Nowa Huta and the Political Aesthetic

John Paul II, Archbishop of Krakow

Monument to Pope John Paul II, also Archibishop of Krakow, Wawel Castle (photo by the author)

In the fall of 2009 I visited Krakow, the ancient capital of Poland, with a NATO delegation.  This allowed me to visit an extraordinary experiment mounted by the Communist government in the late 1940s. On the outskirts of Krakow, in perhaps the worst place in Europe to build one, the proponents of a workers paradise located what would become the largest iron works west of the Urals. There they located Nowa Huta (New Forge), a gigantesque housing complex expressly realized as a social realist community in pure form from design to execution.  Only Magnitogorsk in the Soviet Union attempted social and industrial engineering with such ambition and on such a scale. Nowa Huta, the forge and the community, remain today as a reminder of how the Center (in Czeslaw Milosz’ word) would have remade the world.

I visited Nowa Huta because I was interested in the way totalitarian and repressive regimes dominated the aesthetic realm and Nowa Huta was one of the few places where the full flowering of Social Realism was allowed to take root. (It didn’t, really, for reasons inherent to Communism’s inadequacies, and therein Nowa Huta stands as a comprehensive symbol of applied Marxism.)  But at the time I didn’t understand why regimes that utterly controlled the state, communications, the army and security apparatus should then bother with something so trivial as the arts.

Virtually all regimes that expand their control of the state beyond the press, army, and secret service eventually expand their vision to aesthetics. Albert Speer’s bizarre visions of Germania, Social Realism stamped across the Eurasian landscape from Krakow to Kabul, Saddam Hussein’s vulgar Arabian kitsch — all represented the supreme authority’s desire to dominate and regulate every aspect of their subjects’ lives. By so doing, they created a political aesthetic, asserting what was beautiful according to its right.

Dominating aesthetics is another aspect of political control in totalitarian regimes, not to be confused with real political power. As I’ve noted in a prior post, anything can be considered political when it comes to the normative considerations we choose for others. When those choices are made solely by the state, it is incumbent on the regime to make those choices to close the political space or the choices will be made by the people who will open up the political space between themselves and the state, challenging the political legitimacy of the regime. Under oppressive regimes, the arts are political, and politics become aesthetic.

But visiting Nowa Huta also revealed a brilliant story that isn’t well-known in the West. The Solidarity movement’s southern flank was founded in Nowa Huta, which challenged the regime primarily by demanding to build a church in the purposefully godless preplanned community, an affront to the famously Catholic Poles. The primary champion for the new church was  Karol Wojtyła, the archbishop of Krakow, who would later be elevated as Pope John Paul II.

By the late 1970s the workers in Nowa Huta had built by hand the Arka Pana Church, modeled after de Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut, outside the community’s limits.  It stands today, too, as a monument to everything Nowa Huta is not — a political aesthetic as it should be.