imomus (imomus) wrote,

Marching "queer pipers" out of town

Artists in exile is an article in The Guardian that caught my attention, for obvious reasons. Journalist Charlotte Higgins talked to British artists (mostly classical musicians) who've left Britain and settled permanently on the continent, amongst them Rebecca Saunders, a composer now based in Berlin, Richard Ayres, a composer now in Holland, pianist Nicolas Hodges, now in Stuttgart, and Tacita Dean, an artist (who's also made music) now in Berlin.

Here's a core cluster of quotes:

"I can't bear that an artist has to constantly justify writing a piece," says Saunders. "I just cannot bear the language used to talk about art in Britain." For her, this is about the prevailing discourse – the language used in the media, the place (or non-place) the arts have in Britian's political life. In Germany, arts coverage has a seriousness many feel is rare in the UK. "I didn't want to stick around convincing people the arts were a good thing," Ayres says. "I wanted to live in a place where there was more money and approval for what I do – why fight when there are other countries?" Hodges agrees: "I have every respect for artists who stay at home and fight the fight, but I feel lucky that I have something more secure." Dean says: "In England everything was a struggle. The struggle has gone out of my life."

Naturally, I agree. The mothership in the UK is always commerce; if what you're doing isn't vindicated by sales, you end up having to trot out an endless apologia poetica, to justify "modern conceptual art" or "experimental music" or whatever it is you do. Or else you self-censor, and veer more and more into purely commercial work. Sure, you could struggle to challenge and change Britain, even as it struggles to challenge and to change you. But life is short; you'd rather just get on with doing the best work you can in the limited time you have on the planet. For me, and for many others, a place like Berlin allows that.

Switching Britain for Berlin is a brief transit through space that brings about a significant change in the environment -- financial, mental, physical -- in which art is made. But the city contains strong reminders that transit through time can also change the conditions in which artists work. No other place I've lived in has reminded me so constantly of what a huge difference political and cultural shifts make. I was cycling on Sunday between the Café MOKBA and the Kino International on the Karl-Marx-Allee; that part of the city (where I spent my first couple of Berlin years) is totally 1950s, and totally Soviet in feel. You can tell that the "international" in the Kino International's name is a reference to socialist internationalism, with Moscow the centre of its imperium. Later the same day, I cycled past the Foreign Office on Kurstrasse, which is a vast, neo-classical Nazi-era building (it was built as the Reichsbank).

If you want to know the sort of compromises artists -- and especially classical musicians -- had to make during the Nazi years, have a listen to this interesting documentary BBC Radio 4 broadcast this week. Five and the Fascists looks at the subsequent careers of five European conductors -- Toscanini, Klemperer, Furtwangler, Erich Kleiber and Bruno Walter -- pictured meeting in Berlin during yet another cultural era, at the height of the super-liberal, super-creative Weimar Republic in 1929.

These musicians' future was fraught with dangers, and faustian temptations. There's a chilling moment in this YouTube clip of Nazi television which uses music as a metaphor for society. The dapper, smiling, yet sarcastic and menacing announcer makes clear that the Nazi regime has no room for dissidents, people he calls "queer pipers":

"Let's return to music. I'm very happy that everything is so harmonious today. Granted, there are still quite a few sour notes and people playing out of tune ["queer pipers"]. And maybe even some that would like to march to a different drum -- to the Center beat. Take these so-called foreign exchange musicians. We don't beat around the bush with them, do we? They're sent to concert camps for their further education, and there they're taught to sing for their supper. And there they stay until they've learned to change their tune and play along."

While it's somewhat surprising that concentration camps would be so freely and proudly alluded to in the middle of popular entertainment broadcasts, this menacing message would have come as no surprise to artists of a subversive or cosmopolitan stripe trying to work in Berlin in 1937; most of the "queer pipers" had left four years earlier, in 1933.

Charlotte Higgins' piece concludes that, if artists aren't to continue leaving the UK in a sort of cultural brain drain, "a great deal needs to change in Britain". That's true, but if Berlin shows one thing, it's that societies can change with breathtaking rapidity. From Weimar to Nazi to communist to capitalist to post-capitalist, Berlin keeps changing, and with each change the artists either exit or enter en masse. At the moment we're entering, we're here, and we're happy. But, given Berlin's track record, it's not impossible that in a decade or two everything could be different.

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