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In Poland, bad blood brewing between politics and the arts

  • Artists holding up posters reading "We will not give you culture" as they demonstrate against the government's cultural policy in Warsaw. Photo courtesy: AFP

By Michel Viatteau

Wroclaw (AFP) -- The play is over, the curtain falls, then rises again to reveal the actors standing with their mouths taped shut at the Polski Theatre in Poland's western city of Wroclaw.

It is their latest protest against the venerated theatre's new executive director, actor Cezary Morawski, whom they claim got his job thanks to the rightwing government.

His response? Kill the lights.

Yet only a few days earlier he told AFP he was tolerant of such protests: "Democracy exists so that everyone can express their opinion."

Though politically independent, Morawski was backed by regional and national authorities to take over the job on September 1 at what is one of Poland's main theatres.

His predecessor, Krzysztof Mieszkowski, who is an avowed opponent of conservative Culture Minister Piotr Glinski, had championed a different candidate.

The protesting actors, who claim Morawski is incompetent and that his selection had been predetermined, have managed to convince prosecutors to open a probe.

The conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski and came to power a year ago, claims to be in favour of pluralism and cultural freedom.

But it has shown a preference for promoting cultural endeavours with a nationalist bent, which they insist help reinforce a sense of community by extolling Polish history.

The feud at Polski made headlines after Polish stage director Krystian Lupa, a theatrical heavy hitter in Europe, voiced scathing criticism of Morawski.

Religious, patriotic values

Last month, around 500 people took part in a Warsaw protest that was organised by Polski actors under the banner, "We won't let you take over the arts".

Wroclaw mayor Rafal Dutkiewicz appears keen for emotions to cool in a year when his city is both a European Capital of Culture and host of the Theatre Olympics.

"Theatre can very well address politics, but politics should not interfere with theatre," he told AFP.

The Polski conflict is far from the only sticking point between Poland's artistic community and the political leadership.

The two groups have also butted heads over plays, with the political side often arguing in defence of religious and patriotic values.

One PiS lawmaker, Anna Sobecka, contacted prosecutors in the northern city of Bydgoszcz over the "Our Violence, Your Violence" play staged in the city by Croatian director Oliver Frljic.

In an open letter last month she slammed it for containing "pornography and blasphemy", saying she was shocked by scenes in which "a naked Muslim pulls a Polish flag out of her private parts" and "Christ rapes a young Arab girl".

In the nearby city of Gdansk, there are plans afoot for the new World War II museum -- due to open in 2017 -- to be merged with another museum that has yet to be built.

Historian Pawel Machcewicz, who is the war museum's director, claims the reason for the machinations is to have a pretext for firing him before his contract ends in 2019.

Machcewicz is a former advisor to liberal ex-premier Donald Tusk, who became EU president in 2014 and whom PiS leader Kaczynski sees as his arch-rival.

'New Poles'

Already fired in July was Pawel Potoroczyn, the director of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, a national body tasked with promoting Polish culture abroad.

Potoroczyn, whose term was supposed to end in December 2017, told AFP that one possible reason for his dismissal was that the government wants to promote a policy of "refusing to bow down" -- in other words a policy of national pride.

The Culture Ministry did not immediately respond to an AFP request for comment on the points of contention.

Henryk Wozniakowski, the liberal Catholic head of Poland's Znak publishing house, believes the PiS is trying to impose its vision on culture.

"The PiS follows a philosophy of 'politics first'. For them there are no stand-alone cultural values," he told AFP.

"Theatres with individualistic visions that don't serve to build a national consciousness around the vision that the PiS has of the past, of community, of the role of the leader and of the enemy, are gradually being taken over."

 

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