2020 Theses Doctoral
Plein-Air Politics: Labor as Means, Matter and Milieu for the Arts The People’s Republic of Poland (1965-1981)
This dissertation traces art’s changing relation to labor in the creative conditions of late-socialist Poland. A starting premise of my argument is that despite its putative leveling of class difference, state socialism did not fully and instantly intermix mass society and the cultural elite into one undifferentiated class. I consider artists’ reflexivity about their status as workers alongside state-sponsored efforts to import art into the industrial workplace.
I begin with an analysis of Józef Robakowski’s From My Window (1978-1999) – a film that visualizes the gap between the artistic elite and broader public as the physical distance between a ninth-floor window (where Robakowski shoots the film) and the ground below (the bustling courtyard that is his subject). The film sets the “time signature” for my overall project, for it embodies a temporality I identify in my material and embrace as my analytical position. In a voiceover recorded in the year 2000, Robakowski narrates the events of the past in present tense, thus modeling a form of retrospective analysis that resets the contemporaneity of its object. I advocate doing the same for the socialist period by reading its cultural products as part of a not-yet concluded experiment rather than through the prism of its ending.
In my remaining chapters, I discuss outdoor art festivals hosted at industrial facilities as sites of active negotiation of artists and Party authorities in tension yet working together within the parameters of the official art system. This event format, known in Polish as the “Plein-Air” (plener), lends my dissertation its title phrase “plein-air politics,” which I define as the improvised management and mitigation of conflict between parties that shared a belief that the socialist system was here to stay, and that its terms should be reckoned with and improved. With this concept, I hope to challenge the binary summarized by Ewa Mazierska as the “romantic dissident versus oppressive state paradigm” – the habit to interpret cultural production from throughout the Socialist Bloc as either compromised by its engagement with the Communist Party or fully independent, non-conformist and unambiguously critical of communism.
Inspired by Bruno Latour’s theoretical writing on experiments, I analyze plein-air art festivals as public experiments intended to verify and popularize the new social values requisite for building socialism. From there, I move to the historiographical tendency to narrate socialism as an experiment (and often one with negative results). I contest but ultimately retain the experiment as master metaphor for the socialist project by complementing it with theories of critical hope vis-à-vis the past. Starting with Ernst Bloch’s notion of “concrete utopia” and ending with what Ewa Domańska calls the “affirmative humanities” (embodied by Ariella Azoulay, Susan Buck-Morss and Domańska herself), I try to validate hope as an analytical position.
To conclude, I draw a parallel between artists beholden to the terms of socialist state arts patronage and contemporary scholars navigating the funding structures of the American academy. I end by making an appeal for greater transparency regarding the institutional history of Slavic studies and the results bias it may have saddled us with as we glance back at the socialist period.
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More About This Work
- Academic Units
- Slavic Languages
- Thesis Advisors
- Izmirlieva, Valentina B.
- Ph.D., Columbia University
- Published Here
- February 7, 2020