After 1989 We Constantly Looked to the West

“The inferiority complex is killing us. We should realize how much we have to offer and systematically present the story of our common experiences, and these experiences in Central Europe were diametrically opposed to those in Western Europe,” says Alicja Knast in an interview with Zbigniew Rokita.

ZBIGNIEW ROKITA: You have recently become director of the National Gallery in Prague. It is a huge institution: hundreds of thousands of exhibits, exhibition space in nine historic locations, 800,000 visitors a year. At the same time, the Czech candidate for an Oscar is Agnieszka Holland’s Charlatan. Do you see anything symbolic in the fact that Poles are beginning to represent Czech culture?

ALICJA KNAST: No, it’s a coincidence. Poles generally don’t move from Poland, they are full of fears about taking part in competitions for curatorial and directorial positions abroad. Out of a population of 38 million, there are just a handful of cases, which is surprisingly few. I was astonished that I was the only Pole to enter the competition for the director of the Prague Gallery.

Agnieszka Holland’s story and mine are proof that Czechs are less concerned about their country losing its identity than Poles. It reminds me a little of the British model, where there is a profound belief that a foreigner in an important position will not shake the national identity, but rather have an invigorating effect on British culture. You need a lot of self-confidence to take such a step.

Foreigners hold key positions in several of the most important Czech institutions: the Norwegian Per Boye Hansen is the artistic director of the National Theatre Opera and the National Opera, the chief conductor and artistic director of the Czech Philharmonic is Semjon Byčkov and a Polish woman is the director of the National Gallery in Prague.

Czechs make practical and un-trumpeted use of the fact that they are Europeans and are not afraid of an influx of specialists from outside the country. Prague is an exceptionally friendly place for foreigners, and this also favors such decisions.

You said in one of your interviews that Czechs present art differently than Poles. What does this mean?

In the National Gallery in Prague, there haven’t been many theme exhibitions, as they tended to focus on monographic exhibitions, presenting the work of a particular artist. In the Czech Republic, exhibitions centred around a theme can be found in off-culture galleries, while in Poland they have recently become extremely popular. Monographic exhibitions make up for the time when some artists could not be present in the official circulation. It is hard to argue with that. However, I prefer to work with a team in such a way as to achieve at least two goals: not only to fill the gap in the presentation of an artist’s output, but also to show artists in a broad context.

Do Czechs consume culture differently than Poles? Every year, when publishing new readership reports, Poles self-flagellate and compare themselves to the Czechs, among whom the percentage of people who read books is more than twice as high, exceeding 80 percent.

Yes, they do. The people of Prague, for example, cannot imagine life without the theatre: they don’t think about whether to see a performance, but how often. The same goes for the philharmonic hall. But things are worse in the area of visual arts – galleries are not among the most visited places.

And do you feel that more is allowed in Czech culture? Every time I am in front of the Franz Kafka museum in Prague and I look at David Černý’s sculpture Čůrání – little people peeing on an outline of the Czech Republic – I am surprised, because in Poland such a sculpture could not stand in front of the Chopin or Mickiewicz museums.

Czechs don’t have such stringent laws as in Poland regarding the adaptation of buildings for people with disabilities. A monument is more important than its accessibility.

I wouldn’t say that more is allowed in Czech culture – I would say that the Czechs represent the European standard, while many things are not tolerated in Polish culture. The Czechs have a wonderful sense of humor and distance from themselves. They value artistic expression, the progressive current is strong. At the same time, you can see a certain conservatism – for example, the Czechs don’t have such stringent laws as in Poland regarding the adaptation of buildings for people with disabilities. A monument is more important than its accessibility.

Mariusz Szczygieł once quoted a Prague taxi driver who said that Poles like to be statues and Czechs like to be pigeons sitting on them.

It is a very apt comparison. For who has a better view of the world: the statuesque hero or the pigeon?

Right. Speaking in the same logic, I like to think of Silesians as pedestals with successive statues being placed on their heads. You were director of the Silesian Museum from 2014 to 2020, and you are familiar with the region, historically divided between Poland and the Czech Republic.

Silesians are distrustful of change, and this is due to their history, but once they start to believe in something, they staunchly defend their values to the end. What fascinates me most about this region is that the process of change is continuous and the new is replaced by the newer.

But there are two sides to this coin: the constant changes mean that Upper Silesia’s culture is not doing well, because culture requires stability, continuity and consistency. With a few exceptions, people generally do not hold managerial positions for long. In the Czech Republic, the approach is different: directors of museums and galleries serve in their positions for more than a decade, which absolutely does not mean that these institutions stagnate.

The Czechs and Silesians are a forgotten community. Do you see any threads connecting the two regions? It is interesting that both you and the previous director of the Silesian Museum, Leszek Jodliński, after being dismissed from the director’s post in Katowice, moved to the Czech Republic: he to the Museum of the Silesian Region in Opava, and you to Prague.

I have always dreamt of trying my hand at working in a cultural institution outside Poland. I thought that since there are universal principles of freedom of artistic expression in art, the experience of running galleries and museums should be applicable in different countries.

My great-grandmother was born in Karviná, in today’s Czech Republic. Her family then moved a few dozen kilometers north, to the area around the present-day Polish Rybnik, where I grew up. There are many Czechisms in the Silesian dialect of the Rybnik area, which I often used when talking to both my grandmother and great-grandmother. I discover these Czechisms while learning Czech and it inspires me a lot.

I remember how Upper Silesia used to receive only three or four TV channels, including Czech television.

It was only natural that we listened to Czech radio or watched cartoons on Czech television at home. These are all examples of how the twentieth century changed our region and that the fate of my family is closely linked to today’s Czech territory. We are part of the same cultural space in terms of language, of concepts, but also of culture and the experience of not having a country of our own or of living in a Communist state.

You said in an interview with the Polish weekly Polityka: “My main motivation for applying for the position of director of the NGP was, in the broadest sense, the need to change the narrative of Central European cultural institutions and to look again for a common denominator for our work”. Can the Visegrad countries jointly present a narrative that is interesting for people from Western Europe?

Of course. It’s a story about common experiences, and these experiences in Central Europe were diametrically opposed to those in Western Europe: this includes the division between underground art and official art, financially and operationally supported by the authorities. The permanent exhibition of contemporary art at the National Gallery will show precisely the fate of people in the Communist era who functioned outside the main circulation, and the “archaeology of institutions”, where the influence of the Communist regime can be seen. On more than one occasion, artists had to wait several decades before exhibiting their work. This is a warning about how politics affects culture.

The region’s exhibition infrastructure is also developing rapidly – from recent years, such examples as the Polin, MOCAK and the Silesian Museum spring to mind.

Yes, before the Silesian Museum moved to its current premises on the site of the former Katowice mine, it was visited by 20,000 people a year. In 2018-2019, it was already 250,000 – even though the collections and the curators remained the same.

In Poland, however, we still have a problem with educating managers in running museums. For a long time, directors of Polish institutions were art historians, who suddenly had to retrain as managers. Meanwhile, a completely different model has functioned in Western Europe for a long time. In Western Europe, museums and galleries are managed by people who have studied management of a particular type of institution. Even a degree in cultural management is not enough – the collections in galleries and museums require a completely different management model than, for example, in a theater. Of course, you can learn that, but it takes a lot of time and is fraught with more mistakes.

In Poland, however, we still have a problem with educating managers in running museums. For a long time, directors of Polish institutions were art historians, who suddenly had to retrain as managers.

Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks and Czechs know very little about each other’s art – except maybe Slovaks who know Czech culture. Our knowledge generally comes down to a few names.

After 1989, instead of constructing a common narrative, a common front, we kept looking to the West. This has become annoying because we are not able to focus on one common message that would help others and us understand ourselves. This longing for the West makes us neither able to catch up with it nor cooperate in our region. We can complain about the higher budgets of Western institutions (another thing is that in the Czech Republic culture is incomparably less subsidized than in Poland) or the better education of the people working in the cultural sector there, but this is less important than, for example, the effectiveness of existing models of artistic education.

After 1989, instead of constructing a common narrative, a common front, we kept looking to the West. This has become annoying because we are not able to focus on one common message that would help others

The inferiority complex is killing us. Above all, we should realize how much we have to offer and present it systematically. Can you think of any major Polish exhibitions about Central Europe that might shock a Western European audience? You can name very few. The only one that has successfully entered the mainstream is the Polish avant-garde at the Centre Georges Pompidou, organized by the Łódź Art Museum.

And you are the author of excellent theme exhibitions, such as “Zajawka [brief insight, trailer]. Silesian hip-hop 1993-2003” in the Silesian Museum. I wonder if we still need ‘Art’ in the grandiose sense – patriotic nineteenth-century realistic painting, etc. Maybe art in galleries should already have a different function than it used to?

I cannot imagine the absence of, for example, the academic current in the curriculum at schools or in exhibition spaces. We would lose the conceptual apparatus for talking about current issues. This is not passé: for example, computer game developers often draw heavily on nineteenth century realism in painting when designing their characters.

I don’t think about what art to present, but what issues are worth talking about. For example, if we want to talk about the influence of the off scene on the mainstream, we can look at hip-hop in Upper Silesia and see its influence on a number of phenomena, such as street art or design.

You were dismissed from the post of director of the Silesian Museum. The court later decided that the dismissal was unjustified, and the Minister of Culture stood up in your defence. How did the Law and Justice electoral win affect the independence of Polish culture? Did the climate change after 2015?

When we had a dilemma at the Silesian Museum as to whether to pursue a certain topic, I was guided solely by the law and the implementation of the adopted strategy, it’s main point being not to accept works that would violate the personal rights of others or spread hate speech. All the rest should not be discussed in an art gallery. In Poland, however, the tone of the public debate has changed and there are very many instances of self-censorship, which go unnoticed by most observers of the art scene.

In the case of historical exhibitions, we have forgotten about something extremely important: consensus. It should be based on the fact that the parties to a discussion are different from each other, but able to reach a consensus, which should not be confused with a sell-out. I saw this consensus in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews POLIN, during the recent very stormy discussions of the POLIN Museum Council, which took place before the final approval of the main exhibition design.

Consensus means that we work out something much bigger than the sum of our views. It requires intellectual and emotional maturity and is only possible within a group of people who have the good of the visitors to the exhibition in mind, rather than their own convictions. The most important thing in this process is the ability to use a ‘barometer’.

What kind of barometer?

I mean the ability to diagnose what the audience currently needs – not to be confused with audience expectations – and what impact our offer will have both now and in the long term. Anyone who has seen the effects of their work in the cultural space knows what I am talking about.

And where does the self-censorship in Polish culture come from?

From fear.

Fear of what?

People hope that it’s enough to wait out the current situation. There is an awareness that today there are subjects that are not discussed, or are only discussed from one perspective. You can check the applications sent by Polish cultural institutions to grantors with proposals for exhibition themes. Compare the themes from before 2015 and after – they are radically different.

Is this going to pass?

I am afraid that although the political situation will eventually change, instead of returning to the polyphony of attitudes, perspectives and themes, culture will make a U-turn and entrench itself in a different, single perspective: “It’s our turn”.

You can check the applications sent by Polish cultural institutions to grantors with proposals for exhibition themes. Compare the themes from before 2015 and after – they are radically different.

Or maybe contemporary art is intrinsically unable to be conservative – maybe it has to be leftist, transgressive, crossing barriers?

I hope not. There are prominent artists with right-wing views. I would prefer to talk not about left-wing and right-wing art, but about good and bad art. It would be different if the categories of left-wing and right-wing were not arbitrary, but unfortunately today they are.

We talk a lot about art in close connection with current politics, and we think less about how a given artist allowed us to see a world that we were not aware of. We think too little about how an artist gave us a new perspective through his or her work and it is impossible to go back to our earlier vision of the world.

Alicja Knast

is a museologist and musicologist. The institutions she has worked for include the National Museum in Poznań, the Fryderyk Chopin Museum and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews Polin. Between 2014 and 2020, she was director of the Silesian Museum in Katowice. In October 2020, she won an international competition for the position of director of the National Gallery in Prague.

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Current issue - 02/2021

Can Art Change Society?

After 1989, instead of constructing a common narrative of Central Europe, we kept looking to the West. However, art itself cannot offer any magical solutions to everyday political issues, it has always been a valuable ally in many struggles all over Mitteleuropa. The pandemic has shown us that serious global problems cannot be solved by closing ourselves. Artists and cultural institutions can teach us to open our eyes and minds. Read the brand new Aspen Review and look for what unites our region.

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