Art Nouveau, Graffiti and the New World Order

In Dresden’s Art Courtyard, whimsey and soft colours from the 1890s decorate a soft image of the hardline Bauhaus design school of the 1920s, which invented the look of today’s world and was outlawed by the National Socialist Regime in 1933. The Bauhaus earned Nazi scorn as one of the crowning achievements of the social democratic government that followed the First World War. The Art Courtyard is home to rather gentile “art” shops, selling home design and decorative items, and little original art that rises above the kind of craft you might see at a street stall, a flea market or a Christmas market, but it’s a farm and feel-good place, with whimsical design. Its location is Dresden “New Town”, the Art Nouveau administrative district across the Elbe River from the old bombed-and-resurrected downtown, with its churches and palaces and galleries and restaurants, so the art nouveau colour scheme fits, as you can see in the image below. It’s nice, right.

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It is also political. Like the Bauhaus, it stands as an active idea of a better country through art and design, and a place of refuge from the streets, which are dominated by class struggle, like this:

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The streets are populist. People make their claims, as ephemeral smears of paint on the facades of built culture. The Art Courtyard is socialist. People make their claim to space through collective protection and refuge, within built culture and against populist, individualist culture. Sounds different, right? Well, maybe not. Look at the courtyard again:

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See that little AFA, anti-fascist, tag in the middle of the image? Or the image below, with its anarchist tag, and its gallows, hanging the “unique selling point” marketing strategy of the courtyard? That’s pretty smart criticism, although it is simultaneously furtive and violent.

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Now, below is an image from outside of the courtyard. Here you can see the Art Nouveau colours bleed out into the street, in the same way the populist action of the street, and the anarchism it loves, was bleeding into the courtyard.

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Also do note how someone has chipped at this image with a hammer and a chisel.

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These aren’t the only ironies. Please, look inside the courtyard one more time:

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From an anarchist perspective, hardened in the violent streets, the imagery above, especially the sun wheel shield in the hand of the figure to the right, is reminiscent of 1920s Nazi Aryan philosophy, based on wildly mistaken racial interpretations of ancient nordic rock art, and any accommodation to a culture of monetary exchange is capitalism at its worst. The special tax status of the courtyard, seems to be a point of special attention, as you can see below, in the slogan: “Let it be, you depreciation pigs.”

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It’s violent stuff, because USP is not just a bit of tax law, but it’s a system of regulation in slaughterhouses. The graffiti is a violent threat, but notice that the courtyard owners have left it up. I would like to suggest today that this is all art nouveau, and that old pre WWI class divisions continue, with one distinction: prettiness has gone into interiors, is hidden, and has small ambitions, a kind of defensive East German state lingering on after the official fall of the Wall in 1989, and violence and street agitation owns the streets. In short, the violence that left the streets and entered official culture in the image of the Wall and its minders has now made the streets the wall and the walls the streets.

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You might say the DDR (East Germany) lives on. You might say that the old class war hidden behind the Art Nouveau Facade lives on.

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You might say both. What there is is deep layering, by people who live in time, and for whom space is what they carve out of it. Look at that image above. That’s 120 years of space, all at the same time. This is an image of Western culture that is breaking into mainstream politics today. It is generally confusing to Christians, gentle socialists and liberal democrats, who have controlled the sanitized public face of this struggle for a couple hundred years. Nothing speaks more poignantly perhaps than the image below, of the Water Ball in the Neustadt’s Martin Luther Square, erected in 1992 and quite clearly a symbol of resurrection and abiding values for the new “united” Germany, done in a curious combination of post-modern DDR and buddhist-influenced art forms. Every winter, the water is turned off and the sphere is spray-painted, as the street moves in. Every spring, it is cleaned up. The benches invite people to linger, in the quiet, leafy refuge, under trees symbolizing German nationalism and village life, the mainstay of every German church courtyard and village square. The idea of a sitting area in which all people sit in a circle, where their gaze is turned on each other, is pure DDR, whether the sculpture comes from the immediate post-DDR period or not.

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Notice that no-one is sitting here, and no one has bothered to tag the benches. Either this is the sacred heart of the Neustadt, or people leave it for the city to play with, as a place where no one lives and so it does not matter. Either the people have moved on, or this still point of contemplation is as much an artwork as anything else on the street: a massive installation of power that can be neutralized by simply being ignored. The political dimensions of these strategies are working their way into mainstream politics as we speak. They are not working their way into mainstream art.

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