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//Right Wing? Left Wing?// - Piotr Kosiewski

Right Wing? Left Wing? - Piotr Kosiewski

Is there any point today in continuing to use the terms ‘right wing’ and ‘left wing’? There was a time when they referred to a genuine debate. Today, as it is frequently pointed out, things are different. The ‘right wing’ and ‘left wing’ have ceased to be convenient labels for the masses to rally around in order to establish their own political identity based on clearly defined ideas. The question remains whether these labels can be legitimately applied to contemporary art. Nevertheless, we continue to use them. Under In the circumstances, is it possible, and in what way, to refer to the presence of ‘right wing’ and ‘left wing’ artists on in the Polish artistic arena?

‘Left-wing art’ or ‘art with left-wing views’? As in the case of ‘right wing’, these terms are not synonymous. Take Wilhelm Sasnal, who described himself as a ‘man of the left’, but can you call his paintings left-wing? Perhaps some of them are close to the way that those with a left-wing orientation look at our history, but probably they are also close to the perceptions of those with liberal views. It is a good idea to bear in mind what it is that we are getting at: the left or right-wing commitment of the artist himself, or else the capacity of art to realise the postulates or express ideas or sensitivities which are referred to using either label?

Many essays have been written on the subject of the relationship of artists with the Political Critique and about the social as well as political potential of the work of Yael Bartana and Artur Żmijewski, Elżbieta Jabłońska, Romana Dziadkiewicz and many others artists.  Judging by them, the left-wing tendency appears to dominate in Polish art galleries. More than that, accusations have arisen that, today, it is indispensable to don a decent left-wing persona, if you want to joing the Establishment. Of course, numerous counter-examples can be found, such as the new hyper realists or the group Penerstwo.

Perhaps the verdict that left-wing or liberal sensitivity dominatesd in the art world is correct, but Polish discussions about the relationship of art with left or right-wing tendencies take place in the closed space of the art world. However, with apologies for stating the obvious, the mainstream Polish public life over the last couple of decades has been defined by right-wing or conservative thought in the main, as well as the neo-liberal economic thinking. Slight changes in the last two years, such as the appearance of women in the public arena (connected with the gender quota on the lists of electoral candidates) or the proposal for of a partnerships aAct – these developments are not enough to merit talk of any radical changes taking place. Major research into the public opinion, such as Social Diagnosis, which has been conducted for many years under the guidance of Janusz Czapiński, shows that right-wing, conservative and traditionalist stances orientations ares consistently dominant trends. Any other views remain in the minority or even socially borderline. Why am I talking about all this? Because, without this point of reference, it is difficult to talk about left-wing and right-wing artists.

After 1989 it has becaome unacceptable for artists to reveal their politicanpolitical opinions or orientation. The ‘coming out’ by a few artists did little to change the situation. Not so long ago, the epithet ‘left-wing’ or ‘lefty’ art was considered the worst insult. Even today, it is still considered derogatory, as illustrated very well by the recent article by Marta Tarabuła, published in Gazeta Wyborcza [1]. It has to be added that in the 90s the labels ‘right-wing’ was used with similar intentions.

Today, left-wing artists are juxtaposed with those whose art is simply non-ideological. It may well be art that remains entirely outside of any ideological projects, which but this does not mean that such art has no place in the political and ideological order.

However, today, the most intriguing question is not about the left-wing, but the right-wing choice for art (much has been written about the former). Where, then, are we to look for such artists and what can hide behind the label ‘right-wing’ in a country which is dominated by such ideology? Does right-wing equal traditional? Does conservative mean art which evades the new media? While it is possible to talk reliably about right-wing writers, the right-wing itself has not so far not generated any visual artists. It is pointless to ascribe either political inclination to a particular genre; for instance, painting as traditional and interactive actions as progressive. It is more to the point to ask, as Izabela Kowalczyk has suggested, ‘about different kinds of criticism and what it is directed against’. [2]

If this is the attitude we adopt, then we must consider tThe Krasnals right-wing. In their works and writings they constantly attempt to criticise the mainstream trends, from the Political Critique to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Warsaw. Their activities have been received with applause as truly anti-establishment. A few years ago, the-then right-wing Wprost described enthusiastically the attacks of the Krasnals on the ‘lefty idols’. Similar responses continue. Therefore, if we were to ask against whom their criticism is directed, but also, to whom it may be addressed, we could conclude that tThe Krasnals aim to appeal to the mainstream of Polish politics and media. Such an interpretation puts a question mark over whether it would, then, be at all possible to view their art as anti-establishment; on the other hand, their art could be perceived as being addressed to the modern right wing, without trying to undermine its message or impose any non- right-wing notions on it; art loyal to the majority view and validating such a view.

This is, of course, not the only answer possible to the question about who the right-wing – or rather conservative - artists are, which art is addressed to the right-wing audience or to the conservative sensitivity. Perhaps we should recall the label, today somewhat forgotten: pop-banalism, coined for the work of the ŁLadnie Group and other representatives of that generation.  Was their offer not aimed at the middle class, which was then coming into being; a class which is traditionalist in its attitude to public space, and moderately liberal in its everyday choices (upholding trandtionaltraditional values does not, for example, collide with acceptance of divorces or extra-marital sex). Later, it was the new hyper realism which was meant to be the proposition for non-ideological art. Or one had to look for such artists in quite different places. Although Łukasz Ronduda was right to note the conservative tendency in the art of Zbigniew Warpechowski, for one, drawing attention to his continuing faith in certain values in art, such as its aura or its mystery in the de-magicked world.

To force artists into an ideological straight-jacket is neither pleasant nor productive. Most art can very well do without it, since it is almost par excellence non-ideological. This does not mean that we have to succumb to the attractions of life in the post-ideological world. What haves perhaps ended come to an end areis the all-powerful ideologies. But life-after-politics has not yet arrived, as Marcin Król observed a good while ago. Rather, what we have now are new ideological formulations, or simply different ideologies, (…) our decisions about public life continue to have an ideological character. ‘[3] One might add that art cannot be separated from the public arena.


Piotr Kosiewski – (born 1967)
Art historian, critic. Permanently collaborates with Tygodnik Powszechny. For many years, editor of the literary quarterly Kresy. His essays have apperedin such publications as Arteon, Dziennik, Didaskalia, Nowe Książki, Odra, Przegląd Polityczny and Znak.




[1] Vide: M. Tarabuła, Socrealism by the lagoon [Socrealizm nad laguną]’, Gazeta Wyborcza, 11. July 2011.

[2] I. Kowalczyk, Art and the Left Wing – What Next? [Sztuka i lewica i co dalej?], Kresy 2009, no. 1–2, p. 176.

[3] M. Król, Liberalism of Fear or Liberalism of Courage, [Liberalizm strachu czy liberalizm odwagi[, Krakow – Warsaw 1996, p. 91.