What Berlin does have going for it is great ambience. It is really fun to just hang out. So the pressure becomes intense, with everyone struggling to do the bare minimum they possibly can and yet still qualify as creative, thereby maximizing the time...
Drawing by Al Burian.
Berlin has long had a reputation as a haven for artists of all kinds, but those days are over. In 2012, an artist is the least cool thing you could possibly claim to be. If you don’t believe me, try this experiment: Go down to Bar 3, the quintessential art-scene hangout of Berlin, and introduce yourself to people this way. Even on a crowded night, people will form a wide berth around you, attempting to ice you out of the conversation and hopefully shunt you out the door. Such levels of hostility don’t usually happen amongst brethren except in cases of natural disasters or extreme food shortages.
I was hanging out at Bar 3 recently, chatting with an elegantly dressed woman. “What do you do?” she asked, then added snidely, “No, wait. Let me guess. You’re yet another artist, aren’t you?”
I have an ace up my sleeve when it comes to this type of conversation. I teach a comics drawing class once a week at an elementary school, and though I could technically use this employment to qualify myself as an “artist,” I can, with equal legitimacy, claim to be an elementary school teacher.
“I’m an elementary school teacher,” I said.
Her eyes widened, and her dour expression disappeared completely.
“Really?” She stammered. “I mean... You are? You do something real? Oh my god, that’s so... refreshing.”
“Why, what do you do?” I asked.
“I’m an artist,” she admitted morosely.
At first I ascribed this strange self-loathing to Small Pond Syndrome. There is just not enough elbow room for everyone. The hundreds of galleries, museums, lofts and performance spaces in this city are not enough to accommodate the tsunami wave of creatives spilling in from the world over, wide-eyed and eager to participate. I was satisfied with the elbow room explanation, until a curious thing happened: a week or so later at the elementary school, I was making photocopies in the teacher’s lounge when a colleague I had not previously met approached me. “You’re new here,” she observed. “Are you full time? What classes are you teaching?”
“Oh, I’m not really a teacher,” I explained, “I just do this one art class.”
A dark cloud seemed to pass over her face, and she made an expression as though she had just bitten into something sour and slightly rotten.
“Oh,” she grumbled. “You’re one of those artists. You probably live in Kreuzberg.”
“Prenzlauer Berg, actually,” I corrected.
“I knew it was one or the other,” she scoffed, sauntering away. It stung to be typecast as a hipster-gentrifier based on the neighborhood I live in, but far worse was to be looked down upon simply because I have used my talent for drawing cartoon animals to procure a sliver of gainful employment. Was that really so reprehensible? This woman seemed to think so. Public opinion is apparently unanimous: not only do the artists dislike each other, but the general population hates them too.
This is a tough situation. Many a young painter or kinetic performance sculptor spent their alienated childhood in a backwater hick town, harassed by jocks and unsympathetic school administrators, pressured to take over the family meat packing business, all the while dreaming only of their escape to a vibrant, culturally dynamic city like Berlin. How are these poor souls going to feel when they arrive, only to find that there is far more social cache in meat packing?
I’ve been pondering the problem, and I believe that it most likely comes down to an issue of economics. In a place like New York City—correct me if I’m wrong here—there is still a semi-functioning economy, and you can’t just go around claiming that you are an artist with nothing to back it up. Making this claim implies that you are a workingartist, in other words that you are experiencing some success and making some money from your pursuits. Everyone has hobbies, and I can tell you from personal experience that all children like to draw, but in the end, if you spend the majority of your time working in a cafe, tending bar, or showing up at an office, this is what you “do.” In dysfunctional Berlin, however, such economic litmus has no bearing. No one is making any money off of actually producing anything. The European and Canadian artists are surviving off of stipends from their respective countries, and the American artists are surviving off of grants from their moms.
What this city does have going for it is great ambience. It is really fun to just hang out. So the pressure becomes intense, with everyone struggling to do the bare minimum they possibly can and yet still qualify as creative, thereby maximizing the time they have available for going to openings and lingering by the table with the free drinks and snacks. “I am an artist,” as spoken in the current parlance has very little to do with talent, knowledge or productivity. Rather this phrase is a coded message, meant to communicate that you are part of the club, like one of those secret Masonic handshakes that gets you into the back room at the Elks Lodge. It is not so important what actually goes on in this back room. What is important is that everyone who is not invited feels jealous.
I’m not trying to say that there are no good artists in Berlin. Perhaps they are simply in hiding, shamed by the idea that their once-noble calling has been hijacked by anyone willing to sprout a mustache and wear garish neon clothing. Any small contributions of quality are drowned in a sea of affect and false hubristic claims. The whole thing seems reminiscent of the old story about the emperor’s new clothes– except that it is not just the emperor, it is all of us, showing up naked and then standing around talking about how great our outfits are. Which, well, when you put it that way, doesn’t sound so bad. If the artists of Berlin were willing to enact this scenario I might be willing to give Bar 3 another chance.