Holy War

 Wojciech Wilczyk, Święta Wojna, Galeria Atlas Sztuki, 2014


A few nights ago, it happened again.  I was walking in the Podgórze section of Kraków––the neighborhood where the Germans created a prison-ghetto for Jews during the Holocaust––and as I turned a corner, I was confronted by the words “Jebać Żydów,” meaning “Fuck the Jews.”  

Jason Francisco, Kraków, 2012

Over the years I’ve seen similar graffiti countless times in Kraków, as in Częstochowa, and Chorzów, and Łódź.  At first, these words seemed like a raw confrontation with Polish antisemitism, as if a confirmation of the stereotypical Jew-hatred that many Jews around the world attribute to Poles.  As a Jew who has spent a lot of time in Poland in recent years, I dislike that stereotype.  It goes against the deep experience I have with Poles who are not anti-Jewish, indeed quite the opposite, and it invites Jews to flatten the complexity of Jewish-Polish history into crude messages of enmity.  Still, I would be lying if I said that I don’t flinch each time I see antisemitic invectives scrawled in the public space.

I learned to read them.  “Listen, Jason,” a friend explained to me, “these are messages from fans of the Wisła Kraków soccer team to fans of their archrivals, Cracovia."  “So you mean that the word ‘Jew’ is an insult to opposing fans?” I asked.  “Precisely,” he said.  “They’re not talking to you, or even about you.  Actual Jews are beside the point.”  “So if they were to write ‘Fuck the faggots,’” I asked, “does it have nothing to do with homosexuals?  And ‘Fuck the niggers’ has nothing to do with black people?”  He shrugged.  And then he told me that “Jew” is the preferred insult because the Cracovia team was founded in 1906 by Jewish players and has ever since been known as a “Jewish” team, even though it has been many decades since its players were mostly Jewish.  His explanation contextualized the graffiti, but did not help me very much. 

Wojciech Wilczyk’s new book, Święta Wojna, (“Holy War”) takes the issue by the horns.  Taking its title from the popular name for the Wisła-Cracovia rivalry––the term was coined, ironically, by the legendary interwar Polish-Jewish player Ludwik Gintel––the book presents nearly 400 photographs from Kraków, Łódź, and the Silesian metropolis, made between 2009-2014.  Each photograph contains one or more examples of soccer graffiti and vernacular art.  On one level, the book is a plainspoken compilation, an exercise in evidence-gathering.  The large number of photographs is offered as a kind of proof, as if to insist that what we see is a pervasive and not cherry-picked phenomenon.  On another level, the book is a study of urban landscapes, which include but are not limited to the graffiti in them.  The places we see are often bleak and beaten-down, and are largely in poor neighborhoods.  The photographs are made in a careful, even clinical manner, often frontal, in a panoramic format with all-over sharpness.  They are captioned simply with a place and a date; a glossary of terms and symbols is included as an appendix.

Wojciech Wilczyk, from Święta Wojna

For all their directness, the pictures raise far more questions than they answer.  To whom do these messages belong?  Whom do they represent?  In whose voice do they speak?  Are they the expressions of individuals or subcultures or whole communities or all of these at the same time?  Do they express the views only of those who wrote them, or also those on whose houses and businesses and walls they sit?  Are they broadly condoned, or passively tolerated, or widely disliked?  Do they remain because those who wrote them have the power to intimidate everyone else?  How should we read the distinctions between visually crude and visually elaborate examples?  How do these messages differ from other messages in the public realm, for example commercial messages?  Is the corporate prerogative to dominate the public space with ads less antisocial just because their messages are not overtly insulting? 

Wojciech Wilczyk, from Święta Wojna

Wilczyk’s pictures do not answer these questions.  Looking into them, we have no way to tell cause from effect, or majority from minority viewpoint, or narrow from broad opinion.  What they show is as non-conclusive as it is abundant, and as such, these pictures introduce a distinction between evidence and testimony.  Non-conclusive evidence, or what might be called evidence without argument, is by definition evidence that welcomes all takers, such that soccer hooligans could presumably take as much pride in Wilczyk’s volume as those who disdain hooliganism, racism, antisemitism and homophobia.

Wojciech Wilczyk, from Święta Wojna

Or to ask the question differently, do Wilczyk’s pictures register a reality that is multilayered and inherently ambiguous, or is his phenomenological photography a kind of dreamscape drawn in realistic detail––a product of his social imagination as much as a discovery of the world itself?  Most importantly, is it moral or amoral?  Do his pictures rigorously attend to multiple dimensions of social concern, or do they stand aloof from the social concern they seem to beckon?  Are we who find his social landscapes troubling and deplorable seeing into the complicated heart of identity and the contest for social power in the  disadvantaged strata of contemporary Polish society?  Or are we simply finding confirmation of our own opinions, including our own moral superiority?  Are the pictures targeting the painful question of what deeper problem is responsible for “Jew” being a fixed and frozen form of insult in certain quarters of Polish society?  Or are these pictures copouts, courting a sedulous meditation on social taboo but in the end withholding comment––and in so doing replaying the very denial that they appear at first to confront? 

Wojciech Wilczyk, from Święta Wojna 

Perhaps these tensions appear less acute to Polish audiences than to me.  Certainly, many in Poland will see the work as doing in visual terms something akin to what Jan Tomasz Gross does in his scholarship, namely point a finger at indigenous Polish bigotry.  For these viewers, the pictures are self-evidently a dossier against injustice, using a frank type of photography to cut through complex explanations and name social ugliness for what it is.  In the wake of the recent surprise victory of Andrzej Duda in the May 2015 presidential election, and the decisive rightward lurch of Polish politics, it could be that Wilczyk’s pictures take on an added pointedness, as if to proclaim:  “This is what the inner world of the Polish right looks like––this is the womb of their politics of resentment.”  From my perspective––and I speak from respect for Wilczyk, understanding criticism as itself an act of respect––I notice what look like the blind spots in his artistic logic.  I’m not quite convinced that Wilczyk’s taxonomic art is political, as distinct from art that uses politics for what turn out to be aesthetic ends.  As much as it seems strange to say that a photographic tome is incomplete, Wilczyk’s book avoids more explanation than it offers, and brings me no closer to resolving my bewilderment at the puzzle of hate speech that is simultaneously pseudo-hate speech, on walls that might be the very skin of the nation, or just the building blocks for a sophisticated artist’s politically-charged not-quite-political still lives.

Kraków, May 2015