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Life and Opinions of the Sprayer of Zürich


The lesson every "Anglo-Saxon" learns after a few years in Europe is this: When Europeans begin pontificating on political subjects, don't take what they say as any sort of guide to what they'll do. I suppose this is universal, but I can't shake the feeling that there's more hypocritical grandstanding on this side of the Atlantic.

This also applies to artists and writers: there's usually a positive relationship between the level of epater-les-bourgeois provocation they aim for and their dependence on government subsidies and social approval. Josef Beuys was so traumatized at being fired from his professor post at the Duesseldorf Art Academy (for, among other things, doing away with entrance criteria) that he circulated protest postcards claiming he'd been "Ruined by [the] State." State and federal authorities shower even the most mediocre German literary talents with awards and prizes. Those who get them invariably accept them, and those who don't are consumed with envy. The same theatre director who burns German flags onstage will go to the wall to protest a minor change to his pension benefits. As Karl Mannheim once remarked of Heidelberg professors, the more given to heaven-stormingly radical speeches they were, the more meekly bourgeois their lives.

The rule is: pose as an anti-authoritarian rebel, but get the the subsidy application in on time, and if the state offers you a lifetime civil-servant post, take it! By all means bite the hand that feeds you (don't worry -- it'll keep coming back!). Never, ever slap it away.

The latest example is "The Sprayer of  Zürich," a man named Harald Naegeli (g). Naegeli started his artistic career in the late 1970s, spraying sinuous graffiti designs on buildings in Zürich in black spray-paint. This was, of course, illegal, so Naegeli kept his identity secret. He was caught after he forgot his glasses at one of his sites and returned for them. In 1981, he was sentenced to nine months in prison and a significant fine. Instead of serving his sentence, he fled Switzerland, staying in Duesseldorf and traveling around Europe. An international arrest warrant was issued for him. He was apprehended in 1984, and was required to serve out his sentence, despite interventions from various elite figures in Germany, such as Willy Brandt and Josef Beuys. After serving his time, he established himself in Duesseldorf, where he continues to produce some graffiti, as well as more conventional artworks.

So what's not to like? Certainly not the graffiti, which are elegant enough. But a recent radio interview on WDR5 was rather revealing. Naegeli rushed to reassure the interviewers that his work was "political" (and therefore, of course, Very Serious). Apparently, it was some sort of silent protest against of Switzlerand's bourgeois conformism and obsession with private property. Naegeli sniffs at today's graffiti artists because, he claims, they're not "political" enough. The interviewers seemed to share Naegeli's view , gently mocking the Swiss courts for going to such lengths to protect "sacred" private property.

But at the end of the interview, we learn something curious: Naegeli, who's now 70, does not have to work, because of a "rich inheritance." Of course, inheriting such large amounts of money is only possible in a social order that...protects private property. Naegeli also expressed dissatisfaction that no government authority had yet extended official historical-protection status to one of his plein-air works of art. Let's review: Use of state power to punish me for damaging other peoples' property without their consent: wrong. Use of state power to ensure I receive tons of cash without working for it, and that nobody else can damage my "property": right.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: artists, with rare exceptions, should be seen and not heard.*

* Let me clear a few things up. This post is about poseurs, not about my political and aesthetic positions, which are as follows:

Naegeli's graffiti? Delightful.

Arts subsidies? A fine investment, for which I gladly pay my taxes. Also, I want some! 

Cushy government jobs? I want one!

Private property? No problems with it. Have lots myself. 

Inheritance laws that permit parents to shower their children with unearned wealth? Not so hot on those, but they're probably unavoidable in a free legal order.

[Illustration: "Undine," a 1978 Naegeli graffito on a building at the University of Zurich (g)]