The Feuilleton and Its Discontents

Alexander Stern has an essay on the feuilleton which is as readable as it is erudite, no mean feat:

“In the beginning was the press, and then the world appeared.” So begins a satirical 1922 poem by Karl Kraus. A ruthless critic who regularly excoriated the press in his magazine The Torch, Kraus blamed German newspapers for the outbreak of World War I. He reserved a special hatred for the feuilleton (pronounced “fuh-yah-tawn”) section of the paper, which included, along with art, literature, and reviews, short impressionistic pieces about city life and culture. And he was far from the only one to bemoan “the age of the feuilleton,” as novelist Hermann Hesse dubbed it. In 1929 the philosopher Theodor Lessing, who would be assassinated by Nazis four years later, reflected that “feuilletonist” had become “the nastiest insult in the German language.”

Whence all this contempt for light reading material?

The answer is complicated, but lies somewhere at the intersection of a volatile political climate, quickly modernizing cities, and the emergence of mass culture. In papers like Die Frankfurter Zeitung, Das Berliner Tageblatt, and Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, German journalists attempted to come to terms with their fast-changing times, writing literary vignettes that reflected philosophically on culture, technology, and politics. The feuilleton section thus became a battleground over the meaning of modernity. The controversy it generated prefigured present-day concerns about the deterioration of attention and the media’s role in shaping—or, as Walter Benjamin suggested, generating—public opinion....

n modernity we are wrenched out of history, take up an “objective” viewpoint on our culture, and immediately find genuine connection to much of it gone. God dies, traditions wither, only the words remain. To the feuilletonist, in Benjamin’s view, this means we can finally think clearly. We can finally view religion, tradition, and so forth objectively—things that to premoderns were still obscure because they were too close to their culture, because the words meant too much.

The feuilletonist thus covers all his subjects with a finish of urbane, pseudo-philosophical detachment. Kraus wrote:

When a streetcar accident takes place in Vienna, the gentlemen [of the press] write about the nature of streetcars, about the nature of streetcar accidents, and about the nature of accidents in general, all with the viewpoint: what is man?

Glib generalization and a tone of seen-it-all skepticism seduces the reader and seems to lift them up into the writer’s realm of free-floating observation. Even when written in the first person, the feuilleton takes up a kind of third-person “I” that surveys the scene, wary and detached, hovering above the crowd. Judgments seem to emerge effortlessly. Individual observations always serve some unassailable universal point. Feuilletons were written with what Benjamin called a “false subjectivity that can be separated from the person and incorporated in the circulation of commodities.”

The feuilletonist is like a conversation partner who convinces you of something by assuming you already knew it. A tacit note of almost conspiratorial intimacy accompanies his opinions: This is just obvious to two people of our intellect and experience. The reader is, on the one hand, flattered without argument into accepting the view expressed, and, on the other, infantilized.

The result is the manufacture of opinion—not that the feuilleton necessarily indoctrinates its readers. Rather, it absolves them of having to think for themselves. “It is precisely the purpose of the public opinion generated by the press,” Benjamin wrote, “to make the public incapable of judging, to insinuate into it the attitude of someone irresponsible, uninformed.”

Read the whole thing, as they say. I love feuilletons, which don't exist in the English-speaking press. I've often thought of trying to import the genre, but there's probably a reason it doesn't seem to travel well. At first, the English-speaking reader is put off by the distinctive tone of amused, world-weary detachment. He's used to either facts or opinions, dammit, not some weirdly subjective mix of the two.

But once you get up to what masters like Roth and Kracauer and Tucholsky are up to, you're hooked.


That '70s Feeling: Jörg Immendorff's Revolutionary Struggle

MAO -- Materialien zur Analyse von Opposition (Materials for Analysis of the Opposition) is an online archive (g) of documents from the heyday of German Maoism. It collects flyers, magazines, manifestos, artwork, banners and other ephemera from the early- to mid-1970s, when some factions on the German left became enthusiastic adherents of Chairman Mao thought. The website is a bit hard to navigate, but you can tell it's a labor of love and probably dates from the 1990s, so gratitude is in order.

I stumbled on an interesting document, a review of a book by Jörg Immendorff. First, a bit of background. Immendorff was a Düsseldorf-based artist famous enough to have an English Wikipedia entry. He was a fixture of the Düsseldorf culture scene and a teacher at the Kunstakademie until his death from ALS in 2008. More on him later.

The book the Maoists review is entitled (my trans.): 'Here and Now: Do What Must Be Done. Jörg Immendorf. Materials for a Discussion: Art in Political Struggle. Whose Side Are You On, Culture-Creator?' Despite this engaging title, the book doesn't seem to have sold many copies and is now rare. This is the cover (from this antiquarian website (g) where you can buy the book for €120):  

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I'm sure this painting is by Immendorff himself. It isn't Hockney/Currin-esque ironically self-aware textureless or 'bad' painting. It's just clumsy. This is what most Immendorffs look like. If you're getting the idea that I don't dig him, you're right-on, man. I've always found his stuff unconvincing: either crowded and ugly, or flat and cliched.

But what about his political views? Like so many German lefty/culture types, Immendorff jumped onto the bandwagon of Maoism in the early 1970s. This book is obviously from that period.

A review of the book and the associated exhibition can be found in this 1973 agitprop flyer (g) from the Revolutionary Artists' Group, found on the archive website. Let me apologize in advance for the layout of this page from a self-proclaimed 'Artists' group'. Clearly, these Revolutionary Artists are mostly untrained, given what's on display in most of the pamphlet. Yet no matter how limited your means are, there's no excuse for pages clogged with unreadable clots of text like the one below. Apparently columns are tools of the bourgeoisie.

But let's forge ahead anyway. The handwritten title reads: "Progress at the anti-imperialist Culture Front!" and begins: "A book has just appeared from Comrade Jörg Immendorff, who is active in the Group of Revolutionary Artists -- Ruhr Struggle." 

  Duesseldorf_GRK_Ruhrkampf_1973_123_21

The review, misspelling Immendorff's name, reports breathlessly that he has decided 'to consciously place his artistic activity in the service of the people and the revolutionary proletariat'.

The article then reports on the exhibition accompanying the book, which was held in the Westphalian Artist's League in Münster. Both the exhibition and the book, the review states, 'show the attitude of a partisan artist who has developed away from bourgeois philistinism towards cultural creation marked by class struggle. Both (the exhibition and the book) are a declaration of war on the brainless bourgeois avant-garde...which have learned nothing from the anti-imperialist movement of 1968.'

During the entire exhibition, young members of the 'anti-imperialist league' staffed a book-table with 'revolutionary writings' inside the museum.

The exhibition also featured a roundtable discussion with members of the Communist Students' Association, the Anti-Imperialist League, the Group of Revolutionary Artists, and Immendorff. Immendorff admitted his works were not yet fully 'revolutionary', given their incompleteness and flaws, and thus that he sought 'discussion and critique' from the audience.

One critique focused on Immendorff's portraits of 'Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung', which were based on the works of Chinese 'people's artists'. One cannot simply import the stylistic devices of the Chinese revolutionary artists' Social Realism into German conditions, because the international class struggle is always defined by the particular historical, social, etc. etc. -- you get the picture. 

Immendorff's later history is well-known to all Germans. He continued producing masterpieces of socialist-realist artwork in the service of the international proletariat, donating every penny of profit to Third World liberation movements. He lived in a humble apartment in the working-class section of Düsseldorf, volunteering much of his time teaching painting to Turkish immigrant children. Even those who disagreed with his political views couldn't help admiring the depth of his commitment to social justice.

Oh wait, wrong Immendorff. While no doubt continuing to mouth the occasional revolutionary slogan, he went on to amass a fortune of between 15 and 18 million Euros (g) at the time of his death. He described his own philosophy of life as 'selfishness'. Late in life, he married a Romanian ingenue 30 years his junior (former student) and rechristened her Oda (after a Germanic god), last name Jaune. The French word for yellow, Immendorff's favorite color. Not hers.

But that didn't stop Immendorff from regularly renting luxury hotel rooms, to which he would invite groups of up to 15 prostitutes. There, he held hours-long cocaine orgies with them costing sums in the five-figure range. He was caught white-handed during one of these, so to speak, and eventually sentenced to 11 months' probation. At the time of this coke and champagne orgy, his wife Oda was in an advanced state of pregnancy. As a result of the prosecution, Immendorff nearly lost his comfortable civil-servant position as a teacher at the Düsseldorf art academy -- run by the state he no doubt routinely claimed to despise.

Just before he died, he changed his will to try to bestow upon the long-suffering Oda his entire fortune. This came as rather a disappointment to Immendorff's illegitimate son Jean-Louis, born in 1999. Immendorf ignored the letters and pictures his son sent him during his life, and took no interest in him. Fortunately, German law guaranteed the son an 1/8 of Immendorff's inheritance, no matter what Immendorff tried to arrange.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is yet another object lesson in why nobody should pay the slightest attention to the political opinions artists claim to have.

Especially, it must be said, German ones.


German Television is 'Low-Quality Schlock for Aging Viewers'

Thomas Rogers, a writer living in Berlin, takes to the pages of the New Republic to describe the oddity of 'Wetten, Dass...?' and the crappiness of German TV in general:

...[T]he mediocrity of [German] TV—and “Wetten Dass..?” in particular—is currently a particular source of national insecurity. Whereas other European countries, like Denmark and France, have impressed international audiences with high-quality shows like “Borgen” and “The Returned,” TV in Germany remains dominated by talk shows, schlocky crime procedurals, mediocre miniseries, and, well, “Wetten Dass..?”—or as a New York Times headline from last year described it, “Stupid German Tricks.” 

...Not only does the 33-year-old “Wetten Dass..?” seem to confirm a lot of the world’s less generous stereotypes of Germans—e.g. humorless, weird, with terrible taste in formalwear—its concept is also awkwardly difficult to explain....

For Hollywood stars used to appearing on “Kimmel” or “Conan,” [Markus] Lanz’s interview techniques—which often involve commenting on female stars’ appearance—can seem jarringly unpleasant and often sexist. When a baffled-looking Cameron Diaz appeared on the show this spring, Lanz asked her to stand up from the couch so two young boys could get a kiss from “one of the most beautiful women in the world.” She instead gave them high fives and awkwardly and silently sat back down.

On a cultural level, the show has also become a symbol of Germany’s continuing struggles to create good television. As television has emerged internationally as the new medium for sophisticated storytelling, public criticisms of the show, and German TV in general, have sharpened. In 2012,Spiegel published an interview with a top German media critic under the headline “Why are German TV shows so lousy?” Unlike the U.S., television in Germany is highly subsidized by the public.

Even if you ignore stunty shows like “Wetten Dass..?,” German narrative offerings have lacked the nuance and verve of high-end British, American, or Scandinavian productions. “Tatort,” the country’s most popular program, is an uneven cop show that often feels several decades out of date, and most other fictional TV shows perpetually reshuffle a few familiar elements (blonde doctor, romantic woes, rural hospital, Bavaria). As Lothar Mikos, the media critic, told Spiegel, the problem isn’t monetary, it’s the opposite: German broadcasters’ enormous bureaucracy and generous funding have largely insulated them from the need to innovate. And since younger people tend to watch American or British shows online anyways, there’s little to dissuade networks from creating more low-quality schlock for aging viewers.

Rogers has subscribed to the donut-hole theory: Germany does highbrow really well and lowbrow OK (but who cares), but the vast middlebrow area is a wasteland.


German Beatles? Nö, German Beefheart

The BBC has a short piece on Faust, who were supposed to be the German Beatles but turned into something more rich and strange:

However, a second stroke of fortune befell them when Richard Branson, young head of the fledgling Virgin Record label, decided he wanted a piece of the Krautrock action,signed up Faustand brought them to the UK. He released an album of their outtakes, The Faust Tapes, for the price of a single, in 1973 – its low price and (to ‘70s British rock fans) difficult content made it one of the most bought but least listened-to cult rock albums of the year.

The few who did get Faust, however, were highly influential – BBC radio DJ John Peel, critics like NME’s Ian MacDonald, future band members like Bill Drummond, Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Jim Kerr, all of whom found in Faust post-punk ideas before punk had ever happened. They had seen nothing like them, or their neo-Dadaist live act, which involved sofas, a pinball machine, power tools, TV sets and walls of tin cans.

Faust, however, hated English food, English studios and Branson himself – though today, an older and wiser Péron believes they behaved unreasonably towards him. Inevitably, Virgin dropped Faust. They disappeared in the 1980s altogether – one of their members, Rudolf Sosna (described by Péron as the “true genius” of the band) sadly died. However, in the 1990s, they re-emerged, finding appreciation and understanding from rock audiences schooled in Faust’s successors, such as the 80s German group Einstürzende Neubauten. Faust’s onstage arsenal was as bizarrely formidable as ever, including angle grinders and even a cement mixer.


The De-, Trans- and Re-funkulation of 'Kung Fu Fighting'

First, Carl Douglas' evergreen 1974 hit 'Kung Fu Fighting': 

And now, the near-simultaneous and deeply regrettable German ripoff 'Kung Fu Leute', from the hapless 'Kandy', who looks like he was dragged in off the street to read lyrics from a card:

Given Germany's role as self-appointed Sole Remaining Keeper of the Flame of Intellectual Property™, I can only hope Carl Douglas was handsomely compensated for the traumatic defunkification of his song. (Right?).

But wait! Deutschland redeems itself 30 years later when the German outfit the Mardi Gras Brass Band returns to the original English lyrics and turns KFF into a tuba-driven slow jam:

And now comes Erdmöbel with their own song about someone who remembers his lover by her 'kung fu fighting' ringtone. The video features two people with pure Nordic blood pretty faces kissing: 

But lest we forsake or fake the funk, let us conclude this musical journey with Cee Lo Green insanely buttshaking but way too short cover:


Our Mothers, Our Fathers as an Anti-War Film

I watched Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter ('Our Mothers, Our Fathers'), the three-part German miniseries that has recently been released to decidedly mixed reviews in the USA under the title 'Generation War'. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott calls it

an attempt to normalize German history. Its lesson is that ordinary Germans — “Our Mothers, Our Fathers,” in the original title — were not so different from anyone else, and deserve the empathy and understanding of their grandchildren.'

...There is good and bad on all sides, a dash of mercy mixed into the endless violence. But the suggestion that the Nazis were not the only bad guys in Eastern Europe in the early 1940s is undermined by the film’s disinclination to show the very worst of what the Nazis did. We see massacres of Jews by local militias in Ukraine under the supervision of the SS, but “Generation War,” for all its geographical range and military detail, steers clear of the death camps.

This omission has the effect of at least partly restoring the innocence of the characters and of perpetuating the notion that ordinary Germans were duped by the Nazis and ignorant of the extent of their crimes — that they were as much Hitler’s victims as his accomplices and did not know what he was doing. They also suffered, after all, but there is something troubling about how the filmmakers apportion this suffering.

Virtually all the reviews name-check the various controversies the film provoked -- Poles were especially frustrated by the depiction of Polish anti-Semitism among partisans.

I rather liked the movie. One thing that American reviewers may not appreciate is its simple technical proficiency. Americans are spoiled -- standards of dialogue, narrative pacing and production design are now so uniformly high in American television series that Americans take it for granted that backgrounds and sets will appear extremely plausible and detailed down to the last cigarette butt or car model, and that dialogue will sound as if it were actually being produced by people in the periods and professions the actors portray. This doesn't mean that show is worth watching or the plot is plausible, but the technical stuff will seem right.

In German shows, alas, this basic level of proficiency can't be taken for granted. Generation War looks authentic, although I'm sure there are minor flaws here and there. The combat scenes are chaotic and gritty, basically copies of Steven Spielberg. Which is fine by me -- nobody does combat scenes in middlebrow war movies better than Spielberg, and there's not much room for individual experimentation, so why not copy the master? The director, Philipp Kadelbach, has worked hard at creating a bloody, gritty, nasty, violent combat background, and deserves kudos for pulling that off.

It's also refreshing to see a German movie that other nations are interested in seeing. German cinema is in at least the third decade of doldrums, producing far too many portentous didactic pieces about parochial social issues or navel-gazing rides on the hobbyhorses of the urban bourgeoisie. Germans are well aware of this problem, which is the subject anguished hand-wringing every year as the German Film Prize goes to yet another group of movies that few have seen and which sink rapidly into oblivion.

One of the culprits is the script review process, necessary to get the public funds with which these movies are made. Any juice these movies might have had is patiently extracted during this process, in which squeamish, picky film bureaucrats carefully remove most traces of originality, political incorrectness, or excessive action. I myself have seen a film script with the review marks of numerous of these prigs, whose favorite means of removing interesting scenes from movies is the phrase 'zu Hollywood' (too Hollywood). Generation War is hardly profound auteur cinema, but it's a gripping, well-made middlebrow drama with well-defined characters (the cast, as is usually the case in German movies, is outstanding) and which doesn't shy away from controversy.

The critics who carp that the movie doesn't do precely-calibrated justice to all who suffered under German rule (no death camps? Polish anti-Semites?) are missing the point. The typical German film would have tried to placate every constituency, and would for just that reason have been a pedagogic exercise. The movie focusses on the five main characters, showing 'their' wars. We see German soldiers committing plenty of atrocities, and witness ordinary Germans gleefully parroting militaristic and anti-Semitic propaganda, denouncing one another, and ruthlessly executing women and children. Not all of the five main characters survive, and the ones who do are all morally compromised. The fact that they also display some sympathetic qualities such as loyalty to friends hardly counts as whitewashing.

American critics seem blind to the fact that Generation War is an anti-war film. Americans and Britons approach a German movie about World War II with an iron framework of anticipations and preconceptions that focus narrowly on one question: Are the Germans somehow trying to whitewash their unspeakable past? Once you put aside this tired framing, you see that Generation War is about the human stupidity, groupthink, and cowardice that lead to war. The non-Jewish German characters start out swallowing Hitler's propaganda about a quick war and the international Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy (while excepting their Jewish friend Viktor Goldstein under the motto of Karl Lueger, former mayor of Vienna: 'Wer ein Jud' ist, bestimme ich' (g) -- 'I decide who's a Jew'). The rest of the movie grinds each of the four non-Jewish characters through a relentless nightmare of betrayal, hypocrisy, moral corruption, and violence that kills a few of them and leaves the rest permanently scarred and profoundly cynical. The viewer is meant to experience this as just retribution for their gullibility and gradually-expanding complicity in evil.

Generation War is a German movie that shows the horror and futility of any war anywhere. It's a straightforward, not-particularly-subtle morality tale about the dangers of nationalism and militarism. American critics might have given that aspect of the movie some thought, considering that just 11 years ago, Americans were -- with truly embarrassing ease -- suckered into supporting a pointless, brutal occupation that has now left over a million injured, 270,000 of whom have brain injuries (counting Afghanistan), not to mention the countless millions of Iraqis and Afghans killed and injured. Whether the echo was intentional or not, it's telling that one of the German characters, fighting partisans and the Red Army on the front lines in Russia, muses bitterly that just three years ago, the German army was 'greeted as liberators' from Bolshevism.


Classical Music Circling the Drain in the USA

Another in the regular dispatches from America's moribund classical-music scene:

Live classical music is less commercially viable than ever. Attendance per concert has fallen, according to Robert Flanagan, an emeritus professor at Stanford. But “even if every seat were filled, the vast majority of U.S. symphony orchestras still would face significant performance deficits.” Live orchestral music is essentially a charity case. A Bloomberg story on the recent wave of orchestra bankruptcies (an unheard-of phenomenon outside of the U.S., says Flanagan) notes that by 2005, orchestras got more money from donations than from ticket sales. The New York City Opera, once hailed as the “people’s opera,” filed for bankruptcy in October. If the “people” want opera, they’ve got a funny way of showing it.

...

If classical music was merely becoming the realm of the old—an art form that many of us might grow into appreciating—that might be manageable. But Sandow’s data on the demographics of classical audiences suggest something worse. Younger fans arenot converting to classical music as they age. The last generation to broadly love classical music may simply be aging, like World War I veterans, out of existence.

What about making music? In 1992, 4.2 percent of American adults reported performing or practicing classical music at least once in the previous year.

By 2012, the number had dropped to 2 percent (compared with, say, the 5 percent of Americans who reported they created “pottery, ceramics or jewelry.”)

The only thing that can save classical music in America is a recognition by politicians of all parties that classical performance will never pay for itself, will never be popular with the mainstream, and is yet important enough to deserve large subsidies to prevent its ultimate disappearance.

And that will never happen.


Conan O'Brien Inspects a Kotzbecken and Confronts Harald Schmidt's Producer

I stumbled on this 1997 Conan O'Brien segment recently. Far from his best work, but of sociological value for showing Americans a genuine German Kotzbecken (puking-sink) and, even more entertainingly, exposing Harald Schmidt's relentless plagiarism of American late-night television:

Just underneath the video: DISABLING COMMENTS - YOU PEOPLE ARE ALL CHILDISH DOLTS. THIS IS A COMEDY VIDEO. ENOUGH WITH THE COUNTRY BASHING.

Arrgh, what I would have given to read those. Perhaps we can re-create some COUNTRY BASHING right here, folks -- what do you say?


One Man's Cheesy '90s Nostalgia is Another Man's Hot Trend

We Anglo-Saxons are a race of reckless innovators, especially those of us who risked everything to cross the Atlantic and found the Land of Opportunity. It's our job to create the trends everyone else imitates, and we take it on gladly. Meanwhile, we look at the Continent with bemusement. There, 'stars' that would long have been forced down into the septic tank of obscurity continue to be venerated by millions of people. Hugh Schofield noted the curious French tolerance of Johnny Hallyday:

In fact, when one looks around, one realises that there is an unusual level of flattery - one might even say obsequiousness - in French public life, especially when it comes to culture.

If you have ever watched French television, you will get the picture.

A typical mid-evening programme is a chat show on which the invitees are members of the small, unchanging - and therefore ageing - club of national celebrities.

Behind in rows of seats, a youthful audience hand-picked for telegenic good looks bursts into applause at every anecdote or hackneyed clip from the archives.

At the more serious end of the market, the annual literary season is in September, when there is a rush of new publications and the big book prizes like the Goncourt are announced.

Here, too, listening to the reviews is like being beaten about the head with a powder puff.

Nothing is ever mediocre, let alone bad.

Everything is uplifting, exquisite, crafted, delicate, challenging, or that most irritating of French words: "engage", which means "committed", though to what is never spelled out.

...

One realises after a while that the French view their stars almost as members of the family. They enjoy going to see them in the same way they enjoy catching up with the latest family gossip.

That kind of conservatism is actually quite refreshing after the brutal neophilia (the constant need for the new and the culling of everything that is familiar) that one associates with British culture.

The bad reason is that it is all about self-protection.

Succumbing to sycophancy, after all, is a way of reassuring oneself that all is good in the world, when clearly it is not.

Seen like that, the French are merely deluding themselves that their culture matters the way it once did: sticking their fingers in their ears, if you like, and whistling to Johnny Hallyday.

Much of this applies equally to Germany. Die Zeit, despite its many virtues, is probably the worst offender here, dutifully reprinting every syllable that drops from the mouth of Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Helmut Schmidt. In the culture pages, virtually every writer, no matter how obscure, is dutifully given the epithet groß (great). Pop acts that are long-forgotten (or who have degenerated into jokes) in the Anglo-Saxon world --  Metallica, Ozzie Osbourne (g) -- fondly embrace Germany as a sort of geriatro-rocker retirement home. Quondam innovators Kraftwerk, who haven't released any genuinely new music in decades, continue to pack them in in Germany (and to be fair, MOMA, where their concerts were billed as a 'curated' retrospective, drenched with nostalgia).

Which brings me to this clip from the 1996 direct-to-video movie 'Vibrations':

Someone in the US unearthed it and it's become a minor Internet sensation under the heading '90s nostalgia. Yet in Germany, 'techno' music is alive and well -- in fact, the 2010 version of the Love Parade attracted almost a million people. If it hadn't been for the overcrowding that killed 21 people at that event, it would still be going on.