Sunday, November 26, 2006

Putting Beauty to Work

Although the Palast der Republik debate is frequently cloaked in East-West political language (see post Nov. 19), or arguments about the sanctity of memory and preservation, many view it purely as an aesthetic question. The obvious rejoinder here is that the aesthetic is political, and that beauty is not Platonic but rather selected and preened by society. These are good points, to which I respond to with a quote from a taxi driver, who told me last week, “The Palast needs to go. Ten years ago they could have still made something of it, but now it’s so decayed and ugly that they need to rip it down and build something nice.” In other words, the pragmatic notion of beauty-utility, of using central city space to be both functional and attractive, is democratic: the Palast and the Schloss are both considered pretty until they embody the image of urban decay. As well, although notions of beauty may be political—see, for example Susan Sontag’s breakdown of the fascist aesthetic Leni Riefenstahl developed for the Nazi party—the Prussia-worship of Schloss supporters is hardly imperious in nature.

Firstly, their whole-hearted embrace of the democracy of dollars demonstrates a certain crass commercialism from which one certainly cannot position oneself as superior. Foerderverein Berliner Schloss e.V.’s Infocenter a few hundred meters from Schlossplatz sells cringefully tacky mini-busts of Friedrich the Great as well as “historical novels” detailing the romantic intrigues of powder-haired Prussian dames. As well, the methods by which they fundraise—appealing to thousands of citizens to donate to the cause, or pointing out how much could be made if X number of people gave the equal sum of Y euros—are civic and equalizing in their language, even if their publications are aimed at the upper crust, judging from their placement in high-brow hotels. Leader Wilhelm von Boddien is also eager to project a man-of-the-people persona when he predicts that a “People’s Party” will take place upon the Schloss’ reconstruction, adopting the same comrade-brother-tinged vocabulary of the structure he is eagerly ripping down. The final nail in the aesthetics-is-politics coffin is the suggested use of the newly rebuilt royal Schloss: “A Sanctuary for Art, Science and Communication.” This plan suggests that geographically peripheral museums move their collections to this prominent location and together with the offerings of nearby Museum Island for “The World in the Center of Berlin.”

Some may argue that this attempt to bring Berlin to cultural prominence has its own echoes of the Kaiser-era quest for greatness. However, the modern-day project of capital cities to ever-expand their cultural offerings is not comparable to an earlier era’s territorial ambitions. Although the lens of Germany’s history may make almost any ambition sound a bit ominous, there is nothing wrong with Berlin aspiring to be an important place on the scale of international cultural awareness. The plan for the Schloss’ use sounds pretty neat to a Berlin resident who would love to have all these museums in one place. Humboldt University, (pictured at top) located across the street and with 32,000 students, would also doubtlessly benefit from a construction of such proportions. It is easy to mock the Schloss-supporters as foolish Utopists trying to reconstruct a lost past, but much harder to disparage the space they hope to build, a place of culture and art that has very little to do with the spot’s autocratic legacy.

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