The Fuel of Your Lives Becomes Ashes in Ours *
KOW, Berlin, Germany08 Sep 2018 - 10 Nov 2018
An exhibition by KOW with Alice Creischer, Henrike Naumann, Mario Pfeifer, Andreas Siekmann, Michael E. Smith, Tobias Zielony.
In light of recent events, KOW has changed its programming on very short notice and put together an exhibition to throw a spotlight on the swing to the right in Germany. The gallery and the contributing artists want to take a stance at a time when political—and, for more and more people, everyday—life is turning into a nightmare. We want to stand with all those who fight back against this development.
In its more lucid moments, the public debate over the new tip of the radical right-wing iceberg—Chemnitz, Saxony—touches on the insight that the social discord that has erupted and the neo-national mindset behind it are intolerable but by no means ba- seless. It is hardly astonishing that rightist pied pipers in black suits harness people’s dissatisfaction and claim to speak for the majority, which is to say, the people; or that they succeed in mustering an enraged mob and marching it out into the streets.
What is astonishing, by contrast, is how long the official discourse has managed to brush this dissatisfaction aside. Though criticism of the basic social consensus was rarely subject to outright censorship, any objection to the real socioeconomic unfair- ness of this ostensible consensus was considered improper enough to fall on deaf ears in the public sphere. Until 1989, those who dared to question the Western status quo were sometimes told to “move to the East if you don’t like it here!” But the East no longer exists. That particular Alternative for Germany was blown away by the winds of history.
In the early 1990s, the comparatively insignificant art scene became a platform for critiques of neoliberalism and pictures and stories of resistance and a counter-public. This would suggest that the more radical critical discourse on society was margina- lized after ’89. But people are not stupid. The dissonance between terrific economic data, tales about democracy, and the reality of their own lives is unmistakable. The new Federal Republic is not a state organizing solidarity among its people; it is a cor- porative industrial and financial system in which, in a cold-headed calculation, internal social conflict is taken into account.
Warren Buffett has argued that the true reason for the inexorable rise of social inequa- lity is the “war of the rich against the poor.” Aided and abetted by the states, global class warfare from above sooner or later shatters the social peace. Plenty of prophets have been shouting it from the rooftops, though at the political center, on prime-time TV, where the majority has made itself at home, it is impolitical to bring up the structu- ral violence of neoliberalism and neo-feudalism. Yet the violence is real, seeping from stunted lives into bodies and words.
It looks like more and more people are fed up and they’re not going to take it anymore. Now they are looking for a war that, though they have not been able to put a finger on it, they have long sensed has been going on, and grabbing whoever crosses their paths to experience it in real life. In the absence of a public discourse that might have supplied reasonable reasons for the widespread and not unjustified feeling they have been left behind, citizens fish in the muddy waters of their affects for someone to hate. Their ideas are so absurd that one wants to shake them, and some of them need to be locked up.
The gulf between us who write and read these lines and those who—in Chemnitz, Sa- xony, and elsewhere in West and East Germany—hunt migrants, journalists, Muslims, and Jews would seem to be unbridgeable. But that is nonsense. Other societies have faced far more entrenched, more violent, more irreconcilable internal strife and over- come their divisions. We Germans need to learn to do what we have pressured other societies to do and address our domestic conflicts. Perhaps it would help if others urged us to put our own house in order.
Conflicts do not vanish just like that. They need to be identified and worked through. This was true of what happened between 1933 and 1945 and later, as Germans at some point understood. Now we need a similar reckoning with the present and the years after 1989. We need a postcolonial discourse about the circumstances in which Germany was reunified—about what felt like, and in some ways technically was, the annexation of the former East by the West—and, in the global context, about the ex- pansion of corporative capitalism in the last thirty years.
And what about the art world? Its people have come to the realization that what they do tends to exacerbate rather than mitigate social disunion as long as it is part and parcel of an economic machine that helps redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich. The worst they can do is close their eyes to this reality. They must confront the issues more vigorously than in the past and abstain from serving up symbolic fixes for disruptions that are in fact systemic. This will require a steadfast refusal to cater to a politics of cultural pacification that puts critical avant-gardes on the stage to prove that ours is an open society.
Our society is not open. It is unequal and unfair; selfishness is the defining charac- teristic of its élites, its underclass, and increasingly also its center. People’s lack of solidarity is rarely premeditated and calculated, often compelled by the circumstances in which they must act, and sometimes born out of racist, sexist, and fascist convic- tions. And more and more often, it is fueled by the fear of losing social status, which is nothing other than the fear of defeat in an unacknowledged class war promoted by the state. In that war, the foundations of civil society have long become a prime target.
KOW / Translation: Gerrit Jackson
* The title of the exhibition quotes a graffiti photographed by Tobias Zielony in 2003 in Altenburg, Thuringia.