Artists React to Poland’s Revisionist Cultural Policies

The government's dismissal of the director of Gdansk's newly opened World War II Museum is the latest development in a controversial approach.

Professor Pawel Machcewicz, the dismissed director of the Museum of Second World War, says he plans to protect the existing displays on the grounds of copyright. Photo courtesy Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images.

Poland’s ruling right-wing nationalist party Law and Justice (PiS), in power since the 2015 parliamentary elections, has been implementing cultural policies meant to regulate the historical discourse surrounding World War II. Its efforts to patrol the language used to frame Poland’s position, and the narratives presented regarding Polish involvement in the murder of Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland, have been bitterly felt by Poland’s cultural institutes. Most recently, the director of the newly opened World War II Museum in Gdansk was dismissed last week as part of the government’s motion to merge it with a state-sanctioned institution yet to be established. When it opens, the museum will focus on Polish heroism during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

This past August, the Polish cabinet passed legislation that would outlaw the use of the phrase “Polish death camps,” making it punishable with up to three years in prison. The more accurate term, and the only one that would be legally acceptable in Poland, is “Nazi German death camps.”

This historically correct formulation has been implemented under previous governments. When Barack Obama used the term “Polish camps” in a 2012 speech, he subsequently apologized to Poland. But under the current nationalist government, the ministry of culture has set up a department dedicated to policing what they call “the politics of memory.” According to The Guardian, this department relies in part “on measures, condemned by the United States and a range of European bodies and officials, to control the media, the internet and the judiciary.”

Historians and academics have warned that these measures help to create a revisionist Polish history: In an article from April 2016, the Economist called instances in which the government interfered with historical portrayals “alarming.”

“They indicate the ferocity of Law and Justice’s obsession with the past,” the article argues. “They also suggest that the party sees political gain in stirring up historical resentments. It plays up the most glorious aspects of Poland’s history, such as the anti-Nazi resistance. At the same time, it portrays the country and its people as victims, then and now.”

Warsaw is increasingly looking abroad, too, at cultural discussions involving Poland. At the end of 2016, the director of the Polish Institute in Berlin, a cultural body operated by the Polish foreign ministry with branches around the world, dismissed its director Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska in a move that sent waves through international media. A document allegedly written by the Polish ambassador to Germany and obtained by German papers, showed that the ambassador, Andrzej Przyłębski, complained that Wielga-Skolimowska’s programming put too strong an emphasis on Jewish content.

She wasn’t the only one to be replaced by a state-approved successor. Some 13 institute directors in different countries were fired last summer. And the Vienna branch of the Polish culture institute was prohibited from working with the Austrian author and journalist Martin Pollack, who had criticized the PiS party.

And at home, Paweł Potoroczyn, the former director of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute (IAM) was fired in 2016, just shortly before the Warsaw Gallery Weekend, co-organized by the IAM, despite the many successful projects the institution organized during his tenure. The IAM promotes Polish culture abroad, including visual arts, design, music, and theatre. Potoroczyn was criticized for not paying enough attention to artists who are “inspired by Christian values.”

artnet News has reached out to cultural workers, art dealers, and artists working and living in Poland and abroad to find out if and how government attitudes trickle down and impact the local art scene. Many museum directors and gallerists declined to comment.

Independent curator Asia Wysoczyńska replied to artnet News’ request in an email, saying “I am also an art ‘consumer,’ and what I see sometimes truly terrifies me.”

“What is worrying is the support for ideological works, no matter how bad their quality is both in terms of the idea and execution. Promoting kitsch and weak productions leads to long-term effects on the art world and our surroundings in general. It influences everyone.”

But Wysoczyńska keeps an optimistic outlook: “It makes me sad, but I believe that sometimes daisies grow best on dung. Poland has long history of cultivating culture in difficult times in terms of politics, so there is hope.”

Artist Zuzanna Czebatul pointed out in her email to artnet News that “Poland’s cultural landscape opened up for international positions in recent years,” a trend that might, however, be reversed now. “The PiS party and their cultural agenda influence that through their institutional rearrangement and replacement of leading positions,” she added. “PiS is interested to highlight Polish art and artists. Deputy minister Jan Dziedziczak questions if the institutions abroad promote ‘the best we have to offer.'”

As a result, she notes, “I see a lot of retrospect towards Polish and Eastern-European avant-garde in recent institutional exhibition programs. The governmental changes seem to have frozen the private art markets and art investments. I think that gives the galleries the opportunity to react with critical shows and enhance dialogue and protest, because their dependence on public funds is differently constituted.”

Similar sentiments about the Polish spirit and the ability to react creatively to political strife was echoed by collective Slavs and Tatars, who have extensive connections to Poland but are working out of Berlin. They replied to artnet News’ questions with the following statement:

Despite the abrupt dismissal of Pawel Potoroczyn at the Mickiewicz Institut or Dorota Monkiewicz at the Wrocław Contemporary, the revanchist target of the government’s often boorish ire has not cowered the cultural scene in Poland. Instead of buckling under such pressures, institutions have thus far commendably defended their positions, with programs  (“Dust” at the CCA Ujazdowski, “Bread and Roses” and “Farmhands in Factories, Boas in Brasseries” at the MoMA Warsaw) that act as a necessary and elegant antidote to the march of reductive nationalism and culture wars waged by the right wing. None of these challenges, however, are new to Poland: the tune of resistance is a familiar one to Poles, often played loudest against external forces. When most constrained, literature, arts, and theater have thrived in the country’s recent history. The response to internal resentment of its own government, though, will show how relevant these precedents are.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.