Universalizing the exception

A conversation between Artur Żmijewski and Joanna Warsza


Joanna Warsza: You’re the kind of artist who monitors other artists and the art scene in general. You publish interviews with culture producers, you’re the artistic director of the periodical Krytyka Polityczna, and you have been appointed the curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale. What are your guiding principles?

Artur Żmijewski: I’ve always been more interested in the social or political dimension of art and the impact of artistic work. I’ve asked myself whether the language of art is capable of getting people religiously or politically aroused. Could artists acquire the same manipulative skills as politicians? How do you exert influence on people’s actions? Artistic action must take on a performative character, which means it has to interact with reality, and reality must react, change, and become an active part of the process.


JW: What does “career” mean to you?

AŻ: Career means improving yourself professionally. You move forward, acquire knowledge and skills.


JW: That’s a very idealistic definition.

AŻ: But that’s the correct definition of the word. There’s the greatness of art and there’s poverty in society—and some artists possess skills that are truly astounding.


JW: You’ve been chosen as curator of the Berlin Biennale because your art seem to be driven by certain ideals. You reject cynicism; you think things are still possible.

AŻ: The privileges, benefit, or authority that a person could gain from such a position are beyond me. I guess I’m kind of autistic or sociopathic in that way. I’m just not able to cultivate networks or comprehend social hierarchies and power structures. Some people might think it’s a matter of being introverted or socially incompetent. In the meantime, I’ve come to understand the necessary rituals and etiquette. Sometimes you have to force yourself through tedious discussions in order to forge social bonds. My autistic trait is my fixation on ideals. I don’t mean to say that I’m totally free of artistic narcissism—I’m also driven by that. I, too, enjoy seeing my name mentioned somewhere. The need for attention is an important mainspring. You just have to channel it so that you can use it for political purposes—for example—instead of for securing privileges. As curator of the Berlin Biennale, I have the feeling that I’ve been granted a certain amount of power, but this power is ephemeral and only symbolic. Compared to political power, it’s actually rather limited. The Berlin Biennale is a difficult exercise in delegating power—it’s like cinema. Filmmaking is about teamwork—you need the knowledge and skills of many people: camera, sound, editing. I might have a magnificent idea, but if I don’t incorporate the skills of all these people, I can’t make a film.


JW: The fact that you’re the curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale is a result of your work, but also a result of the work of many people who supported your art and positioned it in the symbolic and economic sphere. Why do particular works garner such appreciation, while others don’t? The proportion between the narrow and privileged class in the art world, the known and the rich, and the rest of the “dark matter” is approximately 5 percent to 95 percent. Do you have any ideas about what could be done to address this inequality?

AŻ: I think that we could bid farewell to the false promise of the art world—there’s really no room for tens of thousands of artists earning a profit. This is neo-liberal logic, which profits from the excess—from “possessing” a crowd of jobless artists. People who aspire, who can be used to speculate on content, and who ensure the exchangeability of ideas and personnel.


JW: And why do artists tend to promote their own career instead of standing for a cause?

AŻ: The longest, most significant tradition in art is conformism, not resistance. Assimilation and declarations of loyalty make up the mainstream. What we think of as the most important things in art—namely resistance, non-conformism, challenging norms—are just flashes on the fringe. Today, art is used as a tool to help people conform, to ensure that certain rules are followed. One rule, for example, is that in the art scene, artists are supposed to sympathetically converse in “leftist” terms about social misery. We always assume that artists want to help people and that a curator wants nothing more than absolute freedom of opinion. But this language glosses over political divisions and is little more than conformism. Some time ago, I read a report about an art fair where artists and galleries presented numerous interesting works, which drew attention to social misery. I thought, what would happen if you changed the sentence to read: “At the art fair, people came together who actively support capitalism and hope to profit from commercializing social misery.” That is the underlying obscenity of art, just as far-right sympathies or neo-liberal positions are obscenities that underlie artistic do-good terminology. Or as obscene as the opportunism of allegedly rebellious or provocative artists.


JW: But art is extremely attractive. The fact that everyone can be an artist is seductive and democratic. Perhaps, then, artists should also occupy other positions in other fields?

AŻ: Not everyone can be an artist. That’s an illusion. True, everyone can try to imitate art. But I don’t think that art deserves to be downgraded so as to claim that it can be made by anyone. We are faced with imitations of artistic action on the market—imitators have learned the strategies and tricks of the trade. And the biggest market for such imitations is, of course, the art market, where imitations, fakes, and counterfeits are sold on a massive scale. Someone I know once coined a term which aptly describes these (sometimes high-class) “accessories”: squatting art. Grzegorz Kowalski, a professor at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, where I studied, suggested a different, but equally accurate, term: “art pollution.”

As far as the place of artists is concerned, I’d say yes. They should occupy various positions in our reality. But I have the feeling we’ve gone too far in our illusions and in the institutionalization of art. If you look at this crowd of Berlin artists, you’ll see that they in fact follow the local galleries. The galleries offer a hope for the “precariat”—their sprawl encourages artists to move to Berlin. At the same time, the institutions exercise a form of “velvet censorship,” operating hand-in-hand with the market.


JW: Various dictatorships also controlled art. They differentiated between true and degenerate art. Aren’t you wary of such classifications?

AŻ: People still classify art today, only the criteria have changed. Class differences and sub-categories exist based on various levels of artistic quality. It’s not so much classification that I’m afraid of, but rather that the channels of expression are getting clogged. There’s no unity; there’s only a loose collection of particularities and localities.


JW: You’re asking for art that is self-conscious, has real effects, which renounces representation for the sake of directness and effective action, and performatively transforms reality. But such terms as “effect,” or “real effect,” “creativity,” and “action” are also part of the neo-liberal agenda. Any activity is expected to bring about effective action, is focused on a goal. How can the logic of art resist supporting the system? We can be certain of one effect—the market value of the works of artists invited to participate in the Berlin Biennale will skyrocket. Above all, this concerns your own work. As for me, although I’ve got nothing to sell, I won’t have any reason to complain, in the symbolic sense.

AŻ: Such thinking is precisely what leads you into the neo-liberal trap. The neo-liberal operating system, which is active in all reality, holds no monopoly on defining our needs and goals. My conscious activity is based on formulating my own goals, instead of ideologically representing the system.

Our conscious involvement in the Biennale project could be formulated in a number of ways:

  • art is a public service, because an artist represents not only him or herself, but also the community to which he or she belongs;
  • art is an influential element of public opinion, represented by intellectuals, and by artists who speak not only on their own behalf. It has broad exposure in the public sphere, and operates in close relationship with the media.
  • much of today’s art is based on a language of representation that operates in a dispersed network of power. The powerful influence of this representation could help us master the tools we hold in our hands, and it would also mark the first step towards acknowledging the fact that we have a right to exert such influence.

What discredits art and blocks its influence is, among other things, the speculative art market, with its overrated valuation of artworks and corruption of talent. Artists are often brilliant innovators, or talented politicians, but the market employs these skills in the production of spectacle. The connection between the market and dirty money is a serious problem. One cannot expect credibility if artists’ works are sold for astronomical sums. One cannot expect credibility if the money on the market comes from dirty enterprises, which create collections to improve their image. This was the case with the Flick collection. The connection between dirty money, immorally extortionate prices set via a process of speculation, and lack of artistic effectiveness is evident. The question of the art market is, on the one hand, a question of economic survival for artists, and on the other, the ethical question of favoring a handful of prominent figures at the expense of an immiserated majority.

I think that the situation of artists is similar to that of an exploited class, which begins to fight for its own stake. In Marxist terms, the precariat is in the mirror stage.


JW: Then ‘true art’ happens as the exception and rarity?

AŻ: The Dutch artist Renzo Martens claims that artists are able to make utopias a reality, that they can create something extraordinary, conjure up a situation, which, for instance, could do away with mechanisms of suppression in the capitalistic economy or dispel social constraints. Instead of an economy of profit-taking, an economy of giving would suddenly predominate, ushering in an unlimited, non-destructive freedom. Artists have the ability to manufacture such situations, but they can’t transfer them to other contexts and sustain them. And that’s one of the biggest, most dangerous desires among artists—universalizing exceptions. Maybe we should look for ways to universalize them. If artists are in a position to create situations based on alternative principles which seem more attractive and liberal than our normal social coexistence, then perhaps we should try to universalize them, to disseminate them. Religion has succeeded in universalizing the divine experience. Democracy is a universalized condition of coexistence in which disputes are solved on a symbolic level that guarantees security to both conflicting parties. The possibilities for safely resolving conflicts or experiencing the presence of God are universalized exceptions. That could be the political task of art—naturally, not every branch of art. There have been situations when political change has served as a vehicle for universalizing artistic experience. That was the case in the time of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism was a new aesthetic paradigm which, under administrative and political constraints, served as an highly ideological means of visual communication for the masses in a time of proletarian turmoil. Local terminology and visual language were universalized and became the mainstream. This only applied not only to the fine arts. There were poems written back in the 1930s in the style of Socialist Realism: “Czy rośnie chleb spod pługa, czy lecą skry spod młota—to nasza jest zasługa, to nasza jest robota” (“If bread grows from beneath the plough, if sparks fly from the hammer’s blow—this is our doing, and is our great work.”). Today this kind of language is anathema. Unjustly so. The Bauhaus is another example of a universalized and generally recognized aesthetic experience. In several smaller German schools, an aesthetic exception was produced and universalized so successfully that a new aesthetic paradigm emerged.


JW: How then this exception, say: “Paweł Althamer method,” can be universalized?

AŻ: Doesn’t that question also belong to the logic of capitalism? We should instead develop a kind of franchising, a free Althamer license. The knowledge, which he has been developing could be translated into techniques for tackling various social situations. I can’t say I’m not interested myself. But perhaps we might universalize the conditions of possibility that are re-invented by Althamer time and again? We could try to universalize the social and political atmosphere that allows Althamer to operate beyond the field of art. Because as far as the field of art is concerned, his presence is clearly visible.


JW: And if someone urged you to get involved in politics …

AŻ: That would interest me.


JW: If you got into politics, how could you maintain your status as an artist?

AŻ: I’ve no real choice, because my abilities are all anchored in the arts. I don’t believe that what we call “politics” is truly politics. It’s actually a fraud, ersatz, cultivated by the professional elite of the political bureaucracy, which has snatched politics from the hands of the citizens. The insensitivity of governments with regard to citizens’ demands for equality, emancipation, and prosperity, and oversensitivity faced with the fascistic fantasies of an impoverished majority, are now the rule, not the exception. Capitalism has destroyed the social solidarity between us and turned society into a group of competitive clans. In its radical form, capitalism corrupts democracies, transforms them into oligarchies, and conjures up dreams of plutocracy. Artists could also have an impact in this area. It’s not about maintaining one’s status as an artist, but rather creating room to maneuver so that you can manipulate reality, for example, by putting leftist ideas into practice. Artists are just as capable of setting in motion the same chain of events as politicians. In order to activate their followers, artists—in contrast to politicians—use paradoxes, reveal inconsistencies, challenge the status quo, or disclose secrets, which give way to a whole range of new secrets. This enables them to achieve a kind of diversion or shocking revelation which influences action. The viewer is stunned by the magnitude of the secret. Media exorcisms by journalists, and now by politicians as well, are the typical reaction to such artistic works. The status of the artist plays no role in such a situation. What matters is gaining operative knowledge: How do I plan my next move; how do I change the stakes on this frenzied playing field?


JW: And what is politics for you and what is politicization?

AŻ: Politics is a formula for social interaction. For artists, it seems the best thing to do is to take some idea and run with it. I have the feeling that everyone in the arts who has put their faith in an idea and felt inspired by it triumphed in the end.


JW: Who, for example?

AŻ: Hans Haacke and all those who pursue idea-driven politics through art—they’ve come out on top and are visible. That’s also how they become proactive subjects. You can’t bestow this status on yourself—you have to achieve it through ideas, which represent something bigger and stronger than yourself. Or do you think you can be a subject just by being? A somebody?


JW: Yes, I think so.

AŻ: That’s an illusion.


JW: When you first started at the liberally-oriented periodical Krytyka Polityczna, did you immediately equate your work with an idea?

AŻ: Not completely. I had certainly bathed in the radiance of various leftist ideas before, but I had no names for these ideas. But after I joined Krytyka Polityczna, the guardians of the art world repeatedly tried to put me in my place. I noticed they were trying to shackle me. I realized that artists are kept in chains so that they don’t get too close to the political fire; otherwise things might get dangerous.


JW: Speaking of you, or Paweł Althamer, people often mention the fact that you graduated from the Kowalnia [Smithy], that is the studio class of Grzegorz Kowalski. Did he really shape you, or it is rather that society needs the myth of a founding relationship between the master and the apprentice?

AŻ: Kowalski is a master, and he runs a master studio. But his students have freedom, and they are partners in artistic play. True, being there you could feel the hierarchy, but there was also a radical freedom of discovery, and a radical freedom of creation. He didn’t like passive students. He appreciated those who were able to make a row using arguments. And of course, he was the one who taught us the craft.


JW: Who cares about artistic craft today? We’re seeing other areas migrating into the arts—radical sociology, architecture, and education all have an established place in the art world. No one seems interested in diplomas anymore, because art also integrates people from outside the field.

AŻ: I agree, but I would also claim that art is comprised of both craft and knowledge of a specialized area. It’s wrong to think that art is a tool of the ignorant. If you use images to convey information, you have to know how an image is constructed, how graphic elements can have a forceful or relaxing effect. You have to know whether you are playing with myths, stereotypes, or prejudices. You have to know how things are constructed and what kind of layers there are in a picture—including ideological layers. I have a very broad concept of the images. I see images as a visual language with various dialects and slang. I myself used to think, “Why do we need an academy; why do we need to learn about composition and waste time with boring drawing exercises using models? Why do we need this, when in reality it’s all about ideals?” But if a picture is to convey an idea, you have to master visual language. And that is based on craft, on knowledge of graphic design, on understanding spatial relationships and color theory. Of course, you don’t always need academic knowledge. Sometimes one’s intuition is enough. But you do need the grammar of visualization so that your artistic language is effective and communicative.


JW: Isn’t this more about sensing a certain form, or having an aesthetic preparation of some kind? After all, the organization of a meeting is also a form.

AŻ: It’s interesting that you talk about “sensing,” a term that is difficult to define. Whereas professionalism or mastery consists in the fact that we speak not of sensing, but of knowledge, representation, composition, color, line, or stroke, as well as of what tools might be used to construct an image, the weight of the composition, its realism or abstraction. For language to be effective and communicative, we need a visual grammar. If you ask what Kowalski taught us, the answer is: that very language. This was why his class was so appealing. We weren’t lost, like most students in art schools. We came and learned the syntax. Take Althamer, for example: he’s involved in all kinds of activities: inviting children to paint on gallery walls, flying in a biplane over Warsaw with a group of paralytics, or dressing people in concentration-camp uniforms to counter a march of neo-Nazis. There seems to be no logic to it, but if you look closer, you’ll see that he has a fluent command of visual language, both in speaking and in writing. Everything is planned, and has its own structure and order; he is not only a master of ideas, but also a master of language. A flexible language makes it possible to speak about ideas.


JW: What then is the visual grammar in the film Berek [A Game of Tag], where people play tag in a Nazi gas chamber, recently removed from the Polish-German exhibition Side by Side in Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, or in your latest piece Katastrofa [Catastrophe]?

AŻ: In Berek, it’s the greenish-yellow marks of Zyklon-B on the walls, and the naked men and women playing a game of tag in a gas chamber. It plays on the dissonance of perception between what is appropriate—quiet, respectful behaviour in such a place—and the abrupt intervention of bodies, flushed in playful movement. The result is a feeling of almost obscene, pornographic relief. No one dies, and at the same time, the film presents an image of vital, sexual energy. Katastrofa, on the other hand, is almost purely journalistic, with a slight anthropological thrust. We artists see more than journalists do; we are allowed to see more and to say more. Katastrofa is an abundance of seeing, a liberation from a single, ideologized goal. We observed what people in Poland did following the catastrophic crash of the Polish president’s plane near Smolensk.

You mentioned that one form might be coordinating a meeting of some kind. That’s possible. In most cases, forms are indeed something external; most works by contemporary artists are structured like a joke. They can even be told like a joke. First there’s the set-up, and at the end comes a surprising punch line. For example: Two older women, one German, the other Turkish, meet, speak, and then remove their clothes and exchange them. I’m not passing judgment on this situation; I only mean to show that it possesses the same structure as a joke. It is a self-contained, ideological unit which can stand on its own even when removed from its local context. You can show it in Berlin, or just as well in Beirut or Barcelona. You can tell it like an anecdote—and the art world is constantly telling such anecdotes. Most of them eventually become channeled into a collection of anecdotes which are told around the world. That is a self-contained form, but I don’t want the work of an artist to end with a punch line. If it weren’t so introverted and hermetic, it might be an option for local contexts. But then again, it wouldn’t be able to defend its quality, because it would be open to attack from outside. Perhaps it would be more interesting to work on artistic structures that resemble jokes without punch lines, which have any number of resolutions, or even no resolution at all.


JW: We have been living in Berlin for the last year. You once said that the seductive narcissism of the city lays claim to artists from all over the world. Then why do radical artists from Colombia or Japan come here? What are they doing here?

AŻ: They’ve wandered away from home, lured by the cheap rents here. They’ve forgotten that the only thing that makes sense is doing something for one’s own community—without that, nothing has meaning.


JW: Nevertheless, Berlin is among the most attractive and tolerant cities to live in. I recently saw a performance by andcompany&Co. where a characters asks: “How come with all the critical minds and left-oriented culture producers gathered in Berlin, we are not yet living in a communist state?” Instead, the repressive tolerance acknowledges every attempt at revolt. Artist fell in love with their own radicalism, activists look down on artists. How does one introduce creative conflict into a society fraught with compromise? What is the aim behind bringing confrontation and tension back?

AŻ: Berlin is an exceptional case—it’s a city that was “purged” of ideology and ideas. It’s possible that artists based in Berlin are critically oriented, but at the same time the city welcomes ideological passivity. It’s almost obligatory. I think that this why Berlin is so appealing to artists—it’s a place where they can hide away from ideas and immerse themselves in the ideological void that results from the denazification and the outbreak of liberalism. The art world encourages people to distance themselves from ideology, so Berlin artists can be ideologically passive, hollow. They can come here from countries ravaged by conflicts, or affected by financial and social crises resulting from the introduction of a rigid capitalism. They can escape from Western countries where capitalism was immiserated, and which are now witnessing a wave of poverty and a resurgence of segregation by class. Berlin is like a “panic room” where you don’t need to have an ideology, and where you can forget about the social duty of an artist. Berlin is a city of clerks, a city of passive intelligentsia.


JW: Berlin’s openness for all of us is also linked with post-nationalism. This is why we are all here. The society was re-educated, nationalism or religion are yesterday’s concepts. When talking with Germans, I sense a persistent, internalized self-control, an echo of the denazification. The American slogans addressed to the German nation read, “You can all be like us”—meaning normal again. That is also the reason why today there’s no strong right-wing party in Germany, unlike Austria for example. Do you think that Germans have today the right to consider themselves also as victims?

AŻ: One could say that Germans were victims of a false consciousness. I think that the situation calls for a break of some kind. It would put an end to the compulsion to address the past, playing on it, profiting from it in various ways, and basing politics on guilt or lack of atonement. It could be a coordinated international effort, say, in the form of announcements on the front pages of European, Israeli, Japanese, and American newspapers. The announcements might read as follows:

  • The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, USA Today: “Europeans wish to express their thanks to the American nation for putting an end to the war in Europe, and for the sacrifice of the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers who fell there—with your help we began our lives anew. May the gods and all the spirits of the world bless you.” [Europeans]
  • The International Herald Tribune, Jerusalem Post, Ha’aretz, Ma‘ariv: “Our ancestors persecuted Jews, killed many of them, and expelled them from Europe. We want to apologize, on their behalf, and on our own behalf, although we were not the perpetrators. We ask you to remember that we are no longer the same people—also with your help, we now know how to care about the living.” [Europeans]
  • Die Zeit, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung: “Your ancestors started a devastating war and paid a terrible price for it. Although the nations of Eastern Europe, especially the European Jews and Roma, paid an even higher price. Today, the generations of the tormenters and those cursed with the misfortune of being born in the wrong time, are passing. We know that the Germans of today are a different people, a people who is free, and who knows that the Holocaust is a horror of the past. Contemporary Germans should know this: You are not responsible for the Holocaust.” [Jews]
  • Rzeczpospolita, Gazeta Wyborcza, Polska: “Poles, at the behest of the German occupiers, played a limited role in the extermination of Jews. Despite the threat of imminent death, they also played a major part in saving them. Poles have accounted for their guilt—today’s generations are not responsible for the deeds of their ancestors. You are not guilty of hatred towards Jews; you are not guilty of being sympathetic towards their extermination. You are free from guilt.” [Jews]


From the Polish by Krzystzof Kosciuczuk

A shortened version of this interview has been printed in the series Positionen IV / Zeitgenössische Künstler aus Polen [Positions IV / Polish Contemporary Artists], edited by Tomasz Dᶏbrowski and Stefanie Peter and published by the Steidl Verlag Göttingen in October 2011. The country-specific Positionen series is a joint project by the Academy of the Arts and the Goethe-Institut.



Artur Żmijewski and Joanna Warsza. Photo: Anna Eckold


  1. Ron Giii

    Contextual art by Jan Swidzinski is the writing from Warsaw that has a soul
    with the heart upside down.rg

10th Berlin Biennale