Two pieces of information for the artistically inclined regarding the Beinecke’s new exhibit, “Fun on the Titanic: Underground Art and the East German State.” One, Céline Dion and James Cameron are nowhere to be found, so no worries there. Two, when you go, don’t take any poser hipsters. The exhibit surveys the samizdat (underground art) culture of East Germany in the final years of Communism. Most of the exhibit consists of pages from underground zines and black-and-white photos of dingy rooms in which groups of artists congregated. A lot of it feels eerily similar to the American underground of the 80s and 90s. Their art takes cues from German Expressionism, just like Jean-Michel Basquiat. They adore the Sex Pistols and Patti Smith. They’re sort of exclusive, and, by extension, cool; you have to know the right people to access the samizdat. As its name promises, the exhibit is fun; it’s also cool, sick and totally subversive. Take the wrong friend, however, and that’s all you’ll exclaim to each other: “This is so cool!” “Oh my gosh this is sick” and “Wow, totally subversive.” The colorful, grotesque work immediately strikes you, but there’s a distinct iciness that’s easy to miss.
The exhibit tells the story of several artists who risked their lives to create their art. In fact, the deleted “entire” movement was spurred by the expulsion of Wolf Biermann, a popular folk singer who criticized the East German regime. Artists aimed to attack the communist government through underground zines made using labor-intensive silkscreen and Xerox machines (presses were off-limits). Performances and parties had no proper venue. Instead, artists had to use private homes or dingy bars.
Viewed in context of the regime, the art samples and photos take on a sharper, darker edge. The Jesus fish with sharp teeth isn’t just funny. Graffiti that says “Make Love Not War,” isn’t just empty hippie posturing. The exhilaratingly angry and beautiful neo-expressionism becomes more grounded than the cerebral art created in America in recent decades.
In spite of the anger and ice, the exhibit makes clear that resistance was thrilling. The exhibit and its accompanying essay provide a solid overview. Around the peak of the movement, artists founded a workshop called “Eigen+Art,” a play on the German word for idiosyncrasy so that it became “Our Own Art.” Like the punks they loved, these artists found freedom in transgression.
“Fun on the Titanic” takes a dark turn towards the end, chronicling artists’ departure from the movement under government duress and interrogating the samizdat movement’s legacy. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a key member of the movement, Sascha Anderson, was revealed to be a member of the secret police. (One artist later dubbed him Sascha Asshole.) This fact led many to question the entire samizdat as a project of resistance. Was the underground simply a tool of the state like the chimerical Brotherhood in Orwell’s “1984”?
Maybe not. After all, many of the artists continued to denounce the ruling regime when capitalism was instated in a reunited Germany. Coca-Cola replaced Big Brother as the avant-garde’s enemy #1.
In 1990, after the Wall had fallen, the underground zine Bizarre Städte published these words: “this revolution … is perhaps: a smile in the clinical pathology of human history.” The Titanic might still be sinking, but we may as well make some art on our way down. Long live the revolution — but keep out the posers.