South Africa could end up like Zimbabwe. Hans-Joachim Löwer

Heartache and Hot Dogs

2014 is the year of historical landmarks. But rather than commemorating tragedies, countries across Europe organize shallow spectacles.

“Look how black the sky is, the writer said. I made it that way.” – Bret Easton Ellis

Art, whether by means of writing, painting, or the expression of a political ideal, has the power to create realms in which to immerse ourselves. In an almost dream-like state, we dwell and reside in them, and, if they are compelling enough, we remain there for stretches of time. Here reality takes on the structure of fiction.

In the week leading up to the 25-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, activists/performers from the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (Center for Political Beauty – an association of performance artists under guidance of the philosopher and theater director Philipp Ruch) removed several white crosses commemorating persons killed at the Berlin Wall from the grounds of the Reichstag in order to reposition them at the border of the European Union between Bulgaria and Turkey. A couple of days later, the same activists departed from the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin and made their way to the EU border in order to sever the fence with wire cutters as part of a peaceful protest. They were stopped dead in their tracks by German authorities and border control. But their message was clear: more walls and more borders around the world need to fall.

If asylum seekers or a mob of political protestors had removed these sacramental crosses or tried to cut through fences, they probably would have been arrested immediately, if not deported. But this was different – it felt different – in a time where the idea of a just asylum policy is utopian, demonstrations bore us, and pictures of tragedy are best kept out of sight and out of mind. This “protest” achieved something remarkable: something undeniably aesthetic. The Zentrum für Politische Schönheit managed to enact a more beautiful and moral version of current events: what they believe should be occurring.

This spectacle comes at a price

While the utilization of one tragedy for the sake of another has been met with some conservative outrage and slammed for being “cynical”, “distasteful”, and “disgraceful”, the entire political spectrum soon agreed that when it comes to art, tastes differ and, by that virtue, different points of view need to be tolerated.

Unfortunately, this spectacle comes at a price. Instead of debating the borders of Europe, we are now discussing the boundaries of art. Here the beautiful supersedes both the political and the ethical. Political beauty, it says on the organization’s website, is moral beauty (καλὸς καὶ ἀγαθός). Like a silver lining on a grotesque world, we are all too willing to believe that anybody capable of appreciating this beauty has the moral fiber of a “good” person belonging to this better world.

The ability of my generation to formulate and identify aesthetic judgements is undeniable and our ability to escape into the beautiful unprecedented. Any engagement with the political – be it the Snowden revelations, humanitarian tragedies, calls for feminism, or the fight against tax fraud and evasion – is accompanied by perfectly engineered and staged pictures, documentaries, movies, and ad campaigns. We hang these pictures on our walls and share them with our friends. They make us feel complete, and it is here – entirely detached from reality – that we feel the beautiful is most tangible. In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord describes how this “(…) spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears’. The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.”

In moments where guidance, thought, and meaningful reflection are called for, states are replacing the fulfillment of their historical obligations with large-scale media spectacles. 2014 marks the anniversary of three historical landmarks: 100 years since the beginning of the First World War, 75 since the beginning of the Second and 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In order to commemorate these anniversaries, states in Europe have staged large-scale events. Most recently, the sea of red ceramic poppies has flooded the Tower of London, and 25 km of balloon-like lights threaded their way through the streets of Berlin.

Many walls remain in place

The poppies were so numerous that they were not just awe-inspiring – their sheer quantity made them intellectually numbing. WWI remains a tragedy, but any commemoration that does not emphasize the fact that the number of victims of war is growing and that government and systems still have the means of sending millions of people into misery, just as was done in WWI, is entirely meaningless.

And in Berlin, the fact that we have become atomized and ordered could have been read from the spectacle of a thousand neatly lined-up lights sent out into the night sky by the consumers who had purchased them in advance. It could have better served as a chance to remind us of the fact that we should hold true to the sense of solidarity and community that brought down the Wall in the first place.

In both cases, the spectacles did not even come close to embodying the remarkable and tragic nature of the events they commemorated. Instead, they exclusively and superficially appealed to our aesthetic senses, thereby making any meaningful political discussion obsolete.

I applaud the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit for being the only institution to point out that the wall, which once cut through the center of this beautiful city, is entirely analogous to the walls on the border of the EU and the fates they determine. It is only tragic that their ideas may never translate into necessary action. Instead, we are already conceptualizing the next event, to serve the desires of a society that “is not accidentally or superficially spectacular, (but) fundamentally spectaclist.”

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