Yes We Have No Bananas

Warsaw's National Museum recently removed a series of canonical works by women artists. It's the latest episode in the Polish state’s war on ‘gender ideology.’

In 1975, the art critic Wiesław Borowski, one of the founders of Warsaw’s Foksal Gallery, wrote an article entitled ‘Pseudo-Avant-Garde’ for the Warsaw weekly Kultura. Denouncing several ‘neo’ (post-war) avant-garde artists, including Natalia LL, Borowski called their work ‘amoral and anti-intellectual’. He accused these otherwise ‘intelligent boys and nice girls’ – the implicit gendering says a lot about his assumptions – of derivative pandering to Western tastes. The pseudo-avant-garde’s interest in everyday life was, in his understanding, a populist betrayal of art’s autonomy and a camouflaged robbery of its radical potential. Painting themselves as ‘pioneers and nonconformists’, the representatives of this dangerous current appropriated the tropes of avant-garde art but not, according to Borowski, its ideals.

The politics of Borowski’s text are a useful point of reference after the removal of LL’s Consumer Art (1974) from display at the National Museum in Warsaw, together with works by other women artists: Katarzyna Kozyra and Grupa Sędzia Główny (Karolina Wiktor and Aleksandra Kubiak). LL’s series of images, which depicts a young woman eating a banana, was removed from display by the newly-appointed director of the museum, Jerzy Miziołek, allegedly because there is no place in the National Museum for ‘certain themes connected to gender’. According to the liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Miziołek cited alleged complaints from a group of concerned spectators as the reason for his intervention. Significantly, like the artists themselves, all were identified as women: mothers, teachers and security guards. 

Since ‘gender’ has become a meaningless buzzword in Polish politics, a shorthand for anything from feminism to gay rights and hence a signifier of thinly veiled misogyny and homophobia, his words attracted immediate criticism from prominent figures of the artistic scene, in Poland and beyond. Miziołek’s statement was interpreted as symptomatic of the museum’s politicised restructuring, which began with the demotion and later dismissal of Piotr Rypson, its former acting director. In a recognition of the political agenda realised under the guise of morality, a mass re-enactment of LL’s banana consumption was staged outside the museum by the ‘banana youth’ (bananowa młodzież) of today – the term a synonym for privilege, used to discredit activists in the 1960s. Once again, LL’s work became a site of debate about complicity and dissent.

The line between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ art in the Polish People’s Republic was not as clear as is sometimes assumed. Both Foksal and the PERMAFO Gallery (of which Natalia LL was one of the founders, and which Borowski mentioned in his article to illustrate the senseless proliferation of new artistic projects) were part of an extensive network of artist-run spaces. Typically functioning under the auspices of various unions or associations and hence indirectly dependent on the state for space and resources, such galleries had to constantly negotiate their position, using this uncertain status to their advantage. While the kind of criticism offered by Borowski might smack of gatekeeping or even overidentification with sanctioned models of art-making, his fear of the abandonment of modernist autonomy was, in fact, connected to a specific kind of cynicism – a political disillusionment with prior implementations of art in service of life. There was more at stake in debates regarding 1970s art in Poland than preserving hierarchies – disagreements over the very definition of institutionalisation accompanied the desire to resist it. The fact that, despite some initial negative consequences, being listed in Borowski’s text has become a badge of honour – Natalia LL now lists ‘Pseudoawangarda’ in the bibliography on her website – is hardly surprising.

The state’s removal of LL’s work exemplifies the cultural agenda of Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość PiS), the ruling conservative party, and, as such, deserves criticism by those who oppose their politics. However, what seems to have been neglected as part of the resistance to these regressive practices is that museums are inherently political spaces. There is no one right answer to the question of what we see and do not see in galleries and on whose terms; this is perhaps best exemplified by the concurrent processes of decolonisation in the former West and de-communisation in the former East. Through focusing on opposing what they saw as censorship, and what Miziołek has claimed was simply a re-hang of the permanent collection, the demonstrators lost sight of the real question at the centre of this controversy: the commitment to a specific kind of politics that they would like public institutions to represent and produce. 

Indeed, when in 2012 the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art staged New National Art, an exhibition of what the curators termed ‘national-patriotic realism’, the kind of right-wing outsider art that is typically absent from major institutions but prevalent in popular culture – more ‘life’ than ‘art’ –  it became clear that the question of visibility and institutionalisation is far more complex than simply autonomous art versus state censorship. After all, it is part of the right’s current agenda to present itself as being marginalised, the true avant-garde.

If anything can be learnt from what art historian Richard Meyer called ‘The Jesse Helms Theory of Art’, it is that the effects of attempts at censorship are far from straightforward. If the iconoclasts are those whose belief in the power of art is the strongest, then the real point of contention lies in the question of who owns and exerts that power. The mildly pornographic character of Consumer Art – which those opposed to the work’s removal have tried to negate, focusing instead on its historical implications in the context of the economic policy of 1970s Poland constitutes its intrinsic resistance to censorship. The work contains the very criticism made against it, it is what it is accused of: a vulgar reclaiming of women’s agency. In fact, it is hardly Consumer Art’s alleged obscenity that poses a challenge to the museum’s conservative leadership, but that which cannot be censored. In a perverse way, Miziołek was right – LL’s work is a political statement about gender. Loudly and clearly, we should reclaim its politics as such.