Choosing your own path at a very early age, making independent decisions concerning your own future – you touched upon this issue in your speech when you received the Teraz Polska award for a Distinguished Pole, referring to your experience and relations with your father.
When I was giving thanks for the award, I made a joke and it grew into something serious. I think that the issues connected with father-son relations and all the philosophical reflections about it since the dawn of our civilization are still valid. The myth of a hero has been developing since the origins of any message – oral at first, and then written. It demonstrates the development which leads to reaching the top. And it always begins with rebellion against the father figure, which in symbolic terms signifies rebellion against the existing order. My experiences as a young man cannot be brought down to this pattern. But everyone faces this question whether to follow a beaten track, programmed by society, or to choose the path of their dreams. Of course, these dreams are not fully individual. They depend on the people we meet and the books we read. 99% of young people give up and do whatever society expects them to do; but there is also this 1% of heroes who destroy the existing order. Obviously, there is some truth in my dedication to my father – he did want me to become an architect, it was his first dream (he wasn’t able to graduate due to the war) and he passed it on to me. This happens quite frequently. Unsuccessful tennis players torture their children since they are five year old to make masters out of them; such an attitude can be also observed in the field of arts. If we think about life more deeply, beyond the popular stereotypes, we can see – which on one hand is wonderful, but frightening on the other – that we have only one life and what we intend to do with it entirely depends on us. Of course, I could have become an architect, even more so considering that I studied architecture for nine years. But all the time I had this hazy dream about arts and fame. Obviously, fame turned out to be neither close nor easy. I won my first poster competition when I was still a student, so I thought I was a genius. I needed 10 years to realize that I was no genius at all. I understood that success mainly relies on hard work, so I work all the time, also now. As far as visual artists are concerned, only after some time does it turn out whether we are leaving any trace, if we exist in the history of arts. In other domains you can test your achievements during your lifetime. Another aspect that has its impact on whether you are recognized as a great artist is geography. There have been a lot of wonderful artists in Poland who have left no trace in the history of arts because they were born here. Had they been born someplace else, their position would be stronger now. Of course, there are Polish artists who left the country and had a chance to manifest themselves in a global perspective. Culture is also connected with the economic dimension. First you eat, and then later you think about aesthetics. Furthermore, aesthetics requires time. Every person needs beauty, irrespective of their level of awareness. Slaves and Polish serfs also had the need to create emotional beauty, but they did not create any works significant for culture because they did not have time for it. The most wonderful civilisation of the West was created by several hundred guys who were drinking wine underneath olive trees, talking about philosophy, about the creation of the world, 500 years before Christ. These are the foundations. They didn’t work, there were not soldiers. They had time.
Does the willingness to become a great artist come from the longing for fame?
I believe each creative young person goes through this phase. Later on it turns out that fame is not that important. It is way more important to be fair and square with yourself. What matters is the sphere of values, ethical issues, the notion of being a good person, who feels good about himself, who basically does good and doesn’t harm anyone, who does a lot for others. It is much better to be a good person not known by anyone than a famous son of a b***.
This is quite an idealistic view, such an idea often appears late or never.
It appears later because you know more about life. There is this book I often recall “The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maughan. The hero tries many things to learn the difficult art of being a good person. And finally he becomes a good person, and he chooses the career of a taxi driver; he disappears in the crowd, but – like each good person, even an anonymous one – he contributes a lot to civilisation.
Today fame has a different dimension than when you were beginning your artistic work.
Fame is devalued by pop-culture, an opportunistic culture created for the needs of mass customers. All the criteria and ideas of culture must concern us. Sometimes valuable things are noticed accidentally by the mass consumer. In theory, the mass consumer does not have his own opinion, he is controlled. Like in the fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. It is an extremely accurate observation of our civilization. Interestingly enough, Andersen wrote this tale quite a long time ago, when manipulation was not so widespread as it is today. Once Einstein was asked what in his opinion is most unlimited. He said that the universe and human stupidity, although there is no certainty as to the universe. Is this fame created by the controllable mass public opinion worth anything? I think that heroes created by the consumerist world will not stand the test of time. Mainly due to the fact that the assumption lying underneath pop-culture is creating fashionable art. This works in the same way as the trends in clothing: during one season masses wear one thing, in the next season they wear something else, etc. It is not easy to retain common sense; it is very difficult to be an individualist in the world of pop-culture. Assessments are made according to fashion, and not according to objective values. We have lost our relation with objective criteria of anything. There are no criteria, everything has been dismantled. I am trying to object to it – to know a lot, to read a lot, I am interested in everything, perhaps apart from quantum physics. I am trying to be an individual, not just a statistical number, which is enormously difficult in our civilisation; I try to challenge each message, not to fully believe each item of information. I learn to always look at facts or interpretations from two angles. Only later do I formulate my own opinion on the basis of my own judgment. All this is very difficult; we have less and less reliable information. Terrible times have come.
But young people, including your daughter, have to enter these terrible times.
Yes, therefore we have to ask ourselves what we should teach, what values to convey – should it be ideals connected with searching for our own self as a human being, or should you concentrate on the aspect of becoming successful. These two items are often contradictory. It is a dilemma. I would like my child to be safe, but also ethical and moral. I want a child to have courage, which is becoming a rare thing in the world today. For example, it is easy to criticise German or Italian fascism, 60 years after the war. Today, other actions are more important and more courageous. But contemporary artists build their careers on the protest against selective Holocaust. It has nothing to do with courage or a true moral protest, but it is politically trendy. No risks, only benefits. Today, courage is for example Edward Snowden, who stands alone against a great machine which is CIA, and provides frightening data. As a result he will be hunted down and destroyed, but what he did was consistent with his ethical belief and will, and that is why for me he is a hero, and not an opportunist, who goes to Africa for a couple of days to take some photos with starving children in the background.
What topic should be present in Polish arts today?
Art is created by artists, therefore it is hard to specify what topics it should be devoted to. Art should be the effect of individual reflections of each author. If an artist is an enlightened, responsible person, that person becomes conscience of the times and should carry a moral message. It is always so with great art, which plays a huge role and has a chance to go down in history. Is anything like this going on in Poland right now? I am afraid not.
There was a time, not only in Poland and not only during communism, that art served as a platform for a critical comment on reality…
Today money has become very important. It is the most important criterion right now. The average person, even not sensitive to paintings, films, sculptures or any other works of art, will get interested immediately if he learns that a particular item costs PLN 4m for example. The recipient is corrupt from this very moment. Art is evaluated according to business-like categories. We have lost an objective perspective on aesthetics, although it has never been available to everyone, it was necessary to grow into it and know something. Schopenhauer wrote that when we are in contact with a work of art, the third element of humanism – meaning the will – rests. The will does not exist, we surrender our will to art. And now everything has moved to a different direction. Both the artist and the recipient scheme at each stage how much this art could cost. We are all terribly corrupt.
And perhaps today art, like it used to do before, should incorporate the will of the recipients and this way generate some special good, some kind of change?
It seems to me that if whatever we create changes the recipients in any way for the better, we win, because it will change their sensitivity. Their view point will change. Art does not have to belong to the domain of propaganda, it does not have to be involved in any greater case. The recipient makes an effort and this in itself brings about a positive change. However, the whole concept of popular art is a denial, inversion of this activity. Patterns are easy, so that masses would not get tired, be a bit shocked and buy. This is the main goal now – to deprive people of reflections. Art has always been elite, it has always been beyond the average perception. But it has made people who were in contact with it enter a higher level, to develop themselves.
One day you left for New York, which contributed to your international career. Do you think that today a young artist should leave for the USA or stay in Poland?
Today it is not so important. Access to information is very easy. Obviously, to be somewhere, to touch something – it matters a lot, too. But being in the world’s centres is not so important anymore. And perhaps today, if I advised a young artist to leave Poland, I would suggest China and not New York. Any place where there is money, where something is going on, where there is some unrest – that is the place where art is created. It explodes when some new ideas cut into great cultures, be it tribal or national ones. In homogenous societies there is more stagnation. Poland is too homogenous. Obviously, it is changing fast. On the other hand, there is a certain paradox. When society was closed, in the time of communism, there was much more interesting art created than there is today. There were restrictions, barriers and artists wanted to overcome those barriers in a natural way, jump over them, they wanted to stretch the criteria. Today everything is allowed and the drive of that time has been lost. Then works of art did not imitate anything, they were original. It was a good time. Later on we desired to create art similar to the countries to which we aspire. The musical “Metro” appeared, but nobody actually considered that Americans didn’t really care that young people in Poland wanted to be like Americans. I went to the premiere in New York, and a week later I went to see the show “Forever tango”. Four pairs of dancers and an orchestra came to Broadway from Argentina to show the New Yorkers the best they had. We shown them something recycled. On our market, where musicals were not known at all, “Metro” was something new, but in the USA – it was old leftovers. Let us not be afraid of being original, we should be original. Each artist is like a separate planet, he should not be a copy of someone else. Unfortunately, today the whole culture is based on copying.
How is the present America different from Poland in terms of creating development perspectives for young people?
Although I used to teach in the USA in a college, I haven’t observed it as sharply as my daughter has, who studied there. She told me recently that for her the American myth burst because American colleges “produce” corporation employees, for specific departments in companies. Young people get programmed so much that they want to go to a specific office and all they dream about is to blend into a certain system. In Poland we educate individualities, everybody wants to implement their own ideas. Another matter is to what extent such an approach is adaptable, because it will work only for an insignificant percentage of people. The other system wins thanks to its pragmatism, but on the other hand it actually does not offer any opportunities to do anything original. It seems to me that the ideal place for developing talents could be the Netherlands, with a large budget for education, helpful institutions, numerous grants. On the other hand, when it is too easy, there is no hunger for doing anything great …
Can Poland make America interested in or even enchanted by Polish culture today?
Of course it can. Take the Romanian cinema. It derives from a poor country, suffering greater problems than ours, but it shows the truth about the world there. It does not make copies of American movies. Actually, in the domain of cinema in Poland there are a couple of productions which stand a chance abroad, but generally I think we have lost our individuality. We have opened ourselves to the ocean of pop-culture, which floods us, we have become a part of it. But the same happens in other places, although there are those who are still standing, for example France.
The other day a famous Polish pianist interrupted his concert because one of the listeners was recording his performance on a smart phone to upload the recording on YouTube, and he commented that the Internet kills real culture.
Nowadays, the topic of selection is more valid than ever. If a recipient of culture wishes to consume something interesting, a question arises how to find valuable things. There is not one obvious key here. Of course, I am from a different generation, I have no time for Facebook or YouTube. But my son cannot live without them. I think that because of YouTube culture has become cheaper, which obviously does not mean that it has become better. It is far too easy to receive culture through the Internet. It seems to me that it is not enough to appreciate classical music. I remember my professor in my middle school in Kielce. He would take us to concerts in the philharmonic. When we were young, it was probably the worst experience you could imagine – so boring. And later on, over time, when I was able to understand art better, I concluded that these outings under the eye of our teacher were the best thing that ever happened to me. This pre-war professor had opened a completely new world to us, a better and more difficult one at the same time, but the world which gave us something. We had to make an effort, we were forced to take some specific action. A TV show is an easy and shallow culture because most of all it sells commodities. We watch a simple message without any reflections, next we purchase pills without any reflections to feel better, but intellectually and emotionally we are dying away, while a perfect citizen comes into being. Taking these pills, we are half-sick, which is the perfect starting point from the viewpoint of a corporation, because you have to take more pills to feel better and better. Finally, we are deprived of any possibilities to make rational decisions and evaluate what is the truth.
This is a pessimistic vision.
It is, but let us fight to preserve our individuality and personality, let us choose more difficult performances, let us read more difficult books, let us listen to more difficult music.
Photo © Kamil Broszko/ Manual F