To the Directors of the National Museum in Krakow
An open letter
This letter addressed to Andrzej Betlej and Andrzej Szczerski, the directors of the National Museum in Krakow, came across my screen on Sunday. We are publishing it here today both for what it says about the struggle against the new authoritarianism in Poland, and also because, it seems to me, it may serve as a model for opposition to authoritarian threats far beyond Poland’s borders. Jeff Goldfarb
In response to the rising tide of nationalist, fascist, and even Nazi sympathies that we are seeing in our country, as representatives of the world of culture and academia, but above all as citizens, we wish to present you with our proposal: to organize a major international exhibition of art that stands in opposition to such attitudes.
In the modern age, artists have manifested their opposition to acts of violence, unjustified aggression, and usurpation of power in a range of ways. Goya, Delacroix, and later classical modernists such as Käthe Kollwitz, George Grosz, John Heartfield, Pablo Picasso, Władysław Strzemiński, and Andrzej Wróblewski, to name but a few – many of whom had first-hand experience of the horrors of war — addressed the issues of xenophobia and race-based violence. The majority of them were aware that by no means all fascists and their sympathizers paraded around in brown shirts. This is not an ideology that stops at flaunting Nazi uniforms and symbols. In the past it has also donned top hats, while here and now, in present-day Poland, it often appears dressed up in suits as it fans the flames of belligerent, chauvinistic moods.
The corollaries of this are all too clear: witch-hunts and incitement to lynchings. Tadeusz Borowski, a victim of and consummate expert on fascism, pinpointed this astutely. ‘As seen through the eyes of the fox, world history begins to retrogress: the times are increasingly bloody, life is increasingly hard, so many foes, so few friends’, he wrote. These words are taken from his short story ‘Fox-hunting’, which he set in post-war England – to convey his conviction that fascism was not a problem confined to the victims of the Third Reich. Any state that passes laws facilitating witch-hunts will ultimately become a fascist state.
The threat of advancing fascism also looms in another guise: popular culture, which shapes the attitudes of young people via electronic and social media. It is time for a critical analysis of the reactionary radicalization of movements such as hip hop and street art. We need to show the genesis of this radicalization of counter-culture scenes which started out by offering emancipation but today serve as vehicles for the aestheticization and commercialization of authoritarian currents. The same is true of the appropriation of patriotic symbols and entire traditions connected with Polish culture – we cannot allow our Polish heritage to become the property of populists with fascist leanings.
Do we in present-day Poland have any awareness of these threats? If we do, it is insufficient. It is thus vital that our public institutions — the shared assets of all our citizens — draw our attention to these urgent needs. Spokespeople for the National Museum in Krakow have so many times before stressed its unique role in the process of shaping the Polish consciousness. Now again — in the face of growing antipathy towards the Other and increasingly frequent attacks on people with different colours of skin, in the context of the brutal contempt demonstrated towards minorities (whether ethnic, political, ideological, or sexual), and with the creeping spread of the low-level insensitivity to violence inculcated by this xenophobia and nationalism — the National Museum in Krakow has an important mission to fulfil. It has a chance to play an important role in educating Polish society. The exhibition we are proposing should do just this: educate our society in a spirit of anti-fascist openness and cooperation across conventional divides. To this end we would suggest inviting an international team of curators to design an exhibition that would showcase a broad canon of contemporary art in an interdisciplinary historical and geopolitical context.
The ostensible neutrality adopted by Polish museums and universities is in fact deeply political — by remaining silent they are actually supporting these dangerous trends, or at the very least avoiding taking an unequivocal stance against them. This has to stop; we have to say a resounding ‘No!’ in situations which require principled opposition. The exhibition which we would like to organize would be one such opportunity for Polish conservatism — it should stand shoulder to shoulder with those whose desire is to ensure the preservation of Poland’s great modern-day heritage: the tradition of Human and Citizens’ Rights. ‘The basest conservatives prefer to confess the only wise religion — fox-hunting’, Borowski wrote scathingly.
We the undersigned still believe that Polish conservatism has no desire to be a ‘hunting religion’. Gentlemen, we call on you to prove that our hopes do not have to be in vain.
Paweł Brożyński – art historian
Tomasz Kozak – artist
Michał Zawada – artist
Mateusz Kula – artist
Stach Szabłowski – curator
Dominik Kuryłek – art historian, curator
Anna Taszycka – film critic
Jakub Majmurek – critic, columnist
Michał Kuziak – literary historian
Ziemowit Szczerek – writer
Małgorzata Kowalska – philosopher
Bogna Świątkowska – promoter of culture
Monika Grodzka – literary historian
Paulina Reiter – journalist, “Wysokie Obcasy”
Katarzyna Słoboda – curator
Agata Bielik-Robson – philosopher
Anna Baranowa – art historian
Alicja Rogalska – artist
Katarzyna Wąs – curator
Marcin Polak – artist, community activist
Olimpia Maciejewska-Gijbels – gallery owner
Kamila Twardowska – art historian
Katarzyna Wojtczak – art historian
Aleksandra Jakubczak – theatre director
Liliana Piskorska – artist
Agnieszka Szewczyk – art historian, curator
Roma Sendyka – scholar of memory cultures
Przemysław Czapliński – research fellow, Adam Mickiewicz University (Poznań)
Jakub Kornhauser – literary critic, writer
Maria Kobielska – cultural studies and literature scholar
Emilia Olszewska – sociologist
Kamil Kuskowski – artist
Paulina Olszewska – curator
Ewa Gorządek – curator
Joanna Hołda – lawyer
Paweł Sadowski – lawyer
Joanna Sokołowska – curator
Barbara Bielawska – politician, social activist
Karolina Czerska – literary critic
Jakub Ciężki – artist
Joanna Mytkowska – art historian, curator
Sebastian Cichocki – curator
Maria Poprzęcka – art historian
Jan Trzupek – art historian, curator
translated by: @Jessica Taylor-Kucia