Creative Alternatives

'Culture for all!' Art and Cultural Politics in Berlin in the 1970s

Socially-focused art in West Berlin

Artist working with children in a school, West Berlin, 1974.

 In the mid-1970s, experimental art forms, including performance art, art actions, and conceptual installations, began appearing more frequently in official art galleries and alternative art spaces in East and West Berlin. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, artists had just started to lose interest in such forms. Contemporaries would describe this lack of synchrony as a sign of Berlin’s provincialism and irrelevance to the international art world.

But the growing popularity of process-based art forms in 1970s divided Berlin also reflects a shared mentality singular to the city’s experimental artists that set them apart from artists in the West. These artists championed art making without compromises; that is, independent from the vagaries of the market in the West and indifferent to the rules governing the proper form and content of socialist art in the East. The rise in artistic experimentation soon after the two German states signed a series of treaties normalizing relations in divided Berlin was no coincidence. In the aftermath of the treaties, signed in the early 1970s, both cities channeled greater institutional and financial support toward neighborhood art programs and visual artists. In East and West Berlin, cultural leaders looked to the arts as an important field of competition with the rival German state and source for enhancing their status abroad.

On both sides of the Berlin Wall, local cultural administrators also identified arts and culture as a valuable means of improving the quality of life among residents and combatting isolation in the late twentieth century city. Top-down initiatives encouraging participation in the arts among a broader population included the founding of new galleries and arts institutions across the city. These spaces opened the door for greater experimentation and offered East Berlin artists new opportunities to push past the narrow boundaries of socialist realism to pursue an expanded concept of art in socialism. 

Tau (Rope), Action, Wolf Kahlen

Wolf Kahlen staged his action "Tau" in and outside the Amerika Haus in Berlin-Charlottenburg in the fall of 1973 as part of the ADA series. Kahlen broadcast his action from alone within the Amerika Haus to the fifty video monitors wedged into the wire barricade outside the building. The Americans had closed and blockaded the building due to concerns over radical left violence.

Daniel Buren in Aktionen der Avantgarde, 1973

Daniel Buren in West Berlin, 1973


In West Germany, the 1970s "new cultural politics signaled a dramatic change from the postwar emphasis on the representative function of art and culture, when city leaders had prioritized rebuilding Germany's destroyed cultural institutions like museums, theaters, and operas. In the late 1960s, reformers began circulating ideas for a socially-oriented cultural politics that would bring art out of the stuffy museums and galleries, remove its elitist trappings, and bring it closer to the people. As Dieter Sauberzweig, a cultural administrator for the West German Association of Cities and future West Berlin Cultural Senator, declared in 1973:

 "Culture must be removed from its allotted and at times self-selected enclosures and instead be opened up to society. It must break out of its encapsulation and become intertwined with the urban landscape."

In West Berlin, a small group of experimental artists were also promoting a closer integration of art and urban space. In 1973, West Berlin hosted the city's first action art festival, titled "Actions of the Avantgarde" (ADA). The series featured site-specific installations and action art staged across the city from international and local artists. ADA also included opportunities for dialog between artists and the audience, where the artists could explain the meaning behind their work. ADA artists clearly wished to maintain some authority over the meaning of their work, and preserved a division between the artist and audience that would largey dissolve by the end of the decade.

Despite the presence of artists and cultural leaders promoting experimental art in West Berlin in the 1970s, the city was still far from reclaiming its lost status as an avant-garde arts capital, once enjoyed in the "golden 1920s." The West Berlin Parliament was also hesitant to fund independent and experimental art initiatives. But as the federal government, municipalities across West Germany, and international organizations like UNESCO and the European Council began to take a greater interest in improving the standard of living for artists and increasing people's everyday participation in the arts, West Berlin's local cultural leaders began to change their priorities. In 1979, the parliament created a special fund for artists working outside major cultural institutions, in what was known as the "free scene," to realize experimental and non-commercial art projects.    


This lithograph by Heinrich Tessner, May Evening (Maiabend), was exhibited during the VII GDR Art Exhibition in Dresden. 


This lithograph from Gerhard Kettner titled, Generations (Generationen) was also displayed during the VII GDR Art Exhibition in Dresden in 1972. Both lithographs feature human subjects outside the typical Socialist Realist setting of the workplace, industrial site, or collective farm. 


In the GDR, the ruling SED party's more relaxed stance toward culture and emphasis on increasing participation in arts and cultural activities complimented the overall focus on improving the quality of life under what was now called “real existing socialism." Promoting amateur arts production was an ongoing initiative in the GDR, first formally initiated at the first Bitterfeld Conference in 1959. But the new cultural initiatives of the 1970s would make greater opportunities available for East Germans to both view art and to prodce their own. In the 1970s, attendance numbers at the GDR's large art exhibitions also greatly increased—independent of party initiatives, particularly among  workers. As GDR painters incorporated new themes into their work that addressed everyday problems of socialist life, people gravitated to visual art as a means to work through their own hardships.

In response to this surprising surge in demand for art, GDR cultural organizations opened new neighborhood art centers and "small gallery" spaces in urban and rural areas. The sudden increase in galleries would create new opportunities for a few bold and independently-minded gallerists to present non-traditional work, including performance art, in official GDR art spaces, despite the ongoing prohibition against action art. These official galleries would also inspire the formation of new private galleries, where official rules, regulations, and censors could be completely ignored.



In the 1970s, the East German Cultural Association (Kulturbund) also continued to encourage professional artists to volunteer to serve as  mentors, collaborators, and instructors in the substantial network of amateur art clubs across the GDR. Some professional artists would turn their amateur art "circles" into spaces for promoting independent thinking and discussion, and enabling exposure to experimental art forms stretching beyond the Socialist Realist tradition. The painter Erika Stürmer-Alex ran an amateur art circle in rural Brandenburg that introduced students to an emancipatory vision of artistic practice. Stürmer-Alex also made art historical materials and exhibition catalogues available to students that were otherwise not accessible in GDR libraries, thus furthering the subversive nature of these officially-sanctioned but lightly supervised social groups. 

Robert Rehfeldt, Polaroids

Robert Rehfeldt, polaroids.


East Berlin artist Robert Rehfeldt (1931-1993) was not only a key figure in the international mail art network, but also lead a very popular amateur drawing circle called Palette Nord. The club met weekly in a culture center in the East Berlin neighborhood of Pankow. To the district administrators, the amateur circle was a productive means of bringing people into contact with professional artists and increasing their contribution to the overall development of socialist culture and society. In reality, Rehfeldt was exposing his students to unusual art forms not displayed at the GDR’s official art exhibitions and encouraging his students to expand their creative activity beyond the more narrow boundaries of traditional socialist art. By the mid-1970s, the circle was so popular that students wishing to join could no longer fit in the space provided. 

'Culture for all!' Art and Cultural Politics in Berlin in the 1970s