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A groundbreaking and edifying return to basics

Poor But Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East
and West 

Agata Pyzik 

(Zero Books, £15.99)

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 From outdated cold war politics to contemporary stereotypes of Polish plumbers and Ukrainian mail-order brides, eastern Europe is often spoken of but seldom allowed to speak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

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