How to lose a culture war

Or a fast march through the institutions

This essay was originally published by The Critic.

In January, the Republican Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis replaced half of the board of New College, a small public liberal arts university in his state, with conservative scholars and activists. Within days, the board ordered a halt to the institution’s diversity, equity, and inclusion activities. Conservatives in the UK may be hoping for similar changes at the Victoria & Albert Museum where a 23-year-old anti-woke campaigner was appointed trustee by the Prime Minister last August. Are cultural conservatives taking over public institutions? What would a right-wing university or museum look like and what culture might it produce?

There are precedents, among them Poland, where the populist government led by the populist Law and Justice party has forcibly replaced the heads of some twenty museums, galleries, and other cultural organisations in recent years, prompting protests and international condemnation. The event which brought the changes to international attention was the 2020 appointment of Piotr Bernatowicz as the director of Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, one of the country’s premier art institutions. In a break from established practice, the appointment was made without open competition. This was denounced by the country’s art scene as undemocratic and Bernatowicz himself as incompetent and politically hostile to the institution’s progressive values. A petition opposing the appointment gathered signatures from some 1600 art world luminaries including directors of European museums, international artists, and academics.

But Ujazdowski, alongside many other cultural institutions in Poland, was always under the direct control of the Polish state and the Minister of Culture has the right to appoint whomever he wishes. Bernatowicz had run a smaller municipal gallery before his appointment, experience which arguably made him a viable candidate. As to his values, he made no secret of his alignment with the populist and pro-Catholic government which holds both a popular electoral mandate and the country’s first legislative majority in the country’s post-Communist history.

Signage at Ujazdowski Castle confirming state support for the institution.

An observer naïve to the strength of feeling on both sides would be excused for wondering whether it’s not right that a country’s public cultural institutions should resonate with the populace’s beliefs, even if they include anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ sentiments. This isn’t the view of the establishment art world in Poland. Before museum heads started rolling, a coalition of NGOs and institutions branded 2019 The Anti-Fascist Year, organising dozens of events to alert the nation of the dangers at bay. This project seems to have failed and one cultural worker still hanging on in their museum minced no words: the government was “fascist” and that it only got away with its actions because the country’s cultural audiences were “uneducated”. 

At Ujazdowski, Bernatowicz certainly wasted no time in putting his politics on the agenda. His inaugural 2021 exhibition Political Art unapologetically challenged the art world’s dogmatically progressive views and alleged censoriousness by including works by the likes of Dan Park, a Swedish street artist previously jailed for ethnically motivated hate crimes whose contribution depicted the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik as a fashion model. A performance by the Danish artist Uwe Max Jensen at the opening involved a confederate flag and re-enactment of George Floyd’s death which led to the audience chanting accusations of ‘fascism’ which the artist himself joined.

Maybe Bernatowicz thought he could replicate the plot of Ruben Östlund’s 2017 art world satire The Square in which a performance by an artist pretending to be a wounded ape got seriously out of hand. In reality, this project was enough to institute a near-total boycott of the Castle by the liberal Polish art scene. I saw emails sent to Ujazdowski’s would-be foreign collaborators by prominent Polish cultural activists warning them of the centre’s now undeniable “links to Neo-Nazism”. The Castle’s management cancelled most of its overseas collaborations anyhow.

Uwe Max Jensen’s Performance at Ujazdowski.

Yet, to lay audiences, little has changed. The institution’s website is as content-rich as ever, and the programme, if anything, appears more diverse. Some exhibitions, like the American curator Aaron Moulton’s The Influencing Machine which examined the legacy of George Soros-funded cultural activities in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, had the potential to illuminate the art world’s political and ideological convictions. A series of debates on the role of identity politics in art, likewise, could have been of some use to a cultural scene torn apart by the majority politics hostile to identarian demands. But where these accounts weren’t condemned for being ‘false’ or ‘dangerous’ (often both at the same time), they met deafening indifference. In their own channels, both sides are complaining that they are being silenced and the vitriol of open letters gives the impression that culture itself is the last thing on anyone’s mind.

If Bernatowicz plans to shine a light on “unjustly overlooked and excluded” artists, he may struggle to continue to fill the galleries with works that warrant attention, let alone consistently generate outrage. A few months on, the art is beginning to look uncared for. The recent exhibition by the photographer Jan Bortkiewicz, whose CV lists mostly venues that are fringe even in their Polish context, looks more like it was put together by the manager of the local Snappy-Snaps than a curator familiar with the history of photography. The future programme includes an exhibition by an artist who seems not to have made any art before. Events appear to be arranged so that friends and friends’ friends can get in on the action, whether they have anything to contribute or not.

The Square by Ruben Östlund features a performance that gets catastrophically out of hand.

Is this political expediency or outright nepotism? I could not get any of my contacts in Poland to acknowledge that Bernatowicz’s methods mirror those of the liberal art world. Without a hint of irony, however, a curator proudly told me that one of old Ujazdowski’s networking programmes once enjoyed a near-monopoly on staffing Eastern European art institutions. Another said that Bernatowicz’s political sentiments were indeed previously excluded from the institution, and rightly so because they were “disgusting”. Yet another expressed outrage at the idea that a director would ‘direct’ a museum against the wishes of its incumbent staff. 

One can sympathise with a director’s desire for a clean sweep because Polish institutions are monstrously bureaucratic. Look at any museum’s staff list and for every curator, you’ll find five administrators and three accountants. This design is retributive and redistributive: after decades of plunder and abuse under communist rule, these layers of scrutiny and oversight would ensure public accountability. I was reminded that a decade ago, in the Castle’s former international days, its then director offered me a job as his deputy after learning that I understood three words of Polish, so I would help him “fire all these useless curators and administrators.” He was relieved of his duties after a single term following public complaints by the museum’s staff.

In the 1960s, the German Marxist activist Rudi Dutschke proposed that the road to the revolution would involve a ‘long march through the institutions’ first. To overthrow capitalism, the movement should fill the institutions – the professions, education, culture – with revolutionary agents who would then train new generations of anticapitalists. A university run by Marxists, for example, would naturally serve the Marxist cause. Eventually and inevitably, the revolution would be a matter of an orderly meeting rather than the barricades. 

A few decades on, Dutschke nearly got what he wanted. American and British cultural institutions are staffed mostly by people who proudly describe themselves as left-wing or progressive and who are derided by the right as ‘cultural Marxists’. Surveys show that ideas associated with conservatism or right-wing politics are discouraged or suppressed within the institutions. Meanwhile, Manchester Museum is looking for a Social Justice Manager who will work alongside the institution’s existing “Environmental Action Manager, Curator of Indigenous Perspectives, Social Justice Group, and Social Responsibility team.” In much of the Western world, the liberal takeover of institutions is nearly complete.

But the revolution isn’t coming. What is emerging in its place is a reactionary backlash. Poland makes for a good case study of the populist revolt because it had its ‘2016 moment’ a good few years earlier than the UK and the US. The 2010 Smolensk air disaster which killed Poland’s president and co-founder of Law and Justice Lech Kaczyński and dozens of senior politicians and government officials gave rise to numerous conspiracy theories and inflicted a seemingly unhealable wound on Polish society.

Contemporary art wasn’t a priority for Law and Justice. On assuming power in 2015, the government ousted the director of a state-run heritage horse breeding farm in eastern Poland and replaced him with an economist who had no relevant experience but impeccable political credentials. This would have been fine until the horses started dying. Recent stories from the Museum of Modern Art in Łódź and Warsaw’s Zachęta whose new directors were until recently painters betray similar haplessness. Andrzej Biernacki wants to turn the focus of his multi-venue Łódź museum of the avant-garde to local talent. There’s no reason a museum should “only deal with pro-environmental, gender, or queer art that is promoted by Western cultural institutions”, he suggested. The first of his exhibitions showcases the work of Stanisław Fijałkowski (1922-2020), whose work is already represented in the collection and associated with the museum’s visionary founder Władysław Strzemiński. The paintings aren’t bad per se, but they are displayed entirely unmediated and without a trace of context, and this places the exhibition in stark contrast to the museum’s tradition of drawing out the connections between histories and practices which had manifested in abundant scholarship and publishing. Biernacki’s culture war, it seems, involves abolishing the art historian.

Stanisław Fijałkowski, Kompozycja II, 1959

For a hint of where this leads politically, one could turn to the expansive retrospective of the draughtsman and graphic artist Tadeusz Kulisiewicz (1899-1988) at Zachęta. Kulisiewicz was a committed communist and some of his work is overt political propaganda. In his later years, he was a member of a nationalist-Christian political faction which worked to preserve communist rule from its collapse in 1989. There is no mention of these facts in the Zachęta show, presumably because they would embarrass the revisionist agenda of Law and Justice. Some of the work is compelling all the same.

The progressive ideas which were once at home in the museum are slowly being driven underground. This seems to upset outsiders as much as the local community. A report by the US Artistic Freedom Initiative highlights the increasing number of arrests of artists under Poland’s blasphemy and defamation laws, among them the failed prosecution of Elżbieta Podleśna who painted a rainbow halo on an image of the Virgin Mary. Artistic Freedom Initiative is planning strategic litigation against the Polish Government in European courts but was unable to name a local partner organisation that would support this action. Poland’s own supposedly grassroots NGOs like the Life and Family Foundation have, likewise, kept a close watch on the activities of arts organisations, for example, pressuring the authorities to fire the director of Lublin’s Galeria Labirynt for opening the country’s first LGBT book library.

Protesters supporting the artist Elżbieta Podleśna charged with blasphemy for giving the Virgin Mary a rainbow halo.

Even then, the Polish populists’ fast march through the institutions has in some ways been more peaceful than the cultural war currently raging in established liberal democracies. In February, Tate Britain hosted Drag Queen Story Hour, an event by “an ADHD, neurodivergent, queer hero” for nursery children modelled after similar initiatives which have been the subject of fierce debate in the US. Accused of politicising art, Tate said it does “not programme artists in order to promote particular points of view,” a refrain I remembered hearing from more than a couple of former museum workers in Poland who would recuse themselves from the culture wars but indict their institutions’ new managers for playing games with culture for political gains. It’s always the other side that’s engaging in politics. Clashes between protesters and defenders of the event at Tate attracted police presence and resulted in one arrest.

In Poland, those art workers who stuck with their institutions spoke not of resistance but of exhaustion following years of protests and organising in opposition to government policies. Museum staff told me they were meticulously collecting evidence of financial embezzlement and workplace harassment, working with pro-bono civil rights lawyers, or hoping to go on long-term sick leave. A general election is scheduled for October.

Main image: Adam Olszański/flickr