28th Feb 2024


Repairing the arts in Poland after eight years of PiS

  • The Law & Justice party's cultural policies were a broader campaign to advance a nationalist, Catholic discourse, centred on traditional gender roles, patriarchal family values, and the glorification of the Polish state (Photo: Marta Frej)
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With Donald Tusk as Poland's new prime minister, there is considerable hope in Europe that the centrist leader will reorient the government towards respecting democratic values and fundamental human rights. This optimism is particularly high in Poland's arts and cultural community, which has been undermined by the far-right Law and Justice Party's (PiS) eight-year campaign to control the types of art that can be displayed in museums, broadcast on the airwaves, or staged in the theatre.

While Tusk's centrist government will have an opportunity to reform key democratic institutions and reestablish mutual cooperation with the EU, it will also be imperative that he ensures the independence of Poland's arts and cultural institutions from political interference.

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  • Polish arts and cultural institutions saw a rise in censorship of works critical of the party or the Catholic church or that engage with themes related to LGBTQ+ rights, abortion access, or feminism (Photo: Marta Frej)

Undoing the damage wrought to the arts and cultural sector by the prior two consecutive PiS administrations will not be easy.

The party's cultural policies were a broader campaign to advance a nationalist, Catholic discourse, centred on traditional gender roles, patriarchal family values, and the glorification of the Polish state.

As a part of this strategy, PiS sought to suppress art challenging its nationalist agenda, but in a manner that did not overtly appear like censorship. It deployed two key strategies to this effect: restaffing national arts and cultural institutions with PiS loyalists and wielding blasphemy laws to intimidate artists.

During PiS' eight-year tenure, they intervened in more than 23 national arts and cultural institutions to remove eminently qualified directors who had featured artists or creative works that were critical of the government or espoused values that did not align with the party's Catholic base, replacing them in many cases with party loyalists.

One example of the extent of content control took place in 2015, when PiS' minister of culture Piotr Glinski cancelled the Polish Theater production of Princess Dramas: Death and the Maiden I -V due to the alleged "pornographic nature" of some of the scenes.

Glinski then fired the director of the theatre and replaced him with a former actor with no directorial experience, who went on to also cancel several of the theatre's regular productions.

A 2022 report by Artistic Freedom Initiative (AFI), Cultural Control: Censorship and Suppression in Poland, found that PiS was able to achieve such extensive restaffing by using a policy loophole to shirk prescribed merit-based hiring procedures across cultural institutions in favour of unilaterally appointing leaders, many of whom had little to no expertise in the arts.

Polish arts and cultural institutions subsequently saw a rise in censorship of works critical of the party or the Catholic church or that engage with themes related to LGBTQ+ rights, abortion access, or feminism.

A salient example of this trend at work is the 2019 removal of Natalia LL's feminist work, Consumer Art, from the National Museum in Warsaw, which sparked mass protests. The decision was made by director Jerry Miziołek, who was appointed by the ministry of culture without an open competition in 2018. Miziołek went on to remove other feminist works in his tenure.

Tusk's government must also confront PiS' prior use of blasphemy laws to sanction artistic expression.

While a majority of EU states have repealed such laws or allowed them to fall into disuse, PiS pursued charges against artists for 'offending religious feelings' under Article 196 of Poland's Penal Code, the penalties for which could include a sentence of up to three years in prison.

In 2020, 149 blasphemy cases were filed with state prosecutor's offices.

In one prominent case, artist and LGBTQ+ rights activist Elżbieta Podleśna was arrested, charged, and stood trial for violating Article 196 for the act of distributing flyers with her artwork, Maria of Equality, depicting the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo.

While Podleśna was ultimately acquitted, she was the subject of months of negative media coverage. Artists interviewed shared how such cases took a serious toll on their professional and personal lives, as they lost job opportunities, spent thousands in legal fees, and suffered negative psychological effects from highly publicised smear campaigns.

Two key steps

As a human rights lawyer and researcher specialised in the protection and promotion of artistic freedom, we recommend that the Tusk administration act swiftly on two points to remove limitations and strengthen protections for freedom of expression in Poland.

First, the new government must act to restore independence to Poland's arts and cultural institutions by revising the act on organising and running cultural activity to require a merit-based competition for all leadership positions at national arts and cultural institutions. This will ensure the independence of programming and content at cultural institutions.

Second, Tusk's government must take action to either repeal the blasphemy law in its entirety or reform the law by removing custodial sentences, reducing potential fines, and employing an objective standard for blasphemy that does not disproportionately weigh the religious sensibilities of an individual offended by another's free speech.

Such reform will result in enhanced protection for creative expressions, which will in turn foster public dialogue, political engagement, and civic participation, all fundamental to a healthy and thriving democracy.

Should the Tusk administration fail to take action to ensure the independence of the arts, it is almost certain that a future political party will again attempt to politicise cultural institutions and limit free expression, potentially with even more lasting effects.

On the other hand, if Tusk reforms cultural management and legislation used to limit creative expression, he will enable pluralistic dialogue, affirm the importance of artistic expression in a modern democracy, and empower civil society to serve as a bulwark against the abuse of power.

Author bio

Sanjay Sethi is the co-executive director and co-founder of Artistic Freedom Initiative (AFI), overseeing coordination of its advocacy programs and legal services in Europe and the United States. Johanna Bankston is the AFI’s senior officer, human rights research and policy, specialising in global issues on freedom of artistic expression and cultural rights.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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