Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies

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East European Art from a Global Perspective

Interview with Professor Piotr Piotrowski


Professor Piotrowski, we are very happy to have you here for the discussion. As there are just a few art historians in our study group and most of us are literature and theatre scholars, could you briefly introduce your work to us?

My Name is Piotr Piotrowski. I work on East European Art of the 20th century, mostly on Central Eastern Europe and also on Russia. At the moment I am working on a new project: ‘Globalizing Eastern Europe’. The question I want to raise is: How do we see East European Art from a global perspective? My talk “NETwork. Approaching Comparative Art History”, which I gave to your GraduateSchool in Regensburg, is related to this new project. Generally speaking, I want to develop something that I call ‘Horizontal Art History’. ‘Horizontal Art History’ means that I choose some dates that are crucial for world history in the 20th century, such as 1968 or 1989, and compare different artistic experiences in different countries or regions of the world. This is what I aim to do in a new book “Globalizing Eastern Europe”.

Today we would like to discuss the relationship between “Art and democracy”, referring to your book “Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe” (2012). Boris Groys once said that the art system itself is not a democratic one. But we wonder: how can art be democratic if the art system is not?

Usually we say that the art system as such is not democratic, because it has its internal mechanisms to promote some artists and not others. But if I talk about art and democracy it mostly means the role of art in improving a political system and does not necessarily refer to the art system, which is just one of the social systems. For me democracy means emancipation - it is not necessarily a power of the majority but rather respect for the minority. As you see, I am close to the concept of so-called “radical democracy” proposed, for example, by Chantal Mouffe and Etienne Balibar. Chantal Mouffe, in particular, says that there are different positions in society, and the system should be based on the competition between these different positions. In this situation I think that art plays an important role in developing and accelerating democracy, for example, by its critique of nondemocratic systems that we unfortunately still have in the USA and Europe, but also in Egypt, India or South Africa…

Reading your book, one gets the feeling that the ‘public sphere’ is very important when you talk about democracy and the impact art can have on democracy.

You can buy a piece of canvas and hang it over your bed, your desk or something like this - if this is your private space. I am not talking about this sort of art as a decoration of houses, parks or something like this. I’m talking about the public role of art. So yes, I think the public sphere is the real arena for art.

The Polish title of “Art and democracy” is “Agorafilia. Sztuka i demokracja w postkomunistycznej Europie”. Can you explain what you mean by the term “agoraphilia”? Why did you choose it?

Agoraphilia, when applied to the analysis of art produced in the countries of post-communist Eastern Europe after 1989, provides a key to analyze the region’s artistic culture. I did it some years ago in the book you have mentioned. There I was interested in the artists’ impact on creating agora, shaping new democracy in Eastern Europe, as well as agoraphobic strategies of limiting political and social participation in the public sphere. The new post-communist states possessed various methods for introducing those policies, but also the artists were very involved in such “wars.” We used to call them “critical artists,” since their deconstructive strategies showed the new post-communist mechanisms of restrictions and oppressions based on religion, nationalism, homophobia, body issues etc. I am absolutely aware that the artists I have mentioned in the book really did a great job. If you remember the right wing politicians’ attacks on many artists and institutions, you will know what I mean. The turning point in such cultural wars between the artists and intellectuals, on the one hand, and right wing politicians on the other, at least in Poland, was that, after ten years, the court in Gdańsk found Dorota Nieznalska not guilty of abusing religious sentiments, and revealed the system of censorship.

Now, however, I see that the situation is not as simple as twenty years ago, and the post-communist condition is a part of global mechanisms. We, East Europeans, are not alone in the world, and the post-communist condition is not only limited to (former) Eastern Europe. More than twenty years after the collapse of the communist regime, and later EUnification, we need something different from “national” or even “regional” agoraphilia – we need global agoraphilia. Let me develop this argument. Because of globalization each country is tied up with other countries. In other words, democracy is not fully realized in any country, if artists from the group Pussy Riot are in a gulag in Russia, if the autocratic system still remains in China, and the world players, both western and eastern states, are so worried about their business. How can artists in Slovakia or the Czech Republic, in France or Portugal, Sweden or Croatia be free and enjoy democracy, if Ai Weiwei is jailed in his own country? I call the fight against this “global agoraphilia”, and I am sure art has much to do with this.

This concept seems important to you, so why did you change the title of your book in the English version?

The British publisher didn’t want to have “agoraphilia” in the title, because he thought no one would know what it means. “How can I sell your book in South Africa, for example, or in Australia using the title “agoraphilia”?”, he asked me. So this is why there is a different title – but the concept is the same.

If you say that art has a critical role, would you then also say that art is a part of a civil society and, if so, what is the role of art in civil society?

Civil society means that there is a society or a system open to the citizens, to all citizens. Hence not only to citizens of the particular state, but to all people who are living in this state and maybe do not hold its citizenship.

Critical art is a part of this civil society and plays a very important role in developing it by pointing out hidden agoraphobic and authoritarian mechanisms, by unveiling political repressions, exclusions etc. This is a critical power of art. I would even go further and say that it plays a very important role in introducing radical democracy.

We would now like to switch over to another topic and discuss the mechanisms of financing and supporting art in democracy. Eduard Fuchs, a cultural historian working at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, looked at art from a Marxist point of view. He always said that art is very much interconnected with capital. If art in a democratic system is supported by people who have the money and the power, can this sort of art be defined as free art?

Freedom has many enemies. One of them could be the political parties, which do not like to be criticized for their undemocratic policies. The second enemy could be – as you said – the market. The market is interested in economic benefits and not in disturbing free speech. This is a crucial question, but I wouldn’t be so pessimistic, since artists can still do their job. They of course need money, too. This is why we need democracy, since democracy also means distributing public money, i.e. our money, for critical art, amongst other things.

Have you heard about the new online platforms for crowd funding? You can post an idea and ask people to finance the project. Marina Abramović has also used it, which, in her case, seems highly controversial - at the beginning this online platform was used by really unknown creative people who, for example, were trying to publish a book and wanted to use the platform as an advert; now it is used by established artists.

We have a couple of systems to finance art. Some people stand in the subway or metro station playing a violin and collecting money. This is something that Marina Abramović - frankly speaking - does, when she asks for financial help on crowd funding. She wants to collect money from the people. She has enough money of course, but this is not the issue. The issue is how to finance art. So, collecting money directly from the people is one possibility. The second possibility of financing art is corporate finance, which means private or corporate patronage. Look, for example, at a corporation like Phillip Morris. They have lots of money, because they sell tobacco products. They established a museum in Manhattan and support some artists but, as they say, “We support only that art which gives us profit”. So the patronage very often means profit. The third possibility would be state money. And now it depends on how we recognize or understand the “state”. In a totalitarian system the state belongs to a particular group of people - whether it is ideological or not. They support art which supports their system. Art that does not support the system is excluded.

In a democracy, the government has to spend the money collected from the taxpayers. But this is a Pandora’s box. Who are the taxpayers? We are all taxpayers, on the right, on the left, in the center, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, they all pay. The question is: how to govern this money? It is an open question. This is not an ideal system, but it is definitely much better than the patronage system.

To summarize: democracy also means distributing public money. It depends on the people who are responsible for the particular institutions which are created to do this, let’s call them professional public institutions independent from politicians, both governmental and non-governmental. If they are free, they are not afraid to lose their positions, they can simply use the budget, the public budget for art which works for the public interest – pro publico bono . So the public budget is necessary to promote critical questions.

You have been the director of the National Museum in Warsaw. What was your personal experience in managing public funds?

We have three sorts of museums: one is a traditional shrine, the traditional concept of a national museum; the second is the populist institution, blockbuster producers; and the third one would be what I call a critical museum.

When I was director of the National Museum in Warsaw, a public museum financed by the state, I wanted to deal with hot political and social topics concerning, for example, sexual minorities who are still subject to discrimination in Poland and Eastern Europe. The idea was to create a “critical museum” - an institution which not only deals with the fine arts but also raises important questions. The first exhibition I organized was “Ars Homo Erotica” (2010) dealing with homosexuality. After that my strategic program was not accepted, I was forced to resign and couldn’t realize other projects. I must add that it was not this particular exhibition that was the problem – the real problem was the program undermining the role of the museum as the national shrine and at the same time – paradoxically – producing blockbusters which used the national shrine as the brand; the program of involving the museum in public and political debates.

“Ars Homo Erotica” was very popular, indeed. The idea was to reveal the tradition of homosexuality in the course of art history and also in contemporary art. Though the state and the constitution are officially open to any minorities, we knew that in practice this country excludes or marginalizes sexual minorities. So we wanted to say something about this and we organized the show in order to fulfill the ideal of the critical museum. We were financed by the state and I was free to spend the budget, I didn’t have to ask the minister of culture if I was allowed to put on a particular exhibition or not. So with this particular exhibition we didn’t have a problem with the support of the state, but we had problems with the private sponsors: We were not successful in raising funds from the private sponsors at all, because sponsors were afraid to be involved in the exhibition, which - according to them - promoted homosexuality. Even those institutions which are supposed to be “gay-friendly” did not want to support our project. For example, we asked Goldman Sachs, which, in Britain, has specific strategies to support the gay minority. They have some ventures in Poland too, but their answer was “no”. “In Poland we would support a beer campaign but not a campaign like this”, they said…

Referring to the examples you are giving, the philosopher Jaques Rancière would argue, that we do not deal with political art but with a political action: exhibitions like “Ars Homo Erotica” make the people visible who are not visible. What is your position towards this opinion?

Rancière supports the real notion of art, namely autonomy. He says - if I understand him correctly - art is political because it is art. Art is political because it occupies the autonomous position. This is what Rancière used to say – simplified, roughly speaking. I agree with him of course, but not fully. Yes, art is political because it is art, and in “Ars Homo Erotica” there were many “real” art pieces, and only a few contemporary art interventions. That was a real museum show, and because of that it was political.

But how do we deal with art which is not supposed to be art? Look at Artur Żmijewski [editor’s note: one of the proponents of so-called “critical art” in Poland]. He doesn’t care very much about whether he is producing art or not. It’s “art” because it’s recognized by the art system. For him this is the most important thing. He would say: “Okay I’m not producing art. I’m just producing particular products which are supposed to be critical of reality”. Whether it’s art or not – he doesn’t care about it; instead he uses the symbolic capital of art institutions to promote particular political actions. Curating the Berlin Biennale in 2012 he invited, for instance, people who had nothing to do with art, but who were public activists and just presented some papers about their activities. So Rancière probably would not recognize this as art, but I do and have no problem with it.

Thank you very much for this very interesting discussion!

The interview was edited by Anna Baumgartner, with support from Patricia Vidović. Thanks to Michael Hellstern for transcribing the interview.