Tuesday 4 June 2013

When artists stray into politics - the case of Christa Wolf

There are several warnings throughout the history about artists engaging in politics. There are the examples of scultors and writers living in Nazi Germany who felt the urge to cosy up to the regime more than necessary. And of course there are more recent examples of writers and painters who worked in Communist countries and tried, more or less successfully, to steer clear of political compromise.

I do not claim to know anything about the complexities of living in a dictatorship and wanting to practice your art. Clearly the line must have been a fine one as Shostakovich's work amply demonstrates. Yet once communism had been consigned to the dustbin of history, the troubles for some artists did not abate. In fact, in a way, for some, the demise of communism coincided with a decline in their artistic ability. Again, I have little insight into why this should be. What I do know however is that great art does not beget great political insight. Christa Wolf is a shining example for this.

Whilst her books 'Kassandra' and 'Medea. Voices' are brilliant explorations of the precarious positions of women in mainly superfluous masculine fights, her personal political views are nauseating. In her diary 'A day in the year' she charts her doubt and (mainly internal) criticism of the communist East German regime during the 1970s and 80s. Her words are sharp, well aimed and usually hit their target. After the regime crumbled her political instincts are becoming less certain. A nostalgia is creeping into her notes, culminating in a diatribe against 'Western' democracy in her entry for 2006. It is not a nostalgia for the East German communist regime so much as one for an idealised version of it. The passage is revealing and shocking in equal measure since it speaks of a political naivety that belies her astute political radar during communism.

Recounting a conversation with her manucurist she writes: 'She told me that the time she spent in the factory in the GDR was the best of her life, because of the solidarity amongst her fellow workers.' Continuing the theme (and taking over the narrative) Wolf now comments 'that the people today fear unemployment more than the Stasi [the secret police] in the GDR.' Her diatribe ends in claiming that Mr. Bush is a greater criminal than the few powerful rulers of the GDR could ever have been' (p.98).

This reveals a devastating refusal to distinguish between a totalitarian and a democratic state. To be clear, she does not simply equate East German's communist rulers to Bush's political mistakes, think what you will about his politics. She explicitly expresses a preference for the communist undemocratic politics over any democratic way of life. It is a shocking and devastating admission that Wolf never arrived nor understood the difference between communist and democratic politics. Most likely, it was a rejection of the choices and personal freedoms that democratic politics generate which she probably understood as a burden rather than a possibility.

In this sense, the decline of her artistic value after the communist regime disintegrated makes sense. It confronted her with the liberty to shape her own destiny, free from the constrictions of pre-conceived Marxist paths to Jerusalem. Wolf excelled at criticising the shining city on the hill, but never managed to cope with the freedom normal politics forces on us.

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