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Vol 2, No 18
9 May 2000
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Cultural news from Poland Polish Sensation:
Do shock tactics lead to good works of art?
Wojtek Kość

This week, the author, provoked by several articles in the Polish press, attempts to present his humble opinion on the sense of artists' rankings and the condition of modern art. Mindful that these are just opinions, I would be interested in receiving feedback on the issue. So do not hesitate to state your own opinion.

Recent weeks witnessed a press discussion on the exhibition that the weekly magazine Polityka organized in Warsaw's Zachęta gallery. The exhibition, called The Sun and Other Stars, was the outcome of the weekly's ranking of the ten most eminent Polish artist of the 20th century, compiled by art critics.

For the information of those who know the Polish art world: the winner was Tadeusz Kantor, ahead of painter Władysław Strzemiński and sculptor Katarzyna Kobro. Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, probably better known as Witkacy, also landed in the top ten.

The exhibition, however, provoked a strong reaction from critics, who considered it not fully representative of Polish 20th century art and attacked Polityka for the very idea of organizing such an event. This exhibition, they claimed, in no way presents what has been the best and most influential in Polish art of the last hundred years.

True, maybe. But, after all, it was only an innocent and fun exploitation of a fashionable idea of rankings, lists, top tens and media fads - especially catchy at the turn of centuries. But the question of the sense of any art rankings remains. They are an invention of the 20th century with its aggressive media and artists struggling not only to pass their messages through their art, but also to market their work as effectively as possible.

Hence, a painter is commonly considered good if he sells his paintings and gets lots of TV coverage. Of course, it is true that artists want to make a living off their work but it is very difficult to state whether they are praised only because of the value of their art and whether their market success is an outcome of that, or whether business was there first and created snobbism for art objects that no one really likes but some still say they love.

An art critic, in order to call a work a masterpiece or rubbish it has to possess a certain set of critical tools - although you might not think so in this day and age. Being a critic does not involve simple "I like it" or "I don't like it" assessment scheme. Neither can it be totally free of it: at the core of any appraisal or denial there lies plain subjectivism. And this subjectivism makes all the rankings for no one can state absolutely authoritatively: Leon Tarasewicz is the best Polish painter whereas Zbigniew Libera's art makes no sense.

Mentioning Tarasewicz and Libera, we touch upon a fundamental issue of modern art. Those two names represent quite opposite sides of Polish contemporary art. The former's paintings reflect nature, with its quiet rhythms, and, at the same time, it is all presented by extreme minimalist forms: a field in winter is just white and brown stripes painted on a huge canvas. The latter built a concentration camp out of Lego blocks which was widely commented in media in an atmosphere of a scandal. Both artists create modern art: I would definitely go for Tarasewicz who, while painting, gives no thought to the media uproar his works will or will not create.

And this is the main illness of the modern art in Poland (and not only there). Artists like Tarasewicz, as well as painters Jerzy Nowosielski and Jerzy Duda-Gracz, sculptor Władysław Hasior make art an essence of their work (note; a thorough subjectivism of this choice: these are the author's favorites). Their art is good enough to defend itself on the market.

On the other hand there are artists like Libera (apart from the Lego concentration camp - I read now that he has created a "universal penis stretcher"). Or Katarzyna Żmijewska who filmed herself giving birth to a Barbie doll. Or Roman Opałka who paints just ever paler backgrounds (he is somewhere at the light grey stage now). Opałka also writes subsequent numbers and you look at the numbers accompanied by his taped voice reading them out loud. And then there are his pictures of his ageing face.

Is anyone excited about those works?

Wojtek Kość, 6 May 2000

Other articles of interest:

Other links:

  • For more on Zbigniew Libera's LEGO concentration camp sets click here

Moving on:


EU Focus:
Mel Huang
Between Helsinki and a Hard Place

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungary Playing Hard to Get

Brian J Požun
Slovenia's Cities

Jens Boysen
German Hegemony

Rafał Riedel
Poland on Course

Robin Sheeran
Slovak Catch-up

Catherine Lovatt
Romanian Road to Reform

Jan Čulík
Anarchists on Parade

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Censorship

Oliver Craske
Britain Looks East

Andrew James Horton
Director Aleksei Balabanov

Elke de Wit
Football Flick

Wojtek Kość
Polish Sensation

Culture Calendar:

Sam Vaknin
Balkan Terrorists

Mel Huang
PR and Extremism

Czech Republic