July 5, 2015

Civil Courage and Civil Disobedience. On Being Programmatic in Bremen

John Cage, Writing through the Essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ in Kunsthalle Bremen

What does our contemporary art world need? In Hamburger Bahnhof I overheard the director Eugen Blume say that he hoped that his newly curated exhibition on Black Mountain College would inspire nowadays’ young artists to develop Zivilcourage (civil courage). The 1930s, when the college was founded and Joseph Albers moved from Germany to the US to teach, were a high time of totalitarian regimes. Albers’ English wasn’t great (Annie Albers was better equipped) but he knew to say one thing: he wanted to open the eyes of his students. Those open-eyed, and thus open-minded and forward-looking individuals were to be equipped with an independent judgement based not only on book-knowledge but on one’s own experience. This educational ideal was to be developed in a day to day praxis in community -  a continuous social discourse defying external constraints.  

Black Mountain College, Hamburger Bahnhof

But what has Black Mountain College to say today? The 21st century higher education is rather driven by economic efficiency as a sole measure of success. So last Thursday I took the train to Bremen to give a talk at the art school about perspectives for artists after graduation. Basically I give advice to artists about how to present themselves better, how to apply for funding and residencies effectively, and how to make a living with their art. I’ve some expertise in the matter because I was an artist coach at bbk Berlin and at the moment I am part of the art advisory board of Sachsen-Anhalt. Still, I don’t see myself as an advocate of the neo-liberal pressure on the arts to produce and make money. On the contrary. But as a fan of Andy Warhol I do think one shouldn’t be moralistic as an artist about making money. As a friend artist told a complaining fellow artist: “Just sell your work!” 

I've told you before about this little theory I have, about how to defy capitalism nowadays. It’s no longer about making street art outside the system but to ask for a normal fee. I’m suspicious about the rise of a phenomenon like Kickstarter because it leaves the institutions off the hook and makes parents and friends pay for artist’s projects. When an application for a budget doesn’t work out, why not give it some more time to realize it in the future when a budget is available? Yet artists leaving art school often seem to leave it indoctrinated with a neo-liberal mindset. Only recently I translated for free a text of a friend, and the producer, who is young artist from Leipzig, told me then that I didn’t work for free because I would get one edition. I was flabbergasted by such a mentality and tried to explain to this artist why but he simply did not get it.   

Anyway, last Thursday was a very hot day and I didn’t expect many students to show up for a talk about what to do in the future. But Radek Krolczyk, who had invited me to Bremen, assured me that they would because the students are fearful about that future. Indeed, fear is an element that governments like to play with: it keeps its citizens small and inactive and the Merkel-government with its HARTZ IV certainly knows that. Everyone is struggling by and for one-self. When giving such talks about future career perspectives, I like to emphasise the benefits of “networking”, or you can also call it “communication” and “collaboration”. Often, when I ask artists about their favorite art critics or curators, they cannot say so. Paying sincere interest to other people’s work can be so rewarding and makes one find that support group of kindred souls that eventually turns the art world into a nice place to be in - doesn’t it? 

At the art advisory board we had a discussion about this coaching of artists. A curator told me that he was against helping students at art school to present themselves better for the market, because it just helps bad art to be wrapped well so it sells. Hmmm... Is that why 90 % of the artists who make it, is white, male and straight? Isn't that all about presentation?! In Bremen, by the way, most of my audience was female and let’s not be hypocritical about the hindrances they will encounter after graduating art school. If you have no clue, you can read more about it in the blog of Mira Schor or in a recent article on artnet

Radek Krolczyk himself has what one calls a "programmatic gallery" - not only because when he opened his gallery, he had a real program (what a lot of galleries lack), or because the gallery has a setting of leftist politics (the gallery is located in the famous “Viertel” of Bremen), but also because, so I gathered when talking to Radek, there is a certain idealism behind his gallery about what art can do in society without, however, limiting this to “political” art.  The gallery’s name K’ (pronounced "K Strich") is inspired by the marxist G-W-G’ (Geld (Money) + Warenform (production) brings more money). Krolzcyk, together with his companion Eric Peters, understands art as being both inside and outside the capitalist market system: “In comparison to other goods the art work is distinguished by a surplus, which doesn’t merge into a shape of a product. The art work is product and non-product at the same time. It is K’.”

Radek showed me around town and we ended up at the Kunsthalle of Bremen in the John Cage room dedicated to his work Writing through the Essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ (1985/1991). From various loudspeakers in the space you hear distinct, interpenetrating voices using Henry David Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience as a source and Messe des Pauvres by Erik Saties as a thread. Cage's civil disobedience brings us back to the civil courage that Eugen Blume was talking about. The “civil” of civil courage doesn’t refer to being orderly and polite while observing accepted social forms, but it highlights the interrelationship in producing a counter friction. This kind of civil courage had its urgency in the 1930s, but how urgent is it the neo-individual-liberalism times of the 2010s?

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