In 2018, the State of Berlin holds the annually rotating chairmanship of the Bauhaus Association 2019. We spoke with the new chairman of the board of trustees, Klaus Lederer (party affiliation: Die Linke).
Dr. Klaus Lederer is deputy of the Governing Mayor of Berlin and Senator for Culture and Europe. His state took over the chairmanship of the Bauhaus Association 2019 in 2018. We talked to him about the social dimension of the Bauhaus, Berlin's plans for the big anniversary year, and education as a machine for the reproduction of privileges.
Mr. Lederer, what does “bauhaus now” mean to you?
The Bauhaus is of course still influential today in various forms, in different art tendencies and also in many different fields of artistic creation. When I travel to Tel Aviv, I walk through an entire city that has been shaped by the Bauhaus. When I enter a porcelain shop, it comes at me from every nook and cranny. From everyday utilitarian objects to design, from photography to architecture, the Bauhaus continues to be present – even if most people are not necessarily directly aware of it.
Apart from that, the Bauhaus school is of course an era of the past that emerged within a specific historical context, a context that it cannot be intuitively removed from. As such, Bauhaus is history. When we talk about 100 years since the Bauhaus was founded, then we are talking about what influence it still has today, in the sense of: What can we lay bare from its buried roots and take with us as a set of tools with which to deal with the challenges of today?
The Bauhaus was not just any old art movement or school of art, it was also of eminent political significance. We live in a time in which so many questions that the last two generations perhaps thought had been cleared up and resolved are now arising again in a completely new form, which makes it worth taking a closer look: What actually happened 100 years ago – and how were challenges dealt with back then?
Do you understand the centenary motto more as “100 years long” or more as “100 years ago”?
It’s both. After the Werkbund debates about the function of art in society were interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War, Bauhaus for me was the attempt to start afresh, to place such questions on the daily agenda at a time when Europe was permeated by a revolutionary spirit. And this revolutionary spirit is reflected in the art of the time, in an idealistic, revolutionary aspiration for art. Someone like Gropius personifies that in a prototypical way. Nonetheless, it was not simply all over in 1933. What actually happened was that very different branches, as it were, developed from these roots. And these are intertwined in a very intricate way with the history of society in the 20th century.
I would like to name one example. Until March 2018, Berlin’s Bauhaus-Archiv is showing its exhibition on the New Bauhaus in Chicago, which was only able to come into being after Moholy-Nagy and others were forced into exile. On the other hand, we have someone like Hannes Meyer, who, in the late 1920s, very briefly but with a very, very strong commitment to a political ambition made his mark on the Bauhaus before he headed into exile in the direction of the Soviet Union. So, as you can see, from these Bauhaus roots a network has ultimately developed that continues to this day to exert its influence in very different ways, exerting an impact on photography, design, commercial art, architecture – and this network is international.
In 2019, to mark the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus, a celebration with international resonance will take place throughout Germany. What significance does the split in social democracy between “social democrats” and “The Left”, which also saw its 100-year anniversary last year, have for you?
On the one hand, I think this split survived inasmuch as neither the social-reformist left nor the social-revolutionary left was able to bring about fundamental changes to capitalism by 1989/90 at the latest. Both of them basically failed. Which is why, since 1989/90 we have been faced with the task of reinventing a left wing that is pragmatic enough to operate in the here and now within the given margins, but which is also visionary and mobilising enough to think beyond the present day and to question certain structures in our society, and to do so beyond the national context [of Germany].
At present, one has the feeling that the fracture and the sheer lack of ideas among those on the left has led to its marginalisation. The left has not really managed to take a broader view beyond the framework of the nation state. What does a contemporary left wing do, one that is critical of capitalism and wants to do more than just adapt to external change processes, that does not want to just comprehend and affirm what THE globalisation, THE international finance markets, THE international interdependencies among economic players, and THE international capital flows do to affect our lives?
What is it about the Bauhaus that surprised you the most since you also started dealing with it professionally?
In a certain sense, I am a classic postmodern person who cannot really separate the professional from the private. That is, in one sense, not at all good, especially when you have a profession that is really exciting. Then again, it is also really nice, because it gives me the chance to repeatedly take on new challenges beyond the merely professional, and also to learn new things. As such, the Bauhaus is not something about which I could say there was a Bauhaus before my time as Senator for Cultural Affairs, and a Bauhaus during that time. It’s an on-going learning process.
What topics have you observed in the current cultural sector that you would also see as being connected to Bauhaus?
That which is intensively discussed at present reminds me very much of the famous dictum of Hannes Meyer, “the needs of the people rather than the needs of luxury” – which is to say, the social function of art. Art is not something that should be used by the upper class to fulfil its desire to distinguish itself, nor should it serve to entertain and indulge a small section of the population. Art is something that is extremely important, especially in the social process of self-understanding.
We talk today about democratisation in the creation of art, such as participation in art becoming more democratic thanks to digitalisation, and we discuss diversity in the art sector, that is: How is the diversity in our society, which is one affected by migration, reflected in the institutions, in the various art disciplines – on the stage, behind the stage, in the audience and in the programme?
We are currently discussing colonialism and the question of whether that was a short era in the history of Germany, or whether it was not in reality a European mindset that inscribed itself deep into the power relations in society, and also into people’s brains. What we today consider to be classical music is only a very small portion of all the exciting, innovative and artistic steps that have been tread worldwide. I believe that something entirely new is now happening there, a reaction as it were to economic globalisation.
First the Nazis forced the Bauhaus to disband, then the socialists prevented it from re-establishing itself after the war. One hundred years later, eleven German state governments – from the Linke to the Greens and SPD to the FDP and CDU – are celebrating its establishment. How can we give back to the Bauhaus the edginess it had that made it provocative and famous?
If one were cynical, one could say: Only a dead Bauhaus is a good Bauhaus, because that would make it easier to celebrate. Today, without that edge, all everyone refers to is its easy-to-sell commercial design or to the cultural heritage sites that are all over the world, from Chicago and Berlin, Dessau and Weimar to Tel Aviv. But of course, taking a closer look at historical eras where there was friction between art and society can, ideally, also be a real source of inspiration for us today. Particularly in the sense I have just described, namely: What do we actually do with the challenges facing us today, how do we deal with them, how does art deal with them, how does society deal with them, what helps us to move forward? That for me is the really demanding aspect of this centenary year.
The big opening week of 100 years of bauhaus will take place in Berlin at the beginning of 2019. What other events can Berliners and visitors to Berlin look forward to in the centenary year?
Berlin is host to two initiative projects that are part of 100 years of bauhaus: the opening event I just mentioned, which will take place at the Akademie der Künste on Hanseatenweg, and also bauhaus imaginista at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. For that, Bernd Scherer and the team of curators around Marion von Osten and Grant Watson bring together unbelievably interesting contemporary issues with retrospective views on the history of art. And they do so in a very international, thus very diverse way. In addition, the Berlinische Galerie will be showing the big centenary exhibition that will also take place in the other two Bauhaus cities, each with a different focus.
Our Monument Authority will also focus next year on the architecture of modernism and post-war modernism. This is something that is especially interesting in a divided city like Berlin. But I am also looking forward to civic initiatives such as “Tautes Heim”, a kind of overnight-stay museum in the Bruno Taut housing estate, organised by a very small, dedicated circle of people who want to make the world heritage residential estates in Berlin better known. Beyond that, I also hope, of course, that there will be artists who will deal with social or aesthetic issues that make use in one way or another of borrowings from the Bauhaus.
What objectives have you set for your year as chair?
We are first among equals and, as such, we have neither the authority to set guidelines, nor are we the ones to command what happens. But we are bringing together what has grown in a decentralised manner. What is really nice, of course, is that we are making ties to the European Year of Cultural Heritage, which is being celebrated this year. If there is one thing that represents European cultural heritage, then the Bauhaus is it. So we can use 2018 to arouse the public’s interest in what is coming in 2019 and to generate excitement to see what the Bauhaus centenary has to offer. And, naturally, we can use the opportunity to spark initiatives, bring people together and advance the matters that are important to us.
Speaking of the European Year of Cultural Heritage: What highlights can be seen currently in Berlin?
We are forging a link here between building culture, industrial culture and the culture of remembrance. One of the bigger projects, being done in cooperation with the Topography of Terror, is developing the former Tempelhof Airport into a place of remembrance, a place of building culture. With the Berlin Centre for Industrial Heritage (BZI), we have educational offerings on industrial culture. People don’t realise today that Berlin was once Europe’s biggest industrial city.
Let’s think forward to the year 2020: What had to happen in the previous year to give you the feeling, as a politician concerned with culture and as a politician on the left, that the funds that flowed into this centenary were worthwhile?
The hope that people’s awareness of what the Bauhaus was will have grown. It was more than a mere art movement or style. That we will, on the whole, perhaps also have done something to awaken more curiosity in the connections between art and intellectual currents, on the one hand, and the politics and society of the time on the other. With all the potential that emerges within this field of tension. It would be nice if that which we are able to lay bare of the Bauhaus heritage receives an entirely new and different impetus, a very different reception; if it is reflected differently in contemporary art. And I hope, of course, that we in Berlin – as a relatively “small” Bauhaus city in comparison to Weimar and Dessau – have managed to be excellent hosts for those who have come to celebrate the Bauhaus centenary with us – with a programme that offers a very broad spectrum, makes people think and conveys knowledge.
When you think about the spirit of the Bauhaus, what do you wish for with regard to education in this city, and in this country?
The real question is about how we see education – not merely as a waypoint towards fulfilling one’s potential as labour on the job market, but as a resource that is provided to all in equal measure in order to cope with the great challenges facing society. We are beginning small here by promoting free all-day schooling and free university study as well as – and this is the point where art policy and education policy meet – providing an infrastructure of cultural education that teaches aesthetics and aesthetic standards, or the ability to influence aesthetic standards. By also doing something to bring more focus back to the artistic disciplines, which have faced repeated cutbacks in our schools – and to do so whether in specially established institutions such as libraries, music schools and art schools, or at our traditional schools and universities. Berlin’s colleges of art are not that bad…
Let’s think back again to the founding of the Bauhaus. Do you believe that we need a completely new school here [in Germany] – or is it enough to simply further develop what exists?
One of the biggest problems in German educational policy is that the school system still acts like a machine for reproducing privilege, a system that reproduces a measure of social marginalisation and inequality of opportunity, and that is very much outdated. As is the Kleinstaaterei [the fragmented state responsibility for education in the federal system]. We no longer live in the age of the Kaiser. What everyone demands is mobility, but when you move with your family from one federal state to another, you suddenly realise that every federal state has its own school system. Making education more equal is a fundamental prerequisite for solving social inequalities in society. It is basically the condicio sine qua non – but it will naturally take more than that.
Thank you very much for talking with us, Mr. Lederer!