Kollektivierung der Phantasie? Künstlergruppen in der DDR zwischen Vereinnahmung und Erfindungsgabe

TitleKollektivierung der Phantasie? Künstlergruppen in der DDR zwischen Vereinnahmung und Erfindungsgabe
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsHarms, Victoria
Author(s) of reviewed materialJacoby, Petra

book Title translated:
Collectivization of imagination? Artist groups in the GDR between appropriation and ingenuity

PublisherBielefeld: transcript Verlag
ISSNISBN-10: 978 3899426274
Full Text

The arts in state socialism were trusted with the task of presenting the intended societal rule through aesthetic means.” [Der Kunst war im Staatssozialismus die Aufgabe zugedacht, den Herrschaftsanspruch durch ästhetische Präsentation der beabsichtigten gesellschaftlichen Wirklichkeit zu vergegenwärtigen (p.9).]
Kollektivierung der Phantasie? studies groups of artists and the establishment of official cultural activities in the emerging German Democratic Republic. Petra Jacoby focuses mainly on the immediate post-War years, the decade of consolidation in the 1950s and extends general remarks on the developments in the 1960s. In a more random fashion, the 1970s and 1980s are also addressed. Jacoby illustrates in detail the ‘career’ of leftist artists in the Weimar Republic as well as their heritage for and incorporation into the GDR after the Second World War in order to emphasize lines of continuity. She primarily focuses on the connections between intentions of individuals or groups of artists and the implementation of the early official policies in the Eastern German state. The book is divided into four parts: 1. “Culture and change: Can art be socially effective?” (pp.11-65); 2. “The social visions of the Künstlergruppen-Generation” (pp.67-129); 3. "Künstlergruppen during the transformation” (pp.131-174); 4. “Collectivization of artistic activities” (pp.175-231).
Petra Jacoby’s catchy title and her promising first sentence are followed by a complex introduction, in which she aims at a methodological combination of discourse analysis, sociological analyses of artist networks and stylistic interpretation of images. Referring to Ernst Cassirer, Pierre Bourdieu and Jürgen Habermas she introduces the term symbolic mediation (symbolische Vermittlung, p.12) to describe a process in which art represents social utopia or an idealized reality respectively and thereby contributes to its realization (as in the notion of a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’). Jacoby claims that these necessary cultural efforts, which in the GDR were intentionally supported by the state, consist of visionexchange and expression (p.15) and chooses these three elements as landmarks of her study.
Additionally, Jacoby applies the notion of ‘secrecy’ in order to highlight the functions and mechanisms of groupings which she dates back to Enlightenment when artists formed secret groups in opposition to feudal society. Eventually, such groupings laid the foundations for modern bourgeois culture. Jacoby succeeds in tracking down lines of continuity and shows convincingly that developments in art and culture in the early GDR were not altogether uprooted. She detects similarities in hierarchy and rituals, strategies of inclusion and exclusion as well as particular behavioral codices which were inherent to artist groups before and after the Second World War. Ultimately, she declares that art, secrecy and utopia are all means of realizing and fulfilling dreams and visions (p.32). For too long, the ultimate goal of her extended explanations of Enlightenment artists and bourgeois society remain unclear. Consequently, her elaboration on subcultures seems inappropriate in relation to her general thematic focus. She fails to explicate the connections between her study and her excursus into (early bourgeois) subcultures, and only indirectly does she show that in times of social upheaval subcultures can turn into movements or even topple the dominant culture[1], as it happened when the leftist Interwar Künstlergruppen-Generation was appropriated by or formed the GDR’s first cultural elite (pp.45-7). Furthermore, the role of Drehpunktpersonen (literally: turning point persons) (p.91), individuals in influential official positions who provide access for artists groups to the dominant discourse, feature importantly during the Weimar years for the Künstlergruppen as well as for the ‘new’ groups after 1945 (pp.141-3). Interestingly, Jacoby emphasizes that in fact the GDR at times adopted 19th-century bourgeois habitus and life-styles.
Remarkably, Jacoby constructs periods which document the changes and the finding of the official line of argument and supports these with telling statements, events and primary sources. Additionally, she convincingly presents the positioning of different artists within the emerging regime, and illustrates how the experiences of artists in the inter-war period determined their actions after the war and how some artist groups reactivated themselves. Moreover, she points out the various strategies of assimilation, contribution to or rejection of the new state. Individually, these options could result in exile or inner emigration (which is mentioned only briefly) just as much as leading positions in the new cultural institutions, early integration and later official discrediting. Some of her examples for different career patterns are those of Hans and Lea Grundig, Herbert Gute, Fritz Duda, Edmund Kesting, Siegfried Donndorf, Carl Hofer or Oskar Nerlinger.
Jacoby uses the transformation of groups like das ufer or der ruf (both situated in Dresden) to highlight the different processes of collectivization which annihilated niches for independent artist groups besides the centralized VBK – Association of Visual Artists – founded in 1951. She emphasizes the importance, preparation and retrospective judgment of the three major art exhibitions in Dresden in 1946, 1949 and 1953 which marked the years of construction and consolidation. This third chapter stands out as the best since in it theoretical reflections and archival findings are finally brought together. Jacoby also describes the difficulties of cultural policy measures like the so-called Künstlerbrigaden and the Laienzirkel when they were unsuccessfully put into practice. The final chapter – an edited reprint of an earlier essay – introduces yet again new concepts like the Erinnerungsgesellschaft [memory society] and theWahrheitdiskurs [discourse of truth] while the book features neither a concise summary of results nor verification of earlier theses. Though at certain points the author included summaries or repeated important findings at the end of her subchapters, the general coherence and comprehensiveness of the book could have been greater.
The title sounds promising but appears to be inappropriate. Jacoby has carefully constructed her methodological concept, but it often remains detached from the empirical investigation. Furthermore, diverging from the promises of her introductory outline, Jacoby refrains from stylistic analyzes except for very few cases when images are used to highlight group processes and their role within society at large; the paradigmatic debate about formalism only appears in the last chapter. In contrast to the announced interdisciplinary approach, the exploration remains largely sociological. Though it does not reduce the quality of the work as such, historical developments are treated only superficially, repressions or persecutions are not included; the non-cultural sphere is rarely addressed.
An additional, organizational problem is that Jacoby often relegates qualified results of excellent archival research to her footnotes. However, including this information into the main body often would have clarified her argument as well as facilitated the narrative flow. The scientific jargon, particularly strong in the first chapter, diminishes her study’s potential contribution to the field; especially the complicated methodological explanations are rarely applied effectively to enlighten the object under scrutiny. Thus, Kollektivierung der Phantasie? unnecessarily restricts its audience to a small group of dedicated experts. These weaknesses notwithstanding, the book presents a novel and in several ways enlightening approach. This work surpasses the previous discourses on art in the GDR which have hardly transcended moral judgments and restricted research of the immediate post-War years to the ideological construction of the GDR and its various forced nationalization projects.

[1] [Nach R.Inglehart] „Sozialer und kultureller Wandel […] beruhen auf äußeren Einflüssen, die Ereignis, Ort, Zeit und den Kontext der Erscheinung betreffen und finde statt, wenn wirtschaftliche, technologische, gesellschaftliche und politische Gegebenheiten in Bewegung geraten“ that is „Social and cultural change are based on external factors, that influence events, place, time and context of the phenomenon and take place, when economic, technological, societal and political givens are transforming." „Für die Entstehung gegenkultureller Bewegungen sind Orientierungskonstruktionen, bei gleichzeitiger Anbindung und Verbindung Gleichgesinnter, sowie die Bündelung von Interessen grundlegend. […] Gegenkulturelle Vorstellungen werden zunächst in der Adaption der vorgestellten Ordnung an einen spezifischen Lebensstil sichtbar und über Ritualisierung in Isolation hergestellt“ (p.40) that is "Constructions for orientation as well as parallel bonding and connecting to like-minded, and the fusion of common interest are fundamental for the creation of counter-cultural movements. Countercultural visions are first visible in the adoption of the imagined structure to a specific life-style and are produced through ritualizing in isolation." „Die Ästhetisierung der Lebenswelt – also die kritische Verbindung von Kunst und Leben, resp. die Fortführung der ästhetischen Vorstellungen im kreativen Handeln, – birgt eine der möglichen gegenkulturellen Formen des sozialen Zusammenwirkens […]. Kunst hat die Umgestaltung des Lebens im Blickfeld; ästhetisches Potenzial kann deshalb als Antrieb für Wandlungsfähigkeit durchaus Bedeutung erlangen“ (pp.43-4)] that is "The aesthetisation of life-styles – meaning the critical connection of art and every-day life, explicitly the continuation of aesthetic visions in form of creative activities – contains one of the possible counter-cultural form of social gatherings. Art intends the changing of life; thus, aesthetic capacities can serve as accelerator for transformation processes.”