The Artist is Always Alone

Talk with Grzegorz Kowalski

Grzegorz Kowalski, ECC Council member, on opportunism in art and the games artists play with the state and the financial market

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JACEK TOMCZUK: When does an artist’s work suffer due to his close relationship with power?

GRZEGORZ KOWALSKI: There are no set rules, I analyse each case individually.

Maybe it doesn’t suffer at all?

Of course some people think that art should never get involved with politics, and that it’s the artists who get the short end of the stick in such alliances, but I don’t agree with that view. In the 21st century, artists have become more dependent on the market than on politics, and so that’s where the true danger lies. Galleries, which earn their living by selling the artists’ work, have stopped caring about their opinions and their message. They see art merely as a product, a tradable commodity. Or rather: it’s not the painting, sculpture, or installation that is the commodity now, but the artists themselves, the people who sign them with their name and thus imbue them with a particular value. Not too long ago, Katarzyna Kozyra was telling me about the art biennale in Busan in South Korea. When she was there, she met some people who told her how such are made products. They were people without any artistic training - the gallery simply decided to make artists out of managers and engineers… to have them produce something that could then be sold.

Grzegorz Kowalski, photo: Tomas RafaAren’t you exaggerating? Money has always been linked to art and artists, either as a salary, an incentive, or through patronage.

But its influence has never been this destructive. Several months ago, I took part in the biennale in Carrara, curated by Fabio Cavallucci, the new director of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. There, I talked to the heiress of a very prestigious workshop which has, since the 19th century, manufactured works of art – i.e. transformed plaster molds into actual marble sculptures. She told me about her dilemmas: on one hand, she wants to preserve the company created by her great grandfather, but on the other hand – she strives not to involve herself in endeavors that don’t meet certain, self-evident (at least to her) artistic criteria. And in today’s world, she has to produce shit. She showed us some turtles, commissioned by the Belgian artist Jan Fabre. But he didn’t sculpt them in plaster, he just went into a store, bought a plastic toy, made a mold of it, and that was that. And now her workers are crafting these turtles in marble, Fabre signs them - and galleries are already eagerly awaiting their shipment. This reduction of art to marketing, to economy, destroys it as a medium of content that is vital to both the audience and the artists. I can’t treat an artist such as Fabre seriously - he has been spoilt not by politics or power, but by the market.

European Culture Congress – Wrocław
[8-11 September 2011]

ECC is a meeting of leading personas of the European culture – theoreticians and practitioners, intellectuals and artists. Its starting point is a book, written especially for the occasion of the Congress, by prof. Zygmunt Bauman and prof. Anna Zeidler-Janiszewska on the contemporary European culture condition and possible scenarios for its development. ECC will be one of the central events of the National Cultural Programme of Polish Presidency in the EU Council.

And when the art market isn’t interested in the artists’ message, those of them who have something to say are doomed to seek help from the government. The state needs artists, it has its own goals, and the money to back them. What does that mean for the artist?

I think a real artist never changes: they’ll always be plagued by financial, existential, and metaphysical problems. It’s none of the state’s business. Of course, the state wants to have academies, professors, museums, galleries, and huge events – that’s how it builds its prestige. It’s in the state’s interest to have all that, and in the artist’s interest to get the money needed to realize their project. But it doesn’t mean that all art commissioned by the state is automatically barren and sterilized by political correctness, that it stops being experimental, or that its creator has somehow been maliciously subjugated. I feel like the current relationship between artists and the state is instead characterized by a sort of cheap, weaselly game on both sides – a game that has nothing in common with proper patronage. When the 16th century Medici invested in art, their investment lasted ages, and the Florentines benefit from it to this day. I doubt any of the current Ministers of Culture, anywhere in the world, even wonder what will become of the art they subsidize in 50 years. Although in France, departing Presidents have built a library and a museum.

What is currently the nature of the game artists play with the state?

Working on commission is as old as art itself. But the commission always comes with some sort of ideological or functional preconceptions, the creative process becomes laden with consideration regarding the final product and its impact. On the other hand, when the artist sits alone in his studio and works just for himself – he doesn’t worry about such things, he focuses on the process, as opposed to the goal.
I’ll give you an example, though in this case the other party wasn’t the government, but a committee representing a powerful social movement. Spurred on by the events of the 1980s, I took part in a contest to design a monument commemorating the Gdynia laborers massacre of 1970. I had my doubts as to whether I should take on something so current, but I was excited about the strikes, about “Solidarity”, and felt like I was the mouthpiece for some greater truth, or perhaps even an agent of the people’s will. My concept for the monument was a street which “rears up” and its peak burns with actual flames. I felt I was taking part in an event that was journalistic and political in nature, yet I also had control over the monument’s artistic form. The committee rejected our concept. Then we proposed a street turning into a sculpted crowd, so something purely anecdotal. This project wasn’t good, artistically, but it could have been given an interesting form. We won, but at some point it turned out that the design the shipyard workers themselves favored – and their opinion I respected the most – would not be realized. Someone decided otherwise. It was only years later, when I happened to pass the monument – a huge cross hung with 17 smaller crosses – that I realized what my mistake was. Our design simply did not include any cross. Historically, the workers carried the body of their dead colleague on wooden doors, and it was a manifestation of anger rather than a display religious sentiments. In the famous photograph, you can see a cross several rows back, but that’s because it was a sort of funeral procession. I suspect the project without a cross was not approved by the Church. For which I’m thankful, because now I can drive down that street and not feel ashamed I designed something opportunistically.

You treat commissioned work with disdain?

European Culture Congress – Wrocław
[8-11 September 2011]

Discussion panels covering phenomena and problems of contemporary European culture will be accompanied by artistic projects entitled “Art for Social Change”. The artists and culture animators taking part in the event come not only from European Union countries, but also from the Eastern Partnership group: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldavia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and Russia.

I don’t. It’s important to acknowledge that it isn’t art – it’s been commissioned. Each artist is responsible for himself alone – that’s what I’m trying to impart to my students. Artur Żmijewski accuses me of only teaching them the language of art, the form; that I give my students the proper technical skills, but don’t teach them the basics. Meanwhile, I simply refuse to indoctrinate anyone – we all have to find our own world view. Although I should state that I don’t hide my own views either.

Do you talk about them during class?

Of course. I remember we discussed abortion once. There was this girl who - with great courage and conviction - defended the Catholic church’s stance on the issue. And I respect that, I didn’t try to convince her that women deserve the right of self-determination – although I’m convinced that they do.

In one of your interviews, you said that it is the artist’s task to undermine stereotypes. But are there any limits to undermining them, especially when the artist is commissioned to do so by a governmental institution?

Every government, be it a right-wing or a left-wing one, is interested in maintaining those stereotypes which serve its interests. I merely think that certain stereotypes and taboos hinder social communication. And that we need someone who will be the first to buckle them, to pop the balloon. That’s what artists should be doing. By the way, I find it interesting that Artur Żmijewski defends the art market, even though it seems like he should be the first person to attack it. In his opinion, the market allows the artists the freedom to live and create. He either hasn’t noticed that the art market has impoverished the world of art, or thinks he’s not affected by that process.

Even if the market limits ambitious art, artists can still count on the state, which isn’t interested in the bottom line. But doesn’t the state also expect something in return? Take the biennale in Venice…

In Venice, the national pavilions project their countries’ image, they are supposed to make a good impression, and draw the attention of the world – and that’s why sometimes shocking designs are picked. I remember Minster of Culture and National Heritage Waldemar Dąbrowski’s perplexity in 2005, as he was watching Artur Żmijewski’s “Repetition” and didn’t quite know what to think about it, or if it was the right choice. He relaxed only after the biennale, when it turned out that this approach worked. So the government shelled out a load of money, and in return got excellent worldwide exposure (Philip Zimbardo even invited Żmijewski to San Francisco for a debate); additionally, the film began a discussion on social exclusion in Poland… For a change, Żmijewski “promoted” Poland, because only the state was able to finance this project, which was out of reach of any private art gallery. And he did an excellent job.

European Culture Congress – Wrocław
[8-11 September 2011]

The programme of ECC combines theory with cultural practise. Such form makes it closer to a social-cultural festival, rather than an academic debate. The programme includes, among others, design, video and modern art presentations, which aim at showing culture as an instrument of social change and a foundation for creative society. It will also present music, theatre and film projects, art formats such as Emergency Room, Pecha Kutcha and an integration game for non-governmental organisations.

Several years ago, Santiago Sierra rebelled against this mechanism of countries being promoted by artists. He went to Venice as Spain’s representative, but didn’t create a new exhibition, instead showing an empty pavilion filled with garbage from the previous edition. What’s more, he bricked up the main entrance, admitting people in through the back door, and even that only if they had a Spanish passport. He thumbed his nose at his own government and the international audience.

It was a strictly political action, directed at the European Union’s and Spain’s policies towards immigrants, towards aliens. Sierra deftly recreated the process of closing up of sated societies. Only people with the “proper” passport had access to certain goods, in this case represented by art. I don’t want to act like his advocate, because I don’t agree with him on many issues, but he’s an outstanding representative of this clan of taboo-destroying artists. His problem is that he is dependant not on politics or the government, but on the art market. He has become a personality, someone you reach for when you need a dissenter.

Often criticizing an institution only seems to lend it more credibility, as if it were saying: See how enlightened I am? I even allow people to criticize me…

That’s why I don’t think cooperation with unruly artists will never be to the detriment of the state. There are, of course, some artists who feel the need to maintain a close relationship with the government, regardless of the political system. Once they were called “court artists”, in the People’s Republic of Poland you could find them crowding the halls of the Ministry of Culture, or the Party Headquarters. But the current Ministry of Culture and National Heritage is no royal court, and the money is assigned by experts, by way of competitions, pursuant to special procedures. Today’s courts are at the Curia, where there are no competitions, no experts, and all that counts is the taste of the bishops, or some other Church dignitaries.

Do artists succumb to trends?

It’s an epithet repeated by the so-called defenders of real values. Often, when they see something new, they claim it’s the sign of “succumbing to trends”, while they represent the real values.

But I’m talking about something else - about opportunism, about going out of your way to meet the current demands of the media and the market.

This sometimes happens. Young artists live under enormous pressure to succeed, but only a handful of them will actually enjoy success. These young people are very determined to get noticed, and often succumb to artistic populism. I see them looking for a chance to get purchased by a good gallery, repeatedly copying those of their ideas which seem to have struck a chord. But everyone does that individually.

There are also grant-hunters who have developed a system of writing grant applications, or who travel from one artistic residency to the next, and rarely have any valuable art, any new stuff, to show for it. They don’t really create anything.

translated by Wojciech Góralczyk

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