The Culture Wars that Never Existed

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The year 2013 in Poland was marked, some would argue that “plagued” is a more apposite word, by a series of unrest-inspiring events that curtailed the liberty of artists and frequently verged on (almost pre-emptive) censorship. Having waxed personal on the subject of the newly-elected Pope Francis and – more importantly – posted her comment on her own Facebook profile (mind you, her private one rather than the Theatre’s), Ewa Wójciak, the director of the legendary, independent Poznań-based Theatre of the Eighth Day (Teatr Ósmego Dnia), bore the brunt of media onslaught and interlocked hostility of local politicians; there was also an attempt to have her deposed from the job. Eventually, in December 2013 the Theatre lost 30% of its municipal funding. In the November of 2013, Jacek Markiewicz’s “Adoration” (“Adoracja”), a 1993 video film/art showing a naked man adoring the figure of crucified Christ, was shown at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, resulting in weeks of vocal protests held by people “whose religious sentiment was offended”. Wielding banners emblazoned with slogans such as “God, Honour, Fatherland” (“Bóg, honor, ojczyzna”), they gathered outside of the Centre and recited the rosary for days on end while in the Polish Seym representatives of the Counter-secularisation Parliamentary Committee (Zespół ds przeciwdziałania ateizacji Polski) demanded the immediate shutdown of the exhibition.

The final straw came when one of the protesters splashed red paint (!) on the wall on which Markiewicz’s video art was projected. The eleventh of November (the official Independence Day in Poland infamous for acts of right-wing aggression happening on a regular basis in recent years) saw yet another instance of the burning of the rainbow in Warsaw’s Zbawiciela Square (the rainbow is an art object plaited out of flowers by Julita Wójcik). Two days later, in Cracow right-wing activists, including journalists and wannabe artists, commenced their absurd protests in the Old Theatre as well as started to publish in the “Gazeta Polska” weekly libellous articles containing purposefully misconstrued information and leaks. What fell victim to the media brouhaha was “Nie-boska. Szczątki”, a play directed by Oliver Frljić, which was being rehearsed and prepared at that time in the Old Theatre. Citing their wish to protect the cast and the crew involved in the play, the directors of the Theatre decided – clearly against Frljić’s will – to cancel the oncoming premiere.

In 2013 in Lublin, there were systematic attempts to impose systemic constraints on the work of curator and activist Szymon Pietrasiewicz, to shut down “Zoom”, a monthly cultural magazine issued by the Centre for Culture in Lublin. All over Poland, among others in Wrocław and in Warsaw, right-wing intruders disrupted lectures of leading Polish intellectuals (Professor Zygmunt Bauman and Professor Magdalena Środa). In the light of these events, the rector of Maria Curie Skłodowska University in Lublin decided to call off the lecture entitled “The Pros and Cons of Anti-clericalism” to be given by Professor Jan Hartman, an employee of Jagiellonian University in Cracow and a philosopher noted for his left-wing leanings. Finally, 2013 saw the emergence and absurd continuation of the Catholic backlash against the so-called “ideology of gender”, masterminded and mediated by conservative activists, who, however, failed to define the meaning of the absurd term of their own coinage.

In the context of the above, Lublin’s cultural and political trajectory seems unique: a traditionally multicultural town (before the Second World War, Lublin was populated by among others Jews, Romanies, Ukrainians, Russians, Armenians and Germans), in the communist times it became one of the hubs of Catholic opposition (among others thanks to the Catholic University of Lublin), only to mutate into a paramount stronghold of Catholic traditionalism and conservative reaction. On the one hand, the authorities of Lublin aim to upgrade this rather stale and staid image by fostering international relations and furthering global cooperation with other municipalities; on the other hand, however, the city of Lublin is painfully lacking in the necessary toolbox that is far more important than on-off/one-off festivals and congresses and that is a prerequisite for long-term engagement with the local community – the on-site beneficiaries of the cultural shift to come. As a result, the reality is harsh: numerous international students enrolled at Lublin’s colleges and universities, highly prominent Ukrainian minority, urban activists, local left-wing organizers, and representatives of the LGBTQ sector are not sensibly endorsed in the public space and/or by the public sector.

Unsurprisingly, it is the overtly political right-wing faction that remains vocal, visible and vindictive. In the December of 2013, the Lublin-based East European Performing Arts Platform that I am the Head of was threatened, despite being co-funded by such respectable bodies as the City of Lublin and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw, with having its municipal financial support withdrawn due to showing Xavier Le Roy’s “Low Pieces” two months ago at the Theatre Confrontations Festival (Konfrontacje Teatralne) in Lublin that Grzegorz Reske and myself officially curate. Alas, the play was not found by the local politicians to be contestable, too intriguing, too convoluted or even too controversial (quite typically, no representative of the local authorities attended the performance whatsoever). It all boiled down to the December proposal of the City’s Council to pass the motion regarding “the creation and cultivation of a positive educational climate that would be suitable for the development of the young generation of the residents of Lublin”, which in turn entails among others promotion “art of superior aesthetics and characterized by equally uplifting worldview” as well as “ceasing to finance by the City of Lublin works of art and cultural events that disturb the sense of habitual propriety and propagating scandalizing contents”. On 19 December, the Council’s postulate was followed up by a most astonishing incident: Xavier Le Roy, alongside his dancers that participated in “Low Pieces”, became the focal point of the councilors’ meeting as one of the right-wing politicians projected photos of naked dancers (accompanying them with an image of a cross as well as a landscape painting of a deer) onto a wall and objected to financing the EEPAP if the performing arts look like the scenes from “Low Pieces”. After a month of negotiations, the case of EEPAP was finally resolved amiably and the project is still going strong. Naturally, we all would like to see the day (unlike some of the councilors who are more likely to rue the day) when performing arts by default approximated the high quality of “Low Pieces”. I would not be writing here about this, after all minor, debacle if this episode did not constitute a symptom of a more widespread and much more dangerous phenomenon.

All the above-mentioned incidents were stoked by the fire of political opportunism and were often played out by the sensationalism-hungry media. There was no genuine debate save for petty bickering; in fact, there is no place for serious public discussion on the state of the arts in Poland right now. All the events started in a cookie-cutter manner: a gesture of political concern was performed by one party only (pun intended!): an MP representing the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość is one of the two major parties in Poland) attacked “Adoration”; Poznań-based politicians angrily commented on Ewa Wójciak’s Facebook post; disturbance during the performance of “Do Damaszku” at the Old Theatre in Cracow was instigated by shouts of “Scandal! Disgrace!” (“Skandal! Hańba!”); councilman Pitucha’s statement regarding the performing arts in Lublin. The list goes on. And on. And on and on.

Any attack is prone to a counter-attack; quarrels generate further escalation of conflict while talks are more peace-oriented – it is through respectful dialogue that sustained (and sustainable) growth is achieved. In this sense, we are at war in Poland; it is a war of attrition, is it a culture war of exhaustion waged, simplification notwithstanding, by nationalism-driven, right-wing Catholics and representatives of the critical left and the LGBTQ movement. The frontline is palpable and so are lines of demarcation – ever since the plane crash in Smolensk conversation between these two dichotomies has not been possible.

However, what divides them is not a series of ideological (political) issues but the direct consensus-defying consequences of the post-1989 transition and the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots in Poland. The culture war is class strife incarnate as after the dismantling of communism capitalism has been introduced in its most ruthlessly dominant and neoliberal version. Opting to model the newly-fangled Poland on the North American template, the powers that be scrapped the social capital generated by the Solidarity movement. There was no time and no place to secure the social rights of the most disenfranchised (for instance, the former employees of once state and now privatized and/or closed factories, mines and shipyards). In short, to lay the foundation for social solidarity. Instead, extreme individualism, “working for one’s own benefit” and propaganda of profiteering have colonized the public discourse, the language of mass education, the idiom of the street, and the parlance of business. Even universities have succumbed to the new canon. As a result, as seen by poet Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz, who is a steadfast supporter of the Law and Justice Party, there are two Polands: but not, as he wants, the Republic of Poland is bifurcated not into the liberals and the conservatives, rather into the Republic of Losers (those who lag behind or who have been left behind) and the Reprivate of Winners (those who have made it, who have made it big, and who are in control of their socio-economic status).

To my mind, ideological squabble is a smoke screen, a type of pressure valve in the times of accelerating socio-economic inequality and the complacency of myopic middle classes. A case in point is a TV debate between Michał Żebrowski, an actor-turned-celebrity, a star of historical and period films, TV series, high-profile advertisements, and the owner of a light, i.e., entertainment- and box office-oriented, theatre in Warsaw and Paweł Demirski, a playwright and a representative of the critical left. Full of mutual accusations and characterized by heightened emotionality, their conversation was a discussion of members of two opposite circles, who employ a totally different language system, who have come to absolutely divergent conclusions and who in practice live in two disparate countries, which only happen to share its capital city.

What strikes me about this debate is the scarcity of questions concerning the very capitalist system, the price we have paid for our relative wealth, peace and quiet in the European Union, and the model of democracy we adhere to; if these questions do occur, they are articulated sheepishly and swept onto the margins of privatized public consciousness (and, well, debate). Surely, all of this comes as no surprise: the 1990s and the early 2000s were the years of blind faith – of believing in the axioms of capitalism as the manifestation of the most efficient and noble version of democracy; capitalism was the harbinger of wealth, welfare and wellness. Hoping to reach the higher heights of Western lifestyle, we believed so desperately and invested so much that the real-life destruction of our dream and dogma is unacceptable; the irony of it all is cruel, indeed.

Obviously, the harshness of Polish reality is omnipresent: for years, we have been governed by two similar parties (a right-wing and a center-right one) that are major cynical players, stoking up the fire of their fictional and deflated fight that has almost monopolized the airwaves, sidelining to the periphery the remaining political pretenders and guaranteeing the hegemony of the BIG two. The effect of this division is blatantly visible in the media: the absurd quarrel of the indestructible birch tree in Smolensk domineered more pressing issues, such as crossed is public schools, in vitro fertilization, and civil partnerships. The debate that takes place is a decoy as it cannot be called an ideologically sound one: the entrenched keep on tossing verbal grenades and the fundamental dividing line is the one that separates Smolensk sceptics from Smolensk believers. The issue of the social costs of transition is absent from political mainstream; lately it has percolated into non-mainstream media.

The repercussions felt by the creative sector in Poland are painfully visible. Firstly, as diagnosed by Joanna Krakowska in her “Ahistoryczne, krytyczne” (“Ahistorical, critical”), critical art has ceased to exist in the face of culture wars since censorship meted out by politicians force the art world to be, quite often superficially and only seemingly, united with the attacked artists, which calcifies the black-and-white landscape, making null and void any attempt at self-reflexivity. Secondly, ideological strife and different evaluation of the contemporary socio-economic situation in Poland and, most importantly, the precarious working conditions experienced by artists and producers of culture deepen the already present internal divisions among the theatre and dance theatre professionals. This inevitably slows down the momentum of the theatre world and compromises the struggle for securing even the most fundamental rights (freedom of artistic expression, defiance in the face of censorship, fight for employment rights of artists, etc.). Paweł Wodziński, a theatre director, scenographer and researcher, fittingly summarized this non-debate debate as follows:

“My extensive experience has taught me that the theatre in Poland is poorly and unwell, and that theatre professionals are challenged by their narrow understanding of freedom and by their limited agency. Fighting an overall losing battle, they lose their social and political footing, and make themselves the sole target of their own aggression. They treat the theatre not a space of liberty but as a gladiatorial arena where a barbaric fight for their own status is fought with a vengeance; unfortunately, they fail to see that most often they are fighting for scraps. Meanwhile, almost unbeknownst to them, the real world is ruthlessly and realistically preoccupied with changing the real-life rules of engagement.” The rules of the end game, one could bitterly add.

translated by Bartosz Wójcik

Article was published at „MASKA Journal” vol. XXIX, No. 165-168 (autumn-winter 2014),



Autor: fraukeil

Marta Keil - kuratorka projektów teatralnych i tanecznych. Od 2012 wspólnie z Grzegorzem Reske jest kuratorką festiwalu Konfrontacje Teatralne w Lublinie ( Inicjatorka i kuratorka East European Performing Arts Platform ( Współpracowała jako kuratorka i dramaturżka z Aną Vujanović i Rabih Mroué. W latach 2014 i 2015 prowadziła dział Kuratorsko-Dramaturgiczny Teatru Polskiego w Bydgoszczy ( oraz była kuratorką Festiwalu Prapremier w 2015 i współautorką jego nowej formuły ( Jedna z inicjatorek i kuratorek projektu Identity.Move!( Pracowała w Instytucie Adama Mickiewicza i Krakowskich Reminiscencjach Teatralnych. Redaktorka książki "Dance, Process, Artistic Research. Contemporary Dance in the Political, Economic and Social Context of <> of Europe", opublikowanej w roku 2015. Doktorantka w Instytucie Sztuki PAN.


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