Sunday, November 8, 2009

Art and politics before the Fall

The media are a buzz with stories about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of this historic event, the most important moment in the protracted end of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War in Europe was a political milestone that also had far-reaching implications for the arts.

Isolated from the West for over forty years, artists in the countries of the Communist Bloc developed their own artistic language. They lived under oppressive and dictatorial regimes that left little room for free expression or dissent. But while many artists produced compliant art in the service of the all-seeing state, others were able to subtly or secretly pursue more radical forms of expression in a game of cat and mouse with the authorities.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the "triumph" of the West, the work of most artists from the former East suffered the same fate as the political and economic system and was discarded to the bust bin of history or at best to the cabinet of curiosities we in the West use to convince ourselves that we know (and knew) best. Only now are the first exhibitions and film festivals starting to ask whether the art of the Eastern Bloc might have some merit, at the very least as historical documents. The German Historical Museum in Berlin (Deutsches Historisches Museum) is currently hosting the exhibition Art of Two Germanys / Cold War Cultures. The show features 350 works by various artists and writers from East and West Germany and contrasts the differing approaches in the two countries without indulging in simplistic conclusions. Hopefully it is just the beginning of a more extensive of a more sensitive and less jingoistic assessment about how art and politics mix.

Image: A.R. Penck, Der √úbergang, 1963, Ludwig Collection, Aachen

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