preferences and Defensive Reflexes

Is there a coherent agenda uniting these three centers? Arguably not, for in the matters of culture the governing camp exhibits some clearly defined preferences, prejudices, and personal resentments. It appreciates art which is communicative, artistically transparent, monumental, and national. It does not like experimenting, religious transgressions, breaking moral taboos, or undertaking controversial historical themes. It is convinced that cultural institutions have been overcome the by the “salon,” which it perceives as hostile and promoting “its own artists” while rejecting the “patriotic ones,” not because of the artistic quality of their works, but because of their views. And that must be corrected, because when PiS won the elections, it received the social mandate to pursue its vision of culture and support those representatives of the community it sympathizes with.

Nevertheless, all these preferences, resentments, prejudices, and personal animosities do not translate into an alternative cultural agenda. The reason is that in the area of culture the electoral victory of PiS is not accompanied by a wide-ranging movement of protest against the existing artistic and ideological hegemonies. There is not enough artists, critics, curators, or managers of culture who have sufficient stature in their domains to successfully fight for a stronger position. And without such elites supporting it, PiS is unable to change any area of culture only through administrative measures. I am not saying that today there are no important people of culture on the Polish right. There are many of them, but they do not constitute a hegemonic bloc capable of starting a revolution parallel to the one which PiS is trying to execute in the country as a whole.

Cold War of Culture against Society

Instead of such a bloc, the ruling party is surrounded by various communities active in the area of culture, and they press the regime to intervene in these areas and promote their symbolic—as well as the more mundane—interests. Among them are pressure groups long-involved in rallying society against art, using religious or nationalist arguments.

In 2001, Zbigniew Libera and a group of artists associated with critical art staged an exhibition called “Cold War of Art against Society.” It was advertised by a collage of Libera’s texts containing comments by right-wing press on contemporary visual arts. At that time, the main preoccupation of right-wing critics was Passion by Dorota Nieznalska (a video installation juxtaposing an image of male genitals, shown on a screen in the shape of a Greek cross, with a video of a man practicing in the gym), and sculpture by Maurizio Catteleno with a wax figure of Pope John Paul II weighed down by a meteorite. They managed to temporarily impose their “paradigm of scandal” on the Polish public debate about contemporary art. A few years later it was replaced by the “paradigm of success” – speaking about commercial and artistic successes of Polish artists on the global scene, the strength of Polish cultural markets and industries, etc.

The communities attached to the paradigm of scandal grouped around PiS camp went beyond visual arts with their criticism. By pressurizing this party after it assumed power, they raised this paradigm of thinking about art to the rank of state orthodoxy. This is how Deputy Prime Minister Gliński started his term in office: he intervened in the matter of the play Death and the Maiden in the Polish Theatre in Wrocław, assuming the tone of moral panic. He demanded to postpone the premiere in order to verify the rumors that the show contained “porn scenes” performed “in the presence of a child.” Gliński spectacularly lost and the theatre was backed by the Lower Silesia local government running it together with the ministry of culture, although the local authorities previously had been in conflict with the theatre’s director Krzysztof Mieszkowski (now also a deputy for the Nowoczesna party) and tried to dismiss him.

It is theatre and cinema which now seem to constitute the main front of the new “cold war of arts against society” (and vice versa). The strongest pressure group using the paradigm of scandal associated with PiS is the Redoubt of Good Name – the Polish version of the League against Defamation (minister Gliński himself was a member of its board before the elections). It became famous mostly through its war against the film Ida, deemed by it as “anti-Polish.” The Redoubt had called on previous ministers of culture to equip the film—“financed from public funds”—with subtitles explaining the “historical contexts,” that is reminding the viewers about the punishments for helping Jews in Poland, about the German occupation, and about the Polish Righteous among the Nations. At that time these pressures were unsuccessful, but when the film was shown by TVP “recovered” by PiS, it was preceded by a discussion evaluating the film in the context of its supposed anti-Polish nature, and retrofitted with a textual board saying similar things to those postulated by the Redoubt. This sparked protests both from the Polish Directors Guild and from film critics – both groups wrote an open letter to the president of TVP.

Cadres above All, as Lenin Put It

There are also pressure groups lobbying to improve their position in their respective fields of culture. They are helped in their efforts by the fact that the main driving force of the PiS revolution is the desire to harass the “salon” and to bring down the existing elites in all areas including culture.

Gliński’s ministry invested most energy and reputational risk in staff movements, replacing Grzegorz Gauden as head of the Book Institute (an institution dedicated to the promotion of reading in Poland and of Polish literature abroad) and Paweł Potoroczyn as director of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute (an institution acting like the Goethe-Institut to promote Polish culture abroad). They were both accused, among other things, of promoting a narrow vision of Polish culture dependent on who knew whom and side-lining conservative artists and national, historical, and religious works. The activities of “recovered” institutions may also be reduced to staff adjustments.

The new director of the Book Institute, Dariusz Jaworski, announces a change of priorities in the Institute’s program of translations (subsidizing translations of Polish literature into foreign languages), so that it would include a bigger number of religious and conservative writers. As reported by Gazeta Wyborcza, Jaworski personally removed authors publishing in the opposition media from the catalogue and proposed writers who for many years had been close to the ruling camp, such as Bronisław Wildstein. Yet it is difficult to build a new cultural hegemony through channeling public funds to favored groups of artists.

A similar logic can be perceived in the changes in the Polish Institutes overseen by Jan Dziedziczak – foreign ministry agencies engaged in promoting Polish culture abroad. They were entrusted with the mission of promoting “the political thought of Lech Kaczyński,” and their regular guests are intellectuals close to the ruling party, such as historian Sławomir Cenckiewicz (known for his books accusing Lech Wałęsa of having been an informer of the communist secret police), or the PiS MEP, sociologist Zdzisław Krasnodębski. People critical of PiS are shown the door. A small scandal broke out when the Polish Institute in Vienna broke its ties with Martin Pollack after he published a text critical of the Polish government in Der Standard.

Of course, all these replacements are accompanied by a new language. Institutions of cultural diplomacy are to promote conservative, nationalist culture, to defend “the Polish point of view” against the “pedagogy of shame” supposedly pursued by the previous government and expressed by such artists as Pawlikowski (director of Ida) and Tokarczuk or Stasiuk in literature. Under the new system you can also forget about queer or feminist themes. Nevertheless, ideology is largely subordinated to the operation of exchanging the elites and fighting against the old opinion-making communities for prestige, presence in the media, opportunities, and funds. It seems that the new regime is more involved emotionally in the personal rather than ideological sphere.

The Most Important of the Arts

Also the changes in TVP have been mostly limited to replacing “their people” with “our people.” Public television has been treated as spoils to be divided between reporters, satirists, and artists sympathetic towards PiS. At the same time, the announced plans to transform TVP from a commercial company into a national cultural institution, capable of pursuing its mission without regard to commercial considerations, are very slow in coming.

Cinema and television seem particularly important for PiS activists, who believe that they can use them to shape the social imagination. The instrument for that is to be a monumental national historical cinema focused on the heroic parts of Polish history, especially on World War II and the fate of the anti-communist underground, militarily defying the communist regime after the war. The myth of the so-called “accursed soldiers”—reinforced by state funerals of their mortal remains, school academies, numerous publications, concerts, festivals—is crucial for the PiS camp. It builds a narrative saying that after 45 years of communist Poland and 25 years of “communist Poland revisited,” the current government revives the “free Poland” for which these people died, since they remained faithful to their homeland after 1945 to the very end, getting killed for it in the unequal fight against the Moscow-supported communists.

TVP has already commissioned two series about the “accursed.” Imposing this topic on filmmakers has been less successful. Unluckily for PiS, the art it most cares about—the cinema—is the most difficult to seize. One reason is that PiS has no people with a strong position in this field. A film made by the right-wing director Jerzy Zalewski, called The story of Roj and showing the struggle of the underground against communists after the war, has been poorly received by the critics, including those from the government camp, and it is impossible to turn it into a symbol of the new national cinema.

In addition, the Polish Film Institute, managing public funds for film production, has a very large measure of autonomy. Most of its budget does not go through the ministry of culture, but is paid directly into the Institute’s account by broadcasters, film distributors, or cinema owners. These funds are then distributed in open competitions by experts selected by the film community. Such system is mandated by the Law on Cinematography.

Of course, in its first year in power PiS has already proved capable of pushing even the most important bills through Parliament in a matter of 48 hours. But the film community is well organized and the Association of Polish Filmmakers representing it is strong and wealthy. It can afford a conflict with the government, which could be very costly. And it will most certainly not allow politicians to assume control over film subsidies.

PiS is internally divided as to whether it should go after the Polish Film Institute. During a recent festival “The Indomitable Accursed” in Gdynia, Jacek Kurski called for it in an open debate. Minister Gliński asked him to hold his horses, arguing that PiS must cooperate with the film community, for it was unable to win an open war against it.

The Threat of Destruction

Is there nothing to fear about what PiS is doing in culture, then? Can it be reduced to the often admittedly unpleasant rhetoric (nationalist, insulting artists allegedly promoted by the “salon”), plus a few reversible staff movements and decisions about the allocation of resources? Not quite.

Although PiS does not really have the resources to implement its forceful counterhegemonic project in culture, to reverse hierarchies, and to impose its pet subjects in a long term, it is capable of destroying quite a lot. Institutions taken over by persons close to the party may lose employees and teams that were for many years building the brands. Polish Institutes, which had managed to establish contact with audiences in those countries where they operate, may lose it – talks about the Eastern policy of Lech Kaczyński can at best attract representatives of the Polish émigré community with specific political beliefs.

In the last decade many efficient institutions have been built. They had their faults, but at the end of the Civic Platform rule at least a debate was launched about how to reform these institutions along with the whole system of government support for culture. Today the cultural community, terrified—often beyond measure—by PiS, has the feeling that all these discussions have to be put off, and the only thing you can do in the current situation is to close ranks against the government. Although this response is usually correct, it often results in “forgetting” about all the ground-breaking discussions going on in the cultural community in recent years about, for example, the unionizing of cultural operators, the democracy in cultural institutions, and the social insurance for artists. It also leads to the entrenchment of the “us” versus “them” (culture versus the regime) pattern known from the communist times. Even if artistic communities do not take a confrontational stance against the government and rather propose specific solutions—such as the project of a civic pact in the public media— the regime completely ignores their demands. All of this leads to the conclusion that the period of PiS rule in culture may be lost. Both for culture, reduced to the simplest defensive reflexes, and for PiS itself – for surely these politicians are seeking something more than just a few more grants for their friends?

Jakub Majmurek

is a political pundit, film and art critic, based in Warsaw. He cooperates on a regular basis with media such as the largest Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Aspen Review and Kino. He is part of the editorial team of Krytyka Polityczna – a leftist think tank, publishing house and internet daily. Apart from commenting on contemporary Polish politics Mr. Majmurek writes about new social movements in Europe and the US, politics of popular culture, political dimensions of contemporary cinema and art.

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