Berlin in the 1990s: Artists and the Free Market
In an article for Zitty magazine from late 1990, art critic Eckhart Britsch satirically announced: “a specter is haunting the bars of the city, whispering: decline, displacement, destruction. The good times lie behind you!” Britsch described the growing “anxiety” among West Berlin’s “alternative bourgeoisie” who rejected a steady income in exchange for freedom and now mourned the “destruction of their status quo.” With the Wall gone, the milieu had paradoxically lost its “freedom of movement,”—as essential to life “as the slime to the snail.” All satire aside, there was some truth to Britsch’s sardonic commentary.
As many had feared, artists from both East and West Berlin loosely fitting Britsch’s “alternative bourgeois” category had already experienced eviction, rent increases, and the decline in arts funding in the first months after the Wall’s opening. Ample state subsidies and grants paired with the low cost of living had enabled Berlin artists and gallerists on both sides of the Wall to operate outside the capitalist rhythms of earning and spending money prior to unification. After 1990, money came to play a more prominent role in the lives of East and West Berlin artists. Realizing art projects and making rent...and securing food, now hinged on one’s possession of a new set of survival skills far different from those developed during Berlin's division.
Artists Respond to German Unity
As German unification became official on October 3, 1990, thousands of celebrants gathered around Berlin's symbolic Brandenburg Gate and along Unter den Linden, the grand boulevard connecting the Gate to the East Berlin city center at Alexanderplatz. In a public rejection of German unity, thousands of artist-activists and autonomous leftists simultaneously unleashed counter-demonstrations and anti-celebrations across the city. Winding their way through the crowds, the Kreuzberg-based Office for Unusual Events led a group of demonstrators some 5,000 strong, carrying banners and props with the group’s trademark use of humor and satire. One group of participants raised a giant buttocks with exaggeratedly large anus above the crowd next to a banner declaring:“Divided in two? Never!” Another participant carried a large Daimler-Benz symbol with a German eagle perched on top, referencing the uncomfortable ties between the Federal Republic and corporate leaders. Later that evening, the Office for Unusual Events marched to Alexanderplatz, while fending off verbal assaults from the crowds who called them “crazy lefties” and attempted to destroy their banners. The march concluded at Kollwitzplatz in Prenzlauer Berg, where the group symbolically declared the formation of the “Autonomous Republic Utopia.”
Kurt Buchwald, Germany, Kick the Bucket!
The counter-demonstrations in Berlin on October 3, 1990 were not the first public rejection of unification, nor the last. West and East Berlin artists, punks, and musicians had expressed their irritation with the nation’s rapid push for unification through visual art, songwriting and more traditional demonstrations throughout the year. On March 21, 1990, just two days before the first free elections in the GDR decided the nation’s fate, East Berlin action artist Kurt Buchwald presented a new performance at the Galerie Weisser Elefant titled, Germany, Kick the Bucket!. Buchwald described the performance as an “action against folksy Germanic nostalgia.” Wearing the horned helmet of Wotan from Wagner’s The Valkyrie, Buchwald smashed apart an installation with a sledgehammer and then turned to urinate on a German flag painted on the wall with “Deutschland” written above. During the performance, Wagner’s music soared in the background, offering the action a pathos of melodrama and absurdity.
Berlin’s unification and the Wall’s demise had marked the end to the city’s forty-year isolation from the global capitalist economy. The 1991 Bundestag decision to return the German capital to Berlin set off what Elizabeth Strom describes as a “gold rush mentality as corporate location scouts descended on what seemed destined to become Europe's hottest business location.”
But real estate speculators were already flocking to the city in early 1990 to try to get their hands on the formerly neglected property market. During this moment of transition, Berlin’s government opted to align its post-unification policy with the new demands of economic globalization. The city belatedly joined other major cities in the competition to become a leading global financial center, while adopting the neoliberal principles of market discipline and privatization.
This excerpt from the journal of the Professional Association for Visual Artists in Berlin from 1990 describes the changed financial situation facing artists in the city. The article declares:
"Artistic work requires space, time, and a certain economic independence to develop. In this context, we cannot place our hope on the so-called free market or the potential for private art patronage. Already in the GDR, the perspective of the so-called free market is leading to a chaotic process that threatens to rob the artists of the basis of their existence. Art patronage plays a very small role, despite the repeated reference to examples of it in today's artistic life, and can hardly represent the perspective of artists organized in our association.
Berlin is becoming a Finance Capital
Corporate sponsorhip also has the tendency of creating different kinds of dependencies, or is tied to unacceptable advertising and marketing demands."