Until 1989 art, press and television were subject to political censorship in Poland. School curricula were screened to be in line with the voice of the Party. Demonstrations and strikes were pacified; workers and intellectuals were repressed, imprisoned or even murdered. Finally, the Catholic Church, which was generally anti-communist and had a history of criticizing the system and motivating Poles to protest, was constantly under surveillance. Since the collapse of the communist order, Poland has been transformed to resemble a pluralistic democratic society.
So begins Iwona Lepka’s 2009 paper on Freedom of Expression in Post-Communist Poland, published in the November issue of Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory (published by Routledge). About one third of Lepka’s article focuses on the case of Polish artist and feminist Dorota Nieznalska, whose installation titled Pasja (“Passion”) resulted in Nieznalska being sued for insulting religious feelings by a group of conservative activists related to the League of Polish Families.
According to Lepka’s article, “Paradoxically, the people whose religious feelings Nieznalska was to have supposedly insulted admitted that they had not seen the exhibition themselves but had familiarized themselves with the issue through extensive media coverage. And so the witch-hunt began.”
Here is how Lepka describes the installation itself, and how events unfolded:
Dorota Nieznalska’s installation entitled ‘Passion’ was displayed in the art gallery Wyspa in Gdansk from December 2001 until January 2002. The installation consisted of a Greek metal cross with equal arm lengths, suspended from the ceiling by chains. The photography on the front part of the cross showed the lower part of a male body, namely a stomach, an abdomen, loins and genitalia. In the background, there was a video close-up of the head of a bodybuilder lifting weights. The film showed only the man’s shoulders and face with a genuine grimace of exertion.
The work of art would have probably been long taken off and forgotten had it not been for an extensive material on it broadcast by TVN, a Polish television channel. The program, sensationalist in tone, motivated members of the League of Polish Families to visit the gallery. What is interesting is that the exhibition had ended a few days before and was no longer on display when the delegation of embittered MPs arrived. While ‘Passion’ was being disassembled and preparations for a new exhibition were in progress, the parliamentarians demanded that Nieznalska’s installation be shown to them. They declared that they came to damage the work so that it would be never displayed in other galleries. One of the members of All- Polish Youth, who accompanied the MPs, was reported to have harassed the artist and even threatened to rape her. Nieznalska was insulted and it seems that only the presence of a group of journalists stopped the infuriated rightists from battering her. The incident was later widely shown by various television channels.
In subsequent legal proceedings the art gallery itself was ordered closed, and Nieznalska was convicted, in July 0f 2003, of “offending religious beliefs.” As Lepka explains in her article, “Article 196 of the Criminal Code provides that anyone found guilty of insulting religious sentiment through public calumny of an object or place of worship is liable to a fine or maximum two-year prison sentence.”
Dorota Nieznalska was sentenced to six months “restricted freedom”, and also ordered to perform “public service” under the court’s supervision. She appealed her conviction, and in June of 2009, eight and a half years after Pasja was first displayed, Nieznalska was finally acquitted of the charges brought against her.
Poland’s Article 196, however, remains in effect, and in order for Nieznalska to win acquittal she had to argue that she did not make use of the cross “as a religious object”, but rather it should be “interpreted in the context of masculinity. The installation was an artistic endeavor to articulate the concept of masculinity.”
Nieznalska also argued that religion has become enmeshed in modern consumer culture. She called in her defense an art historian, Izabela Kowalczyk, who argued that the themes of masculinity and commercialization are especially clear because of the incorporation of the video of the bodybuilder in the background of the cross, which draws a parallel between churches and gyms as market-oriented enterprises.
One the one hand it is a good thing that Nieznalska was able to win an acquittal, while on the other hand it is chilling to see that the simple principle of freedom of speech had to be “defended” in such a convoluted way.
The other 2/3 of Iwona Lepka’s article in the journal Critique deals with (1) religiously inspired discrimination againt LGBT people in Poland, and, in particular, violations of freedom of assembly with respect to demonstrations demanding rights for LGBT people, and (2) Poland’s criminal defamation laws and the specific case of a journalist who was convicted and fined (approximately US$6,500) for the “crime” of insulting the Pope. I will summarize what Lepka has to say about these issues below.
The first Pride Parade in Polish history took place on May Day 2001 in Warsaw. Three hundred people attended the little publicized event. Subsequent marches grew to 1,000 and then 4,000 strong in 2002 and 2003. Then in 2004 a Culture of Tolerance Festival was planned for May 6-9 in Cracow.
The Cracow Festival began only a few days after Poland officially joined the European Union. Right-wing groups had objected to joining the EU, and one of their strategies was to use the issue of gay-marriage, which they claimed would be “forced” on Poland by the EU. Those who attended the Festival of Tolerance were physically assaulted by people thowing eggs and bottles, who also screamed “Gas the gays!” and “Faggots go home!”
After the violence in Cracow, the mayor of Warsaw canceled a scheduled Equality Pride March in that city, and he even refused to meet with the organizers of the March, saying, “I am not willing to meet perverts.” Activists then called for a March for Equality in Poznan in November of 2004. This march was also attacked by violent thugs.
LGBT rights activists continued to organize public events, but right wing response, both from thugs in the streets and from elected politicians, became ever more homophobic. But activists also fought in the courts, and in January of 2006 the Polish Supreme Court ruled that civic authorities must allow freedom of assembly, and must also guarantee the safety of those who exercise this right.
Since 2006, public LGBT events in Poland “generally pass off peacefully, even though counter- demonstrations by conservative right-wing groups are organized as well. Thus the struggle for equal rights continues in Poland.”
Meanwhile, Jerzy Urban published an article in August, 2002, titled “House-to-House Sado-Masochism,” a satirical piece aimed at then-Pope John Paul II. To make matters more scandalous, the article mocking the beloved Polish Pope appeared just before his much anticipated visit to his homeland!
Urban pleaded not-guilty and declared that “Looking at the papal cult with the eye of an atheist is just as legal as the ecstasy of devotees.” However, prosecutors made use of a Polish law prohibiting any insulting writings directed at foreign heads of state, which technically applies to the Pope as the head of the Vatican. In his defense against that approach, Urban claimed he was not really attacking the Pope personally, but rather the people who were making money from his visit.
Jerzy Urban was convicted in 2005 under Article 236 of the Polish Criminal Code. His sentence was a fine of 20,000 PLN (about US$6,500), and so far the ruling has not been overturned. Urban, who is now over 75 years old, has vowed to fight the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.
There have been other important cases involving freedom of expression in Poland, including other high profile attempts to bring prosecutions under Article 196. These include the scandal following infamous 2004 concert by Gorgoroth, a Norwegian Metal Band, in Krakow, which had been publicized in advance as “Black Mass 2004“, and the group promised on their website that it would be “an amazing show with lots of pyro, gallons of blood, live crucifixion and nude models.” No charges were ever brought against the band itself, which is from Norway, but the concert organizer was fined 10,000 złotys. In 2008 Gorgoroth released the much anticipated “Black Mass in Krakow 2004” DVD.
In 2009 there were calls, including from Lech Walesa himself, for the pre-emptive invokation of Article 196 to prevent Madonna from bringing her Sticky and Sweet tour to Warsaw. But that came to nothing.
In 2008 there had been an attempt to prosecute Adam Darski, aka “Nergal” of the Extreme Metal Band “Behemoth“, because of an incident in 2007 in which he desecrated a Bible and declared the Catholic Church to be “the most murderous cult in human history” on stage during a concert. That attempt had been thrown out of court, but then in March of this year the charges reappeared and were formally accepted.
Darski has pleaded not guilty, and has told the court that his performances should be protected because of artistic freedom. The court has heard “expert” testimony from Catholic theologians who claim that every copy of the Bible must be considered a sacred religious icon protected under Polish law. Darski does not deny the allegation that he systematically ripped a Bible to shreds, and then distributed the pieces to members of the audience and requested that these pieces be burned.
And then on April 30, Dorota Rabczewska, one of Poland’s most successful pop musicians, and, coincidentally, engaged to be married to one Adam Darski, was also formally charged with violation of Article 196. The court that handed down these charges reportedly heard evidence from linguists and biblical scholars.
The incident in question was a televised interview with Rabczewska, also known as Doda, or Doda Elektroda, in which she stated that her opinion of the Bible is that “it’s hard to believe in something written down by someone drunk on wine and smoking some kind of herbs.”
Doda won nine awards at the 2010 Viva Comet Awards, which is basically the Polish Grammys (as near as I can make out). She has won Best Video at the Comet Awards three years straight. She also came in second for “Best European Act” in 2009 for the MTV Europe Music Awards.