A New Dissident Civil Society: Hot Art as Activism against Poland’s “Moral Majority”

Author: Tomasz Kitlinski

Arts and culture engages and touches people – and create a space for social action! Tomek Kitlinski (on the right) is searching for a much needed new dissidence against the “moral majority” of CEE, working for true inclusion, tolerance and hospitality towards others.


Civil society is sick. It could be saved by art with a cause. Activist art that cares for minorities, women, immigrants, the disabled and the poor. Aesthetics – if socially engaged and interactive with the audience – drives social change, fights fears and empowers the powerless. In Poland visual artists, in particular those who are female and/or queer, are the new dissidents, come to rescue the Tocquevillian ‘art of associating’ that is civil society. Theirs is an art which serves public interests, it is critical, disturbing and sensuous. One detects a blurring of the borders between culture and activism. Art is a formidable force in energizing people, setting us free, enabling us to create and act together.

Rights Movement in Eastern Europe’s Civil Society
I would like to discuss and show you images of socially committed art – that is one type of socially committed art which I am personally most involved with, that related to equality, women rights and rights of sexual minorities. Examples include the lesbian and gay visibility campaign Let Us Be Seen authored by Karolina Bregula, and Dorota Nieznalska’s photographs about sadomasochism in politics. Both, alongside many other feminist and queer works, featured in Pawel Leszkowicz’s exhibition calling for Love and Democracy. I would like to demonstrate how transgender Rafalala’s social performance at the parliamentary elections, testifies to transphobia at the very heart of our political system. There is also the leftist artistic milieu of Krytyka Polityczna with its ‘Applied Social Arts’ for the economically excluded, as well as initiatives set up by the youngest generation of Polish artists. These include alternative NGOs, squat initiatives and street artists across Poland acting against injustice, among them is urban guerilla artist Szymon Pietrasiewicz, 26, who as a protest against consumerism, exposed himself in a shopping mall with a label reading ‘Sale: human being - 9.99 zlotys.’


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Szymon Pietrasiewicz’s performance ‘Sale: human being - 9.99 zlotys’. Photo by Dorota Awiorko, Dziennik Wschodni
Art to Counter Uncivil Society
Uncivil society is growing in Eastern Europe, the rise of casino capitalism (and unconcern for its impending crisis), the far right, hatred of the supposed others, ultra-nationalism and prejudices. I’m an out gay in Poland and what distresses me is the hegemony of this uncivil society, the violence, misogyny and anti-Semitism as well as xenophobia and homophobia.[i] Excrement and acid are thrown at sexual minorities in Eastern Europe. On July 22, 2006, bags of faeces were pelted at gay pride in Riga, the capital of Latvia. In the old Polish capital of Cracow, caustic acid was tossed at the Parade of Equality, which champions the rights of queers on May 7, 2004 – one week after Poland joined the European Union. “Fags to the gas!,” “We'll do to you what Hitler did to the Jews!” - far-right protestors shouted at feminist and gay marchers in Poland. Civil society doesn’t do enough to counter prejudices and I for one am very disappointed in it. How can we regain civil society, rethink and recreate it? We need art. Art intervenes, criticizes and creates. Culture has a rebellious edge, it sublimates and runs counter to the dehumanization of minorities.

Art with Messages against Intolerance
The portraits of Let Us Be Seen were of thirty real same-sex couples standing in the street and holding hands and they were part of a social action organized by the non-governmental organisation ‘Campaign Against Homophobia’. In the streets, the portraits were immediately destroyed by members of the far-right. In many cities, they were censored and banned by local authorities, but the touring exhibition in the galleries was a popular success and enjoyed some significance both in the media and artistically. Let Us Be Seen not only unleashed physical violence and media hostility, but also sparked a public debate in Poland about same-sex love and queer rights. Art functioned as civil society.


Karolina Bregula, Let Us Be Seen, queer visibility action organized by the Campaign against Homophobia

Also part of the Love and Democracy exhibition, was the photographic work of Dorota Nieznalska. Her work Passion is an exploration of masculinity, violence and suffering, and consists of a video close-up of an exercising body builder’s face and a cross on which a photograph of a penis has been placed. Members of a far-right party, the League of Polish Families, physically attacked this young female artist and then they brought charges against her for “offending religious feelings” and Nieznalska was sentenced to community work and banned from leaving the country or, as the judge phrased it, sentenced to “half a year of the restriction of freedom. In Love and Democracy, art spoke the idiom of love and it spoke the idiom of protest, with style and sensuality. Dorota Nieznalska represents a new dissidence against the anti-modernism of today’s Poland, against violent, claustrophobic and repressive fundamentalism, without religion as inner experience.

Maciej Osika’s transgender self-portraits in the Love and Democracy exhibition
Films of Resistance to Repression
A documentation of the aggression against human rights and freedom of love in the Polish streets in 2005 and 2006 was provided by the films of Aleksandra Polisiewicz, Ewa Majewska and Joanna Rajkowska. The women directors show the battle surrounding the marches for equality and the counter-culture club, Le Madame. The Reanimation of Democracy – the March for Equality Moves On[2] (2005) documents the demonstration in Warsaw supporting the banned equality march brutally suppressed in Poznan on 19 November 2005, where sixty people – feminist and gay marchers - were arrested. The march took place in accordance with the constitution and the ban issued by the city authorities turned out to be unlawful. Another documentary film, made by the Sirens TV group[3] presented the march for equality banned by the authorities in Warsaw on 11 June 2005. Within the same trend of spontaneous social protest in the name of a free public, and at the same time alternative, space, there was the defence of the Le Madame club in April 2006. Le Madame was the centre of the culture of political and moral opposition in Warsaw propagating artistic freedom. It became the symbol of an alternative new and young left, in a city ruled by the far right and was, therefore, closed on an administrative pretext.

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Joanna Rajkowska "Le Ma"
The last dramatic phase of the defence of the subversive Le Madame club was demonstrated by the outstanding film of Joanna Rajkowska. These films by women directors Rajkowska, Majewska and Polisiewicz participating in Love and Democracy represented art as an alternative civil society of social document, opposing the false objectivity of the official media. As Jan Puhl of Der Spiegel writes:
“And so in the meantime, a little Polish gay movement changes peu à peu into a citizens’ initiative against intolerance”.
Intimate democracy begins in the psyche and ends in the reform of civil society. The art of intimate democracy, according to Pawel Leszkowicz, strives to integrate the private with the public, establish a space of communication. In this sense, this is an art that healingly touches upon Polish democracy’s deepest ailment, goes beyond discrimination and this art of intimate democracy inspires the praxis of a self-governing and pluralistic civil society.Love and Democracy included hetero- and homoportraits by Izabela Gustowska and Katarzyna Korzeniecka, demonstrating the diversity of love. My own installation at the exhibition combined the photographs of the Jewish and queer places in Lublin, Prague, and Irkutsk. Together with Pawel Leszkowicz, I argue that because of the censorship imposed on sexuality-conscious art and women’s and minority rights, a second revolution must happen in Poland. The first one in the 1980s, under the banner of Solidarity, was conducted in the name of a free nation and the collapse of communism. The group identity of Poles stands behind it. A second revolution, equally peaceful, should happen in the name of the freedom of the individual and minority rights, opposing the danger of fundamentalism.[4]
Izabela Gustowska, L’Amour Passion in the Love and Democracy exhibition
Minority for Minority
Poland and other Eastern European countries are in the grip of the ideology of the “pure” nation and the militant party, both exclude otherness instead of choosing democracy as a “heterogeneous way of life”[5]. Another cult is fundamentalism, religion-turned-ideology. A pressing issue is liberalizing religion here; if non-integrist, faith-based activism could contribute to civil society. Faith and Democracy is a necessity! An example of this is the collaboration of feminists, gays, and the reform Jewish community Beit in Poland, when Dota Szymborska-Dyrda of this liberal Jewish group supported the queer rights movement under the motto “minority for minority.” It is imperative to remember here the still un-mourned annihilation of Poland’s Jews in the Holocaust, and the mass expulsion of them in 1968. In popular perceptions, Jews, Roma and queers are still beyond the pale. That’s why the younger generation of Polish Jews initiated Shterndlekh/Meryba. A Magazine of the Minorities about Culture to which I contribute. It warns against the anti-Semitism and homophobia in Poland[6] presents feminist and queer ideas and goes back to the transgressive figure of a woman tzaddik[7]. Textually, but also visually, with its artwork by dissident artists, Shterndlekh/Meryba embody the spirit of revolt.
Tomek Kitlinski, My Country Today
The idea of hospitality is of primary importance in Eastern Europe in the context of xenophobia. If not, civil society is in danger. We are in danger. To activate the popular base of civil society, we should work for an Eastern Europe of Hospitality. All citizens and immigrants are part of civil society, and should be accordingly involved, engaged, and committed. Our participation in civil society is the human value of hospitality to others.
Transgender and Feminist Activism
Democratic hospitality must extend to transgender persons. When transgender Rafalala came to vote in Poland’s parliamentary elections on October 21, 2007, she was denied her ballot right. At a Warsaw polling station Rafalala presented her ID which showed a man Rafal, and didn’t match her gender. For the election, she wore a blond wig and a black dress. The returning officer said, ‘You’re not the man on the ID photo’, and didn’t allow Rafalala to cast her ballot. ‘I live in a country where I have to stop being myself in order to vote’, Rafalala commented on her blog. The denial of Rafalala’s right to vote was headline news across Poland and was an outstanding performance art piece for the rights of transgender persons in this country. A one-person example of artistic civil society in action!
Together with Rafalala many of Poland’s scholars, students, and even pupils are turning into civic activists. Women public intellectuals Maria Janion, Magdalena Sroda, Kazimiera Szczuka, and Agnieszka Graff, whose essay is posted on this discussion forum, spearhead dissent. Janion (b. 1926) has changed the Polish humanities, edited Transgressions, an influential series of anthologies of literature and art and published a dozen of her own books. The recent ones analyze misogyny and anti-Semitism in Poland. Her collaborator, Kazimiera Szczuka, feminist activist and author of the book Cinderella, Frankenstein and Other Women, devised the women’s Manifa demonstration which is an artistic celebration of femininity and a powerful call for women’s rights in a country where abortion is illegal. These women provide a voice of freedom in contemporary Poland.

Feminist author/activist Kazimiera Szczuka during her 2000 Manifa: “Human Rights are Women’s Rights”

Feminoteka is a collective and website that works against misogyny in Poland. It provides a free forum of expression and action for women and their male supporters. Its projects include initiatives for reproductive rights and against domestic violence, The Virtual Museum of Women’s History and publishing of art postcards with feminist messages. 

New Spaces
Alongside feminists, Krytyka Polityczna is a journal, publishing house and environment for progressive younger sociologists, literary critics and activists. As a hub, Krytyka Polityczna plays a crucial role in fostering alternative thought, spark debate and nourish engagement in Polish society. Through poetry that breaks conventions and establish new language, through visual art, new artistic spaces and alternative theatre, artists devise ever new ways of organizing social gatherings to unleash the public power of art.

Street artist Truth’s interventions in the urban space of Wroclaw

An urban guerilla artist in the city of Wroclaw called himself none other than Truth. His are interventions into the cityscape with statements of unconcealement, truth, aletheia. Be it in gentrified or run-down parts of Wroclaw, Truth introduces angry additions to annoy us out of our complacency.That is how art performs new dissidence in Poland.

Alternative theatre companies turned into educational centers when the former multiculturalism of Poland is recalled.[8] To this tradition belong the Borderlands in Sejny and The Brama City Centre - NN Theatre in Lublin, from which young activists took the step to found a new NGO Homo Faber, through the use of films, performances and workshops which promote multiculturalism, sexual rights and speak out against domestic violence in the smallest towns of Eastern Poland they spread their message. The squat movement often cultivates pacifism, artistic handicraft and what is all too rare in this country, sexual education and workshops promoting safer sex.
As Jean-Paul Sartre argued, engaged art reveals the images which society tries to conceal from itself. Let Us Be Seen, Love and Democracy, Rafalala, Krytyka Polityczna, and the squat movement unleash artistic images which the mainstream conceals, the diversity of gender identities, effective alternative identities, sex and warnings against exclusion. Alternative culture reveals truth about civil society and about society as a whole. In today’s Poland, art stings those in power out of their self-righteousness.
Art Acts as Dissidence
The emerging civil society in the anti-totalitarian dissidence of Eastern Europe was also of cultural inspiration. Alternative theatre and art played a crucial part of the democratic opposition to Communism. In this context, the Committee against the Repressions toward Conscription Objectors, founded in 1981, developed into the Movement for Alternative Society. As one example of links to this movement Theatre of the Eighth Day from Poznan was in opposition and therefore expelled under Communism, and one of its members was arrested while participating in the feminist and gay March of Equality in 2005. An additional historic example, the rise of human rights culture in the eighteenth century was inspired by literature, in particular the novel[9]. The novel is an “emotional argument for democracy” because it “makes its readers more empathetic.”[10]
The critical work of a Polish-American artist, Krzysztof Wodiczko, is important as it may be regarded as an element of transnational civil society to found a public sphere which would cherish subjectivity. In 1985 Wodiczko projected the image of a swastika on South Africa House in London as a protest to Apartheid, constructed a vehicle for the homeless in the United States and sculpted a cane The Alien’s Spokesman by which a stranger, homeless or immigrant can communicate on the streets with passers by.
Today’s Possibilities: Spaces for Art and Democracy
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb presents human interaction in the alternative theatre under Communism and on the Internet today: political autonomy can be generated here. In our 'dark times,' the 'power of the powerless' is created in small initiatives at the interface of art and activism. In comparison to radio or TV politics, Internet-mediated politics, that of bloggers, is, according to Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, "more egalitarian, much less hierarchical, more deliberative… Online, there is an expectation of differences of opinion, and people work on respecting the differences and finding common ground. This has been apparent in the antiwar mobilization and in electoral organizing (in the United States).[11]
I envisage participatory art and society workshops for a very wide audience, including the underprivileged. The society/art projects could be happening simultaneously in democracy hubs/art venues and over the internet. Taking place in both realities, this could energize the togetherness of being active, that is civil society, aiming at becoming free. Simone de Beauvoir would not consider us free if others are unfree. Those without freedom, without rights, without papers in the EU and globally, as well as Eastern Europe’s Arendtian conscious pariahs: women, Jews, Roma and queers.
Art is altruism. Art involves a double movement, the self-expression of minorities and a de-egoization. Hélène Cixous demonstrates this in her interpretation of the work of Jewish/ Ukrainian/Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector: ‘one can only attain this right distance through a relentless process of de-selfing, a relentless practice of de-egoization.’ Art performs human rights, as activists/artists Lois Keidan and Lois Weaver put it. To borrow Elzbieta Matynia’s term, performative democracy. Simon Critchley defines it as “processes of democratization”, “providing constant critical pressure upon the state, a pressure of emancipatory intent.” That is how philosophy and art challenges closed structures, discrimination, and the sufferings of minorities, as recalled by Richard J. Bernstein.
But for the time being, Poland is unjust, class-ridden, discriminatory, undemocratic, and, under the previous government anti-democratic. The transition confirmed the tyranny of the majority, which Tocqueville and Mill were already warning us against in the nineteenth century. Majoritarian communism gave way to majoritarian fundamentalism. In fact, pseudo-Communism gave way to pseudo-Christianity. The French psychoanalyst and philosopher with roots in Bulgaria, Julia Kristeva is right about the amoralism of Eastern Europe: “the immobilization in painful narcissism; the hellish complacency outside of time; social amoralism; and pauperization.” The evil responses to artistic expressions mentioned in this text testify to this and misguided receptions of artists’ work have led to extreme hatred, near riots and uncivil society.
Wojciech Gilewicz, Colour Photography in the Love and Democracy exhibition
Art Events as Civil Society Hubs
That’s why we need – here and now – art events as democracy hubs. Though playful, art takes ideas seriously. And takes us, viewers/co-creators, seriously too. Art is something of ourselves. The activist art of Let Us Be Seen, Love and Democracy, Rafalala, Krytyka Polityczna, the street art and squat movement give life to civil society.
We urgently need a strong, ethically-committed, and inclusive civil society to initiate citizens into self-associations of generosity. Art finds the means to make a critique of the system, Art affords insights into the body politic. Where Eastern Europe painfully lacks community organizers, art establishes associations, teaches involvement, brings the form and force to be active. Art is at the very grassroots and at the same time truly cosmopolitan. Art doesn’t take its eye off the ball of society. Thanks to art, civil society could be closer to society itself – not in the trap of the normalizing mainstream. It is up to the people to constitute civil society and to animate it. The alternative character ensures non-hierarchical organizations and engagement in the “other” social facts and aesthetic forms. Art adds a sensual and social dimension to civil society and changes reality, doesn’t it?
[1] For an analysis of anti-Semitism and art events (exhibitions, performances) to oppose it in Poland see  http://www.jewcy.com/post/still_racist_after_all_these_years.
[2] Feminist theorist/activist Ewa Majewska and artist Aleksandra Polisiewicz made the film The Reanimation of Democracy – the March for Equality Moves On.
[3] The feminist art collective Sirens TV consists of Ewa Majewska, Aleksandra Polisiewicz, and Ellyn Southern.
[4] For the tradition and the cutting edge  of feminist/lgbtq art see “Feminist Revolt: Censorship of Women’s Art in Poland” http://bad.eserver.org/reviews/2005/leszkowicz.html, and  “The Queer Story of Polish Art and Subjectivity” http://www.artmargins.com/content/feature/leszkowicz.htm.
[5] Claude Lefort’s approach to the idea of democracy.
[6] Texts by Darek Galecki, Dota Szymborska-Dyrda, Przemyslaw Pilarski, Ewa Majewska, and editor-in-chief, Anna Cialowicz.
[7] Drama by Anna Cialowicz.
[8] For more on the theatre and art against xenophobia see “New Europe, Old Monsters” http://bad.eserver.org/issues/2005/73/kitlinski.html.
[9] Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights. A History (New York and London: Norton, 2007).
[10] Hermione Lee reports on the social power of the novel in The New York Review of Books of May 10, 2007.
[11] Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, The Politics of Small Things. The Power of the Powerless in Dark Times (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).

Tomek Kitlinski is an author, academic, activist, and, occasionally, tries to be an artist. As a student in Communist Poland, he was involved in the opposition’s alternative theatre movement. After 1989, he studied at Gutenberg University in Mainz, the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and obtained his M. Phil. in the Studies of Text and Image at Denis Diderot University - Paris 7 where he worked with Julia Kristeva. Simultaneously, he developed his performance art, presenting it at galleries and festivals across Poland as well as publishing poetic prose Parallel Lines and Love.Hate. He was a Fulbright scholar at the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, New School for Social Research in New York. His doctoral dissertation was published in Polish The Stranger Is Within Ourselves. To Love According to Julia Kristeva, Aureus, Cracow 2001. He co-authored a Polish-language book Love and Democracy. Reflections on the Homosexual Question in Poland, Aureus, Cracow 2005. With his partner, Kitlinski took part in Poland’s gay visibility campaign Let Us Be Seen, in the project I’m Gay, I’m Lesbian. Meet Us!, and contributed to the first queer publications in Eastern Europe. Currently, Kitlinski is lecturer and researcher at the Department of Philosophy and Sociology, Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, Poland. Kitlinski has published a number of academic, journalistic and literary texts, including a contribution to Poland’s first gay and lesbian studies collection A Queer Mixture and to volumes published by Routledge and New York University Press. He has also contributed to The Advocate, Art in America, Die Tageszeitung, Dos yiddishe wort, (Harvard) Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, Queer Views on Everything (www.thegully.com), and Bad Subjects. Political Education for Everyday Life (eserver.org/bs).

This paper is published as a contribution to the discussion of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) Civil Society Forum. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CEE Trust or its funders. Copyright © 2008 CEE Trust. All rights reserved.



Comments by readers

Posted by: Bruce

On: Wednesday, February 11 2009 @ 12:46AM

I like this text very much. It combines art, politics and philosophy. And a lot of stuff on Poland as well. Very useful for my research on queers in Eastern Europe.


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