Provincializing the West: Interview with Piotr Piotrowski
Piotr Piotrowski teaches at Adam Mickiewitz University, Pozna?. As a professor of art history, he has served as a mentor for a new generation of art historians seeking fresh, critical approaches to the historical and contemporary art of the region. He was the director of the National Museum in Warsaw (2009-2010). He is the author of In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989 (Reaktion, 2009), and Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe (Reaktion, 2012). He received the Igor Zabel international award in 2010. This interview was conducted by Edit András on the occasion of his lecture, Alter-Globalist Art History Seen from East European Perspective, delivered April 4, 2012 at the Ludwig Museum, Budapest, as part of the lecture series Theoretical and Critical Problems of the Margins Today.
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Edit András: There are art historians and scholars from the region, like Slavoj Žižek and Boris Groys, operating on the global scene outside of the national borders, although Groys concentrates mostly on Russia and the Soviet Union, but you are one of the few who has gained wider recognition. What is your secret and how did you become a sort of cultural ambassador of the region?
Piotr Piotrowski: How? Because of the Hungarians. My first meeting with this issue was in Hungary in 1972. I was working with Jaros?aw Kozlowski, at the Gallery Akumulatory 2 in Pozna?, who was interested in international exchange. He created something called NET. A friend of mine and I were students of art history in the second year and Kozlowski was a young professor of art in the Academy of Fine Arts. We worked together and tried to help him run the gallery. He simply gave us some addresses of Hungarian artists and of an art historian Laszlo Beke. So we came to Hungary in 1972 and we visited some artists, and Beke. I realized, at that time, that Hungary was a different situation than Poland. This was the beginning of my interest in comparing different countries and in comparing the different developments and experiences in different countries in this region. This is the secret, thanks to the Hungarians.
AE: You are strongly committed to representing and theorizing the region; seemingly your aim is not just to build your own professional career, but rather to carry a smaller regiment with you. When you attempt to put the region onto the map of the global art world, you still keep or save its diversity. I am referring to the Pattern Lecture series in which you invited different scholars from the region to establish a kind of travelling art history department. With the Clark Research Institute’s Eastern European initiative, initiated during your fellowship at the institute in Williamstown, MA, you invited colleagues from the region to contribute and collaborate. It was you who pushed the envelope for the region’s art historical writing to be recognized and acknowledged. Was this a conscious goal of yours?
PP: Definitely, absolutely. The paper that I presented at the Budapest-Ludwig is a little bit of a complaint that East European art and art history, including art historians, are not as strongly represented in the global art scene as other regions, such as the so-called global South. So my real ambition is to develop art history from that region so that it is a part of the international art and art history scenes.
AE: How can this goal – for Eastern European art and art history to be seen and heard – be accomplished? How can we gain recognition?
PP: We have to write more in English. You probably know the book The Global ArtWorld Inc.: On the Globalization of Contemporary Art by Charlotte Bydler, a Swedish art historian. She writes in her book about the global art world, and in one chapter she refers to what’s going on in art history in the world. She talks about Turkey and Africa and other regions of the world, but not about Eastern Europe. Why? Because we don’t have any comparative studies within our own art history. We definitely have art histories in Hungarian and Polish, and those from the Czech and Slovak Republics. But there is no such thing as comparative studies about our discipline and there is almost nothing written in English. We do have some texts in English about art, but not about art history. This is the reason that we are not represented in the international forum of our discipline. The only way to gain more recognition is to publish more in English. This is the global language, the so-called lingua franca. It is not necessarily hegemony; we have to do this for practical reasons. It does not mean that we have to give up our local or national language publications, as there are different reasons for the localities. It is important because the humanities are not only science or scholarship, but also a way to approach the public sphere, and as humanists, we are taking part in the public debate.
AE: It doesn’t mean that we have to translate directly our national art history into English.
PP: No. Of course, English readers are different readers than our local ones, so we have to adjust our texts for the different readership. But what is lacking, in particular, is comparative studies on the region in the field of our discipline. I am talking about the discipline of art history as a phenomenon, not necessarily art, because, quite frankly, there are so many exhibitions and catalogs. This is not a question of art because artists are in a much more privileged situation than art historians.
AE: As you already said, it has to be written in English, it has to be comparative, but what about the method, what kind of method should be applied?
PP: This is the most difficult question. We have to remember that Eastern Europe is not the real Other, as are, for example India, China, or Africa. South America is also not the real Other because of its history, but in a different way than Eastern Europe. I don’t think that the method to be applied is the same for all countries, such as those used by scholars from post-colonial countries like Africa or Asia. We have a different position. Our knowledge has been developed under the same umbrella as the West, under the same episteme as the Western one; we are a “close Other” or “not the real Other.” So we have, somehow, the same episteme, thus we have to use some of the same methodologies operating in the West. This is the first step. The second step is that we have to appropriate this for our own purpose. I would agree with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who says, “any method is fine if it is used in a subversive way against the center.” So it’s fine to use the Western methods, whether American or European, if those methods are subversive to and critical of the mainstream. Comparative studies is the point of departure in my opinion. In comparative studies we can see how different we are and how everyone is different. If you use comparative studies, there is no “The Self.” This is what Dipesh Chakrabarty said about provincializing Europe; I say we need to provincialize the West. If we do this, the West will be the same province as the East or Eastern Europe or South America or Africa. And we can discover this by way of comparative studies. Of course, we cannot forget that modernism is Western by origin. But there are different modernisms, not only Western ones, as many scholars, including Partha Mitter, John Clark, Rasheed Araeen claim. But if we adopt this into our own platform, into our own region, the product will be different.
AE: Do you think that after the end of the Cold War, when we lost our privileged position as the Other to the dominating power, and after the expansion of the art world when different marginalities competed for attention, the region still has some potential, something to say about the changed world, or maybe a way to challenge it? If so, what can the region offer?
PP: I think our position used to be marginal to the West; our art history was also marginalized. I believe that on the margins, we can see more and we have to discover the privilege of being on the margins. This is the first step. We had a lot of strong experience fighting with the communist regime, and our art and intellectual scenes were, during that time, full of subversive methods and attitudes. I think looking back to the history of subversive intellectual and artistic methods also has potential.
We can see that some artists from our region are using these potentialities. Artur ?mijewski, for example, was the curator of the recent Berlin Biennial. He is definitely rooted in the history of Eastern European subversive attitudes, intellectual attitudes against the mainstream. This biennial did not have much to do with East-West relations, but it had a global prospective, something Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri called counter-Empire. Another example is Krzysztof Wodiczko. He came from Poland but went to the United States where he focuses on the global situation of people who are excluded from the mainstream globalized economy. Here in Hungary, Tamás StAuby (formerly Tamás Szentjóby) is now distributing lots of emails, asking a lot of questions, very sensitive questions, around the world. He is coming from the subversive tradition as well. So we do have some artists and intellectuals who have such a sensitivity.
AE: Do we still have to articulate ourselves as a “region,” strategically or conceptually, or is the concept of the region obsolete?
PP: I would say from the other side that we definitely have to open the region. In terms of art, it was very easy to define the region during the Cold War because of the politics. But now it is not such a comfortable or convenient situation. Of course we have the tradition of this region, but maybe it is not enough to keep the regional identity. I would rather doubt it. In my recent writings, I keep the notion of the post-communist. But I am convinced that it is disappearing, our countries still have something in common, and the question would be whether or not to open this region to the other marginal regions in Europe as well — regions like Scandinavia or the Balkans, or countries like Greece.
So I would not stress to keep the identity of the region, but say that we have to open this region to other regions. I want to mention that there is a pretty interesting MA project, a teaching program run by Klara Kemp-Welch at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, dealing with comparative studies between Eastern Europe and South America. Again, this is something that we have to develop; maybe in this comparison the region will somehow be visible.
AE: This would be quite a big step because we rarely have comparisons across our countries.
PP: This is the same with other worlds. A scholar I met in Taiwan told me that she likes Europe because she can get to every city within a two-hour flight. This is impossible in Asia. It is a small continent, but can you imagine how many differences exist across Asia, between China and India and some Indian provinces. But also in the West, Paris is different from London and London is different from Berlin and Rome. It only is a two-hour flight between those capitals but they have different cultures and traditions.
AE: I want to propose that such a comparison could have been made between Czech, Polish, and Romanian art, but this has not been done.
PP: It has not been done, but it would be a challenge.
AE: So far we have concentrated on art history, but I would like to discuss art as well, because a huge debate is going on now in Hungary about how national art could gain more visibility and acknowledgment from the outside world. What kind of art can reach the attention of the expanded world, and what kind of art is relevant today? What is the reason behind the fact that the region is rarely seen or considered in either theory or the global art scene? What is the reason behind this invisibility, especially the Hungarian art scene in comparison to that of the Balkans, for example, which had its moment after the war, or Poland that is very strong at present, or Romania that has just broken into the scene with its Cluj painting school? What kind of strategy should the region or Hungary apply?
PP: As you have mentioned there are some artists who have gained international visibility. First of all, artists are mostly individuals. We have some successful artists particularly from Poland from the 1990s, and some from the former Yugoslavia. Why are they successful? I don’t know. I once asked a person in charge of a Kunstverein in Germany, why they appreciate so many Polish artists. She said because they are good. I don’t know if they are good or not. They have their individual careers, and in terms of Polish art, there are institutions like Foksal Gallery Foundation that promoted artists like Wilhelm Sasnal and Artur ?mijewski.
In terms of Hungary, you know better than me, but what’s going on right now in Hungarian politics is very important for all of Europe. We all worry about this because if this right-wing policy were successful, both Eastern and Western Europe would be in trouble. Hungary can be a model. I give you an example, in Poland, the Law and Justice Party, nationalistic and anti-liberal, is watching the Hungarian scene and using it as a model for its own “right” way. This is why I am saying that it’s dangerous. Artists have a very important role to play; their critique of the regime is not only important for Hungarians, but for all Europeans. I know from you that there are critical artists here, such as Little Warsaw and others, who are involved in such criticism. Sooner or later their message will be known in Europe, because – as I said – we all have to look very carefully at the present Hungarian regime.
AE: Do you think it is mainly the question of promotion?
PP: Not necessarily in terms of the market. It should be some sort of meeting between the artist who has something to say about the contemporary world and someone else, an art historian or art critic, or a curator, who is able to push him or her to the international scene. The main question is to identify the problematic that would be of interest to others. As I told you before, I discovered the Hungarian art scene in 1972; it was maybe the most interesting one at the time because it was so political. The Polish art scene was not political at all. But in the 1990s, for example, Polish art was very political. We were experiencing something similar to what you are experiencing right now. We had the right-wing governments, and artists were recognized as those who opposed this situation. It heavily politicized Polish art, even some politicians from the right-wing party decided to make their own careers on the basis of the critique of these artists. This is why Dorota Nieznalska was sued, because some guys from Gdańsk wanted to build their careers on the basis of the suit, they wanted to be in the limelight, but where are they now? Fortunately, they have disappeared. We don’t know who those politicians were because this party was simply expelled from the mainstream; they are not in the parliament anymore. Suddenly, there was a public debate about art; that was a very dialectical, crazy situation. The right-wing politicians wanted to criticize art and they created a sort of public debate over art that helped to formulate, to create strong attitudes by the artists.
So, I think politics is still one of the hot issues right now. Even more important than the current economic crisis is the crisis of democracy around the world. The market, the global economy is responsible somehow for the crisis of democracy, and I think if artists touch this problem within the broader context and address political issues in the framework of the present political debate, this might be definitely recognized by the world.
I think that what Tamás StAuby is doing, sending e-mails around the world and touching upon global problems, is very effective. This is not the traditional approach to the art scene, which is creating objects. Instead, he is creating a network of people who can participate or not. So this is the problem, to be on the international art scene by touching the most important questions we on the globe are facing. What these artists need are art critics and curators to write about their work and make the international scene aware of both the political situation and the artists’ critical approach to it.
AE: How did your personal interest shift from your book In the Shadow of Yalta to your book Art and Democracy?
PP: I don’t think the new book is a shift; it is just a continuation. Yalta emerged from my book on postwar Polish art. I realized that there should be something more, and Polish art is not understandable in the proper context if we do not extend this. Art and Democracy is coming from the Yalta book, this is the real continuation. I was so curious to extend this, and to ask what is going on right now in this region. This is a different book, of course, not a systematic survey but rather an attempt to point out some questions and problems. But democracy for us in Eastern Europe, coming from the communist world and now seeing in the post-communist condition, is sort of a challenge. The previous challenge was of totalitarianism or semi-totalitarianism. Now the challenge is the post-communist democracy and how we deal with democracy, what we expected before, how it is unfulfilled, how we are struggling with the present, how we are struggling with the past.