Currently at Lexander, we are showing in Los Angeles a selection of extremely rare original political posters of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), as part of the exhibition entitled “Before the Fall: Photographs & Political Posters of the German Democratic Republic.” This selection is the first part of a larger group of posters that will be exhibited at a later date. This is the very first time these posters are being exhibited in Los Angeles, and the United States in general.
One of the most fascinating aspects of East German poster art is how neglected a field this has been. While there has been some interest from a few academics here and there, in general the art of East Germany has been overshadowed by the art of other Communist Party states as the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (particularly the art of the Cultural Revolution era.) Even more fascinating is the level of ignorance in contemporary society regarding the history of East Germany, and the East Bloc states as a whole.
It is symptomatic of an emerging condition that has been studied and debated by communications theorists, most notably Marshall McLuhan, and postmodernist philosophers from Jean Baudrillard to Jacques Derrida. It is a condition that has been referred to by many names, and in many different contexts, but I call it the “malaise of the postmodern age.” It is a malaise in that George Orwell’s prophetic slogan in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH,” has actually started to become true, which is to say that the possibility of such a concept becoming true is now, in our age, a reality. And this is possible precisely due to the distant and artificial nature of our media-saturated society. The sheer amount of information that permeates every sector of the Internet and increases rapidly by the second has led to the phenomenon of “information overload.” The reality of “too much information” has had the opposite effect of educating people, but rather causing such a huge amount of overwhelm that they regress to the passive receipt of data through traditional mediums as television and radio and the tabloid media.
Take the simple reality of the existence of the German Democratic Republic, otherwise known as East Germany. As difficult as it may be for some in academia to believe, there are huge swaths of the American population who not only do not know anything about East Germany, but who do not know that such a state ever even existed. It is, after all, a vanished state. But, it has become so vanished that many people who grew up in the 1970s onward do not realize that post-World War II Germany became partitioned into two separate regimes with two fundamentally different and diametrically opposed political and economic systems. They likewise do not realize that one of those regimes dissolved and its territory annexed into the other.
We take it for granted that such vanished states actually at one point existed. Much of the reality of their existence has long since been wiped out and erased. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the populace of East Germany largely took it for granted that the way of life they had become accustomed to was now obsolete, and that they would be completely and totally absorbed into the social and political culture of the Federal Republic of Germany and its neoliberal capitalist infrastructure. They were unprepared for the spread of various social ills of the West into their territory, from violent neo-Nazi hooliganism to organized crime and human trafficking. Over the years, as the few remaining remnants of the German Democratic Republic began to completely disappear, many Germans who had lived and grown up in the East during the Communist era felt the onset of a sense of nostalgia for the vanished regime, whose existence the German government seemed to want to erase completely from the pages of the history books except as nothing more than a negative footnote in time.
In countries such as Germany and Russia, it is not easy for any government to ignore history or attempt to censor it. In countries such as these, the people do not forget so easily. But in the United States and the English-speaking world at large, such forgetfulness has become all too common. It has become expected, even anticipated. Despite all the information available to us, and the ease of transmission of communication and the affordability and access to education, whether formal or informal, in America and the Anglosphere, we find ourselves living in a culture of the Now. We are living in a culture where the past is no longer considered prologue, but as something unimportant, unnecessary, and even most perniciously, obsolete. For those of us in the arts and humanities who have a sense of history and knowledge, the past today remains as important and timely as it ever was. The past is, indeed, prologue.
Art is a window into that past, and as a consequence of such, a gateway into the future. That is one of the many facets of art, a mirror of limitless possibilities and aspects of knowledge. Without such possibilities, without access to such knowledge, what we are left with is sheer ignorance. Regardless of what many in the media would have us believe, there is no strength to be found in ignorance. Only stupidity, bigotry, and violence.
So many elements of our contemporary society seemed aimed at dumbing us down at every moment of the day, from billboard advertisements to celebrity gossip on the countless tabloid blogs out there, that art is a respite, a sanctuary from all of that. It is all literally senseless noise and static. Art is one of the last remaining avenues we have into a silent oasis of contemplation and knowledge. In both the art museum and the library, we still have a chance to enjoy the silence. It would be wonderful if the same could be said of private and commercial art galleries, but these are a dying lot. Silence isn’t trendy, after all. Loud, brash, and garish have become the popular memes of a rising sector of the art world. There are those few of us, however, who refuse to conform to such culturelessness, and uphold the high standards of culture and aesthetics that have defined the arts and humanities through the ages and promulgate the work of true and sincere artists who go against the grain of what is popular. True art awakens the dreamer out of the dream. Everything else debases and debilitates.
In the art of a vanished state, there is the opportunity to open one’s eyes and become more awake about the world and the history and travails of the human race. The state may have vanished, but fortunately, some remnants of its art will have survived. And in that survival we have the key to a knowledge that would cease to exist, as history in the form of tangible evidence and records is irrefutable and concrete.
We are pleased to be one of the very few galleries in the world offering such a window into the past. We will continue to do so far into the future.