Interlude: The writing on the wall

We’ve just passed the one-year anniversary of our round-the-world adventure, and it’s been nearly six months since our winter trip to France and Germany. Although we’ve totally upended our lives and moved into an RV, at the moment that isn’t creating much in the way of compelling content. Instead, we thought we’d share some travel photos that haven’t yet made it on the blog.

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One of the things we loved so much about Berlin was the stunning array of street art. Berlin’s street art tradition is now known worldwide; the city was recently designated an official City of Design by UNESCO. (Oddly, Detroit is the only U.S. selection.)

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The vibrant street art culture is widely thought to have developed in response to the Berlin Wall, which was initially a rudimentary barbed-wire fence. In the eighties, however, “the initial barbed wire fence introduced in the 1960s grew into a sophisticated security system of concrete walls, electric fences and guard towers, separating the East side from the West, embodying all the anxieties of the Cold War in the most concrete of senses. During the eighties, the wall was reconstructed and raised to 14 feet tall, which made it a perfect message board, a blank canvas for artists and dissatisfied individuals of West Berlin to express their opinions and affiliations. The initial impulse to paint on the Wall came not from the Berliners, but early settlers in the American-occupied sector consisting of draft resisters, anarchist punks, and Turkish migrants, who used the wall to express their thoughts and beliefs.” -Berlin Street Art History

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“The Berlin Wall also became the meeting point for the first generation of graffiti writers, some of them children of U.S. servicemen, who brought the booming spirit of their local graffiti culture to West Berlin. It is one of the main reasons why initial graffiti writings were heavily influenced by the New York graffiti scene. As the paintings on the west side of the Wall flourished, the east side was left with the blank, sterile wall surface, where free artistic expression on the one side became a marker of social and cultural differences of separate societies. All this changed after the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989, when the city as a whole became a playground for artists of both sides and street art scene thrived in the atmosphere of newly found freedom.” -Berlin Street Art History

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Today, Berlin is considered one of the most innovative and openminded cities in Europe, especially when it comes to gay rights. Fashion, music, photography and every other conceivable method of artistic expression flourish here. The city is rich with life and with creativity, but much of the street art still carries strong and direct political messages; the messages just may not be immediately apparent to the casual observer.

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Many of the most sought-after muralists are given free rein to paint on buildings, bridges and walls, and the street art is certainly part of what attracts tourists to Berlin. Street art – no matter how beautiful – is obviously vandalism if permission wasn’t granted, and Berlin’s gritty displays often make it difficult to determine what qualifies as art and what is simply the work of destructive hoodlums. Or do the two categories overlap?

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One interesting fact we learned on our walking tour of Berlin is that graffiti is still an act of protest here. On certain streets, we would see specific shops or homes or businesses absolutely covered in spray paint, while others remained perfectly clean. Our guide shared that these particular street artists are protesting Berlin’s rapid gentrification. Therefore, if they find out that a certain building has been purchased and longtime residents or shopkeepers forced out by rising rents, they’ll tag the building every single night. Every. Single. Night. Whether or not it’s scrubbed off the next day, they’ll be there again.

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And so we leave you with this question: what qualifies as art? And further, what qualifies as a valid (and effective) means of protest?

5 thoughts on “Interlude: The writing on the wall

  1. Yikes Elizabeth, By asking these two questions you’ve gone political, opening a can of worms…but I guess worms are edible. I love discussing politics so I’ll jump right in. what qualifies as art? I became disenchanted with art at an early age. In grade school the teachers always made us draw. I was lousy at it and thought it was boring. I got a lot of ‘go back and do it again’ and just passing grades. I lived in NY and few years later, I was taken to the Guggenheim Museum. There I saw the same things I made in grade school now being valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. For example, a piece of white construction paper overlapping a black piece of construction paper. I guess I should sue my grade school teachers for squelching my innate talent. I could have been rich if it wasn’t for their criticism.

    Eventually I went to other museums on school projects and saw art that was really beautiful and meaningful so I have some appreciation for it. But then I heard about the ‘artist’ who put a crucifix in a vat of urine and won…I just googled it, it’s called Piss Christ. And it won an award and was sponsored by our tax dollars. Not a good investment as far as I’m concerned nor do I think it’s art. It’s a political or religious statement and I don’t have a problem with it from that perspective but it doesn’t meet my concept of art. What is art? It’s like what is porno? Like the judge said, I know it when I see it.

    And further, what qualifies as a valid (and effective) means of protest?
    As someone who has been tear gassed, pepper sprayed and arrested without charges it’s my opinion that a valid protest is anything that doesn’t destroy or deface property or physically injure others. It’s valid if it effects change or at least gets people talking. It’s a bit like what the politician tells the newspaper reporter, ‘I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right.’

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    • Marty, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I too struggle with the definition of art, because I know what I like and what I think just looks silly or childish. And then of course, should we always “like” art? Maybe it should challenge us? In reference to your comment on the crucifix in urine, I’m reminded of “The Bed” by Tracey Emin (just her messy bedroom, recreated in a museum) and Damien Hirst putting a shark into a container of formaldehyde. I don’t consider either of these to be art, yet they’re worth millions and of course you couldn’t buy them anyway. Art is a complicated topic.

      And as for protest, I’m not too certain of that, either. Often protest comes across as a lot of yelling and smashing of things, and I don’t know what that’s intended to accomplish. I remember when a young man in Seattle was arrested while protesting the World Economic Forum and the advance of capitalism; he was arrested wearing Nikes and the media made much of it. Were the Watts or Compton riots valid protests? What about the more recent “Pussy Hat” movement? Has anything changed as a result of these actions?

      In summary, I’d say that I simply don’t know, but I do think it’s important to discuss. We appreciate you reading and commenting.

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      • To me, there was nothing valid about the Watts riot. It was violent and destructive. I remember the Korean store owners ready to defend their businesses with weapons against the rioters and looters and I supported the Koreans taking all means necessary to protect what they’ve worked and sacrificed for so diligently.
        I didn’t have a problem with the Pussy Hat protests because: 1) It was non-violent 2) I like the name.
        But I don’t know what they were protesting. “He’s not my president” means what? He is everyone’s prez, even though I didn’t vote for him either. Protesters are trying to get something accomplished, either to have or prevent certain action. What did the Pussy Hats want to accomplish? Everyone knew Trump wasn’t there choice by counting the votes.
        I guess a protest can be considered a failure if it fizzles and doesn’t spark any interest.

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      • “I guess a protest can be considered a failure if it fizzles and doesn’t spark any interest.” Agreed. I also think that many protests in First World countries aren’t particularly effective because we aren’t actually hugely affected by whatever we’re protesting against – whereas protests like the Arab Spring began because people were starving, and that’s a big motivator. And therefore change *has* to happen there, but here it really doesn’t.

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      • Ref “many protests in First World countries aren’t particularly effective because we aren’t actually hugely affected by whatever we’re protesting against” I agree.
        Ref ” – whereas protests like the Arab Spring began because people were starving,” This doesn’t change the gist of your premise and maybe it’s just a technicality but the Arab Spring burst spontaneously out of intense frustration and anger in Tunisia because of gov’t corruption, inflation, unemployment but not starvation. In the 22 Arab countries, there is a lot of poverty but as far as I’m aware, not starvation. Even the refugee camps have a adequate, though meager, diet. In places where there is civil war such as Syria and Yemen, sure, that creates food shortages and maybe starvation but it’s after the fact, that is, those civil wars began after the Arab Spring and didn’t cause them.

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