Poor but Sexy
Culture Clashes in Europe East and West
How the East stayed East and the West stayed West.
24 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe is as divided as ever. The passengers of the low-budget airlines go east for stag parties, and they go West for work; but the East stays East, and West stays West. Caricatures abound - the Polish plumber in the tabloids, the New Cold War in the broadsheets and the endless search for 'the new Berlin' for hipsters. Against the stereotypes, Agata Pyzik peers behind the curtain to take a look at the secret histories of Eastern Europe (and its tortured relations with the 'West'). Neoliberalism and mass migration, post-punk and the Bowiephile obsession with the Eastern Bloc, Orientalism and 'self-colonisation', the emancipatory potentials of Socialist Realism, the possibility of a non-Western idea of modernity and futurism, and the place of Eastern Europe in any current revival of 'the idea of communism' – all are much more complex and surprising than they appear. Poor But Sexy refuses both a dewy-eyed Ostalgia for the 'good old days' and the equally desperate desire to become a 'normal part of Europe', reclaiming instead the idea an Other Europe.
Longlisted for the BREAD AND ROSES PRIZE 2015
REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS
- "Towards the end of We the People (1990), a compilation of eyewitness accounts of the recent revolutions that had taken place across eastern Europe, Timothy Garton Ash quotes a Hungarian friend who told him: "I have survived 40 years of communism, but I'm not sure that I'll survive one year of capitalism." For all the pleasure he took in the walls tumbling down around him, the Oxford historian was also rather pensive about the future. Ahead, he predicted, lay consumerism and atomisation, "all the associated blows of unemployment, dislocation and injustice".
Garton Ash does not feature in Agata Pyzik's intellectual pantheon. Nor do Anne Applebaum, Norman Davies or Adam Michnik. All these writers, she believes, are entrenched in the establishment, too addicted to lashings of eastern Europe's past, too willing to give neoliberalism a free pass. Still, Poor But Sexy begins with a withering assessment of the achievements of the "Marriott brigade" – those corporate economic shock therapists who urged former communist nations to privatise state-owned assets and offered aid in the form of export credits and loans – that echoes rather than contradicts Garton Ash's earlier prophecy.
Pyzik was only six in 1989 and has, she admits, no memories of "scary officers, no parents interned by communists". In her teenage years, she attended a private school. Later, while standing in an airport queue with dozens of migrants trying to enter the UK, she thinks to herself: "I'm a fake: a middle-class over-educated Polish girl who is here seduced by the cultural lure of the west, rather than led by material necessity."
Poor But Sexy (its title comes from a description of Berlin by that city's mayor) emerges from its author's liminal position of being someone who, as a youth, was ashamed of her Polishness, but these days is enraged by portrayals of the east as a basket case or a backwater; a passionate leftist who struggles to be passionate about Solidarity, not least since Lech Walesa's "public pronouncements now are reduced to advocating police beating up strikers and excluding homosexuals from parliament".
Pyzik wants to reassess the culture of the cold war period, to give the lie to the widely held impression that eastern Europe must have been uniformly dour and artistically sterile, and to explore the heady mixture of fear, desire and yearning that fuelled the imaginative traffic between east and west. She is at pains to distance this project from "ostalgia", which she characterises as "vulturism, a dubious sympathy for communist culture and the symbols of the past without any political investment".
In tourists heading to Chernobyl she discerns the same enthusiasm "as when they penetrated the galleries in New York or any 'hot' place on the art map". She is rueful about a former CIA listening station at Teufelsberg (literally: devil's mountain) in West Berlin being featured in a Ryanair in-flight magazine. At Gdansk shipyard, cradle of the revolution, she observes that production has been decimated, its industrial past voided by the bars and hotels of a new waterfront development plan, and that even the International Solidarity Centre there emphasises the "melancholy of disappearance" over the harsh living conditions faced by locals in the adjacent neighbourhood.
The erased histories Pyzik likes to snout out are scratchy and combative. For instance, there's witty electronic musician Felix Kubin who teamed up with friends to form Margot Liedertafel Honecker (named after the wife of former East Germany president Erich Honecker, a woman so hated by the population that she was referred to as the "purple witch"); they claimed to be the choir of a DDR youth organisation and disrupted public events in reunified Germany by singing chirpy ditties in praise of collectivised farms.
It is refreshing to read about such canny troublemakers: to this day, the British music press is dismally Atlanticist in its pop coverage. Pyzik is also sharp on musicians drawn to the "Berlin-Warszawa-Moscow express used to map the phantasmagorical geography of the eastern Europe of the mind, which was made in equal part of ashes and of brocade, death and glamour". This means Bowie, of course, but also an early incarnation of Ultravox whose 1977 song "Hiroshima Mon Amour" contained the siren call: "Riding inter-city trains / dressed in European grey".
More obscurely, there was Xex, an all-synthesiser band from New Jersey that sounded like a cross between Kraftwerk and the B-52s, had members named Waw Pierogi and Thumbalina Guglielmo, and recorded a song called "Svetlana" about a daughter of Stalin who defected to the west ("She's a revisionist nightmare / She's a capitalist pig / If daddy were alive now / He'd depersonalise you").
Pyzik writes well about fashion, highlighting the work of Barbara Hoff, fashion director of the outward-looking, postwar Przekoj magazine, who encouraged readers to explore DIY and improvisatory techniques (teaching them how to convert sports shoes into ballerina flats). She's also good on cinema, especially unhinged, subversive films such as Vera Chytilovà's Daisies (1966), in which two teenage girls go on an absurdist spree of bourgeoisie-baiting and banquet-trashing, and Andrzej Zulawski's Possession (1981) – initially categorised as a video nasty in the UK – a lurid melodrama about social repression told through the figure of a schizoid housewife having sex with a multi-tentacled monster.
A sterner editor would have told Pyzik not to cover so many topics. Poland's martyrological complex, modes of social realism, former communist nations as essentially postcolonial – ideas, some more developed than others, tumble from each page creating a kind of swarm energy that's a pleasing antidote to the tasteful mourning found in so many books about eastern Europe. There's an urgency and intensity to Poor But Sexy that's entirely in keeping with Pyzik's assertion that the key cultural feature of pre-1989 Poland was highmindedness: "We didn't have permissiveness for schlock." ~ Sukhdev Sandhu, The Guardian
- "In Poor But Sexy, Polish writer and critic Agata Pyzik dissolves myths, uncovers hidden histories and synthesises politics, art, psychology and philosophy. The result is a fascinating and deeply informative study of the cultural cross-currents which have shaped 20th and 21st century Europe.
The book’s title references the attempt in 2004 to market a depopulated and impoverished Berlin on its creative capital — but the concept has wider resonance as a reflection of the insistent objectification of eastern Europe and its interactions with the West. From outdated cold war politics to contemporary stereotypes of Polish plumbers and Ukrainian mail-order brides, eastern Europe is often spoken of but seldom allowed to speak for itself.
After 1989, western Europe applauded the adoption of neoliberalism across the East but, as the book’s early sections document, joining Club West is no guarantee of satisfaction or success.
Pyzik traces the recent emergence of a precarious independent left in post-communist Europe, against a backdrop of widespread apathy, economic crisis, resurgent fascism and attacks on civil liberties, with governments tackling recession with the imposition of austerity measures rather than alternatives to capitalism.
While eastern Europe’s politics are often presented in the West as inscrutably alien, we seem to take note of its popular culture only when straining to view it through a Western lens — witness the striving to explain Pussy Riot in simplified and Western-friendly terms as “Russian riot grrrls,” belatedly joining the ranks of the Western feminist punks they sought to emulate.
This perspective ignored Pussy Riot’s context as a product of the former Soviet Union’s long history of political protest coalescing around avant-garde art and music.
The same liberal triumphalism which believed the end of the cold war marked an “end of history” also sees the West as a normative default for popular culture, with the East capable only of reproducing it in drab and off-key ersatz versions.
By contrast, Poor But Sexy pulls back the curtain on how Western influences, from punk to consumerism, were absorbed by the East in ways that allowed it to generate fashion, art and culture of its own.
This development was valid and vital on its own terms, not a case of “them” struggling to catch up with “us.”
Like much criticism recently produced by those who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s, Poor But Sexy is concerned with scouring the 20th century to recover paths not taken, missed opportunities, and lost potential which now tends to be disingenuously dismissed — notably the refrain that “socialism has been tried and failed” — despite the redeeming aspects of life in eastern Europe before 1989 which Pyzik identifies here.
As she states in the book’s introduction: “We have to go beyond the ritual war between security of jobs and flats and lack of democracy in one system, or free speech and the uncontrolled free market, but also with a large danger of poverty, unemployment, lack of education and a crippled welfare state on the other.”
Written in an absorbing, sardonic and irreverent style and backed by an impressive weight of historical, cultural and political knowledge, Poor But Sexy is a refusal to accept the currently collapsing neoliberal settlement as the best of all possible worlds, and a reopening of spaces where we shouldn’t be hesitant or embarrassed to look for alternatives." ~ Rhian E Jones, Morning Star
- 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, Review 31
- A fascinating and provocative study of Eastern Europe (including her native Poland) in the quarter-century since the Soviet Bloc began to disintegrate, looking at both the realities of post-communist life (transition trauma, precarity, emigration for work, etc) and at the fantasies and misunderstandings that East and West entertain about each other, as figured through pop, fashion, film, and art. Of particular interest to the music-minded: the chapter "Ashes And Brocade: Berlinism, Bowie, Postpunk, New Romantics and Pop-Culture in the Second Cold War". ~ Simon Reynolds, Blissblog blissout.blogspot.com
- A necessary corrective to the paper-thin portrayal of Eastern Europe by Western media. Pyzik's writing is clear, direct, knowledgeable - and partisan, in the best sense of the word. ~ Daniel Trilling, author of Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain's Far Right.
- What’s a poor girl to do when worlds collide except listen to gloomy rock ’n’ roll bands and dance precariously along the fault-line of history where the Berlin Wall used to be? Born in Poland in the 1980s, Agata Pyzik is barely old enough to remember life under communism. Watching the waves of Ostalgie spreading across the former GDR and other ex-Warsaw Pakt states, she felt compelled to investigate the underlying causes of disenchantment among increasing numbers of Central Europeans hankering for the certainties guaranteed them under Soviet rule. If she began her mission with a sense of bemused contempt for dewy-eyed sentimentalism distorting people’s memory of what life was really like under communism, her investigations reveal a far more complex picture. Poor But Sexy is a fabulous freefall through 25 years of East-West exchanges predicated on the West’s arrogant assumption that at base everybody wants to buy in to their belief systems. Riding these East-West crosscurrents of desire, envy and wounded pride, she has found much to be proud of amid the ruins of communism, and in the process of looking back she has recovered some extraordinary punk, art, fashion and philosophical alternatives to the Western way ahead. ~ Chris Bohn aka Biba Kopf, editor of The Wire.
- The book, titled Poor But Sexy,
promises something very special. The author is in a unique position,
as she has a long term intimacy with the Polish art world and cultural
world (as well as a knowledge of everyday life in Poland) and has over
the past few years acquired a intensive understanding of the British
cultural scene and the political debates that intersect with cultural
politics in the UK. Her knowledge, as evidenced on her very readable
blog, extends from popular cultural forms, East and West, to avant
garde movements in the East, some of which have not penetrated the
West significantly, some of which have. What is remarkable about her
interest in this diverse material is that she is able to analyse it
and discuss it in relation to political questions and questions of
political aesthetics, which bring it into focus in very sharp ways.
She has thoroughly monitored the ways in which the East has been
presented as an object of artistic and intellectual fascination in the
last two decades. I can think of few people who command such facility
- who have intimate knowledge of the art collective, for example, but
are not beholden to them through self-interest, who are well versed in
academic and political debates in culture and economy. She is able to
bring aspects of popular culture, in part unknown in the West, to life
through lively and trenchant discussions. She is also able to give
aslant reflections on Western constructions of the East (as in Goodbye
Lenin) - in a kind of 'East speaks back' sort of way. The author is
perfectly placed to write this survey and analysis of a cultural
manifestation that has a variety of facets (how the East sees the
West, how the West sees the East) and which is enduring, that is to
say, the author argues that the post-communist condition is still a
condition 22 years after the fall of the wall- and this is right. The
book aims to analyse this continuing condition as a strange kind of
pathology for both the East and the West. Such debates also intersect
with extremely relevant discussions around tourism and city-marketing.
This is not simply cultural criticism. There are also strong political
points to be made and these come out clearly in the book, in relation to the question of the welfare state, a question
that is once again distinctly of interest and tantalizingly
I think the book is extremely good, readable, of interest
to a variety of communities (artists, art critics, cultural critics,
historians, commentators on the Left etc). I recommend it
Professor of Political Aesthetics