When, more than a year ago, Dorota Nieznalska exhibited her work 'Pasja' in Wyspa Gallery in Gdansk, a scandal erupted. Now the gallery doesn't exist, and the artist was forced to stand trial for her work. The outcome of the lawsuit shocked the whole art world in Poland. We remind the very beginning of the affair and comment on its aftermath.

Dorota Nieznalska
The controversial part of 'Pasja' is a cross with a photograph of male genitals on it. After the piece had been shown in Gdansk in 2002, the TVN channel broadcast an extensive material on it. Few days after the exhibition ended, the gallery was visited by a group of MPs from the League of Polish Families (an ultra right-wing political party). Under threat of using physical force, the MPs demanded that the work be shown to them, later on, they reported to the public prosecutor's office in Gdansk that a crime had been committed. Nieznalska was accused of 'offending religious beliefs of other people, that is Catholics, by publicly insulting [...] the object of worship through placing a photograph of female genitals on a Christian symbol - the cross[...]'.

'No, I didn't see the exhibition myself' - said Gertruda Szumska in a newspaper interview - 'but I was told what had been shown there. To the cross, on which Christ had died, a picture of male genitals was attached'. On an Internet portal 'trojmiasto.pl', some anonymous members of Mlodziez Wszechpolska (nationalist youth group) threatened that they would 'hang such artists' and 'shave their heads, like the Home Army did with women who were in close relationships with Germans'. In the meantime, professors at the Fine Arts Academy in Gdansk agreed that they need to support the case of offended MPs and decided on throwing Wyspa Gallery out of its premises. It was widely known that they already had such plans earlier, now however, fearing the right-wing ruffians, the professors decided to use nudity as an excuse and get rid of Wyspa Gallery. And so, the gallery run by Grzegorz Klaman lost its exhibition space, and, for several months, Dorota Nieznalska had to stand an embarrassing trial. Now, the verdict is known. Unfortunately, it turned out to be another shocking disappointment...

Polish government sentenced an artist because her work "offends religious beliefs". The artist has been forbidden to leave the country and sentenced to six months of penal labor. How can any artist possibly be sentenced for his or her work?! We live in a country of Inquisition and repression, where ideas and artistic visions of individuals are being persecuted! How should we protest against such Inquisition of the government? Are we to organize a protest march? Or perhaps some more exhibitions, this time deliberately offensive and controversial? How can we speak out about our disagreement with the Dark Ages-verdict of the judges?!
Forgetting about both: artistic freedom and the freedom of speech, the rights to which are enshrined in the constitution, the court has made a grave mistake - Raster's exlusive: Aneta Szylak and Grzegorz Klaman, who supported the defense of the artist in court, comment from Gdansk on the unjust conviction of Dorota Nieznalska.

Since 18 July Dorota Nieznalska is the first artist in Poland to be convicted in a court of law because of the work she had made and exhibited. Gagging of art started certainly earlier - about two years ago - but the recent sentence creates a dangerous precedent that can seriously affect the situation and critical stance of artists in Poland. We have already seen examples of censorship and self-censorship in institutions, now however, the fear has infected the artists as well. A few things have went terribly wrong here. And certainly, if the judge forgot about the constitutional right to artistic freedom and freedom of speech, court's verdict is one of those things.

Polish democracy has provided room for a bunch of political rednecks, discrediting the Polish state and society. And we have to put up with those comedians, conmen, liars and cheats. Against our will, we are forced to listen to xenophobes, anti-Semites and fascists, who speak their mind and use democratic discourse as an excuse. Yet the discourse
doesn't provide for liberal attitudes, both in artistic and social terms. Polish system of justice is helpless in the face of organized crime, corruption and economic scandals. It's helpless in the face of those full of hatred towards others. But instead, it can effectively deal with artists who express their beliefs openly, under their own name. The system of justice passes ridiculously short sentences on bandits, mafiosi, and drunk drivers running over pedestrians with their cars. Yet it will restrict Neznalska's personal freedom - because she's neither an artist nor a talented person, on top of that she is making a career in court.

It would seem impossible in a democratic country that an artist would be convicted beacuse of his or her artistic statement. That is why we are totally surprised by the verdict which sentences Dorota Nieznalska to six months of limitation of personal freedom. All we have left, is hope that this deplorable decision will be changed by a court of higher instance. Should it happen otherwise, courts will become a witches' bridle. Both justification of this verdict and its argumentation were extremely inconsistent and emotional. First, the judge had made it clear that he wasn't going to conduct an analysis of the artwork, then, while passing the verdict, he acted like an art critic. Moreover, the judge didn't hear the experts and theologians who were able to give an opinion on whether Nieznalska's work was actually sacrilegious or not - if, of course, such arguments can be used in public. The judge didn't accept any of the arguments presented by the defense. Neither the one that the artist had made the cross not as a cult symbol, but as a symbol in general, nor the one about the fundamental right to freedom of artistic expression. Apparently the judge doesn't understand the idea of being an artist, as it is something vague and unclear to him. But according to him, 'religious beliefs' is a widely understood and clear concept. He doesn't see any difference between artistic and political gesture. And Liga Poskich Rodzin (political party which brought the case to court) is always around in situations where it can make some political benefit - by the Langenort ship, in Zacheta gallery, or, while a social campaign aimed at homophobia is taking place.
Dorota Nieznalska

And what did Dorota Nieznalska do? She exhibited a work in a gallery, which was situated on the grounds of the Academy of Fine Arts. Since the times of Plato, the academy was a place for intellectual and artistic discourse. This rule was broken when the gallery closed. It is hard to accept the reasoning that since ninety-five per cent of Polish citizens is Catholic, we are obliged to think their way. By doing so, we condemn ourselves to a total thinking ban. And soon, any statement different from the one commonly accepted, will be punished without further ado. Are we to live in a homogeneous society, that speaks with one voice and offers unambigous definitions of symbols, where "non law-abiding" individuals are thrown into prison? How can anyone be so short-sighted, so as not to see the difference between the symbolic and the real; between perceiving facts about reality and representing them. Yet this ability forms the basis for culture. We are shocked and embarrassed by such way of thinking. It would follow that if an actor on stage plays a murder scene, we should understand it is for real? We should understand that if a sculpture of the Pope is crushed by a stone, then the Pope is real? And a cross - used in a most general way - always stands for an attack on Catholicism?

We are outraged by jury's statement that a fine for Dorota Nieznalska is no punishment, because the artist earned a fortune thanks to that work. In jury's opinion, Nieznalska had planned everything carefully in order to ensnare the public opinion and make easy money. We find it hard to believe that anyone can possibly think that in a country which has no art market, one can make a profit because of a lawsuit and media hype. Long before the whole incident, Dorota had an established position as an artist, and she presented her works in the best galleries in Poland. Because she had the courage to show 'Pasja', Nieznalska had her scholarships and subsidies cut off; she has been stigmatized and censored. It wasn't her that made any profit on the lawsuit but the League of Polish Families. A spectacular political sham is their typical marketing strategy, and the judge acted just like they wanted him to. He spoke in a voice of the fundamental right-wing party, which thereby proved to be in charge everywhere. What makes us wonder is the question whether we can make a stand against such treatment of art and artists.
- Aneta Szylak & Grzegorz Klaman [20.07.2003]

Dorota Nieznalska

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