Global Dialogues

21 Notes on Poland’s Culture Wars, Part 2 (12-21)

12. In the sixteenth century, Lublin was a hub of anti-war and anti-feudal religious group Socinians who – exiled to Transylvania and the Netherlands – influenced the political philosophy of John Locke. In the Renaissance, this city attracted dissenters; in modernism: the avant-garde; and in the 1970s and 80s: conceptual artists and alternative theatre. Today it boasts young artists: Robert Kusmirowski (featured in the recent Liverpool Biennial), Urszula Pieregonczuk (who queers Dostoevsky and war history) Mariusz Tarkawian (whose drawings will be on show at the Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Museum in January: ) and Piotr Brozek who has authored the FB profile of a Jewish child murdered in the Holocaust, Henio Zytomirski. Brozek updated the profile with newsfeeds in the first-person, using the present tense. Invitations to add Henio as a friend read: “I would like to tell you the story of one life.” Internet users befriended Henio, and sent him messages, comments and even gifts. Mariusz Tarkawian drew a monumental panorama of bloodshed throughout human history in Lublin’s Biala Gallery. The Holocaust was presented, as was the Armenian genocide (the artist’s ancestors were Armenian, who had for centuries been living in Poland). Tarkawian also graffitied a house with the lyrics to a Yiddish song in order to commemorate Jewish Lublin. Such artistic-social initiatives are necessary in Poland, where mourning  for the victims of the Holocaust is lacking. Unmourned millions, unmourned life.

13. In a book Jewish Lublin: A Cultural Monograph, published by the Grodzka City Gate Centre-NN Theatre and the Centre for Jewish Studies, Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, the Jewish Mexican sociologist Adina Cimet writes, “What had been home became hell and much was severed: lives, culture, faith, hope, and humanity. The Majdanek extermination camp, just a bus ride away from the city, remains one of the tombstones of that destruction.”

Author of educational projects at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York Adina Cimet adds on Lublin,

“I encountered young people that were struggling with the past they had inherited: the city they were left with and the silence they were handed. These young pioneers – as I see them – were working to imagine the obliterated past; they struggled to conceive and recognize the Jewish contribution to their history in order to be able to understand ‘their’ past. Some ached from the slaughter that was staged in those streets. But their work revealed to me that, out of that past, they sought to imagine a future for themselves. They dreamt of rebuilding their world based on values of decency, respect to others, and the recognition of Jewish memory.”

14. Among these pioneers are the Grodzka City Gate Centre-NN Theatre and the Centre for Jewish Studies, Maria Curie-Sklodowska University as well as NGOs: Homo Faber and The Well of Memory (Studnia pamieci). Intercultural Lublin is presented in and fostered by the photo campaign Open-create Lublin! O-tworz Lublin!, initiated by Barbara Wybacz. The tradition of this Jewish city is researched into by Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska, Robert Kuwalek and Dariusz Libionka whose car was sprayed with swastikas .

15. We need even more grassroots art activism and opposition to the wave of ultra-nationalism which has gripped Hungary, Russia and Poland. Contemporary art is repressed here, as it explores the traumas of the past and of the present (Pussy Riot, layoffs of curators, Orban’s takeover of art institutions). East European societies are polarized economically and politically:  the moneyed few vs. precariousness of the transition; far-right militias on the rampage vs. socially engaged (Marcusian-Kristevan-Rancierian, albeit always local!) aesthetics .

16. Lublin itself has also been home to groundbreaking thinkers: the philosophers of science Emile Meyerson and Ludwik Fleck, the specialist on Bergson, Romuald Jakub Weksler Waszkinel, who serving as a Catholic priest discovered that he was Jewish (a Holocaust survivor who had been handed over to a Polish family by his mother). This city is exceptional through outstanding women and LGBT personalities: the lesbian writer Narcyza Zmichowska (whose Gothic novel The Heathen Woman was translated into English by Ursula Phillips), The Bund leader Bela Shapira, the novelist Malwina Meyerson and her daughter poetess Franciszka Arnsztajnowa whose friendship with this city’s avant-garde gay poet Jozef Czechowicz is depicted by Hanna Krall in her reportages. The Grodzka City Centre-NN Theatre is presenting Czechowicz’s photographs of Jewish Lublin, as well as the life and work of Krystyna Modrzewska, a transgender Jewish doctor, scientist and writer, forced out of Poland when anti-Semitism reached its climax in 1968.

17. This month the cultural historian Marina Warner lectured fascinatingly on iconoclasms; in fact, iconoclasms against art are taking place in the streets of Lublin. Culture wars are being waged which pit a camp for openness against jingoists and pseudo-religious crusaders when Poland, Hungary and Russia have transitioned from false Communism to false Christianity. We need an eastern Europe that holds true to Transeuropa’s belief in “democracy, equality, culture beyond the nation state,” when we deplore the punishment of Pussy Rioters, the destruction of art in Lublin and Fidesz’s witch hunt of outstanding philosophers such as Agnes Heller:

18. The ambivalence of Lublin and Eastern Europe can be defined through the Derridean neologism of hostipitalité. Hostility and hospitality blend here: on the one hand, art activism is effervescent; on the other, censorship is crushing it. The Bakhtinian Pussy Rioters and Femen perform human rights, whilst extreme right ideas are employed by the political class.  The hunger for profit (ubiquitous privatizations) and classism are intensifying.

19. The Polish word for hospitality (goscinność) embraces otherness (inność). This linguistic phenomenon indicates that hospitality hosts alterity as hospital-alterity. Drawing on the Hebrew Bible, Lublin should become an open city (ville franche) or refuge city (ville refuge). The philosophers Simon Critchley and Richard Kearney define this city as a space where “migrants may seek sanctuary from the pressures of persecution, intimidation, and exile.” The feminist thinker Hélène Cixous also employs this idea of hospitality in her extraordinary plays and other texts. At his Lublin Labirynt Gallery lecture, the art historian Piotr Piotrowski elaborated on his concept of the critical museum as a place which could be paralleled by a “critical, self-critical city”; a self-critical, open-refuge city is of the utmost importance in our here and now. How can we enhance our common humanity — shared with refugees dying at the borders of the EU, and with women, migrants-turned-slaves, Jews, Roma, the homeless, the unemployed and the LGBT communities?

20. The destruction of the Lublin tickets has revealed social fissures. Artistic freedom has been jeopardized by controlling and vandalizing public artworks. It is our duty to reclaim the right to Lublin. We are following the activist and academic Ewa Majewska who has critiqued the evictions of both ordinary residents in Warsaw and Poznan and artistic venues (Warsaw’s Museum for Modern Art); similarly, in The Art Newspaper Julia Michalska has analysed anti-Romany hostilities in Hungary and political pressure to evict the Roma Parliament in Budapest.

21. We dream of Lublin becoming a hub of participatory democracy where minorities and majorities enjoy equal rights, are visible and decide together on the affairs of our polis. This city should cultivate hospitality, a truth Zygmunt Bauman has reminded us of. The commitment to opening Lublin to otherness depends on all of us.

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