Majmurek: The Law and Justice vision of culture is tied to economic censorship [Interview]

The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has a clear and precise programme for transforming society according to their profoundly conservative and nationalist beliefs. The role of culture in their programme is significant. Jakub Majmurek talks about Law and Justice’s vision of culture, about the way they want to implement this vision, about the changes in the cultural sector that have already taken place, and about the idea of a big Hollywood blockbuster filled with Polish historical content.

Mislav Marjanović: Can you describe Law and Justice’s vision of culture? What are its dominant values?

Jakub Majmurek: I think that PiS has a very particular view of culture and an equally particular attitude towards cultural politics. It is a party with a very strong conservative and nationalist agenda, and their ideas about how the state should work in the cultural sector stem from that worldview. Specifically, PiS would like the state to support cultural initiatives which carry similar political values to those the party is promoting. What does it mean in practice? At the time of the electoral campaign, many politicians connected with the Law and Justice party said something like: “We will not cut state support for culture as the Civic Platform government often did, we will support artistic and cultural institutions, but only in the areas where their activity is helping the national community to become more cohesive, injecting it with positive values. We won’t, however, support the kind of cultural activities which are in any way disruptive towards national cohesion and the national community, which are in some way counter-cultural, corrupting Polish culture and tradition, such as those which are offensive to Christians.”

is a film and art critic, political columnist, and writer. Co-author of books entitled “Story of Sin. Surrealism in Polish Cinema” and “Boro L’Isle de lAmour”.

So I think the vision of cultural politics PiS holds is tied up with an idea of economic censorship. Of course the activists of the Law and Justice Party would deny it if anyone asked them if they wanted to introduce a form of censorship in Poland, and in terms of legal censorship they probably don’t want to do that, but they would definitely like to suffocate – by cutting off funds – all cultural institutions and initiatives which don’t share their vision of culture, and which are critical about their nationalist program or their national historical policy. They want to starve them, to make them wholly dependent on financing from the private sector or foreign sources.

Why does culture play such an important role in the Law and Justice program?

It is a party which has a clear programme of societal transformation.. You can’t transform society in any other way than through what we would call the ideological apparatus of the state, in which cultural life plays an extremely significant role as a means of communicating a certain set of values to the public.

So can they really implement this vision of culture?

PiS is a party with a very strong conservative and nationalist agenda, and their ideas about how the state should work in the cultural sector stem from that worldview.

To a certain degree they can. Cultural life in Poland is quite strongly dependent on public financing. However, fortunately not all public financing goes through the Ministry of Culture. A lot of it is controlled by local authorities, like the city councils, regional councils, and so on, where PiS still doesn’t have full control. A good example would be theatres. The person responsible for theatres in the Ministry of Culture is a very conservative and very vocal critic of Wanda Zwinogrodzka, who was known for her opposition towards artists such as Jana Klata and the whole post-dramatic school of Polish theatre. However, the Ministry of Culture only directly controls three national theaters in the whole of Poland. The rest of the theaters are dependent on local authorities and they are directly financed by them, not by the Ministry of Culture. So even if Ms Zwinogrodzka wanted to force the theaters not to hire directors she didn’t like, she actually doesn’t have the power to do so. So there is a clear limit to the power of PiS. Nonetheless, we can see how the Ministry of Culture is divided between different initiatives competing for public financing.

You say that that this policy is dividing the Ministry of Culture’s funds. Can you give some examples?

The best example is perhaps the financing (or lack of financing) of the collection of contemporary art. Amongst the priorities of the Ministry of Culture, there was a programme for financing the acquisition of pieces of art and even collections of contemporary art by art museums in Poland. Every year, museums would present their collections of new acquisitions, which experts – appointed by the Ministry – reviewed and decided whether or not to finance. This year, for the first time in the history of the programme, none of the museums were given any money at all; all the applications were rejected. And then the Minister decided to restart the programme, but this time with a newly-appointed committee, consisting of people who are rather hostile towards the kind of art the museums had previously been purchasing. The new rules state that now it won’t be entire collections under review, but every single piece of art individually. This is a cleare conomic censorship, and one can imagine that a piece of art which is in any way controversial in terms of its engagement with Catholic symbolism won’t get that kind of financing.

The artists involved in theatre, cinematography, and other fields are generally more liberal and anti-nationalist than the government. Could this be a problem for the Ministry of Culture?

Yes, this is true. Among the supporters of PiS, there aren’t many successful contemporary artists in the visual arts, theatre, film, or literature. Perhaps in literature you can point to a few really respected and well-known writers who support PiS, but this field is, in my opinion, somewhat exceptional. If they, for example, want to build a conservative theatre, they are clearly lacking the directors and playwrights to do so. If they would like to build conservative contemporary art institutions, they clearly lack the artists, curators and so on to do that. But nonetheless I think that the upper echelons of PiS and the Ministry of Culture, including the Minister and Deputy PM Gliński, don’t really have any grip on what is happening in contemporary art.

The upper echelons of PiS and the Ministry of Culture don’t really have any grip on what is happening in contemporary art.

There are some artists and filmmakers who have very strong positions in their fields and are respected by their peers, but could be used as a icons of conservative art by the ruling party. I mean people like the great film director Grzegorz Królikiewicz or the artist Zbigniew Warpechowski, who was the founder of Polish performance art and later in his life the author of the manifesto for the ‘conservative avant-garde’. These are the artists who could be used by PiS to serve their narrative. But very often, I think that PiS, their activists and intellectuals, are not even aware of their existence.

History is also very important in the Law and Justice cultural programme. Can you describe the historical narrative promoted by PiS?

I think that in order to explain their vision of Polish history, one can use the metaphor popularized by Bronislaw Łagowski, the Polish philosopher who claimed that the times after 1989 can be compared to the times of the Bourbon Restoration in post-revolutionary France. As in post-revolutionary France, the elites had to somehow preserve the results of the former system, in the case of Bourbon France, of post-revolutionary France and the Napoleonic Empire, in our case of the People’s Republic of Poland. But these elites were preserving these results while maintaining their own narrative. But now we are returning to the old order: prior to 1789 in the case of France, and before WWII in the case of Poland. I think that if the elites of Solidarność can be seen as an analogy of Louis XVIII, who was pushing a moderate version of restoration, then PiS and its supporters can be seen as an analogy of Charles X, the ultra-conservative king, treating the idea of restoration quite literally. It is the same with the Law and Justice party, which seeks to depict the time of the People’s Republic of Poland as a black hole in the history of the Polish state. It is a non-existent part of Polish history; they want to build a legitimation of modern Poland around the narrative that it is the successor of the Second Commonwealth, and the people who after 1945 never accepted the new order and fought with the new government. For example a few weeks ago we had a very pompous state funeral for Colonel Zygmunt Szendzielarz, (“Łupaszka”), who was one of the commanders of the anticommunist guerilla movement after World War II. He was one of the many commanders of Armia Krajowa, who after the end WWII couldn’t accept the fact that Poland had become part of the Eastern Bloc and that a communist regime had been imposed. Now, this kind of anticommunist guerilla is glorified by the state and upheld as a kind of universal standard of national martyrdom, heroism and civic virtue that everyone should follow. If Poland from 1989 to the present was searching for its legitimacy mainly in the tradition of peaceful anticommunist opposition in PRL, and especially in the democratic opposition of the 70s and 80s, the Law and Justice party is rejecting these traditions. They’re rejecting them because they feel that they belong to their political adversaries. That’s why they are denigrating Lech Walesa and are actively trying to destroy his mythical status as the leader of the Polish democratic opposition, the leader of Polish people standing against the communist government in the name of Polish political aspirations. In place of the myth of Walesa and Solidarność, they are constructing a new one – the myth of anticommunist guerilla fighters. In Poland they are usually called “Żolnierze wyklęci”, which can be roughly translated as “cursed soldiers”.

So they are choosing militaristic values instead of more democratic, conciliatory values?

Yes, but what is most important here is the factor of extreme anticommunism and the complete rejection of reality after 1945, as well as a kind of rejection of the tradition of democratic opposition, which they are regarding as something which belongs to the political other, and not themselves.

But the ironic twist is that the Law and Justice Party in some ways continues with the same policy as the Polish Communist party. For example, the strong nationalism of the Polish Communist party, like their anti-German propaganda.

Yes, I think that in many ways they are using the same tropes as the propaganda of the People’s Republic of Poland, especially from the period of Wladyslaw Gomułka when nationalist legitimation was crucial. If we look at the history of the Polish Communist party after the war we can actually distinguish three different kinds of legitimation that it was using. In the first period it was indeed more communist, less nationalistic legitimation, stemming from the traditions of the international worker’s movement. After 1956, and especially in the 60s this legitimation started to become more and more nationalistic, and after the 1970s, when Edward Gierek took the helm of the Polish United Workers’ Party, this legitimation became more technocratic. The communists began telling society: “We are the smart guys who can make Poland modern and prosperous and we know what we are doing, we are the experts here”. There were three different forms of legitimation here.

In place of the myth of Walesa and Solidarność, the Law and Justice Party is constructing a new one – the myth of anticommunist guerilla fighters.

But coming back to your question, I definitely think that the Law and Justice Party is in many areas copying and pasting the propaganda from the communist times, and yes, this anti-German sentiment can be seen as an example. They are planning to build this Museum of the Western and so-called Reclaimed Lands – these territories used to be part of Germany before WWII, and after the war became part of Poland. It is meant to show the history these territories as distinctly Polish, and certainly not to show the complicated history of the German people who were living there for the most part of recorded history. The narration about the Polish identity of the Reclaimed Lands was extremely important to the propaganda of PRL. So, yes, you are right.

The top echelons of the Law and Justice Party think of cinematography as the most important art, one could say that they are obsessed with it. What is the reason for this?

Well, I think the answer is an obvious one. Cinema is still the most widespread art form, the most accessible and the most democratic. There are far more Poles visiting cinemas than visiting theatres, or even reading books. This is the main reason. PiS knows that film is able to engage very strong emotions and this is why they are so concerned about cinema.

What would be an example of an ideal film according to the Law and Justice vision of cinema?

I think that when Professor Glinski was asked about what type of cinema he would like to see produced in Poland, he named Pearl Harbor, the Hollywood blockbuster with Ben Affleck. That is the kind of the cinema they would like, but naturally filled with Polish content. The great dream of the Ministry of Culture is to make big Hollywood blockbusters, which would tell the history of the heroic deeds of Poles during WWII. Maybe the story of the Polish air fighters in the Battle of Britain in 1940, or even the activites of Witold Pilecki, who was organized resistance in the Auschwitz concentration camp. They believe that this kind of movie would promote Poland abroad.

Do you think that this kind of Polish national blockbuster could have some success abroad, or is it naïve to believe so?

The great dream of the Ministry of Culture is to make big Hollywood blockbusters, which would tell the history of the heroic deeds of Poles during WWII.

It is completely naïve. The party functionaries who are delegated to deal with cinema, like deputy minister of Culture Jaroslaw Sellin, have no experience as movie critics, film studies scholars, producers or even festival programmers. They haven’t the foggiest idea how the contemporary film market works. I think that if anything from this region has a chance to reach the international public it would be arthouse cinema promoted through the festival circuit, and if a blockbuster had a chance to succeed it would have to be genuinely different and exceptional, something that couldn’t be found in Hollywood. Making copies of Hollywood blockbusters when we would never be able to have the technical proficiency, the budgets, and the opportunities of Hollywood is not going to end well for Polish cinema.


Mislav Marjanovic
Mislav Marjanović is an editor of PoliticalCritique.org.