Monday, July 28, 2008

The Sexy and the Unsexy Poor

Two posts which seem connected in some way with the idea of Berlin techno as the music of the creative classes at Leniency and Blissblog. Of course much of this could be summed up by I.T's remark on 'creative districts' like Kreuzberg' a while ago: 'the kind of let-it-all-hang-out type places where anything might happen, but whatever does it's unlikely to be interesting'. There is, however, always a hint with this kind of rhetoric that only suffering, grimness and the general chaos and poverty found so easily in London (or in the other branches of the 'shanty house' continuum) can produce great art. This is similar to the idea that say, Sweden is inherently a cultural and philosophical desert full of last men and with an astronomical suicide rate, because a society which almost obliterated poverty is somehow unsexy.

In an interesting bit of passive boosterism, 'poor but sexy' was the phrase Mayor (and possible future SPD leadership candidate) Klaus Wowereit used to describe Berlin. Although this was intended to refer to a capital without the speculation-enhanced cokehead confidence that so disfigures London, it has a very different resonance depending on where you might be living - in the tower blocks of Marzahn, rather than in a repainted Mietskaserne in Prenzlauer Berg, say. Some are condemned to be poor without being sexy. That the Mayor's SPD administration have been absolutely up to their necks in privatisations and in the immisseration of the Unsexy Poor is perhaps the unspoken undercurrent of this oft-quoted line. The problem with the ideology of Creativity (other than when it is - frequently - used as an alibi for gentrification) is that it assumes that the rest of the world doesn't exist. These people don't think they belong to any class, and aren't remotely interested in what exactly happened to the industries, and the workers who worked in them, which once dominated eastern Berlin.

The ideology of the creatives is fundamentally ahistorical, and ignorant of its surroundings. If there were any other Western capital that had rents as cheap as Berlin's, then the exact same people would, for the most part, be doing the exact same things there*. A space, as the phrase always has it, is always by definition nothing and nowhere before it became a boutique, gallery, club, and before the minimalist cottage industry moves in, irrespective of the pleasures of industrial chic. This is why Ben's citation of Walter Benjamin's technik, hostile to 'the dilettante luxuriating in creation' at a distance from real production, is so important here. The idea of a society in which artistic production becomes indistinguishable from leisure is still a utopian one. The smug jetset aesthete at the gallery opening might carry an accidentally liberatory charge - but only if one forgets the very real spatial and economic processes they are implicated in, to mostly malign effect. A friend of mine from Hamburg once expressed his utter disdain for Berlin's Kastanienallee with the words 'it's not real'. Partly that's a refusal to believe that life could ever revolve around something other than work-consume-etc, but also quite rightly recognises that the Sexy Poor exist only because they are insulated - by their trust funds, by arts grants, by the happenstance that rent is cheap in a capital without a financial district - from the world most people live in.

* (although this isn't intended as a blanket statement about techno - unlike the Global Underground boredom cited by Simon, Berlin techno at best has an intense feeling of place - Basic Channel sounds as utterly Berlin as any Jungle record sounds ineluctably London)


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