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Culture

Opting for Art Instead of Unemployment

With unemployment figures in Germany still staggeringly high, too many young Germans are stuck on welfare. But a trend of introducing culture to difficult social scenes is opening new doors for the disadvantaged.

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Artist Thomas Hirschhorn's "Bataille Sculpture"

More than 600,000 people in Germany under the age of 25 have never been gainfully employed, and more than half a million young people are in Labor Office schemes aimed at bridge the gap between joblessness and gainful employment. But only one in three stands any real chance of picking up work on completion.

Those who have to fight hardest for their place in today's job market are youngsters with little education, from difficult social backgrounds, or with less than perfect language skills. And it is young people in these categories who are finding refuge under the creative wings of German artists, who also offer them a dose of much-needed self-confidence.

Reaching out

One of the trendsetters in the effort to create a cross-over in culture and social work is internationally renowned artist Thomas Hirschhorn. At last year's Documenta art exhibition in the German city of Kassel, the Swiss artist decided to create an installation in the city's socially disadvantaged Friedrich-Wöhler estate. Using the French philosopher Georges Bataille as his inspiration, he erected a sculpture, a library containing the philosopher's work, a TV studio and a snack bar.

A group of unemployed and foreign youths, some with criminal records, were paid to help erect his work and subsequently show visitors around and explain the installation to them. Hirschhorn paid the youngsters €8.00 ($9.60) per hour out of his own pocket, with no public funding. Pit Gräber, a youth social worker in the estate who oversaw the project felt it was a great opportunity for youngsters faced with a generally bleak future.

"At the very least people learned what it means to work. Many of those involved had never had to commit to anything before. They learned to commit, to be punctual, reliable, to take responsibility, to work with one another and to solve conflicts without attacking one another," Gräber said.

Social romanticism

For the most part, children in public housing complexes such as the Friedrich-Wöhler estate, live from social welfare, and foreign youths in particular often find hard to get a foot on Germany's employment and apprenticeship ladders. Schools in areas where there is a disproportionately high percentage of foreigners struggle with the linguistic imbalance of non-native speakers versus mother-tongue German pupils. With little extra tuition on offer, the classroom climate is difficult for teachers and pupils alike.

Hirschhorn-Kunstwerk in Kassel

Bataille Monument in Kassel

Hirschhorn's exhibit on the public housing was at the very least an opportunity for the international public to come into contact with a largely unfamiliar social environment. And while some critics accused Hirschhorn of using the youths to buy himself a flair for social romanticism, Gräber and those who actually worked on the show, were full of praise for the project, which one young man said brought the area to life.

Feeding the demand

Hirschhorn's installations clearly underlined the fact that when you take the offer of work to an employment-deprived zone, it not only increases curiosity, but also demand and a willingness to knuckle down and get on with it. The artist doesn't view himself as a social worker, but says he needed the youngsters in order to turn his plan into reality.

Unfortunately no matter how successful projects like Hirschhorn's are in terms of showing youths in difficult social situations that work is a way of participating in life, of being with other people and solving problems, the state offers them no financial backing.

Berliner Schaubühne 40 Jahre

Schaubühne in Berlin

Another project by the Schaubühne theater in Berlin is helping in a similar fashion. The theater produces professional plays, which are performed during prime-time hours with young people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. The youth theatre group "Die Zwiefachen", is made up of youngsters between the ages of 16 and 25 who have either moved out of home, run away from home or are refugees. Although there is no financial benefit for the Schaubühne itself, the project is confirmation of how important culture is as a means educating young people and improving their social situations.

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