Alternative Heroes

Agata Pyzik, Poor But Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West

Zero Books, 310pp, £15.99, ISBN 9781780993942

reviewed by Sebastian Truskolaski

Agata Pyzik’s Poor But Sexy is a timely and personal rumination on the explosive culture clashes between Eastern and Western Europe. Over the course of five thematically arranged chapters, the author discusses a wide range of examples from art and popular culture, prodding at the fault-lines on the European map left by the dismantling of the ‘iron curtain’. The overall sentiment of the book points in two directions: on the one hand, it expresses the pervasive sense that, after 1989, the newly elected governments of Eastern Europe tended to throw out the child with the proverbial bathwater by instituting policies motivated by a blanket opposition to ‘communism’. That is to say, the transition to capitalism in the ex-Soviet ‘bloc’ came at the expense of a welfare system, whose brutal dismantling has left many in dire straits. On the other hand, the book contains an imperative to re-appraise some of the lessons drawn from the ‘dustbin of history’. To this effect, Pyzik turns to the démodé artefacts from socialist Eastern Europe: Polish lifestyle magazines from the 1960s, such as Ty i Ja – for example – serve as case studies. Poor But Sexy thus recalls something of Walter Benjamin’s surrealist dictum: to reclaim the revolutionary energies of the past in the outmoded, ‘the objects that have begun to be extinct’. From this perspective, the book oscillates between two questions: how does ‘the West’ perceive ‘the East’, and how does ‘the East’ perceive itself? This framework allows Pyzik to unfold her meandering reflections on everything from the ‘Wizz-Air generation’ to the actuality of socialist realism.

The first chapter, ‘Welcome to the House of Fear’, consists of a series of aphorisms on the state of Eastern Europe, from ’89 to the present, with an emphasis on Pyzik’s native Poland. Here Pyzik flits between the many coordinates of her book: her account of the Ostalgie phenomenon, for instance, is followed by an excursus on the UrbEx industry in Chernobyl; her description of an appearance by the Solidarnosc-activist, Jacek Kuron, at the opening of Warsaw’s first McDonald’s restaurant comes after a reflection on the Polish tendency to justify anti-Semitism with anti-communism. Musings on architecture and memory sit beside passages on films by Krzysztof Kieslowski, the proliferation of prostitution and the haunting of Communist ghosts. The chapter is fragmented, kaleidoscopic. Its overall tenor, however, is discernible from a section titled ‘The Polish Miracle’, where Pyzik cites an article from the German news weekly, Der Spiegel: ‘Germans used to think of Poland as a country full of car thieves and post-communist drabness,’ we are told. Indeed, the saying ‘Kaum gestohlen schon in Polen’ [barely stolen, already in Poland] used to do the rounds in Germany during the 90s – a period of fierce liberalisation east of the river Oder. As Pyzik notes, ‘this perception of the former East as a (…) sick place, needing (…) help/advice/political intervention is enduring.’ It is only gradually being displaced by an equally troubling discourse under the banner of ‘new Europe’, to borrow Donald Rumsfeld’s term. Thus, the Spiegel article continues: ‘on the eve of hosting the European Football Championship’ in 2012, Poland ‘has become the most astonishing success story in Eastern Europe.’ ‘Success’, here, is, of course, equated with the implementation of austerity measures, slashing provisions in healthcare, education, pensions and culture – the remnants of the socialist past. So much, then, for the Polish miracle.

In turn the next chapter, ‘Ashes and Brocade’, is a veritable treasure trove of popular culture: the cinema of Andrzej Zulawski and Slava Tsukerman are as much on the agenda as the cautionary tale of Christiane F (1981) and the scuzzy punk of Brygada Kryzys. Here Pyzik explores the fascination that ‘the East’ held for a number of West-European pop performers, from David Bowie to Depeche Mode. As Pyzik notes, these artists tended to look, ‘not to the demonic Bloc, but rather its threshold’, Berlin, which served as ‘a window, from which you could comfortably observe the history behind the barbed wire.’ (The continuing love affair between Berlin and Western Europe’s would-be bohemians is but a faint echo of this period.) Pyzik heralds Bowie, in particular, as ‘a model postmodernist, someone who built his life and art out of the artificial, the fabricated, who went through pop art, comic books and Brecht,’ someone who ‘needed the necessary frisson of the real, which he found in Berlin, Warszawa and Moscow.’ Faced with ‘the growing nihilism of his generation,’ she argues, Bowie believed that, ‘as a star of artifice,’ he could be the bearer of a revolutionary ‘political task.’

To be sure, Bowie’s Berlin trilogy – and, indeed, his ominous track ‘Warszawa’ – are understandably beloved by many, including myself; but the political hopes that Pyzik attaches to Bowie appear to me somewhat far-fetched. It is not clear that Bowie’s ‘Berlinism’, in fact, translates – on either side of the iron curtain – into a ‘sober approach to art’ with the power to ‘transform the world’ inside or out. Is it not, rather, the case – we might ask – that Bowie’s fascination with Eastern Europe amounts to a kind of orientalist kitsch – a morbid preoccupation with the forbidden and unknown, akin to his flirtation with fascism?

On the other hand, Pyzik argues that, within the ‘bloc’, “alternative communities” formed around the reinterpretation of western pop paradigms (dare we call them productive misunderstandings?) But whilst the view that ‘Depeche Mode brought solace to millions of fans … in the Bloc’ may indeed be accurate, the political significance that Pyzik assigns to this phenomenon seems to me – again – a little overstated. A far more plausible assessment appears in her own conclusion: the ‘nostalgic trend’ of fondly recalling this ‘solace’, expounded with reference to the art-punk formation Laibach, is ‘largely reactionary’. Would the same not be true, then, of trying to resurrect the political hopes – real or imagined – that came with the East-European appreciation for Depeche Mode?

Chapter Three, ‘O Mystical East’, aims at nothing less than psychoanalysing ‘the myths around Easternness: geographical, gender-related, religious and philosophical.’ For this purpose, Pyzik draws on several carefully chosen examples, ranging from the outlandish anthropology of Stach z Warty Szukalski to the feminist activism of FEMEN. She characterises ‘the East’, in general’ (and Poland in particular) along broadly postcolonial lines. Accordingly, she argues that the repression of ‘“primitive” Slavic beliefs’ during the region’s Christianisation in the 10th/11th century produced ‘a rift in Polish spirituality, a wound that could not be healed or covered by scar tissue.’ Poland’s post-colonial trauma stems from being ‘mispbapitsed’. The cultural history of Poland that Pyzik thus proposes is, in equal measure, speculative and compelling. For instance: on her reading Jacek Malczewski’s canonical painting, ‘Melancholia’, becomes an image of despair, portraying the loss of Poland’s ‘mythical origin’. Pyzik cites two symptoms of this separation: the first is Poland’s relentless desire to be western; the second is the Polish propensity for ‘martyrophilia’. (We are reminded of paranoid spectacle that swept the country after the 2010 plane crash at Smolensk, during which 93 Polish dignitaries lost their lives.)

Pyzik is not proposing some pagan/Slavic renaissance. Rather, she argues, the as-yet ‘unrealized’ content of the ‘socialist past’ can only emerge if we burst open the apologist historical narrative, spun by the cross-wielding bigots on Poland’s outer-right fringe. We must unearth long forgotten counter-histories from the wreckage of Poland’s past: to create ‘alternative heroes’, to reassess ‘the “red” unwanted history (…), instead of relishing in the most reactionary elements of [the] interwar period, with all its xenophobia, anti-Semitism and nationalism.’

The fourth chapter, ‘Socialist Realism on Trial’, is in many ways the core of the book: an ambitious attempt to re-appraise the actuality of socialist realist aesthetics. Pyzik begins by diagnosing an ‘aesthetic crisis’ in contemporary art. ‘[A]fter 1989 a lot was done so that the notions of history and politicization were dismissed and put in the museum,’ she argues. To be sure, the advent of post-modernism, in the face of Francis Fukuyama’s cynical proclamation of the end of history, has proven to be more than a bump in the road for those seeking an engaged, political art with mass resonance. Pyzik’s ‘theoretical redemption of realism’, then, looks to the likes of Fredric Jameson and Boris Groys in order to (a) isolate the workable elements of socialist realism as it existed, historically; and (b) identify contemporary works in which these elements live on. The realist mode that Pyzik advocates is, then, proclaimed as the most viable option for an aesthetic of resistance, to borrow Peter Weiss’s term. Pyzik illustrates her point by citing TV shows like The Wire and The Sopranos, films by Ken Loach and Andrzej Wajda, artists like Jeremy Deller and Pawel Althamer as well as activist formations like Voina. (Pyzik’s accounts of Polish cinema, in particular, are truly outstanding.)

Her argument depends, to some degree, on the familiar modernism/realism debates of the 1930s: the fragment versus the whole; agitprop versus bourgeois decadence; Adorno versus Lukacs, etc. Its broad contours can be summed up as follows: art has long tended to aestheticise politics; the weakness of modernism is that it’s too non-committal, always working to efface its own traces; what the left needs is an engaged political art that can practice what it preaches – a ‘powerful aesthetic of protest.’

The wider ramifications of Pyzik’s argument are too complex to adequately discuss in the form of a book review. Accordingly, the best we can do is point to a few contentious issues. Firstly, Pyzik seems to conflate two kinds of realism: the official, state-sanctioned art from the Soviet sphere and the broadly kitchen-sink realism of Ken Loach. It is not clear, I argue, that there is a red thread connecting mosaics from the Moscow metro with Kes. If the strength of the latter lies in an unflinching confrontation with the ills of capitalism, then the question arises how it is tied to the effort to see ‘not what is but what should be,’ which Pyzik attributes to the former. Secondly, the view that ‘critical art was capable of political agency, because it provoked national debates that redefined the status quo’ appears, to me, a little naïve. The standard modernist rebuttal to this view is that art, which simply illustrates a political ‘message’, undermines – both – the poignancy of the ‘message’ and its function as art. Voina, like Banksy, I would argue, is the dreaded aestheticisation of politics by eye-wateringly unsophisticated means. It is not just placing these works in a gallery-context that makes their ideas harmless, as Pyzik argues; their very mode of expression is complicit in reproducing the status quo. That is not to suggest that there is no room for this kind of activism in the context of Russian protest-culture, for instance, but I would seriously hesitate to herald these kinds of tactics as the future of political art. The chapter’s conclusion addresses some of these problems – though it raises another, more fundamental question: if the re-casting of ‘Socialist Realism’ departs so radically from its historical paradigm, why the insistence on its rehabilitation?

[T]he call for new kinds of representation is not meant to imply merely a return to Balzac or Brecht. Realism and the avant-garde are historical concepts rooted in their time and place, and it’d be impossible to bring them back as they were without falling into quite obvious forms of kitsch (…). A new realism will include the new ways we live our lives today, unknown to the previous generations; the ways neoliberalism is perverting the spaces of our work and privacy; a new precarious aesthetic.

At a time when Nigel Farage’s tirades against Eastern Europeans win him a seat in the European Parliament, Poor But Sexy gives an intelligent and articulate voice to the left opposition. The author’s accessible style, her invaluable citations of musical, literary, artistic and cinematic gems and – above all – her unwavering politics make her book a joy to read. Despite my objections to some of the finer points of Pyzik’s exposition, I see Poor But Sexy as belonging in the proud lineage of Polish dissident journalism, along the lines of Ryszard Kapuscinski. Ending on a personal note, I’d like to add the following: having grown up in Vienna as the son of Polish émigrés, and, having lived in London for the past 10 years (since Poland Joined the EU), Pyzik’s book strikes a strong chord with me. There is, indeed, a prevalent sense that ‘the East’ is a lesser place. Combating this view without lapsing into the usual capitalist apologist mode is, perhaps, the book’s greatest triumph.
Sebastian Truskolaski is a PhD reaseacher at Goldsmiths, University of London London. His research focuses on the work of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Karl Marx.