Saturday, June 21, 2014

So you think the West is too materialistic? Well, let me tell you ...

Yesterday evening I went to the British Museum and saw its exhibition Germany Divided: Baselitz and his generation. One assumes that the BM sensibly decided to remember the 1914 anniversary of the beginning of what used to be known as the first German war by looking at what that event wrought in Europe and, especially, in the Continent's central part. More power to their elbow.

The six artists whose work is now either in the British Museum collection or been lent for this exhibition by the Duerckheim Collection were all born under the Nazis, have childhood memories of Germany's defeat and the large-scale destruction and are also people who, having found themselves in the eastern section, eventually made their way to West Germany where their career flourished. The art exhibited is, as one would expect variable though the Baselits's chiaroscuro achieved through two or three coloured woodcut blocks create an interesting link with a recently closed Royal Academy exhibition of works created by similar techniques in the Renaissance era.

The artists' personal experience of the Cold War and their knowledge of the two contrasting artistic and cultural worlds clearly contributed to a certain crisis in their identity, both personal and artistic. This is not a particularly clever idea of mine: it is, in fact, the theme of the exhibition, seen through the works of art and through various pronouncements by the artists in question. Having left East Germany behind (most by choice though one, A. R. Penck, through force majeure in the eighties when dissidents were routinely exiled by the DDR) the artists in question continued to feel discontented, though now with the West and, particularly, with Western materialism and consumerism.

It is, of course, the role of the artist in the modern (post-Enlightenment) world to be discontented so we cannot complain about that too much but the particular cause is of interest. as it has been for some time and still is a favourite defence of the indefensible, the Communist system. We all know how it goes: there were, of course, some nasty aspects to it and one would not want to deny that but at least you did not get the obsessive materialism and consumerism of the West. Whether the real horror of those grudgingly acknowledged "some nasty things" is quite balanced out by the often tiresome obsession with the latest gadgets and clothes, yet another holiday and the emptiness of reality TV is questionable. Would people who say that prefer to live in fear of that unexpected yet expected late night or dawn ring of the bell or knock on the door with all that entailed? I think not.

Let us look at the argument: at least they are not obsessed with materialism and consumerism. To start with, what is the basis of Communism and Marxist Socialism but materialism, dialectic or otherwise? The whole political ideology, the whole basis on which state and society are to be built, purport to be materialistic, discarding religion, spiritual entities and "empty" intellectualism. Not only were the ideas discarded and banned, their proponents and practitioners were arrested, exiled, murdered or forced to convert to the worship of Materialism. Socialist Realism from which the artists in this exhibition fled one way or another is the glorification of materialism in art and its apotheosis heralded (or was meant to herald) the trampling down of all non-realist, non-materialist expression.

So much for the underlying ideological basis of Communism. The problem was that it could not provide the material goods that materialism promised to all. While theoretical materialism remained a good thing, its practical assumption had to become a bad thing since it did not exist in the workers' paradise. In particular, it had to be pronounced as bad by Western supporters (at a distance) of that non-materialistic materialist workers' paradise as they could not hide indefinitely behind the lie that consumer goods in the West were available to very few people. In fact, there is an odd correlation between growing contempt for consumerism and materialism and the wider spread of the actual goods.

Were people in Communist countries really not interested in consumer goods? Were they heck. No-one who has ever lived in those countries especially the Soviet Union and managed to communicate with the indigenous population can forget not just the queues for goods that might appear or might not but also the obsessive discussions of what might be available and where, what might be acquired at home or - blissful idea - abroad.

In Soviet cities directions were given by shops. Get off the bus at such and such a shop, turn right, walk to another shop, then right again and it's the second entrance. That sort of thing. Naturally, one had to ask the driver where such and such a shop was, which would cause great excitement on the bus: why were you going to that shop? Was there anything being sold there?

That is materialism and consumerism on the lowest possible level. It did not stop there. With no rights to real property, people competed in ownership of consumer goods: clothes, shoes, make-up, furniture once that became possible and cars when that became possible in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

One of the comedy sketches I recall from my childhood in Budapest was a discussion between two men, played by well known comedians, over breakfast in a cafe about a third one who is assumed to be the owner of a car that is outside. "Where does Kropacsek get his car from?" became one of the oft-repeated lines by people who watched the sketch and sympathized. For about ten minutes there was a discussion about the hapless Kropacsek who ought not to be able to afford a car but seems to have done. How did he do it? Where did he get the car from? Eventually, one of the men realizes that the car is not Kropacsek's but someone else's, whose name might be Moritz. Relief all round. Silence. Well, you can hear the punchline ahead: "where does Moritz get his car from?". Not materialistic at all. Not obsessed with consumer goods. Certainly not.

Even tickets for particularly well thought of plays and films, especially if they were a little daring, books that you could buy only if you had connections, all had become part of a febrile competitive consumerism. Yes, people smuggled in dissident literature but even more they smuggled or just took in all sorts of goodies, basics and luxuries, for themselves, for their families, their friends. Obsessive materialism and consumerism prevailed everywhere in the Communist world with it being considerably stronger and more obsessive in the Soviet Union than in Eastern Europe, particularly countries like Hungary where certain economic reforms made life a little easier, a little more like the West (though only a little).

Communism in its Soviet form has gone and what we see in the post-Soviet states is yet more obsessiveness as well as absolute selfishness in the accumulation of wealth and of consumer goods on a scale that is truly stunning to us in the West. That and the lack of any non-materialist ideas and controls are not the result of the collapse of the Soviet system but of its existence, of its materialist ideology, of the destruction of all other ideas and the contrasting material poverty.

1 comment:

  1. "Were people in Communist countries really not interested in consumer goods?"

    Indeed, anyone with direct experience of those times will immediately recall the awesome purchasing power of a pair of Levi jeans in the east bloc...