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Wanted: Politically engaged artists

Jan Bruck / cmkSeptember 19, 2013

German election campaigns have rarely been so spiritless - only the issue of data protection has been able to drive intellectuals to lift their pens in protest. Have polarizing debates become a thing of the past?

Juli Zeh protests with a group of authors on 18.09.2013 in Berlin. Foto: Kay Nietfeld/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Over 67,000 signatures, including 30 respected authors, all put to paper for one cause: Germany should not be allowed to become a surveillance state. Author Juli Zeh had written an open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel with one clear demand: that the German leader citizens protect citizens from espionage by foreign intelligence services. Fellow writers like Mortiz Rinke, Eva Menasse and Ilja Trojanow also supported the cause.

On Wednesday (18.09.2013), the group handed the petition over to the government, stacking the boxes of papers with signatures in front of the chancellery. Announcing their planned "march on the chancellery," the group accused the government of a "strategic trivialization" of the NSA spying scandal.

The march was the first public appearance by German authors in response to a politically controversial topic. Many of them, according to Zeh, would otherwise be rather reluctant to come together publicly and be politically active. Speaking to the public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk, she said data protection is a topic that has driven intellectuals to make their views known.

'Political crime'

Juli Zeh , Foto: Arno Burgi dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Zeh: 'Privacy is an issue for everyone'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Zeh's comments show that German artists and academics haven't exactly been eager participants in political discussions of late, especially during election campaigns.

The weekly newspaper "Die Zeit" recently asked a number of artists and thinkers to give their endorsement for the current candidates. The result: 58.3 percent of the usually informative and argumentative participants - among them the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and author Thea Dorn - refrained from giving an explicit opinion. The consensus seemed to be that if the big political parties were so similar in their policies, how was it possible to endorse any one candidate over another?

In previous election campaigns it was different. In the 1970s and 1980s there were clear differences between Germany's largest popular parties. At the time the big issues were whether Germany should join the defensive alliance of Western powers (NATO), or how West Germany should deal with the socialist East. Should the country face West, toward the United States? Or should West Germany move for closer ties to the Eastern bloc and thereby encourage reunification?

These fundamental questions not only split political parties but also, of course, the intellectuals of the day - and led to a high degree of public engagement. The writer Heinrich Böll was a central figure in the anti-government protests at the end of the 1960s. Later, he supported Willy Brandt's Social Democratic (SPD) government and its plan for rapprochement with the East.

In the 1970s, performance artist Joseph Beuys was a vehement advocate for more direct democracy. Later, he aligned himself with the leftist environmental Green party.

Less friction

In contrast, today's political parties are largely united on the big topics, such as the euro and debt crises. The gloves only come off when trying to decide on the ways and means of resolving these problems - resulting in fewer potential causes of friction for Germany's intellectual and creative class than the big debates during the Cold War.

"It's no longer the case that the intellectuals are pressuring the politicians and reminding them of their duties," said Mathias Greffrath, an author and journalist. He attributed this newfound restraint to the generational shift. A whole generation of academics, active in the protest movements in the late 1960s and known as the "68er" in Germany, are now of retirement age.

The student and intellectuals of the time accused their parents of not doing enough to deal with the country's Nazi past. But they also called for an end to the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, equality between men and women and for the overthrow of the prudish sex morals of the time.

Protesters in 1968 (black and white image)
The student protest movement was alive and well in the late 1960sImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"These people brought about change for a few years, but they got tired and today would rather take part in supervised bicycle tours," said Greffrath. In addition, many of the demands of the 68er have now become part of the political mainstream, not least through the establishment of the Green party at the beginning of the 1980s.

The artistic community has always tended to support the political left. Authors, artists and philosophers who support the conservative parties like Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) are, and have been, rare. The mini survey by "Die Zeit" backs up this claim: only four of the participants endorsed the CDU, while the political left received more than four times as many endorsements.

'Democracy in a vacuum'

Successful theater and film director Andreas Veiel was one of the few to endorse a party - he chose the Greens. But he doesn't want to be turned into some kind of party mascot. "My role is not to tie myself to any one political party," he said.

But he does enjoy shaking the boat: "I see myself more as a troublemaker. My job as an artist is to observe, engage in debates and to show where democracy is being undermined."

Andres Veiel, Regisseur des Theaterstücks «Das Himbeerreich», aufgenommen während eines dpa Interviews am 07.01.2013 im Staatstheater Stuttgart (Baden-Württemberg). Das Stück über die Bankenbranche wird am 11.01.2013 in der Spielstätte Nord in Stuttgart uraufgeführt. Foto: Uli Deck/dpa (Zu dpa-Interview: «Regisseur Veiel über Banker-Stück: «Erste Assoziation ist Gier»» vom 08.01.2013) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Veiel does not want to be exploited by any partyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Earlier this year, for example, he staged "Das Himbeerreich" ("The Raspberry Empire") in Berlin and Stuttgart, a play that dealt with the banking crisis and the unscrupulousness of the financial world. Veiel encouraged more artists to tackle such politically sensitive issues in their works.

Today's artists and intellectuals don't generally tend to agree with a party's entire platform. People like the Nobel Prize-winning Günter Grass, who is always drumming up support for the SPD, have become rare. Instead, they speak up about individual topics like the risky handling of the financial markets or data protection, as occurred on Wednesday in Berlin.

But to generate genuine interest in these topics, there needs to be more than just one author and a handful of her colleagues. On Wednesday, instead of picking up the boxes with their thousands of signatures, Merkel sent out an anonymous worker. The chancellor was too busy - dealing with her campaign.