Introduction to the issue 24/2024 "Censoring Art"

Last September, as is the case every two years, a jury of experts - art historians, critics and artists - met at the Zachęta National Art Gallery in Warsaw to select a project for Poland’s representation at the Venice Biennale. The winning project was Ignacy Czwartos’ Polish Exercises in the Tragedy of the World. Between Germany and Russia. The project and the painter quickly became well-known. One of the paintings, entitled Nordstream 2, which was to be created especially for the Biennale, was written about in both the Polish and international press. According to its description, it was to be a portrait of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin. Between these politicians, who have more than once posed for a photograph together, was to be placed a symbolic element consisting of crossed gas pipes with a flame coming out of the ends, so that the whole resembled a diagonal swastika. The painting was hailed as an ‘anti-European manifesto’, especially by the left-leaning press, and its possible presentation at the Venice Biennale considered highly controversial, if not inappropriate.

The title of this painting refers to Nord Stream, the gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany, which the Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski compared to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact at the 2006 Brussels EU-US summit. Construction of the first and later the second line of the Nord Stream gas pipelines entailed enormous costs, far greater than the construction of an onshore pipeline. This however, provided the opportunity for Vladimir Putin’s Russia to export its energy resources, bypassing Central and Eastern European countries such as Poland and Ukraine. Putin gained the opportunity to pursue a more aggressive, neo-imperial policy towards his western neighbours, with no interference with gas exports to Western European countries. The benefits were mutual: while Russia had the resources to expand its military, the EU countries were given a strong basis to implement the energy transition. We did not have to wait long for the results: in 2014, Russia invaded Crimea, launching the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In 2022, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, along with an attack on Kiev. Only after that assault was the pipeline destroyed by unknown perpetrators, for which Minister Radoslaw Sikorski thanked the Americans.

Despite the fact that Ignacy Czwartos’ exhibition project for the Polish Pavilion had been legally and procedurally approved and sent for execution, the new Minister of Culture, Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, decided to immediately stop the project, disregarding the applicable competition rules and signed contracts. This was one of the first decisions of the Minister of Culture, taken just two weeks after his appointment.

Had the painting by Ignacy Czwartos, showing the leaders of Russia and Germany united by a symbol referring to the controversial gas pipeline, proved to be so politically disturbing and unwelcome that it prompted a minister of a democratic government to commit such an obvious act of censorship?

This recalls Jean Michel-Moreau’s famous 1773 drawing The King’s Cake, reproduced in an etching by Noël le Mire. The title derives from the tradition of sharing a festive cake at the court of the Prussian king on the feast of the Epiphany or the so-called Three Kings’ Day. In Jean Michel-Moreau’s painting, instead of a cake, a map of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is being divided by three rulers: Tsarina Catherine II of Russia, King Frederick II of Prussia and Emperor Joseph II of Austria. The King of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, supports the crown that falls from his head, while the hovering famers proclaim that one of the most important countries in Europe is about to be overthrown. The etching was so politically controversial that there was a censorship in France and a ban on its distribution in many European countries. Despite being officially censored, it became widely known and has become one of the best known examples of eighteenth-century European political art. Will this be the case with Ignacy Czwartos’ painting, which was famous even before it was painted?

The traditional form of political censorship described above, in which an official machinery is set in motion to stop the distribution of works of art that reveal the inconvenient truth about the actions of certain state leaders, also applies to the Chinese artist and dissident Badiucao. Prior to Badiucao’s exhibition at Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, scheduled to open on 16 June 2023, a senior representative of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China appeared unannounced at the director’s office, demanding to stop work on the exhibition immediately. Badiucao’s painting of Xi Jinping as the mythological Saturn devouring his own children, based on a famous work by Francisco Goya, was said to be an insult to the Chinese authorities and society. Part of the painting was used on a poster advertising the exhibition. Despite its strong influence in Poland, the Chinese Embassy was unable to censor the exhibition and the artwork concerned.

This was not the case with Wojciech Korkuć’s poster, which used a photo of Vladimir Putin and Donald Tusk. Submitted to the International Poster Biennale in Lublin, the poster was accepted and eventually censored. Paradoxically, the institutional censorship here was not the result of government action, but of the action of another poster artist, who, incidentally, was also the author of many controversial political posters.

A different kind of censorship occurs in the case of the British artist Claudia Clare. This is an example of cancel culture, whereby individuals are removed from the public sphere if they do not so much challenge as fail to share contemporary ideological postulates, primarily on the question of human sexuality. The mechanism of cancel culture is particularly violent when ideological dogmas are embodied by representatives of sexual minorities, and Claudia Clare is such a person. From the moment she expressed her belief that gender is not a purely cultural phenomenon and can be freely chosen, the artist was denied the opportunity to show her works in the UK. Censoring culture based on beliefs about human sexuality is a recent phenomenon. However, the mechanism itself - the censorship of views that contradict those officially accepted as scientific, even if not supported by rational arguments - is well known and described (not only in books such as George Orwell’s "1984"), but was implemented in the USSR and its satellites after the Second World War. Are we in danger of repeating this ideological nightmare? Let us not allow it to happen to us.

Piotr Bernatowicz

Polski historyk i krytyk sztuki, kurator, nauczyciel akademicki i menadżer kultury. Dyrektor Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski w Warszawie w latach 2020–2024.
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