With nearly every museum in the grip of contemptuous Law & Justice loyalists, what is the future of contemporary art?
The current situation in the Polish art world – now in the grip of a right-wing takeover of nearly all its public institutions – is well illustrated by Jacek Adamas’s 2011 work, Artforum. Having recently been acquired by Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCCA) – one of the most important public collections in Poland – the piece has once again become the subject of debate, a decade after it was first shown. The work comprises a copy of the February 2011 issue of the well-known US art magazine laid out so that both front and back covers are visible. The obverse features a photo of the ‘golden aeroplane’ that sculptor Paweł Althamer and his collaborators took to Brussels in 2009 as part of Common Task – a project celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism in Poland. The reverse shows the wreckage of the Polish presidential plane after it crashed near Smolensk in 2010, killing 96 people, including then-president Lech Kaczyński. To nationalists, the crash is a symbol of Poland’s collapse into an ineffectual, depraved state subordinated to Brussels, at the mercy of Germany and Russia. The radical right believes that the crash was an assassination orchestrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For Adamas and Piotr Bernatowicz, the ultra-conservative director of UCCCA who purchased the work, the juxtaposition of the two aeroplanes is an allegory of the naivety of liberal elites, including the Polish contemporary art world. The fact that Adamas and Althamer had been friends ever since they were students at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where they studied under the legendary Grzegorz Kowalski, adds piquancy to the situation. Unlike Althamer, whose work is open and cosmopolitan, Adamas’s boisterous patriotism and conservatism is deemed important by right-wing critics and, thanks to the patronage of the Law and Justice Party-run government, he is a rising star of the right-wing art currently in vogue in Poland. Artforum, which spelled the end of the friendship between the two artists, is emblematic of the new populist art that insists on a black and white division between good and evil, and of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ the nationalist government or Civic Platform, a pro-Europe opposition party.
When the Law and Justice party rose to power in 2015, the Polish art world was stunned. Everyone feared the ‘Hungarian scenario’, which saw leading venues in Budapest, such as Műcsarnok and the Ludwig Museum, ‘lost’ to populists after the 2010 election. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán eliminated the Ministry of Culture that same year and replaced it with the Ministry of Human Resources. However, in Poland, not one director of a national institution was fired or replaced – at least, not immediately. Museums rapidly adapted their programmes to meet the demands of Law and Justice’s cultural platform, suppressing ‘difficult’ topics, from feminism and ecology to LGBTQ+ issues. The art-world establishment quickly sacrificed its progressive ideals, preferring to preserve institutional structures and jobs. To a large extent, this survival strategy has failed. During the populist government’s second term of office, the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage changed museum directors, one after another, just as soon as each contract came to an end.