Who’s afraid of fearless art?
by Manouchehr Shamsrizi FRSA
Any postmodern arts scene has the éclat in its DNA, but in Berlin we can (readily?) see the impact of a re-politicisation and re-moralisation in the arts. This is happening at the 7th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, organized by KW Institute for Contemporary Art and funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation. The event “presents art that actually works, makes its mark on reality, and opens a space where politics can be performed”, as curator Artur Żmijewski points out.
But for its last weeks the Biennale had been “occupied”, which means that it became the worlds first non-hierarchical art event based on direct democratic elements. The aim of this controversial transformation, as articulated by Occupy Berlin in its press materials, was to effectively criticize the “human zoo” as which the initiator see the “disempowering situation” of political artist, especially against the backdrop of the “leaderless process developed in the squares of Cairo, Madrid, and New York” as Occupy Berlin Biennale issued.
Art that even has an impact on geopolitics
The 7th Berlin Biennale in general can be seen as the most political of its kind. A campaign initiated together with the “Center for Political Beauty”, which is described as Germany’s most important artist group since Group 47, provides a good example: the artists announced a reward of €25,000 for any kind of information which may lead to the criminal conviction of the owners of the arms company Krauss-Maffei Wegmann which, according to German Newspapers plans to sell 800 tanks particularly suitable counter-insurgency to Saudi-Arabia. The initiative unveiled a billboard in Berlin-Mitte as well as a website (www.25000-euro.de) containing dossiers with names, photos and information on the general owners of the family company. The owners of the company include philosophers, artists, photographers, teachers, psychologists, even a Mozart biographer and a member of the Humanist Union. “We are demanding that the owners take responsibility for their own company”, stresses Philipp Ruch, artistic director of the group: “No one: no elected politicians, no human rights activists, not even the generals of the German army are as able to influence Krauss-Maffei Wegmann’s company policy as much as the owners themselves.” You can get an overview about the initiative at a video published by the Berlin Biennale
and a statement by an expert of arms trade, former South African politician and author of “The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade” Andrew Josef Feinstein
Taking this campaign, which already has great impact on the selling process as some of the shareholders wrote a letter to the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, begging him to stop the deal.
The question if this is still art or already a political campaign and the ethical aspects of such a campaign is ongoing. It does not fit to most bourgeois feelings for art, but expers like Carolin Behrmannart PhD, an art historian researching at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, specified the project as a “paedagogy of shame” and draw the lines to the middle ages saying that historically this kind of „Schandbilder […] possess an explosive contemporary dimension as in today’s media society they might become means of moral condemnation and defamatory depiction of corrupt individuals.”
From Beuys to Biennale
In Germany, the Berlin Biennale seems to move the art scene back to Joseph Beuys idea of art as a social sculpture and Fridrich Schillers theatre as a moral institution. With this long-lasting history of political art this transformation seems to be consistent, it effects will be seen in Berlin as well as in Bahrain and closely monitored by cultural institutions all around the world.
Update: as one of the owners of Krauss-Maffei Wegmann took legal action against the human rights activist some of these questions might be discussed in court very soon.