Between the Global, National, and Peripheral

The Case of Art Museums in Poland

by Karolina Golinowska

The issues of cultural production and its institutions usually involve the broader context of analysis that is followed by discussion on globalization in general. This is because the consequences of globalization exerted a profound impact on the art world’s structures. Criticism of modernity, introduced by proponents of postcolonial discourse, revealed the imperial inclinations of European cultural policies. According to these analyses, the history of cultures emerged as the history of exclusions that were the final result of promoting cultural diversity in a strictly Eurocentric way.[1] Therefore, international recognition belonged only to those artists born in the West, with their white, Christian citizenship. However, as the art world was expanding, it directed its attention towards other, more obscure cultural contexts, yet refused to perceive them as equal. This issue has been analyzed in-depth through postcolonial writings as a matter of orientalizing non-European cultures.[2] The aforementioned context would actually help to define globalization as a process that deconstructs the modernistic paradigm and undermines the legitimacy of museums cultivating the myth of primitive cultures. The critical relevance of the process would also reveal itself in terms of museums of modern art that have ignored works by artists from Eastern Europe or South America in the past.

However, in terms of cultural production, globalization should not be perceived as a unified phenomenon that reaches the institutional level of cultural policies. In fact, many of those institutions often become integrated with urban development strategies and must therefore follow the various expectations of local authorities. Regardless, the globalization of the art world offers a new dynamic, one that is emerging from the pervasive dialectic of the local and the global that deviated far from modernist universalism.

The globalization of the art world has changed the traditional power hierarchies and brought attention to the historical margins. As a result, the noticeable presence of non-Western art has deconstructed the universal hegemony of the European narrative of art. However, the apparent recognition of this art in terms of the art market was not followed by an immediate inclusion in museum collections. Consequently, there occurs a substantial discrepancy between the global art market and the institutional canon. This particular lack of institutional flexibility may derive from the fact that the museums as a whole were grounded on the fundaments of European art history. Supported by this long-standing tradition, museum institutions have gained a rather distant perspective on the art world’s contemporary dynamic, and do not intend to resign from their own monolithic narratives. All in all, the noticeable influence of non-Western art in the contemporary artistic panorama seems to reduce institutional reluctance. What is more, the European tradition of art history appears as one of the narratives that employed a particular concept of art that is neither universal, nor preconditioned. The rise of various kinds of “post-museum” institutions around the globe only strengthens this tendency to write local histories of cultural practices without constant references to the European tradition.

However, it should be mentioned that whenever the notion of European art has been raised, it implicitly refers to the Western European tradition—a view wherein the rest of the continent remains a cultural periphery. The reason for this dichotomy can be explained in terms of various cultural contexts to which the concept of art was applied. This problem has already manifested itself in the imaginary idea of the culturally homogeneous Western world. For a long time, America and Europe were believed to present a particular cultural unity that manifested itself in various forms of art practice and art narratives.[3] This assumption could barely be accepted, under the condition that only part of Europe was taken into account. On the other hand, the Cold War paradigm also applied to the modern and contemporary histories of international relations, which involved a binary perspective on the global political scene. This is the main reason why the idea of modern European art excluded artists from the Eastern Bloc. Since historical conditions made the art of Western Europe representative for that of Europe in general, the East was therefore obviously marginalized and perceived as lacking modern narrative cohesion. The exclusion was supported by an assumption of the provincial character of art from Eastern Europe. However, this particular assessment can be considered to be a lack of comprehension. The political isolation and limited mutual art communication between West and East likely resulted in the adaptation of different artistic strategies.[4] Therefore, it may not necessarily mean that the lack of interest and involvement in the modernistic crisis signified historical underdevelopment. On the other hand, some of the dissident artists from the East achieved huge popularity among Western critics and successfully entered the art market. The particular criteria for the work of art, according to which it should contribute to the theme of the modernistic crisis, seemed at times to be less significant.

The situation did not rapidly change after the fall of the communism in 1989. However, following the political transformation, Eastern Europe was faced with a choice of which strategy towards art to adopt. Either it would follow the art of the West in drawing conclusions from the modernistic crisis—a standard that would clear the historical backlogs—or it would create an individual and autonomous language of expression that would contribute to its specific contemporaneity. The first option bears a resemblance to a statement by Natasa Kovacevic, in which she compares the Eastern European attempt to modernize and follow Western prosperity to a proto-colonial relationship that disables the possibility of real dialogue.[5] This option, which resigns from post-communist discourse in favor of broader, post-colonial perspective, will be further investigated in this article. Nevertheless, the act of adopting any of the artistic strategies implied the application of one of these identity narratives that emerged after the transition. It was inevitable, in other words, following the new geopolitical division of Europe, which had now lost its bipolar structure. For some countries, including Poland, the process of forging an identity was supported by a new category: Central Europe. Nonetheless, the new geopolitical divisions of Europe introduced after the fall of communism did not acquire a precise dimension. Some of the researchers have turned to the category of East-Central Europe, suggesting a particular historical correlation between the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and the Balkans.[6] Others claim that the category of Central Europe is based on religious unity. According to Alan Dingsdale, there was a huge discrepancy between Western and Central Europe, as they did not share the same religious beliefs.[7] Christendom with its various forms was a dominant religion in Western and Central Europe, whereas the East was the territory of the Orthodox Church. Consequently, the religious criteria combined with historical aspects contribute to a four-part structure of the non-Western European territories: Baltic, Balkan, Central, and Eastern. Still, there remain other possible paradigms that operate around semi-formal or formal organizations like the European Union or the Visegrád Group.

The question of the geopolitical position of Poland bears importance for the overall shape of its economic, social, and cultural trajectories. In other words, the way its geopolitical position is defined influences the narratives of Polish history and culture. The key question, however, lies in how this position may serve as an instrument to legitimate various political decisions. In terms of its early history, Poland can be considered as one of the Slavic countries, having almost nothing in common with its neighbors in the West. But due to World War II, Poland can also be perceived as one of the post-communist countries and shares its recent history with eastern Germany and Russia.[8] Moreover, Polish foreign policy after the transition presents a strong inclination towards the West that not only manifests itself in EU membership, but also in various practices that emphasize a rather aloof attitude towards its neighbors to the East. Finally, there is an additional narrative that views Poland as a geopolitical bridge between East and West—represented by Russia and Germany, respectively—and contributes to the idea of Polish centrism.

Since the question of geopolitical position implicates various identity narratives, it demonstrates itself through cultural and institutional policies. An emerging multiplicity of contexts has made the contemporary situation of the museum in Poland even more complicated. Firstly, like the institutions of the Western world, Poland must confront various fundamental problems. Some of those dilemmas were introduced by a new museology that referred to the ideological and political meaning of the exhibitionary content.[9] Other problems appeared through the analyses of relations between culture and economy that raised awareness regarding the tension between museums and cultural tourism.[10] Because the contemporary situation forced a profound transformation of museums worldwide, there has also been a need to redefine its meaning in the structures of the art world. Having lost the existing foundation of Western European narratives of art history, some museums shifted towards a program filled with international blockbusters. Others, in accordance with the mythological temple of art, developed the idea of the respectable institution offering a supreme aesthetic experience, or became the most sought after centers of cultural tourism. The full complexity of the problem revealed itself in terms of the ideological foundations of the national museum. Despite its name, it used to (and still does) present collections of works created by artists from all the around the world. In other words, it presents the canon of art history that belongs to the nation but consists of works coming from a limited number of Western European countries. Museums of modern art abandoned the idea of nationality and aimed to promote currently emerging art that, in turn, was provided a transnational, universal, white-cube context dominated by modernistic idea.[11] Therefore, the idea of universalism solved the problems that manifested with the foundation of the national museums. Despite that, this transnational collection was usually limited to the works of artists from Western Europe and North America, and has been severely criticized as a new form of colonial discourse.[12] The category of universalism is an indirect embodiment of Eurocentrism and continues to preserve traditional colonial hierarchies. The critical discourse has prompted many reactions, resulting in various cultural projects and art exhibitions that deconstruct the idea of universalism with postcolonial analyses. The idea of a museum as a critical institution—the post-museum—has successfully been applied in the practice of museums of contemporary art.[13] However, the ambiguous definition of contemporary art itself enforces many formal experiments, as it must build up a resistance to various pressures coming from the art market. Finally, despite many successful examples of local community museums worldwide, there is still a tendency to avoid interference with autonomous modern and contemporary Western European art.

However, the particular difficulty with Polish art institutions lies in the fact that they have always been very close to European tradition ideologically, but never constituted the center of it. What is more, the art of non-Western Europe applied the same definition to the work of art, and therefore did not establish separate and isolated cultural practices. If the European assumption of modernist universalism was severely criticized, how might this critique be translated and applied to the context of its own peripheries? What kind of narrative should be created for art (and its history) that applied the European tradition but were perceived as marginal or provincial? This is the main reason it becomes inevitable to create a new context for an analysis that would engage with these questions. Moreover, this particular research perspective should take into account the question of the geopolitical location of Poland, as it has a direct impact on the foundation of its museums.

In the case of the Polish institution, it becomes rather puzzling what kind of narrative these formulate. Usually, state art museums that present old masters’ works function under the name of the national museums. Most of the major cities in Poland have their own national museums, wherein the range of the art collections depends on the economic and political importance of the city itself. The most significant and respected are, however, the national museums in Warszawa and Kraków: the former is supported by the authority of the capital city and the latter includes the famous Princes Czartoryski Museum, considered to be the oldest art and history museum in Poland. The map of cultural institutions is complemented by many regional museums, which essentially address their respective programs to the local audience. Some of the state museums, as well as some of the municipal museums, are organized under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. Others institutions are co-managed by the Ministry and local authorities, or other forms of governing bodies. [14] This management model is quite popular among the rest of the state, municipal, or regional museums. Finally, there are museums with a statute or rules and regulations approved by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage, but run by natural or legal persons. This means that they cannot be considered as public institutions controlled and supported financially by the state and will be excluded from further analysis. The total sum of all of the aforementioned institutions, according to statistics presented by the National Institute of Museology and Collections Protection, reaches 519. Only an indefinite number of them are dedicated to historical or contemporary art.

Generally speaking, national and regional art museums are prone to a rather traditional approach that follows Schelling’s idea of the temple of art. The conservative paradigm clearly leads toward the Western European tradition, made visible through collections comprising international (mostly European) art from various epochs. The question of their being a part of this tradition seems to be beyond dispute. However, ongoing debates concerning the issues raised by new museology have changed the monolithic character of the institution. A considerable number of educational projects lead by various art museums in Poland have weakened its basic principle, creating an image of an open and accessible institution. The need for social education was considered an essential part of the museum’s strategy at the time. However, as it happened, the educational involvement was given specific limits, which became clear when the National Museum in Warsaw employed a new director in 2009. The executive was nominated after his presentation of an acclaimed proposal, an extraordinary program combining educational aspects with critical analysis. Piotr Piotrowski pursued an innovative strategy of museum development that complied with the consequences of globalization. The radical idea of the critical museum aimed to transform the institution into a dynamic social forum that would serve as a space of education and critical reflection on culture, society, and history.[15] What is more, he strongly advocated moving beyond the established art canon and drawing attention to its peripheries. Unfortunately, Piotrowski experienced severe difficulties, which forced his resignation. Moreover, one of the exhibitions organized under Piotrowski’s auspices, Art Homo Erotica, curated by Paul Leszkowicz, was considered by some to have destroyed the institution’s good name. The cultural experiment met with deep hostility, and the revolution remains unfinished. A detailed history of the incident was later described in Piotrowski’s publication, entitled Muzeum krytyczne (Critical museum).

In terms of the collections they possess, state and regional museums present selections of artworks in accordance with the Western tradition, but can seldom be compared with their Western European counterparts. In other words, exhibited or collected artworks seem inclined towards transnationality but are limited to a canonical model that reproduces the Western tradition of art history. The number of worldly recognizable masterpieces is limited, and some of the collections include artists from the territory of Poland. Collections are arranged chronologically and preserve the idea of art autonomy. Obviously, the possibility always exists to organize a temporal exhibition that will attract public attention with spectacular artworks and achieve notable commercial success. The global idea of the blockbuster exhibition has appeared in Poland as well[16]. However, there is a low degree of probability that permanent collections will turn state and regional museums in Poland into tourist meccas. The narrative cohesion of the presented collections, moreover, becomes distorted by the presence of selections of modern and contemporary works. Most of the national museums maintain a separate department dedicated exclusively to modern and contemporary art.

This department, which includes the art of the nineties, primarily focuses on Polish art. The lack of narrative cohesion is followed by another tendency to eliminate art related to communism from the museum’s space. The culture of socialism in Poland seems almost nonexistent in museums, as it is generally considered to be unoriginal, pathetic, propagandistic, and worthless. Obviously, the understanding is not that it should present dowdy portraits of political leaders, but somehow emphasize the particular sociocultural context and its artistic output, which is clearly visible in art historical research,[17] instead of maintaining an impression of the barely apolitical character of Polish art after World War II. The lack of the aforementioned references in favor of avant-garde or figurative art has shaped a limited overview of recent art history in Poland. Eventually, collections preserve the temple of art paradigm, exhibiting timeless and ahistorical masterpieces.

Similar issue of the communist context returns in emerging museums of modern and contemporary art, institutions belonging to state museums. As the new kind of institutional body, they are inclined to find their own position in the field of contemporary global artworld. They have also the potential to become rather experimental in terms of the search for their own identity. Reconciling the varied discourses of power that entangle cultural institutions with the Polish context is a major challenge to which they aim to respond. Still, there are a substantial number of issues regarding modern and contemporary art museums’ foundations that should specifically be considered. Firstly, they need to determine which narrative they will employ in order to establish their own art collections. Will there be a particular emphasis on a specific theme or problem around which the narration is created? In what way would the collection significantly differ from the modern and contemporary art departments of the state museums? Secondly, how will they formulate their own policies in compliance with global debate on cultural institutions? If there is a tendency to weaken the modernistic paradigm and reveal its ideological foundations, how will this critical analysis be pursued in the case of contemporary art museums in Poland? Thirdly, what kind of attitude will they adopt towards recent Polish history? Will they somehow relate to communism as a factor that significantly impacted art production, and therefore constitutes a profound contrast with regard to Western art, or consider this issue of lesser importance? Fourth, how are they going to identify themselves in relation to other cultural institutions that develop exhibition programs and collections focused on modern and contemporary art? There are a considerable number of institutions in Poland that aim to promote visual arts, yet are not given the status of museums of contemporary art. Is there anything in particular that would constitute this difference between museums and centers of contemporary art?

Fig. 1. Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków, Poland. © Rafał Sosin.

Fig 2. Muzeum Współczesne Wrocław. Photo: Krzysztof Zatycki.

Altogether, these issues lead towards an area of cultural experimentation that seems to be developing rather slowly. Currently, there are four museums of contemporary (modern) art in Poland (in Warszawa, Kraków, Łódź, and Wrocław), and others will be opened soon. Aforementioned museums are located in four different cities; therefore, they originate from various historical contexts. However, narratives they employ seem to refer to the idea of a global institution with lower emphasis on the locality. This general idea is presented on the website of the Art Museum in Łódź (Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź): “The primary value of the collection, for the most part experimental, is its attitude of constant openness to contemporary times, which are a derivative of the tradition of the past—this tradition is also the source of the idea to ignore boundaries between different art domains, an idea to integrate all forms of art into one “living” art organism.[18] A similar idea is developed by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw: “Our intention is also to underline the international character of the art and culture of today—for that reason, in creating the collection of the Museum of Modern art in Warsaw, we feel strongly motivated to confront the Polish viewers with global art phenomena, particularly since the social changes of today stretch far beyond the local.”[19] The Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków (MOCAK) aims to “present the art of the two last decades in the context of the postwar avant-garde and conceptual art, as well as to clarify the rationale of creating art by highlighting its cognitive and ethical value and its relationship with everyday reality.”[20] Obviously, as these examples only serve as a general idea, any far-reaching conclusions should not be made at present. However, the tendency that is being displayed through such official statements is an intention to become global.

The fact of becoming global does not necessarily mean that the institution may not fulfill its socio-critical functions. Some of temporal exhibitions in the aforementioned museums do, in fact, explore contemporary social and political affairs that receive global recognition. Despite the official statements, their exibitionary program seems inclined towards local histories as well. A recent MOCAK exhibition, entitled Economics in Art (2013), aimed to present a system of interactions between art and its financial determinants. Another exhibition, New National Art (2012), organized by Museum of Modern art in Warsaw, analyzed the discourse of modernity in Poland by referring to patriotism and the act of participation in the national community as its foundations. Finally, the exhibition Heal The World (2011), organized by the Art Museum in Łódź, raised the question of the relationship between social utopias, aestheticization, and art that is supposedly perceived as politically involved. The exhibition Luxus Magazine, organized by the Contemporary Wrocław Museum in 2013, was a huge retrospective of an art group from Wrocław that related to the communist reality in a specific and ironic way. It appears that the idea of a museum of modern and contemporary art in Poland as an institution that bears responsibility for social criticism is developing. In terms of four institutions briefly mentioned, this could become the future direction of policy. Likewise, as in the case of others state museums, the foundational challenge derives from the lack of collections consisting of artworks included in the Western canon.

However, there are a considerable number of Polish artists that have achieved international recognition and who may, in the future, be considered as canonical artists as well. For the most part, the solution should not follow those various strategies involving the rising financial value of peripheral art, or turning museums into cultural supermarkets, because the counter-narrative may only accelerate the process of art marketization. The collections of modern and contemporary art should instead make an attempt to create their own narrative that does not simply follow the “global fashion.” There is no reason why the global profile of a collection would disable the institution in developing a critical relation to its local context. Therefore, in the case of Polish museums, activity should be associated with social criticism that involves innovative approaches to cultural practices, with an emphasis on the local community, its history, and needs. As aspiring to become a part of the global art discourse, museums must try to achieve a balance between varied political powers and different narratives of local history. Frankly speaking, should every collection around the world focus on works by the ten best-selling artists from the twentieth century?

Still, there remains the question of the context of communism and, with that, an art practice that leads towards the subject of Poland’s geopolitical location as well. References to socialism have been used as a background in the presentation of modern Polish art only on very special occasions. During the time of the Polish Presidency of the European Union in 2011, an exhibition was organized in Brussels that aimed to promote modern and contemporary Polish visual artists. The general intention behind the exhibition, entitled The Power of Fantasy, was to create a specific historical narrative of Polish art. Curators David Crowley, Zofia Machnicka, and Andrew Szczerski presented various artistic gestures that could be associated with fantasy, madness, or absurdity as stimulants for the development of visual culture. According to the curators, the time of communism has challenged the imagination to confront its depressing reality with various extraordinary and inspirational ideas. This particular “communist state of mind” had a great impact on the artists who spent their childhood in a socialist utopia and reached their artistic maturity in the era of Polish democracy. Curators adopted the strategy of exploring modern and contemporary Polish art as an outstanding phenomenon that carried a historical stigma and shaped a particular kind of artistic imaginativeness. As a result, the years following the political transition exploded with an immense diversity of visual arts. The curatorial narrative, which aimed to acquaint the foreign audience with particularities of Polish history, also put the country on the cultural map of Europe. Its originality derived from the development of different strategies of art practice under the communist regime. In other words, the curators seem to hold the view of Poland as a post-communist country that differs significantly from Western Europe, yet is breaking free from the foreign influences of Eastern Europe. Thus, the position of Poland is central among the other post-communist countries that are EU-oriented. The situation, in reality, seems to be getting a bit confusing. The post-communist narrative was used in order to present contemporary Polish art abroad, whereas in Poland this context is being replaced with a global approach towards contemporaneity and Western-oriented art history. The necessity of an institution that would critically analyze discrepancies between geopolitical narratives is even more urgent. Without it, this schizophrenic incoherence of narratives in Poland and abroad will remain unresolved.

In order to proceed further, however, I would like to refer once more to the words of Natasa Kovacevic, who recognizes the tension between the West and the post-communist East as an indicator for proto-colonial relations. The idea of post-communist Europe as part of the analysis of postcolonial studies is becoming even more clearly formed through historical research. However, it is important to stress that the paradigm of post-communism emphasizes a common political background and somehow homogenizes issues of identity, whereas postcolonial studies explores the dynamic interchange of identity narratives that are becoming crucial for cultural production. As a peripheral part of Europe, the act of reconsidering Poland’s position cannot repeat identical processes introduced by the majority of postcolonial studies. Artist living in Poland were conscious about the European notion of art and its discourse. What is more, Poland has never been colonized in a literal sense, but has encountered many difficulties in maintaining its political autonomy, even vanishing for a time from the map of Europe. Yet there have been minor cultural or technological discrepancies between the invaders and the conquered, especially because Polish identity was founded on a

culture of multi-ethnic territories that would be viewed as a function of many different factors, which in the process of interacting with one another lead to the creation of a new entity that turns out to be more than the sum of its components. This brings in the notion of transculturation or a set of reciprocal forms of representation and cultural practice of both the colonies and the metropolis.[21]

What is more, it does not exclude the fact that Poland should be considered as having been dominated and subordinated by historical imperial powers.[22] It is, however, less a question of whether the Prussian/German, Austrian/Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires could be identified and fit precisely into the definition of the colonizers; Poland lost its political autonomy for over 120 years and was divided among three powers. The fact is that Polish culture and identity was subjected to change due to this political upheaval, especially if various policies of assimilation are considered. In spite of that, many of the analyses of Polish identity focus on the times of socialist utopia that lasted from the end of World War II until 1989. This part of history should also be included in the art museums’ narratives, since it is not possible to deny its social and political impact on art practice. However, the emphasis that is put on forty-four years that were supposedly crucial for the formation of Polish identity and culture seems to be quite a simplification. Polish art did not become peripheral solely because of communism— it was considered to be marginal long before. The post-colonial perspective would therefore reflect the shifts of power hierarchies as well as multitude of identity narratives in more complex way than the post-communism does.

Since the time of recent political transition, more and more Polish artists appear on the global art market or take part in exhibitions worldwide, on equal terms with their Western counterparts. Nevertheless, institutional practices and exhibitions omit many of these contexts, giving an impression as if the current status quo has always existed. What is more, two decades after the transformation, Poland is experiencing an intense culture war that erupted as a result of conflicting identity narratives. There is a great need, therefore, for cultural institutions to join this fierce debate and propose a less emotionally driven public discussion. As for the art history museums, there remains a vital necessity to reconsider the geopolitical location of Poland on the cultural map of Europe, as its belonging to the Western tradition no longer seems clear. This process would employ various narratives that oscillate between questions of history, identity, and cultural production and its forms of institutionalization. The act of reconsidering the obvious would probably lead towards a comprehensive social analysis, including the power relations that shaped the geopolitical divisions. As for the modern and contemporary art museums, the fundamental questions remain the same. Shifts in global trajectories have resulted in a new hierarchy, an art world that includes artists from Poland as well. Now, it is high time for the Polish museum to critically examine its contemporaneity, and to find its way out of what Kovacevic perceives as a proto-colonial relationship regarding its following the West’s prosperity.