Autonomy Magdalena Ziółkowska

It seems ironic to consider the question of autonomy within the political reality of everyday life under post-WWII Polish communism, established from its beginnings on the basis of oxymoronic codes such as “a neutral state,” “the absence of the institutional from the institution,” or “unwelcome protection”—contradictions that defied gravity for 40 years but eventually succumbed to their own internal tensions. Many people during those years wondered how certain elements of reality could be rationally explained within a system which itself lacked rational rules, a system in which what should have been the “examples” became the “exceptions.” What is interesting, however, about the concept of autonomy (from the Greek meaning “self law”) in Poland is the way it was used as a political tool and integrated into the broader ideological framework within the sphere of contemporary culture and artistic life. These two areas were constantly subjected to acts of appropriation by official power, which was characterized by its rapacity toward every space that might slip outside its influence.

In order to understand this tortuous application of ideology, it is useful to understand how different conceptions of the term have developed. In particular, Louis Althusser’s somewhat underestimated notion of direct state political activity, which he referred to as the “state ideological and repressive apparatus,” offers a way to understand how artistic culture was framed. For Althusser, while ideology works through a network of institutions (e.g., the police, the army, courts) that, at least ultimately, function by means violence—though the violence may be indiscernible at first glance—the apparatuses are “a certain number of realities which present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions.” So, while the state apparatuses operate overwhelmingly and predominantly by means of ideology, they also operate secondarily by means of repression, even if ultimately they do so in a very attenuated, concealed, and even symbolic way. This is a fairly accurate account of the role of ideology under real, existing socialism though even if the general dominant ideology was the same in all communist bloc countries, the ideological machinery produced different contexts and introduced different strategies which forced artists to react in different ways.

In the People’s Republic of Poland the artistic system created by the administrative and political power was a tangle of interests and intentions, a kind of hybrid suffering from the continuous schizophrenia characteristic of a disciplinary system that constantly sought to define its borders in both a political and an ideological sense. Under these circumstances, the concept of autonomy appeared to be a political act in the 1950s, at the historical moment when the socialist realist doctrine was being rejected by the young communist state. The relation between power and art was thereafter schizophrenic, as the apparent separation of the two was confirmed. Political power supported ideologically unfamiliar experimental art in order to legitimize the openness and tolerance of the political system. There was thus an informal agreement that as long as art was nonpolitical and autonomous in form, the authorities would allow it to exist while at the same time controlling and minimizing the possibility of direct confrontation. One of the strategies of the state was the permanent decentralization of artistic life in Poland through the creation of an explosion of festivals, symposia, open‑air events, and meetings organized in provincial cities. Furthermore, various collaborations were initiated based on the idea of the social artistic act, such as the 1st Biennal of Spatial Forms in Elbląg (1965), between artists and factory workers, or the symposium in Puławy (1966), and between artists and scientists. Their nature as events and festivals played a crucial role in disseminating what could be called, after Bataille, “surplus energy.” The event—a festival—became a framework for acts of transgression. It allowed a parallel space-time reality to exist where the rules were revoked temporarily. In such an autonomous bubble, the potential for criticism could be disarmed and any excess energy would be destroyed in the act of consumption.

In the 1970s, under the “screen freedom” system, the autonomy of art encompassed two notions. The first was the autotelism of art—it was complete in and of itself—and the second was the juxtaposition of a modernist paradigm against the avant-garde tradition. The state used the theory of modernism to explain and legitimize the autonomy of a work of art which, by nature, should be decontextualized. Modernism was thus described as a movement that consciously sought to separate art from social life and everyday practices, as art realized in a nonartistic context. This resulted in conceptual practices being incorporated into the modernist theory of the meaning and function of an artwork in Poland, while in Western Europe they were described as being politically engaged and therefore antimodernist. In post-Stalinist Poland, the work of art was understood in terms of the category of “pure art”—thus protecting its sacrum—and set against the clear political statements of the historical avant-garde. The surviving avant-garde, with its political and social orientation, was perceived as dangerous, and its social and political potential started to be dismantled. A key example of this depoliticization is the history of Constructivism being reduced to a series of formal devices and plays of geometrical forms through which it became disconnected from its original social and political potential.

In the Polish case, and particularly in the 1970s, the autotelic nature of the artwork became ballast for the massive production of conceptual art projects and workshops, which eventually led to the closure of all possible meanings within the field of art. Thus, the state only appeared to accept a system of indirect prohibitions while, at the same time, stimulating and supporting its own choices. This relation between private choices and the institutional framework might be described and analyzed using Andrzej Turowski’s concept of “ideosis”—that is, the ideologically saturated space of thoughts and systems constituted from the position of political power. In this sense, it is always already subordinated to the omnipresent perspective where individual choices are always considered and limited within a political strategy.