How German Was It? Benjamin H. D. Buchloh on "Art of Two Germanys"

Article excerpt

EXACTLY SIXTY YEARS AFTER the founding of the West German Federal Republic and the East German Democratic Republic, and exactly twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Western world rejoiced in mass schadenfreude at the collapse of the Communist German state (and the Communist system at large), "Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures," a major exhibition organized by Stephanie Barron and Eckhart Gillen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, provided an occasion to reconsider the postwar history of the two belated and beleaguered democracies on various German soils. (The title of the exhibition itself signals the scandal of a presumably impossible multiplication of nation-state identity: Could we even imagine a show called "Art of Two Frances"?)

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"Two Germanys" recounted the parallel--and mostly opposite--formations of cultural practices in the two halves of the divided Germany from 1945 to 1989, and it attempted heroically (if sometimes foolishly) to present a balanced account. Balance just might be the most difficult of all approaches when it comes to the task of tracing the history of catastrophes and tragedies. Barron, LACMA'S senior curator of modern art, has a splendid record of doing precisely that: The current exhibition completes a trilogy that she initiated with "'Degenerate Art': The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany" (1991), an extraordinary reconstruction of the 1937 "Entartete Kunst" exhibition in Munich, followed by her equally if not more important show "Exiles and Emigres: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler" (1997), both at the Los Angeles County Museum and both accompanied--as is the present exhibition--by exhaustive and tremendously helpful catalogues (the most recent one in collaboration with Sabine Eckmann, director of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in Saint Louis) that have become standard reference works for anybody working in the field.

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In 1997, Gillen's "Deutschlandbilder: Kunst aus einem geteilten Land" (Images of Germany: Art from a Divided Country), at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, attempted to explore much of the same ground as the present exhibition. At the time, the collapse of authoritarian state socialism, of the Soviet empire and its supporting satellites (of which the GDR, resembling Albania and Romania more than West Germany, was one of the staunchest), was still vivid in everybody's mind. All the more so in the recently reunified city that had served as the capital of the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945 and had subsequently been divided into two parts (actually, four sectors); the city where--after the Germans had been liberated from their own fascism by the Allies--one half (de jure, the Soviet sector) had served as the capital of the newly founded Communist German state, while the other half had languished in, or relished, tripartite division between the American, British, and French sectors. A similar exhibition, twelve years later in Los Angeles, capital of the global monopolies of the culture industry, made us look at the fateful histories of the two Germanys from an altogether different vantage point--that of witnesses to a near-total collapse of the capitalist economy as traditionally defined, and with rapidly expanding awareness of turbocapitalism's global ecological destruction (this time without schadenfreude).

From this perspective, and with the recognition that conventional conceptions of nation-state culture are increasingly irrelevant, the contemplation of the postwar experiences of that particular nation-state which gave the twentieth century two world wars and the Holocaust no longer holds the same historical appeal--except as an urgent reminder that culture in the twentieth century seems to be perpetually defined as a bare escape from totalizing ideological, political, and socioeconomic barbarisms.

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"Art of Two Germanys" confronted its spectators, however, not only with the famous dialectic that all documents of culture serve at the same time as documents of barbarity, but also with a fundamental contradiction that has bedeviled art historians and their methodologies at least since the rise of social and contextualist art history: Is the work of art primarily an object of history (i. …