There aren’t many bright spots in German history. Even the nation’s most worthy achievements are overshadowed by its many misdeeds. But this stigma does have a positive side. Because Germans remain the standard-bearers for two-dimensional villainy, they’re more willing than most to permit button-pushing discourse. The legacy of the Weimar Republic also helps.
Although Modernist aesthetics dominated most of Europe’s major cities in the wake of the First World War, it was in Berlin that they achieved their most populist realization. In the cinema, live theater, cabaret and street art, the extremes reached by pre-war Expressionism were streamlined for a mass audience, retaining their shock value but in a world where shock itself was being systematically devalued. The hyperbole that had once been deployed to communicate the anguish of modern “civilized” existence, as in Edvard Munch’s iconic painting The Scream, now communicated the difficulty of drawing anyone’s attention when this pain had become so commonplace as to feel par for the course.
In the fine arts, this cooling of Expressionist hyperbole is typically called Neue Sachlichkeit, the “New Objectivity.” But in popular entertainment, where Expressionism was belatedly making its presence felt, the attitude proved both hard to pin down and easy to identify, culminating in the iconic detachment of Marlene Dietrich. To our contemporary way of thinking, it still feels very subjective. But the subjectivity thereby conjured is one that regards both the world and itself with a dispassionate air.
Frequently, this façade managed to convey an underlying passion as well. Amid the desensitized masses of the metropolis, it seemed to many artists that the easiest way to show how much one cared was by showing how little one cared to show. This outwardly perverse logic gave us some of the first and most memorable examples of the in-your-face approach to politicized art. And it continues to inform a lot of work done today, almost a century later.
Take these two stickers promoting vegetarianism, both photographed recently in Berlin. Neither one is willing to conform to any codes of civic decorum. Strident, disturbing and utterly unconcerned with their capacity to offend, they make their points with needle-sharp directness. The image of a dead cow in a blood-soaked abattoir is captioned to reveal the horror latent in facts we take for granted: “Salami — Ingredients: diced body parts of dead animals, spices, other additives.” The lack of emotion is meant to convey the impossibility of ever being emotional enough about this slaughter of fellow creatures.
Of course, in a culture with as long a history of meat-eating as Germany has, the effect of this propaganda-turned-inside-out is likely to be limited. Vegetarianism is on the rise throughout the developed world, but is unlikely to become dominant, even in the most progressive pockets of Berlin. However, the cultural impact of this type of rhetoric exceeds its ostensible purpose. Because even if the people who see the Salami sticker aren’t going to change their eating habits, they are going to have to expend more energy rationalizing their life choices and displacing the disturbing reality that they imply from their minds.
Similarly, those McDonalds customers who see the anti-McDonalds sticker are probably not going to go, “A-ha! I must stop eating there. And stop eating meat. And become a Communist, too.” Yet they will undoubtedly have to justify their continuing patronage to themselves. One could certainly argue that this in-your-face approach risks refining the resistance of its target demographic, without winning any victories in the process.
From the perspective of a Weimar Republic worldview, however, the amount of psychic energy expended to ward such agitprop off represents a victory in its own right, because it will not be available for other functions that sustain the status quo. If the goal is to promote dysfunction, then stickers may prove very successful. The citizen with a bad conscience is a citizen who has to spend time shoring up her or his own defenses instead of the ones constructed by the state.
Commentary by Charlie Bertsch. Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.