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//It’s all Matejko’s Fault// What is the difference between a collection and an assortment and why post-modernity is a waste heap: Łukasz Gazur talks with Professor Jerzy Stelmach

It’s all Matejko’s Fault What is the difference between a collection and an assortment and why post-modernity is a waste heap: Łukasz Gazur talks with Professor Jerzy Stelmach

Jerzy Stelmach (b. 1954) – lawyer, philosopher, art collector, professor and director of the Chair of Philosophy of Law and Law Ethics at the Faculty of Law and Administration, Jagiellonian University. Received an honorary doctorate from universities in Heidelberg and Augsburg. In October 2012, he was decorated with the Officer’s Cross of Polonia Restituta for outstanding achievement in research and teaching.

ŁUKASZ GAZUR: People in Poland say that fine arts ended with Matejko. What do you think?

JERZY STELMACH: Well, I’m not too enthusiastic about Polish realistic painting, so for me fine arts start with Matejko. I think he was a great drafter but these monumental paintings of his, the ones for which he is best-known, for instance the Prussian Homage, are abominable. Dead and arrogant. The way I see it, this is the downfall of painting. There was an exhibition of his preparatory sketches in Krakow. After seeing it, I was able to say, with absolute conviction, that he was a decent artist. Just not a painter.

What kind of heresy is that? We are talking about an artist that shaped the tastes of several generations of Poles.

His painting is only timeless in that it may be deemed bad regardless of the times we live in.

Is it that you don’t like all Polish painting of this epoch or just this poor Matejko?

When it comes to Polish painting of that age, and we need to specify that we are talking about Polish panting because we were a little backward in relation to European art in general, I am able to pick some gems. I like my Gierymski, I appreciate some of Michałowski’s works. I could mention a couple of more names or even particular paintings. Nevertheless, all that seems fresh and interesting to me was created later.

Funny you should say that. Many postmodernist critics would say that your tastes are rather conservative.

That’s true, but the situation is quite clear to me – all I see in postmodernity is repetitions. Any originality ends with, more or less, the 1960s of 1970s. Then it’s just repetitiveness, sometimes very simplistic, or even sheer chutzpah. Both usually determined by inaptitude, low competence and lacking skill. Fine arts are not the only area concerned; the same applies to literature, theatre, music. Many singers today cannot even sing, painters paint, writers write, and scientists do science. We live in the times of non-capability. Art is just the most brazen of them all. No one could imagine a lawyer, doctor or carpenter without any capabilities or aptitude, but we are willing to overlook lacking skills in artists.

How can you say such things?

The only hope for this waste heap of postmodern art lies in the public sphere. It is difficult to promote an experimental, literary dud because no one will want to buy it. Visual arts are different – what with the state-financed museums and galleries that need to develop their collections. You don’t need to count on private people to buy such art and anyway no one wants to turn their home into a garbage dump. Countless times have I visited renowned critics, advocates of postmodernist art. One particular thing struck me the most: none of them kept in their home what they praised in public. These people have fine tastes and very good works representing various movements and trends. And not even one piece of postmodernist oddity.

What you treat as garbage forms a part of many collections, also private ones. Your argument is not that accurate.

These are rare cases. In reality, if it weren’t for places such as Tate Modern, this kind of art wouldn’t be able to survive. A beautiful building overlooking the Thames and inside nothing, just trash, with pseudo-ideology attached. Whenever I go there I feel as lost as Josef K. from Kafka’s novel. But nobody cares about that because if something is public it means that it belongs to nobody. The recipe for success is quite simple – all you need is to present some kind of art and come up with a suitable ideology. In this way everyone who is against will be disregarded as a homophobe, racist, anti-feminist. This type of art comes with the most simple, outrageous, blackmail:  anyone who does not support these artefacts of pseudo-creativity is ‘not modern’ and does not understand the spirit of the times we live in. This is the first issue I take with it. It is an appropriation of the public sphere.

The first issue? Does it mean that there are more?

The second is a consequence of the first. I’m talking about business. The truth is that promoting this postmodern crap is a result of a business-like approach to art. How much can you earn on the best artists? Not that much, what with the scant supply and the limited number of works they produce. This is the root of the idea of creating the space in which we will operate. All we need is to announce that artistic freedom is more important than skill and then start multiplying duds that can be sold to just about anyone.

You have inadvertently outlined the limits within which a collector deemed by other Polish art fiends to be conservative operates.

I am interested in avant-garde painting, in fresh, interesting ideas that contribute something new. I am not so sure that I can be deemed to be conservative though. My walls are decorated with contemporary works, some of which were created in 2012 and bought just two or three weeks ago, and my collection includes representatives of the so-called Second Krakow Group, notably Marian Warzecha, who goes against figuration and painting in the traditional meaning of the world. I also but Jerzy Kałucki. In reality, there are two factors that determine whether I purchase a piece or not. The first one is the work itself, what it tells me. But this is only the beginning. You have to ‘follow the work’. See who made it. And I am not referring to names or qualifications. What I mean is, you have to check whether it’s not just pure chance. If the work passes these two tests, there is no reason not to buy it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the 1960s avant-garde, or one of the young and talented abstractionists born in the 1980s. For me it is an important point – a collection should reflect one’s individual perception, a specific profile. More importantly, the collection must look forward, point to various contemporary phenomena that in my opinion – and I may be wrong – are worth looking at. On the other hand, when we assemble a set of artists whose names start with ‘A’ or  those that painted bear, it is not a collection, just an assortment. In the same vein, if I have money and contract someone to buy the most important artists of, let’s say, the first half of the 20th century, am I a collector? No, I just own some works. That’s all.

Do you remember the moment when you became interested in art?

It’s difficult to say. I don’t know why, as a ten-year-old boy, I preferred to visit museums than chase a ball. Maybe it was just that Poland was so shabby, grey and sad. Art brought colours and joy.

What about collecting? Do you remember your first painting?

I remember it very well. My wife bought it. It was 1987, we took out a two-year loan and purchased a painting directly from Janina Kraupe-Świderska’s studio. It is still in our collection.

Do you sometimes get the feeling that you just must have something, no matter the price?

I used to in the past, although now – not so much. There are just fewer and fewer items on the market that I would like to have. They’re just not there. But of course it happened on occasions, though luckily not that often. In such situations I just had to have this object at all costs, bordering on obsession, regardless of my financial standing.

Any examples?

There is one painting by Wojtkiewicz, currently in Detroit.  It’s the Carrousel, one of the most beautiful pieces created by him that I have ever seen. The Americans keep it in a storage room. I tried to purchase it with the help of some friends from the US. The negotiations even reached a point when the owners were willing to accept my price. The only problem was that it was worth just as much as the flat my wife and I owned back then. And I really could not understand her fears and questions about where we would live. To me, all that mattered were my negotiations about a deposit at one of Polish museums because I really wanted to present the work to the public once it was mine. I wanted it to bring people some pleasure.