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21 October, 2015

“Very few cultures are global, so it’s not worth being creative for export”

Artist and curator on social role of artists and cultural policy

Interviewed by Anastasia Levkova

Jerzy Onuch is one of those rare people with whom it is possible to have a really meaningful discussion about arts management. Onuch has worked in this area for many years, running the Polish Institute in Kyiv from 2005 through 2010, then the Polish Cultural Institute in New York. Prior to that, he was the director of the Center for Contemporary Arts funded by the George Soros Foundation in Ukraine’s capital.

But management is not the only topic worth discussing with Onuch. An artist himself, he has never looked at being a manager in the arts as a goal in and of itself, but rather as an alibi that provides him with a means to develop his own ideas about what art and culture are meant to be, in general.

How does the role of art change in relation to the time and place in which it is created?

All things change and when life in a society changes, art, as one of its components, changes too. The question is whether it serves a different function. We can look at art from the point-of-view of different epochs and find many differences, but there are certain components that remain unchanged, certain fundamental issues that art attempts to answer: about human fate, about who we are, what our place is in our society, in this world as a whole. There aren’t many such questions but there are different ways of approaching them. For instance, there were chairs hundreds of years ago and there are chairs today, but a chair remains a chair, even if every epoch and every maker tries to find a suitable form for it.

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At this point I’ve come to the conclusion that the most important thing for an artist is to be working in their art. The debate about what is more important, form or content, has been going on for centuries, but content is pretty limited. There really isn’t that much you can talk about. What distinguishes art from era to era, from country to country is its form. And the artist offers a particular form to convey immutable content in a new way.

In your presentation at the Eastern Partnership Culture Congress in Lviv, you noted a category of artists who create with the purpose of providing the contemporary individual with interesting entertainment.  Are there really a lot of people who look on art as something to fill their free time with?

Of course, there are. People often don’t care to answer complicated questions or to even raise them, let alone have someone else raise them, but they do want to fill time, which has become far more expansive than in any previous era. So it’s hardly surprising that artists often try to first understand what their society is most prepared to accept, to understand the tastes of their target groups, and then to create something that will satisfy this.

So for you, as an artist and a consumer, what’s the most important thing about art?

Simple questions and simple answers. I don’t mean simplistic, or primitive, or superficial, but simple and fundamental. They need to have been distilled. Creative people allow their environment, their civilization and their culture to permeate them and they then offer this distillate. The calling of an artist—and the true artist can be seen as the descendant of prophets, priests and sage—is to think about fate, the meaning of life, the possibilities for being one with the world... that is, to raise fundamental questions and at the same time to cultivate form.

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In my life, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with an artist in other categories: maybe this wasn’t art for entertainment purposes—even if it sometimes had some entertainment value, it was with a different purpose—but I was actively involved in art as commentary on social events. Now I understand that social commentary and propaganda in art are not that interesting, for me.

OK, if we’re going to talk about propaganda, then we all remember the example of Leni Riefenstahl: high art with unhealthy values can effectively work for evil. How should this be seen? Can art be damaging?

This is a very difficult question. You can’t just say yes or no. When it comes to Leni Riefenstahl, her work was clearly at a very high level of awareness from an academic and formal point-of-view. She herself always said that the formal aspect was very important to her. But this raises the question of ethics. I remember a conversation in Venice during the Biennale, where one artist said that he didn’t care how his art was used, he was only interested in producing artefacts and in completing his works. Another one responded, “Well, fine, if someone asked you to paint a fence, would that cause you any problems?” The first one answered, “Not at all. I can do an exquisite job of painting a fence.” “Well, if you were asked to do an exquisite job painting the fence of a concentration camp?”

Artists understand that their work can be used in one way or another. And surely, as a human, they are interested in knowing exactly how? The real question is, are we mere executors or are we aware and responsible for our creations? The Leni Riefenstahl question does not have a right answer. On the one hand, it’s great art; on the other hand, it promotes something evil, even if it is at a high level. We can take something out of its context, or we can contextualize it, but that merely raises other questions. Right now in Ukraine the question being most hotly debated is, can we and should we be destroying art from the soviet era? It seems to me that, the further the distance from the critical moment, the more tolerant a society becomes, as if to say, “This no longer has anything to do with us.” But if we are close to that critical moment, then our positions tend to be moral rather than esthetic.

How do you feel about art being judged from a moral standpoint?

I’m very much in favor of that. For me, the ethical aspect is possibly even more important than the esthetic one. I don’t want to talk in Marxist notions, where esthetics is seen as a superstructure. For me, esthetics is an immutable part of being human, but the ethical aspect represents the depth of human existence. Incidentally, the slogan at one of the Venetian biennales was “Less esthetics, more ethics.”

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What do you think played the decisive role in Polish culture over the last decade and how did it affect institutes, the artistic environment, and individual artists? Specifically under the previous Minister of Culture, Waldemar Dombrowski (2003-2005).

Well, let’s consider whether we can even talk about “development.” I would say that, for Poland, it was more of a civilizational leap, rather than a cultural one. Whether its culture became somehow different than it had been until then, I can’t say. I do think Dombrowski was the best Minister of Culture in the last 25 years, though. Of course, there are things that he can be criticized for, but this man was able to bring to life ideas that were floating in the air. He said that most of the ideas that he implemented were not his alone. Dombrowski was clearly a talented man, someone able to see what was in the air, to make it happen, and to fit into the political system at the same time. In the Cabinet, Dombrowski was seen as a major player, so he prevented culture from becoming marginalized. Before going to sessions, he would make a point of studying reports from the Finance Ministry, the Economy Ministry, and other key agencies. He was thus able to identify the cultural aspect of their projects and to persuade the managers of key agencies of its importance. Many of the projects he initiated are still going today. But let’s not forget that Poland also joined the EU at that time. It may sound obvious, but this did bring in money for new projects, as well as opportunities to take advantage of structural funds set up for new EU members.

To what extent do you think the state should be active in culture?

Without any doubt, the state makes a big difference. If we decide that our society must be socialist, then culture and its role will be one thing; if it’s a social-democratic society, it will be different, and so on. I prefer the classic liberal model, where the highest value is freedom. And the less of the state in culture, the better. The purpose of a state is to provide the conditions for us to be able to create culture. It can establish a certain framework as an indivisible part of the process. I sometimes get the impression that many of my Ukrainian colleagues want to establish the framework within the process: to nail it down like a peg. Lots is being said about strategy. Based on my own experience, I understand strategy as a means, not an end. Unfortunately, too many arts managers in Ukraine look at it the other way around. I don’t deny that you have plenty of individuals who are highly educated, who have worked with many different institutions, who have travelled, seen how this works and who can tell us something about how to properly manage the arts. But there’s just one problem. It’s a bit like brain surgery. The surgeon can tell you how to do it, and as an intelligent person you can repeat all that later on. But if someone puts a scalpel in your hand, you aren’t going to go ahead and do the operation.

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This is the problem with many Ukrainian managers: they are great theorists but practice is a very different matter and you have to be able to make it happen, not just to talk about it. People in Ukraine often talk about applying arts management models from other countries, say, the British model—which I really like, incidentally. The question I have is, how do they plan to actually do this? Do they plan to move Big Ben from London or some other landmark? Let’s understand that a certain model works in a certain country because of certain traditions and we want to just borrow it like a blanket. I’m not saying to ignore the practice of other countries, but this is just one element of a very complicated game.

So you think there are few people with practical experience in Ukraine’s art circles? Or is it that they simply aren’t being asked how to reform the arts in Ukraine?

Ukraine has plenty of practitioners who are capable of working under the old conditions but we’re talking about reform. Someone once told me, “To be a successful fundraiser in Ukraine, you have to learn to go to the steam room.” Of course, I can go there to cut deals with officials or oligarchs about money for specific projects. But the point is that we need to be building a transparent funding system. If we want to reform the country, we have to change conditions. And then, most likely, the standard practices will become unnecessary, while those who were once successful will prove to be incompetent.

What would you do if you were the director of the Polish Institute in Kyiv today?

It seems to me that it’s in a different place than it was when I was the director there. Ukraine’s in a unique position right now, whereas Poland has the immense experience of its own transformation, which means that it’s in a position to help in many cases. I think that now is not the time for organizing Polish concerts and being enthralled by Poland’s marvelous culture. We all know that it’s marvelous. Instead, what needs to be shown is Poland’s understanding, Europeanness and experience. That would be the best way to promote my country. This, as far as I’m concerned, is the best that can be done today: to work with the basics.

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How is Ukraine’s international image changing?

Ukraine has obviously become better known and has appeared on the mental maps of many people in different countries. And if we’re talking about culture and the arts, then Ukrainian artists are visible in world art circles, no longer as part of the “Russki mir.” But there is still the issue that Ukraine’s image is based on the western narrative, on how its problems are seen in Europe and America, at best. At worst, the narrative is the one set by Russia. You see, a country’s image should be the work of the entire nation. People need to start thinking about the fact that Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian anything, is first of all needed by Ukrainians themselves. Do you imagine that Germans came up with the Mercedes or the BMW for someone else? No, they did it for themselves. To tell the truth, very few cultures are present at the global level and it’s probably not worth getting caught up on making things specifically for export.

What do you think about the fact that our modern moneybags are keen on the arts and rush to buy the latest artefact? Is this simply a clichéd badge of success?

Tycoons buy art because they are fabulously wealthy. Still, there should be some cultivation. If you plant a tree, you have to cultivate it and this takes many years. It’s no coincidence that the word culture comes from the same roots as cultivation. Ukraine’s tycoons are people who grew immensely wealthy in a very short time. They may simply not have had the time to reach a certain level of subtlety and refinement. Whenever this comes up for discussion, we always look to the example of Viktor Pinchuk. Initially, his interest in contemporary arts was an image-making project. This gave him carte blanche to the bigger world. Many people do this and it’s probably the right step to take. It’s a different issue that Pinchuk’s collection is very glamorous, because it was put together by two world-famous galleries: London’s White Cube and New York’s Gagosian. But it has created a distorted image of contemporary art.

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Art is not a Top 10 kind of thing, but an immense field, and it can be popularized in different ways altogether. Every time I go into the National Museum of Art in Kyiv and see those crumbling stairs and the doors that don’t close properly, I think, “If only one of these oligarchs, say even Pinchuk himself, would sell off a single one of their cars, they could fix those stairs and these doors.” When you go into the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, you see galleries sponsored by one or another wealthy patron. Why not do the same here? But no, everyone here wants to have their own gallery for themselves. So far, there is no sense that you’re laying a brick to build a common home. The government could offer conditions that would make this convenient and worthwhile, but so far it hasn’t done so. The oligarchs had a lot of influence over legislation, yet never considered that it could be formulated in such a way to provide the right conditions. Indeed, this would be very beneficial for them, their heirs and Ukrainian society as a whole.


Jerzy Onuch, born in Lublin in 1954, is a Polish artist and art curator focusing on installations and performance. In 1997-2010, he headed the Center for Contemporary Arts in Kyiv. In 2005-2010, Mr. Onuch was Director of the Polish Institute in Kyiv. His current position is Director of the Polish Cultural Institute in New York.

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