BY Dominikus Müller in Opinion | 22 APR 17
Featured in
Issue 187

A Present Tense

Can we compare our current political moment to the tumultuous 1930s?

BY Dominikus Müller in Opinion | 22 APR 17

We’ve heard it all before: the world is engulfed by a widespread sense of insecurity and precarity, destabilized by volatile economies, surges of nationalism and isolationism. We’ve also heard, at some length, of the role played by the media in all of these developments. Many have drawn parallels between the present moment and the tumultuous 1930s, describing the internet and social media as operating now in the way radio did back then.

But, to what extent can we legitimately speak of a ‘new fascism’? Can we really compare the current situation to the historical events that tore apart Europe more than 80 years ago? On 3 December 2016, in his regular blog for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the German-born American literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht argued that we reach for the past today because the future is no longer seen as predictable – with opinion polls, for instance, seemingly incapable of accurately gauging the public mood. Faced with such uncertainty, we instead turn to the stable narratives of the past.

Loretta Fahrenholz, Two A.M., 2016. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz, Berlin, Cologne and New York

Yet, perhaps the defining characteristic of today’s reality is neither an imagined future nor a return to history, but an abandonment of such temporal parameters in favour of an endless ‘now’ – the feedback loop of instant gratification and immediate response. To borrow from the title of Alexander Kluge’s 1985 film, this is the proverbial Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time.

Loretta Fahrenholz’s latest film, Two A.M. (2016) – recently shown at Galerie Buchholz in Berlin after being screened at the Fridericianum in Kassel and Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum – hinges on an analogy between the 1930s and today. Fahrenholz’s work is an adaptation of the 1937 novel After Midnight by exiled German writer Irmgard Keun. Recounting the story of a young girl, Sanna, and her lover, Franz, the novel is set during the years of the Nazi dictatorship.

Artists should be politically active as citizens, but that doesn't mean art must limit itself to being activist. 

Fahrenholz’s version transposes Keun’s story from 1930s Frankfurt to present-day Berlin. Fashionable young characters drift through the city seeking fulfilment through work or love, but failing to find it. Lonely and isolated, they dull their restlessness and insecurity with drugs, partying and clever wordplay. Sanna has moved to the city to escape from her aunt and half-sisters, who are ‘watchers’ – people that can read the minds of others. Two A.M. is punctuated by strangely disconnected passages, filmed in a distinct format that is intended to represent these moments of mindreading. Surveillance is omnipresent but, unlike Keun’s portrayal of 1930s Germany, Fahrenholz’s interpretation offers no escape: ‘everywhere’ also means inside our own heads.

The press release that accompanied Fahrenholz’s film screening at the Fridericianum compared the MDMA highs of her protagonists with the Nazis’ use of speed. And, concurrent to her exhibition at the end of last year, the institution organized a conference (featuring speakers such as Chantal Mouffe and Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi) entitled ‘A New Fascism?’. Yet, beyond these possible historical comparisons, what I find interesting is an artistic analogy: the fact that Fahrenholz’s film – despite its attempt at historical realism – comes across as highly surreal.

Konrad Adolf Lattner, Mann mit Hut (Man with Hat), 1928/1938. Courtesy: bpk, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Berlin, and Andres Kilger 

A separate exhibition, taking place in Berlin at the same time, provided an ideal sounding-board for this observation. ‘Surreal Objectivity’, at Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg, featured works from the 1920s and ’30s, including paintings by Otto Dix, Max Ernst, René Magritte and Christian Schad. In contrast to standard interpretations of new objectivity – the artistic movement that dominated German art of the period – this show attempted to chart the style’s passage into the art of the surreal. The name ‘new objectivity’ was taken from a survey exhibition organized by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub at the Kunsthalle Mannheim in 1925. Neue Sachlichkeit (as the style is known in German) initially referred to a naturalistic, gritty view of the outside world. Unlike movements that had preceded it, such as expressionism and impressionism, new objectivity was less interested in subjective expression and oneiric worlds than it was concerned with portraying the harsh reality of Germany’s interwar years. In the exhibition, this manifests itself in bizarrely wicked tableaux (George Grosz’s Grauer Tag, Grey Day, 1921), coolly unnerving portraits (Christian Schad’s Sonja and Kurt Günther’s Portrait of a Boy, both 1928) or ostensibly bright and vivid landscapes that are somehow tinged with darkness (Georg Schrimpf’s Bahnübergang, Railway Crossing, 1932). Their naturalism notwithstanding, these works offer an interpretation that is neither verist nor realist. Rather, they document a political, technological and social reality unravelling.

In a 2015 review of the exhibition ‘New Objectivity’, at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, critic Hal Foster referred to the movement as ‘hysterical realism, alert to how people and places might repress a conflict here, only to manifest it somewhere else’. He continued: ‘Neue Sachlichkeit thus dramatized a crisis that was psychological in appearance but social at root: this is what a political-economic crisis looks like when visited on individuals.’ It is precisely this conflation of individual and politico-economic crises that makes works from more than 80 years ago resonate so keenly today.

So, does Neue Sachlichkeit have renewed relevance in today’s ‘post-fact’ age? In 2016, Merriam-Webster Dictionaries chose ‘surreal’ as their word of the year. Their definition – ‘marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream’ – captures a prevailing feeling today with regard to politics and society. Recently, the media in Germany have played host to arguments that art risks irrelevancy as reality itself becomes increasingly surreal. Timo Feldhaus (writing in the March issue of Monopol) and Hanno Rauterberg (in a recent article for Die Zeit) both ask what art should or can do in times of media and political spectacle. Such reasoning rests – not entirely convincingly – on an understanding of art as an activity that breaks visual conventions and creates new or alternative worlds. With US president Donald Trump spouting statements that are seemingly rooted in pure fiction, and the murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey in a gallery in Ankara, which disturbingly resembled an art performance – so this line of reasoning goes – surrealism and the invention of new or alternate worlds have already entered the political realm. In this context, a ‘Surreal Objectivity’ links the surreal to reality – rather than trying to compete with it.

Where does this leave the relationship of art making to (real) politics? Artists can and should become politically active as citizens. But that doesn’t mean art must limit itself to being ‘activist’ in nature. Conversely, artists should not be seen as simply devising ‘alternative worlds’. Instead, art can grasp reality in all its surreality, capturing that which extends beyond the facts into the realm of experience and emotion. Art can diagnose the madness of reality, raise awareness and adopt a position. Artists need not respond to a ‘call to arms’ nor retreat; art should be accorded its own space, without being conceded untenable autonomy nor required to conform to the spirit of political activism at all times. Maybe it’s time to defend this relationship.

Main image: Loretta Fahrenholz, Two A.M., 2016. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz, Berlin, Cologne and New York

Dominikus Müller is a freelance writer based in Berlin.