Memory, anxiety and hope in Berlin

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Past, present and future always feel specially present in Berlin. This city is at the centre of Europe’s recent history. Everywhere you look are traces of who we have been and who we might become. This week, the simple posters advertising Blackstar – ‘das neue album’ – are like small memorials for David Bowie, who renewed himself here in the 1970s: one more layer of its cultural memory.

The air is very cold and bright this week. Salt crunches under my feet as I tramp the city to meet people active in the arts and civil society. It’s a long time since I was here. People still talk about the challenges of reunification but accommodating refugees is a more immediate concern. Berlin’s rise as a global centre of the art world is evident, but I also hear about an institutional system that feels threatened by change. Where are tomorrow’s audiences? Should orchestras, theatres and museums adapt to people’s shifting interests – and, if so, how?

There is a lot of outreach, education and community oriented art work now, often driven by public policy. I meet artists who are angry that some of their peers seem to use people as materials in their work, drawn by funding opportunities rather than their own practice or commitment. One person tells me he has given up on such commissions because of the bureaucracy involved, which he thinks pushes risk and management burdens onto the artists public bodies turn to for help in dealing with some of the city’s problems.

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But I also meet artists who make some of the clearest and most convincing arguments for community art practice I’ve ever heard. They argue passionately for the democratic justification of opening the city’s artistic space to more and unheard voices. They see beauty in the different aesthetic created when someone tells their own story. They value authenticity above virtuosity and understand the different kinds of truth in each. Above all, they work without artistic compromise, even if lack of funds, institutional rigidity or simple prejudice restricts their room for manoeuvre. They make art, always and only.

Economic and social pressures are more obvious in some parts of Europe than others, or at least they show themselves differently in Athens and Berlin. But  everywhere it seems there are some artists who are engaged in working with communities to address them, not in a short term or superficial way but, as I heard several times this week in Berlin, because artists are members of the community and working creatively with your neighbours is a way of life.