Artur Żmijewski

artist and curator, 7th Berlin Biennale, Berlin and Warsaw

 

The Berlin of today is a city of artists, and their presence is what shapes its identity. It should treat them with the utmost care. However, the recent developments in Berlin’s cultural policy seem more like a threat. At the end of 2010, the Governing Mayor came up with the idea of an »Achievement Show« of young artists, which later was realized as based in Berlin. The funding for which also appeared as if by a miracle, coming partially from the city budget, and (to a larger extent) the Deutsche Klassenlotterie Berlin. Berlin’s public galleries, independent exhibition spaces, associations, and myriads of artists, gazed on this stream of money with amazement. Taken out of thin air, the 1.6 million Euro for a politically desired exhibition made a stunning impression on the people busy trying to find subsidies to continue their projects in public art institutions, or thinking how to split whatever budget they have between the many actors on the Berlin art scene. I am familiar with the financial difficulties of KW Institute for Contemporary Art, but the situation of other galleries also seems no better.

 

In this situation, and shortly before the elections for the city senate, the Governing Mayor of Berlin decides to put money on the table. How should the use of this money be considered by the public if not as a form of terrible dilemma? You do not agree with the political use of the show, but you agree to be a part of it.

 

A number of those who protested against the exhibition and signed the open letter initiated by (among others) the independent Salon Populaire, eventually acquiesced, and hosted the show in their spaces without getting involved in terms of the content—a really bad compromise. For the far-sighted »politician« and cultural strategist, such an outcome was obvious from the very beginning. All the creditable concepts in this field, such as the freedom of art, criticality, social validity and sensitivity, creativity, and individualism, were utilized by a man with the, so-called, »political talent.« This means that rather than gaining political points by dealing with the problems of the city—which has the highest unemployment rate in the country, with 16.4 % unemployment in Berlin-Mitte and a record 20 % in Neukölln1 (as compared to the average 7 % in Germany as a whole2), and where one in three children in Berlin-Mitte lives in poverty3—the Governing Mayor is interested in something else. He is interested in scoring easy points on art, which once served as the social enfant terrible but now »decorates the system.« Art now is no longer just an intellectual safari for philosophers but also a political safari for politicians and the local administration. It seems that rather than working on the base level the politicians of today would prefer to »work on the superstructure,« where the outcome is faster and easier to take advantage of in the media, even if it is a wave of protests. This is how one can make a name for oneself as a politician who is unafraid of controversies—a mark of real courage in politics. Fragmented and weak, the Berlin community of artists, curators, and directors of institutions failed to face up to the cynical policy effectively. As usual, it is depoliticized culture that falls prey to those who are more efficient in playing the game of power. Made into individuals, by the art world and by themselves, artists did not create a pressure group capable of resisting the manipulation. Those artists who have often been critical of capitalism, the heralds of the critique of the system, have lost the argument because, paradoxical as it is, they have yielded to the logic of neoliberal exploitation. They are not a politically oriented collective, but a dispersed network of individuals, a host of smaller individual groups that cater to their own economic or symbolic interests rather than to the interest of all »art workers.« Shouldn’t based in Berlin therefore be considered to be a »new deal,« a new opening in relations between the creative class and the despotic and whimsical patrons and sponsors that the local authorities have now become? The general conditions of this agreement could be described as follows: the model of »invisible« art fairs is extended to include non-commercial galleries; the circulation of funding is to proceed as follows: a substantial amount of money is pumped into the exhibition and its publicity; the money goes to the artists who produce works, and then, to commercial galleries that sell the product; this is how the money is split between artists and commercial galleries, while non-commercial art spaces can carry on with their programs not only because they receive money for making their exhibition space available for the show but also because they are presented with a readymade exhibition.

 

Isn’t it a mechanism of permissible manipulation where anxiety, opportunism, profit, and necessity become a knot tied tightly by the politicians who were in fact appointed to untie it? Such politicians are not fulfilling the democratic mission because they are forcing artists, directors, and curators to adopt an opportunistic and servile approach to the authorities. Such a fusion of art and politics makes the former a client of the latter. Is this what we want for art? A mechanism for the redistribution of money, as a result of which, the artist cannot rely on transparent criteria but only on the whims of the benefactor? Such politics is undemocratic. Or perhaps we also want a politics that discredits itself by becoming a form of manipulation? Do we want politics, which is a shared property, to be used in a manipulative way and to be transformed so as to govern a system of unclear interdependencies? Such power is no longer transparent and promotes a »culture of lies« in which people are not allowed to exchange genuine opinions. All that is left is a game of appearances whose aim is not to discourage potential sponsors. If we agree to define politics in such a way, we will make an ideal audience for the spectacle of power, an audience that is acquiescent, placated, and—not surprisingly—has opinions that are always moderate.

 

Therefore, by criticizing the situation in the field of culture in Berlin, also from the perspective of an international collective of artists working in that city, we at the same time define the criteria for politicians and become a political subject ourselves. A subject that, although it speaks with many voices, begins to think about a common goal: a good policy for culture, and rational funding in this field that is not detrimental to other fields. Culture generates profit for the budget of the city, and it should be the duty of the city to redistribute it among artists and cultural institutions. As a socially sensitive actor, art takes on social duties, including those that result from the social criticism in which it is involved. Since art so often gives birth to gentrification, could it also consciously contribute to putting an end to it?

 

Art that would be devoid of politics is an illusion, a dangerous mirage perpetuated by the artists themselves. Repressing the politics is a mistake, because the repressed always returns, most often as a nightmare. This was the case with the intrigue around based in Berlin, where apolitical artists proved too weak to compete with the cynical politics that returned as a cunning opponent. If cultural institutions agree to follow an artistic program that is the program of the authorities, they lose social credibility. They lose trust by meeting the demands and defending the interests of a professionalized political class, which seeks to reproduce power rather than serve the interests of the society. It is problematic enough that art today mostly represents the ambitions of individual artists, being the interests of the members of neo-liberal elites. And these are the stakes it plays for.

 

The first step towards developing a self-awareness in art is to formulate the stakes clearly and to reconcile them with the stakes of other social groups. If art can yield political points, this means that it is a significant player on the public stage, developing the image of Berlin, stimulating economic growth, and attracting tourists. But it cannot serve as a useful idiot or fuel for politicians during election campaigns. The authorities use the image of themselves that we hold as true: a decision-making subject that occupies the superior position and can disregard the opinion of the governed. This however, is a false perspective. Authority, also on the local level, is merely a node in a network of political subjects that compel each other to work toward social goals. Therefore, it is the task of the people of culture to compel the authorities to meet our expectations and to see that artistic actions have goals that are strived for. These goals can include education and self-conscious society, which is critical and ensures that democracy is practiced. Cuts in the budget for culture serve as evidence that the authorities and the class of politicians know that art is a tool for education, and creating and distributing knowledge. And if funding for culture is being slashed, it means that the authorities are dumbing down society so that it can be managed more easily, with no need to be governed.

 

A resistance, a collective action of the German and international community of artists, and people involved in culture who work in Berlin, would be an attempt by the engaged intelligentsia at reclaiming significance. By intellectuals, who no longer wish to be clerks, but want to take responsibility for social criticism and political action. One other point needs mentioning—the trust of the artists in art institutions. This trust is in fact built on the only acceptable model of cooperation: the total freedom of the artist in a field designated by the institution, or within the framework of a thematic exhibition. In my current work as a curator, I have noticed an exceptional distrust on the part of the artists towards the Berlin Biennale. They are afraid of being manipulated, abused, or having their professional skills underestimated. Such a situation is pathological. There is certainly a considerable number of people who are not willing to trust me on account of my artistic practice thus far, but my works have always been organized with the consent of all the participants. The first instance in which the artists should put their trust is the art institution and the curator. And vice versa. If artists are still afraid of being abused during a collaborative effort, it means that such acts of abuse have become common practice.

 

Re-establishing the relationship between the artists and art institutions on the basis of mutual trust—which leaves no room for censorship or »velvet« social critique—is one of the duties of cultural institutions; it is the duty of both sides. The endless divisions into radical and non-radical artists force them to adopt a policy of concessions, which is harmful for the efficacy of art. It transforms artists either into critics devoid of any influence, or into dissidents, outcasts from the artistic (or in extreme cases, political) world. It is the task of the team of the Berlin Biennale, which is a major exhibition in the city, to react to the current crisis in the art scene and to join those who have already taken action for change. The Biennale should not be preoccupied with the number of visitors to the exhibition spaces but with the real problems it is able to deal with. This is the political role of the Biennale. I believe that the art community should stop being an acquiescent object of manipulation, become an active subject, and return to politics, which consists in executing our rights and opportunities for development.

 

I agree with the opinion that addressing this situation requires drafting and signing a new social contract between artists (both from Germany and around the world), curators, directors, and representatives of commercial and non-commercial cultural institutions in Berlin, and also politicians. Such a pact could serve as a form of a constitution for the people involved in culture in Berlin and the local politicians, and guarantee that the rights of artists, curators, and the staff of cultural institutions are respected by both themselves and, above all, the politicians. It could guarantee a transparent distribution of the profits generated by culture. Such a pact between the government and representatives of the people involved in culture was successfully drafted and signed in Poland.4 This move is possible, and it is a necessary step towards regaining political subjectivity, which simply does not exist in the field of art at the moment.

 

The creation of such a pact could take place in two phases:

 

1. Developing and signing a draft of the pact.

2. Developing and signing the final version of the pact.

The pact and its execution should be binding for the parties involved, and its content should serve as a point of departure for further discussion. We need to have it on paper.

 

 

1 http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/abstieg-west/3792272.html (accessed August 29, 2011).

 

2 http://www.spiegel.de/flash/flash-12125.html (accessed August 29, 2011).

 

3 http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/landespolitik/jedes-dritte-berliner-kind-lebt-von-hartz-iv/1577152.html (accessed August 29, 2011).

 

4 http://www.berlinbiennale.de/blog/en/allgemein-en/pact-for-culture-15075 (accessed August 29, 2011).

Comments

  1. CHRISTOS ALEVRAS

    Studied Mechanical Engineering
    I chose to be visual artist.
    For more than 20 years ago I do social art.
    A man in my town with my name(Christos Alevras), is in the city council.
    Another man, with my name, was twice a candidate for parliament in my country.
    Another with my name, activist is struggling to salvage the public space, for clean drinking water for solutions to the problem of garbage etc.
    Moved to the text,
    <>
    I decided to write you.
    would be an honor to participate in the Biennale you.]
    Thank
    Christos Alevras
    Greece

On the condition of the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg
Artur Żmijewski: The Applied Social Arts