ART in the Community: A 'Neighbourhood Watch' Scheme in Germany

By Carter, David | Contemporary Review, September 2012 | Go to article overview
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ART in the Community: A 'Neighbourhood Watch' Scheme in Germany


Carter, David, Contemporary Review


ART can be anything, and anything can be art: we are very much accustomed to the fact nowadays. It is just a matter of identifying something as art, in order to summon up the requisite reverential attention. But can art also be anywhere? In principle it would also seem to be the case. Endless examples can be cited to demonstrate the point. But there are limitations. Both artist and collector may wish to feel free to place a work of art wherever they think fit, but, unless they restrict themselves to displaying on their own property, they are likely to encounter the problem of the rights of others, most commonly embodied in the power of local authorities but also claimed by the owners of private property.

The location of a work of art must always be sanctioned, if it is not to be irreverently defaced and in all likelihood destroyed, or at least respectfully removed. All the more admirable and praiseworthy, and probably rare, therefore are the efforts of individuals, other than artists and collectors, to encourage the public display of art. One group of such individuals, who have worked wonders in this respect, live in an old quarter of the German city of Essen, once the smoky polluted heart of the Ruhr industrial area, but in recent years a model for the possibilities of urban regeneration. The quarter is that known as the 'Moltkeviertel,' and the local initiative undertaken by art-lovers there has come to be known as Kunst am Moltkeplatz ('Art at the Moltke-platz'). The Platz or square in question is lined with houses and a church on one side and has an extensive park area.

It is frequently useful in clarifying what something is, to exclude from consideration all those things which it is not. The Kunst am Moltkeplatz initiative (known locally as the 'KaM') is not, strictly speaking, concerned with community art, nor with installation art or street art, and only partially with what is known as site-specific art. Community art is usually understood to refer to art produced by and within a community, to express that community's concerns about issues affecting the people in it, and often with the aim of bringing about change. Installation art has quite a long history, embracing such artists as Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp, and is a loose term for art created for specific spaces, and which is often dismantled after some time. Street art usually integrates elements of the local environment into the work of art. Site-specific art shares much with installation art and street art, and, as its name suggests, takes particular account of aspects of the character of the site in which it is set. The KaM initiative is unique in that, while sharing some characteristics with these forms of publicly located art, it also has its own particular agenda, which is rooted in the historical development of the quarter.

The Moltkeviertel ('Moltke Quarter') was named, following the practice before the First World War of honouring military figures, after the Prussian Generalfeldmarschall Helmuth Graf von Moltke. The architecture and general character of the quarter as it appears today are indebted to the visionary ideals and indefatigability of the man in charge of city planning and extensions in the early 1900s: Robert Schmidt (1869-1934). One of his priorities was to preserve the green areas as yet unspoilt by industrialisation, and his first major project of this kind, in 1908, was the Moltkeviertel. While developing tasteful housing areas he also ensured the provision of extensive gardens. Major innovative architects were employed, and the earliest buildings reflect the influence of the Viennese art nouveau movement (Jugendstil). Buildings influenced by the North German and Dutch styles followed this, and, in the 1920s, the influence of the 'Bauhaus' school is clearly evident. By the 1930s the trend to Neue Sachlichkeit ('New Objectivity') was reflected in characteristics of the architecture: design was to reflect function and mere decoration was out.

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ART in the Community: A 'Neighbourhood Watch' Scheme in Germany
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