Poland: Controversies over theatre plays
Censorship of play by Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek calls attention to the precariousness of state funded art in Poland
By Anna Gotowska
Less than a month after winning the November 2015 elections in Poland, the conservative Law and Justice party gained international attention for its controversial internal politics. One of the most heated discussions was triggered by the new Culture Minister and Deputy Prime Minister professor Piotr Gliński. In an official letter addressed to the governor of Lower Silesia, Glinski urged to cancel ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ (‘Princess Dramas: Death and the Maiden’), a play written by Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, displayed at the Polish Theatre in Wrocław.
“Hard pornography is not to be subsidised by the State,” Gliński stated, never having seen the play in question but responding to speculation that pornographic actors were to perform in the play. Some newspapers pronounced the move “preventive censorship,” as the letter was sent before the play had debuted.
During an interview concerning the play held on the public television channel TVP Info, Gliński made accusations that foreshadowed changes in the political approach towards public media. Despite admitting that he might have been misled on the matter of pornography, he attacked presenter Karolina Lewicka and accused her and the whole station of hosting “a propaganda programme,” stating that the station had been “manipulating” public opinion for years. As a result Lewicka was suspended and subjected to investigation, though the charges were eventually dropped.
Accusations from religious groups
The Jelinek incident was not an isolated one. On the day of his nomination as an adviser to the ministry of culture, Konrad Szczebiot – a drama critic and lecturer at the Theatre Academy in Białystok – requested recordings of all plays displayed at the Old Theatre in Kraków since its director Jan Klata took the position. Szczebiot expressed the urgent need to “judge the artistic merit of the plays for the purposes of internal review.”
Klata, like Wroclaw Theatre director Krzysztof Mieszkowski, hasfaced years of accusations from religious and conservative groups of impiety and of polluting state cultural institutions with “liberal and leftist propaganda.”
The Polish State’s interference in artistic expression of publicly subsidised institutions of culture has a long tradition, one exceeding Law and Justice’s rise to power. As a matter of fact, before Law & Justice took up the case against Jelinek’s play, members of the Regional Assembly, dominated bysupposedly liberal local Civic Platform representatives, demanded immediate removal of the play in early November 2015, threatening the Theater with severe cuts in funding and calling on the Ministry for support in their crusade.
A year ago, a huge scandal broke out during the Malta Festival in Poznań. ‘Golgota Picnic’, a play by Rodrigo Gonzales, controversial for its critiques of consumerism and social inequality was cancelled due to the threats of massive protests by Catholic organisations, among them the Rosary Crusade.
“Similar protests were organised in many places around the world, where ‘Golgota’ was performed, but Poznań was the first city to give in,” Gonzales said after the event. The festival director Michał Merczyński accused city president Ryszard Grobelny – an independent, but endorsed by Civic Platform politician – of passivity and lack of support for freedom of artistic expression on City Council part.
Religious concerns and funding issues
Two burning issues are apparent from this pattern of events. First, there is the tendency of Polish politicians to give in to the conservative, Catholic viewpoint of what’s socially acceptable in art, in a country which – according to its own Constitution – is secular.
As almost 90 per cent of Polish citizens identify themselves as Roman Catholics, it has been easy for Polish representatives to use religious rhetoric to gain political influence. The Catholic Church of Poland was one of the most important institutions of the opposition during the communist regime, and still holds a lot of political power and influence over Polish society. Manifestations of religious affiliation were central in President Andrzej Duda’s campaign last year and continue to influence his current politics.
Present-day artistic censorship can usually be traced to religious protests deeming plays “immoral” and calling for theatres to “go back to more traditional ways, promoting national, catholic values”. Making sure that the national debate about values and borders of artistic expression is truly pluralistic is still a challenge to be faced.
Secondly, there is the case of funding itself, and the way management of culture is organised on both national and local level. The Polish state is the main actor when it comes to financial support of cultural institutions. While other countries may rely on the private sector for funding, Poles can’t afford to fund cultural events.
Just a month ago, Central Statistical Office of Poland published a report, based on data collected in 2014, summarising the average annual spending on culture in the typical Polish household. With the average (yet inflated by incomes in the cities) wage being around 920 euro (minimal wage being 440 euro) only 5.50 euro per person were spent on theatre or cinema tickets. By comparison an average European household spends around 1,300 euro annually on culture and recreation.
With the burden of financial support falling mostly on the State, it is also the State that dictates fund division. And so, it is the Ministry of Culture that decides not only who is appointed to key positions in many prominent cultural institutions, but also on the composition of supposedly independent Expert Councils which advise and oversee those institutions. Any change in the Parliamentarian distribution of power usually means an immediate change in personnel and, as a result, in the direction of Polish Cultural policy.
Centrally controlled support
On paper, the State’s influence is not that wide – only three institutions are fully controlled by the Ministry – Teatr Stary in Kraków being one of them. Most of the 140 Polish public theatres are financed by the regional governments. Yet, the majority of regional politicians are linked to one of the national parties, and thus obliged to fulfill their party lines. Also, according to the report published by the National Centre for Culture Poland, funds on culture in the overall structure of the budget of local governments are the lowest since 2010 and it has been hard not to rely, even partially, on centrally controlled support.
“Redistribution of public funding on the local level – up till now – was less affected by politicisation and depended more on personal connections. Some people [now] occupy leading positions for years with virtually no artistic achievements to support it. Although, with Law and Justice’s new appointments to the province governor positions, the whole process of subsidising private theatres may become highly politicised. With private theatres being hardly able to stand on their own, probably only those who would bend their artistic line to the party’s values would be supported – and as a result – survive,” commented an anonymous source connected to the Kraków’s theatre community.
This sheds the light on another problematic point: along with public institutions, the State also subsidises private and nongovernmental cultural initiatives. Up until now, this was left up to fairly independent Expert Councils, but it was only the goodwill of the government that guaranteed the stability of this process. With the ministry announcing a “new redistribution of the cake,” and naming Wanda Zwinogrodzka as vice minister and special adviser on the subject of public theatres, this tradition may soon be forgotten.
Although Zwinogrodzka has claimed that the “State needs to stay away from the artistic freedom of expression,” she responded to the debate around Klata’s controversial directorship by stating, “Left-wing screams are paralysing the ability to speak. They need to be hushed in order to let someone else speak.”
Film funding politised
Recent events concerning the Polish Film Institute also follow the pattern of deepening politicisation of cultural institutions. Every year, a list of experts – people known for their achievements in film industry – is composed by the Institute. These experts become members of the committees responsible for assessing applications for funding. The list needs to be approved by the Ministry of Culture, which usually does so without applying any changes. Yet this year, an additional 30 names appeared and several were crossed out. Some of the new names raised eyebrows in the film community, especially Rafał Ziemkiewicz and Jan Pospieszalski – known conservative journalists and longtime supporters of the ruling party, whose connection to the film world can be seen as questionable.
Such tendencies can be observed in many Polish institutions supported by public funding, not only those dedicated to culture. Legal changes to the Public Media prepared by the ruling majority make it likely that cases similar to Lewicka’s suspension may become everyday reality. During the last days of 2015, a final vote took place on an initial bill which would regulate the process of electing boards and leading positions in The National Broadcasting Council. According to this bill, the Minister of Treasury would decide how such positions would be filled and vacated. The bill would terminate open competition for those offices.
Opinion given by Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights states clearly that: “Suggested regulations oppose the basic European standard set for Public Media, standard stating that Public Media need to be free from political influence as much as it is possible. The bill – despite the claims of the ruling majority – does not contribute to the better functioning of the Public Media, but can lead only to deepening already existing malfunctions of this institution”.
It needs to be said that the progressing politicisation of Public Media in Poland is a complex process that dates back to at least 2002, if not earlier. Although the board election and leadership appointment procedures have always allowed some level of political meddling, never have they reached the level of politicisation introduced by the aforementioned bill.
Impoverishes public debate
It seems like 25 years of democratic regime was not enough to create truly stable, independent institutions, which – while still relying on state funding – would not be affected by the State’s changing politics and values. The goal of the public cultural institution should be to include all of the perspectives present among members of the society, discuss and challenge them, deconstruct them by opening up a space for a public debate. Narrowing it down to just one world view impoverishes it drastically.
This constant wheeling and dealing makes it almost impossible to discuss the true artistic merit of national productions – for any voice of critique or praise is seen as a political statement. The ultimate victims of these political power plays, are – as it usually is the case: the citizens.
Anna Gotowska is a Social Psychology Graduate and Law student who works as a researcher in a private lab. Her writing focuses mostly on the social influence of legal changes. She lives in Warsaw, Poland.
Photo on top of this page: Cultural figures who have come under fire recently include Elfriede Jelinek, Jan Klata (Łukasz Giza / Agencja Gazeta), and Krzysztof Mieszkowski (Kornelia Glowacka-Wolf / Agencja Gazeta)
This story was commissioned by Freemuse, the leading defender of musicians worldwide, and Global Voices for Artsfreedom.org. The article may be republished by non-commercial media, crediting the author Anna Gotowska, Freemuse and Global Voices and linking to the origin.