Purge of the museums: how ‘goose-stepping’ politicians are waging war on the arts in Poland


So, who exactly are Poland’s Right-wing culture warriors? Ironically, they have sprung to power in a country that was once the poster boy for the EU’s vision of a borderless, harmonious Europe. Since Poland entered the European Union in 2004, millions of its citizens have roamed the Continent for work, integrating well and turning Poland into one of Europe’s most dynamic economies. But for every Pole working as a plumber in London or barista in Berlin, there were others who stayed at home – in particular the elderly, the rural-dwelling, and the devout, for whom the Catholic Church is still as influential today as it was in 1970s Ireland.

It is these voters that have kept the PiS in power since 2015, its agenda veering ever further from the liberal values that EU membership was supposed to cement.

The party has described gay rights as an “ideology worse than communism”, for example, letting town halls ban Pride marches. Abortions have been all but outlawed by the courts – themselves now packed with party appointees in violation of EU rules.

State TV, which previously had BBC-style independence, now runs reports showing plucky little Poland beset by foreign conspirators, be they gay lobbyists, global financiers or past invaders like Germany and Russia. With neighbouring Belarus trying recently to flood Poland with migrants, such messages strike a chord.

“The PiS have played skilfully on this notion of national identity dissolving,” admits Rypson. “It is true that in the 1990s identity was basically seen as a bad word in the EU, and I think Polish liberals took that too literally, forgetting that many Poles are very historically minded – and for good reason.”

The EU has hit back, handing out massive fines to Poland and withdrawing funding from LGBT-free town halls. But its scolding power is limited, not least because of the fear of “Polexit” if the EU pushes too hard.

Hence the continuing clear-out in the nation’s cultural institutions, in which Rypson says at least “a couple of dozen” senior heads have rolled, including posts in theatres, film and literary institutes. Among those brought in as replacements is Piotr Bernatowicz, appointed last year as director of Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art. His appointment has drawn protests, partly because he has acquired works like Jacek Adamas’s Tonfa (Baton), which portrays homosexuality as a lifestyle forced upon the public. It shows a neon police baton that phases through the colours of a Pride-style rainbow.

Bernatowicz accuses the art world of being hypocritical, pointing out that it prides itself on being controversial, but often disapproves of anything that challenges its own ideologies.

“People expect artists, like politicians, to abide by the rules of political correctness,” he says. “Yet one of the main values of modern art [is] freedom, the freedom to experiment, the freedom to violate the habits and expectations of the audience.” To challenge this, he hosted a show in August called “Political Art” that was billed as a fightback against cancel-culture. It included works showing oppression of women in the Muslim world, and human rights abuses in Russia, but also exhibits by Dan Park, a Swedish art provocateur who has served jail time for hate crimes.


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