Feminist Revolt: Censorship of Women’s Art in Poland
Female artists who critically explore sex and sexuality have been hard hit by censorship in today’s Poland. One of them, Dorota Nieznalska, has been physically assaulted by far-right militia, persecuted, and prosecuted.
Members of the League of Polish Families, an extreme right-wing party that sits in parliament, attacked Nieznalska verbally in the Wyspa gallery, a Gdansk venue where her ‘Passion’ installation was exhibited last year. The work, an exploration of masculinity and suffering, consists of a video close-up of the face of an exercising bodybuilder together with a cross on which a photograph of male genitalia has been placed.
For this image, the League also sued the artist. It asserted that article 196 of the Criminal Code was violated. This article provides that anyone found guilty of offending religious feelings through public calumny of an object or place of worship is liable to a fine or a maximum two-year prison sentence. Coupling the cross with the genitalia was regarded as a violation of this provision.
In July 2003, a court found Nieznalska guilty of "offending religious feelings," a violation of the article 196 ban on blasphemy. The court sentenced her to a half-year "restriction of freedom," ordered her to do community work, and to pay all trial expenses. The gallery was closed as punishment. When the judge read the sentence, members of the League of Polish Families packing the courtroom applauded ecstatically. The artist has been appealing to have the sentence overturned on free speech grounds.
In this essay I would like consider violence against women in relation to a ban imposed on woman’s art that dares to enter deeply into the darkness of the masculine sexual unconscious. The recent history of censorship in Poland tells a story of painful conflicts between new democracy, gender equality, and sexual consciousness. Brutality against art is one symptom of the unspoken violence that permeates gender relations and looms as sadomasochistic force in Poland’s body politic. This new misogynic iconoclasm mirrors a crisis in women’s rights, one expressed through free speech limitations.
Nothing is more striking about post-1989, post-communist Polish visual culture than the domestic scandals stirred up by contemporary art. It is no coincidence that these scandals most often surround the work of women artists steeped in the social issues of nascent democratic Poland. I would like examine this female rebellion and aggression against it by focusing on three distinct works of art. Each of the works dates back to a failed transition to democracy and the ensuing conflicts.
The 1990s witnessed two landmark phenomena enter the infant official socio-political landscape: sex and religion. Concurrent, co-born, still contradictory and often countering. Coexistent but conflicting. In Poland, contemporary art is the sole cultural domain which unflinchingly commenced giving vent to this pent-up tension. And it is the visual-oriented art which seems predestined to be doing so since the very ideological fracas takes place as well as takes hold in the visual, the visual symbolism present in the public discourse.
The works of women discussed here remain not on the fringes but in the epicentre of this eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between Catholicism and sexism, the two vexing issues of the New Republic.
‘Original Sin’ (1993/94) was a video installation by Alicja Zebrowska. Its footage zooms in on a vagina, a hand job, masturbation with a dildo, and the medical irrigation of a vagina. At the end, a Barbie doll is born, plucked out by a rubber-gloved hand. The film was screened inside a place/room/etc. saturated with an apple aroma, and the first shots had the artist herself chomping away on an apple. In her work Zebrowska advanced a drastic and physiological vision of female genitalia. It is a physiology that refers to sexual experience, disease and finally childbirth labour.
The use of an apple juxtaposes this direct, corporal in extremis, and decidedly anti-idealistic rendering of female sexuality with the biblical parable of the Book of Genesis, one that makes Eve - the woman - solely responsible for succumbing to Original Sin.
Three layers – bodily, sexual and religious – interlace in her work, which may be construed as a commentary on a slanted Catholic interpretation of feminity and sexuality as sinful and sinister. The repressive religious values consort with fledgling consumption values, as epitomized by the Barbie doll. The labour scene is the grand finale, a closing remark that scathingly alludes to the Poland of Today.
The installation was created in the expectant and eventful year 1993, when legal and political actions determined the nation’s religious state of affairs. That year a concordat between the Polish government and the Vatican came to fruition. The mutual treaty privileged the Church, but the agreement was devoid of any regulations guaranteeing the separation of the Church and the State. Furthermore, the same year a strict and restrictive anti-abortion bill passed parliament; not only is it still in force, but it is also one of the most burning and incendiary problems of Polish democracy in its denigration of women’s rights.
Here yet another paradox crops up. In the dark times of liberty-restricting communism there existed an act, passed in 1956, that was more liberal and up-to-date than the coercive 1993 act parliament passed in the dark ages of a free and self-governing Poland. A country bent on moulding its democracy and forging Western-style civil rights did not even wince but resolved to establish one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws ever. Personal liberty is still a pill too hard to swallow.
In order to fully fathom Alicja Zebrowska’s genital shock stratagem, it is crucial to relate to the pomposity of language used in Church circles, those to blame for criminalization of abortion. This language drew on the spiritual as opposed to the carnal; it fell back on Christian morality and in turn, by applying lofty and hefty symbols of Maternity and budding life, completely annihilated the verisimilitude of true-to-life femininity. Female autonomy, or rather, first and foremost, the autonomy of female embodiment, was repressed and subjugated through this discourse. Women’s free-will regarding their bodies, as the act’s critics and anti-abortion rhetoric observe, has vaporized. Godliness and cleanliness have prevailed. Thus the abject body returns in feminist counter-language.
In ‘Original Sin,’ by making use of almost medico-scientific images of the human body, Zebrowska focused on repressed corporeality and annexed autonomy. The anatomical supplanted the symbolic; the native tongue of the physiological confronted religious language; physical ecstasy was set alongside spiritual elation. The artist’s feminist (and divine) intervention superseded the religious and sexless archetype of a female vocation and delved into her body, hitting the right spot, the G-spot. Zebrowska’s remonstrative creed and method is reality instead of symbolism. Alluding to the biblical parable about Eve and original sin posits the female yet autonomous body against culturally-conditioned ideological annexations of the feminine.
Setting the female body alongside religious symbolism became a recurrent motif of Polish art in the 1990s. The phenomenon is like a symptom signaling the diseased regions of public life, pointing towards symbolic violence that has been followed by real tragedy.
Therefore, the resulting artistic imagery pertains to pain and suffering. Masturbatory joy captured in Zebrowska’s video was weighed point-blank against manipulatory, sin-brandishing religious sexophobia. Despite its autoerotic nature, an average viewer deems the work upsetting. Viewers often mention disgust, reluctance, or even hostility towards such a drastically full-frontal revelation of the female body. The psychological value of Zebrowska’s work lies hidden in the viewers’ disgust. Social research suggests that the stress, suffering and tragedies to which Polish women fall prey due to this restrictive anti-abortion law seriously damage their sexual lives, making them live in incessant dread of unwanted pregnancy and with a near-paranoid apprehension of their sexuality. Reactions triggered by the video home in on a psychological depot of repulsion against the female sexuality. The horror-film reality of an underground abortion and its ensuing pathology, camouflaged by the noble oratory of maternity, pro-life rationales, and family values, are nothing but the social consequences of the anti-abortion law. In this violent context, the artistic relationship between the female body, religion and suffering becomes almost documentary-like; it diagnoses the nature of the sexual repression of 1990s Poland, and the suffering and diminution that it imposed on women’s lives.
To this day, illegal abortion, being reluctantly tackled both by politicians and the media, has been one of the most pestilential issues of Polish public life. What dominates the media limelight is a characteristic phobia against any debate over the liberalization of the anti-abortion law, as well as the quenching of any criticism concerning the possible totalitarian and anti-democratic character of religious values. Yet newspapers do carry sensationalistic articles on the anguish of women resorting to back-street abortions. Alicja Zebrowska’s footage was a work designed to be exhibited inside galleries, yet due to its radical content it used to be censored by state-owned art institutions.
The process of the subjugation of any critical debate about women rights is even more conspicuous if we take a look, as in the next example, at public street art that centres around femininity, religion and suffering.
In 1999, Katarzyna Kozyra’s photo-piece ‘Blood Ties’ (Wiezy krwi) was to be exhibited as public art on municipal billboards as part of an outdoor gallery project by the Art Marketing Syndicate, a Poznan-based company that owns billboards. ‘Blood Ties’ comprises four square photographs. Each of the panels features a naked woman – the artist herself and her disabled sister (with an amputated leg) – on the backdrop of a red cross or crescent surrounded in the two bottom panels by cabbages and cauliflowers. Only the two more colourful bottom panels were allowed exhibition on billboards. The intention of both the artist and the Art Marketing Syndicate was to bring into focus women’s suffering inflicted by the clashing religions and nationalisms in the Kosovo war, hence the use of the cross and the crescent, symbols of Christianity and Islam, as well as emblems of two major charities, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, founded to bring relief to war casualties. The women themselves are posed to appear as casualties, connoting surrender/yielding/ fear/vulnerability/hurt, an impression underscored by the non-commercial realistic nudity of the female body and the disability of one of the sisters.
This deeply humanistic and aesthetic image nonetheless became a cause for indignation and subject to censorship, and women as subjects of and subject to suffering were deemed intruders on Polish streets. Not until the journalists from the national daily Gazeta Wyborcza and other periodicals got wind of what was about to be put up on the streets of cities did they commence inquiring among Catholic organisations and the municipal administration as to whether they would object. Both the clergy and lay authorities answered this media call to arms, a call for strong-arm tactics. Due to a flood of letters expressing pleas and demands, AMS – a firm until then keen on the promotion of public art – turned tail and opted for (over)protection of its private business. With the artist’s consent, the work was expurgated: the nude women were blue-penciled in such a way that the cross and the crescent became indecipherable. The poster was bowdlerized, and consequently its message got lost.
The reason for this censorship was an allegedly unholy usage of religious symbols, as naked female bodies supposedly profaned both the cross and the crescent; it was a blasphemy against both Christianity and Islam. Contrary to the artist’s original intention, the work was (mis)interpreted as women menacing and not as victims of politico-religious ideologies.
Concealment of the billboards was a benchmark example of stifling public debate of women’s rights in the context of religious claims. There was no discussion, just unjust dismissal. It was a stand-out instance of public gagging, an instance in stark opposition to principles of ideological pluralism. The most appalling feature here was the headlong media involvement, including Gazeta Wyborcza, which called for attention and thus inspired the censorship and crushed prospective public reflection. Exploring an over-the-top scandal, the media steered clear of second thoughts, which should be the responsibility of bona fide democratic organs, but instead jumped first to conclusions.
The Kozyra censorship incident occurred in 1999, ten years after the inception of the new Republic, and it happened quite the same way as public debate over liberalization of the anti-abortion law now is being marginalized instead of centered. Everything has a designated social place, one that debate cannot be allowed to disturb. The anti-abortion act is a political example of religious norms with heavy-handed pretensions to universality taking precedence over the civil rights and autonomy of individual citizens, much as in Kozyra’s work the female body is inscribed within religious symbols. Though on different levels, Kozyra and Zebrowska bespeak the self-same crisis of values and assertion of individual rights in defiance of the System, once communist, now religious. Their works, however, extend oppositional inclusivity towards sexuality and femininity.
Dorota Nieznalska, a representative of the youngest generation of artists who made their cultural debut at the turn of the century, is the author of the third censored work. In her art Zebrowska and Kozyra’s militancy becomes more radical, and her art gave rise to an unprecedented eruption of anger. ‘Passion,’ Nieznalska’s 2001 installation, literally took her to court. This was the first Polish witch trial against art; it was a legal battle that showed the shape of things to come.
In the work of Nieznalska religion merges with sex and suffering, yet in contrast to her predecessors ‘Passion’ treats masculinity rather than femininity. The artist gained her renown for her no-holds-barred renderings of violent, imperious and impervious, patriarchal and sadomasochistic masculinity. In lieu of Zebrowska’s vagina, Nieznalska made use of male genitalia, placing them in yet another religious context.
‘Passion’ is the portrait of male masochism inevitably gaining physical strength. A mute video slow-motion close-up shows the face of a man pumping iron. His grimaces indicate painstaking labour and at the same time reveal suffering. To amplify the ritual agony allied with the arduous training routine, a pendent metal cross hung nearby covered with a photograph of male genitals and their surrounding (a little bit of the belly and thigh).
The cross is a traditional symbol of suffering and redemption, redemption through suffering; it associates itself with the male body, with the crucifixion of naked Christ. Agonizing pain, masculinity, nudity and the cross are all lined up in one grid of interrelations.
Nieznalska, having been reared in the crucifix-fixated culture, dusted off this reciprocality. As an artist, she was chary of Calvary iconography, aware of the history of images of Christian martyrs. Since nowadays a military-like strong male body has become an obsession, a religion, she drew nonetheless on this historical reservoir, placing contemporary physical pain in a religious context. Her work is more about the destructive character of imposing bodily masculinity than about Catholic symbolism. The latter appears here only as an additive commentary on modeling masculinity in gyms, the military, and pornography. Push-ups, pull-ups, bench-presses – these are the means of redemption via tormented beautification of the body. Like Nieznalska’s ‘Passion,’ Alicja Zebrowska’s video similarly had reflected mass-culture capitalist sex roles through use of a Barbie doll.
The body-building masculinity of Nieznalska’s art is a metaphor of male identity, its destructive and aggressive narcissism and egomania. In ‘Passion’ the photograph of the genitalia affixed to the cross diagnoses sexuality as the prime purpose of torturous suffering; suffering enables accomplishment of a state of sexual mega-potency and achievement of hyper-phallicism of the toned-up male body. A contorted body form suggests might and dominance; it does not take no for an answer. Nieznalska discerns strenuous exercise as a manly wish to lord over; the training of a male body is its house-training, the domestication of masculinity. A critical approach to such a vision of manhood, paradoxically ingrained both in mass culture and mass religion, is characteristic of the feminist-orientation of Nieznalska’s work. In ‘Passion’ masculinity, spread on a cross of sadomasochism, is both an object of violence and its source.
It was the media that, as in the case of Kozyra’s ‘Blood Ties,’ helped skyrocket Nieznalska’s ‘Passion’ to national notoriety. Members of the right-wing League of Polish Families, having seen snippets of ‘Passion’ on television, lodged a complaint on religious grounds and launched a campaign to crucify Nieznalska. Activists raided the Wyspa Gallery in Gdansk, where ‘Passion’ was exhibited. The All-Polish Youth, the League’s skinhead militia, threatened the young artist that they would shave her head as had been done to women believed to have had relations with Nazis. The anti-art, anti-women activism of such far-right fundamentalists underlines how post-communist religious nationalism in Poland has carved masculinist cultural borders from sexualised hatreds.
The Second Revolution, The Second Coming
That this trial happened in Gdansk is truly symbolic. It is the Gdansk shipyard that was the hotbed of anti-communist revolt and origin of the new Republic. The trial of Nieznalska and her art is in fact a trial against the arts; its proceedings seek to re-animate and resurrect the omnipotence of censorship. The trial may be also be read as a sign pointing to need for continued revolution. It signals that any democracy is a relentless work in process; it is not being, it is becoming. The past revolution took place in the name of state independence and social solidarity; a new, more demanding one must take the name of ideological pluralism and civil rights, particularly the rights of women and minorities.
Since its inception the new Republic has been shaped in the name not only of democracy but of Catholicism. As early as 1993, apart from the concordat and the anti-abortion bill, mandatory religion was introduced into public school curricula and the mass media were obliged to adhere to a Christian canon of values. Zebrowska’s ‘Original Sin’ signaled the overabundance of Christian values that beset this new reality; her work touched the carnal layer since that sphere had been most tangibly colonized by religious rhetoric. The 1999 censorship of Kozyra’s ‘Blood Ties’ corroborated the existence of an intellectual stronghold, one that to some extent still exists, to stave off open, serious, public and critical debate on religious and lay values and women’s rights. The trial and media hype around Nieznalska’s ‘Passion’ is a paroxysmal explosion of a problem that cannot be marginalized any longer. The verdict has shaped the political and cultural status of Poland. Will Poland now become the truly new and democratic country, or the demagogic state of old? What will triumph, civil rights or censorship rights? It is a clash between models of open/liberal and closed/restrictive societies; it is a turbulent process right in the very core of Polish democracy. Turbulent as it may be, this process is not the antithesis of democracy since it takes place in law courts, on the pages of periodicals, and in unconstrained public debates. This very fact is its most democratic and positive attribute, since such a process could not have taken place under communism.
More than decade after its anti-communist revolt, Poland is in dire need of yet another uprising, this time in the name of the basic human and civil rights, freedom of expression, and open culture. Such a rising should not only answer to but also question authorities and overturn too-common social schemata. We refer here to a process like that of the 1960s rebellion, which for obvious reasons never happened in Poland. The counter-culture and its aftermath have had a tremendous impact on uncorking and setting in motion Western societies. Many Poles embraced accession to the EU in May 2004, since they associate the EU with social openness. However, many also shuddered at the very thought of any widespread social changes that would challenge the patriarchy.
It is no fluke that the art crafted by women artists is a prelude to this revolution. Throughout the 1990s, given the anti-abortion law and enforced motherhood, in-your-face market commercialization of sexuality, and women’s under- and unemployment, gender issues constituted the most vivid vehicle for framing an unjust masculine social hierarchy and its power dynamics.
The critical violations of women’s art expose the violence of sexual inequality hidden under layers of democratic jargon and religion-turned-ideology. Censorship of free speech and representation is violence: the art of Dorota Nieznalska, Alicja Zebrowska and Katarzyna Kozyra, considered dangerous and tainted, has been maimed in Poland. State and media censors humiliate women and inflict pain on them, a work of repression that supports national male patriarchal ego. Censors’ eyes are killing the ‘I’s of women.
Paweł Leszkowicz is a lecturer in art history at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. Bad Subjects editor Joe Lockard provided assistance for this essay.