The End of Subculture:
A Trip to the Eighties

The Eighties are back—first in fashion and design, and now in art, too. Living in the midst of difficult times, we tend to reminisce about the rebellious hedonism of those years. Currently, it’s not only the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, with the support of Deutsche Bank, that’s taking a new look at the figurative painting of former West Germany. Munich’s Haus der Kunst is honoring West Berlin’s “Genial Dilettantes” and the New German Wave music scene with a major exhibition. But why are we so fascinated by this era again? Achim Drucks and Oliver Koerner von Gustorf take a trip in time.
B-Movie is the title of one of this summer’s unexpected film hits. In highly personal and authentic pictures, the documentary portrays a lost world: Berlin of the 1980s. The German front city of post-punk and New Wave feels like a distant universe, even though, thirty years ago, it laid the cornerstone for the clubs, exhibition spaces, and the city’s image as a creative hub—all the things that attract millions of tourists today. The film also clearly shows what was lost in the process. When compared to the capital’s cultural scene today, which is commercialized through and through, the walled-in Berlin biotope was far more innocent and infinitely more radical. Bands like Einstürzenden Neubauten, Malaria, and Die tödliche Doris, artists like Martin Kippenberger and the painters from Moritzplatz were venturing into completely new territory. During the era of Thatcher, Reagan, and Kohl, an entire generation freed itself from a belief in a secure future, and quite simply began doing what it had always wanted to do. In Berlin, Cologne, and New York, young people started using brown wrapping paper, wall paint, Xerox machines, and Super-8 film; they got their hands on instruments or built them themselves, sewed canvas and plastic together, and became—temporarily or long-term—“filmmakers,” “musicians,” “fashion designers,” “designers,” and “artists.”

This do-it-yourself approach to life was not limited to individual creativity, but also became closely tied to the appropriation of urban space. The eighties began as a squatters’ era, with demands for free space for alternative living. “There’s a war raging in the cities, and that’s a good thing,” said Blixa Bargeld, front man of the Einstürzende Neubauten, in 1981, alluding to the street riots between squatters and police that reached civil war proportions in the front city of Berlin: “For me, it’s the time of downfall, the ultimate end. This will go on for another three or four years, and then it will all be over.”

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq War, the fight against nuclear energy: the political situation in the early eighties conjured up an impending apocalypse. The future was already the next day. “Heute denken, Morgen fertig” (Think today, finished tomorrow” was one of Martin Kippenberger’s programmatic painting titles. This reckless, insolent speed isn’t entirely foreign to today’s generation of post-digital artists. The difference now, though, is that they’re faced with a powerful global market in which commercial success increasingly dictates artistic strategies. The attitude towards life back then was far more boisterous, marked by acceleration, intensity, and ironic ambivalence. The art of the time was like the music people played: “Everything was fast, very fast,” remarked the Cologne-based artist Walter Dahn in a conversation with Richard Prince in 1994. “I remember that I made twenty paintings in one night with Georg Dokoupil, and that was it. We had an extreme sense of time, rhythm, speed. We weren’t punk painters, but the music was playing all the time, and it stimulated us and made us faster.”

The idea that everything was possible arose in the alternative clubs, bars, book and record stores, galleries, and studios that sprouted up in Kreuzberg, Brixton, and the Lower East Side at the speed of light and then moved or closed down again. Under the pressure of disintegrating social systems and neo-conservative governments, however, it wasn’t only subcultures and alternative ideas that blossomed, but also a hedonist, excessive lifestyle that eventually spread to mass culture. The notion of “sustainability” was as yet completely unknown.

The “Last Days of Disco” were at hand, the new species Yuppie was born on Wall Street, people partied, earned money, and wasted it; people staged themselves. But the big explosion never came. The decades that followed led to an amazing discovery: that the collapse has become a part of everyday life. Fear of terrorism, the conflicts in the Middle East, the Euro crisis, waves of refugees, climate catastrophe: in a world that has become globalized and unpredictable, it’s not only future perspectives that have multiplied, but the various scenarios of impending doom, too. Three decades later, one could almost yearn for a time when the threats were close at hand, but seemed easier to grasp, a time when the East and West Blocs were separated by the Iron Curtain and formed clear fronts. Since the beginning of the new millennium, pop culture has rediscovered the eighties—albeit more as aesthetic material to play around with, retro appeal.
Whether you were walking through the streets of Brooklyn’s hip Williamsburg, London’s East End, or Berlin Mitte—for a long time, it was impossible to overlook all the fluorescent colors, asymmetrical hairstyles, and leggings. But while fashion is now already recycling the ’90s, big institutional art shows are turning to the ’80s to broaden the contemporary canon. For a long time it seemed that the figurative painting from this era was banned from the discourse. Except for conceptual positions such as Kippenberger and the Oehlen brothers, this kind of painting seemed to brandish its brushes way too much—it was one-dimensional, not intellectual enough. At a distance, though, it’s now possible to view these paintings in a more discerning way, to revise preconceptions. A look at the Städel exhibition shows that the stereotype of “wild” painting blots out a wide range of styles and formal approaches—and that this painting isn’t merely “painterly” at all, but that its roots lie in performance and political action, as was the case with SaloméLuciano Castelli, Helmut Middendorf, Rainer Fetting, and the painters of Moritzplatz.

Helmut Middendorf on "Electic Night". The painting is on view at the Deutsche Bank-sponsored exhibition "The 80s" at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt.

With their band Geile Tiere, Salomé and Castelli staged themselves as martial versions of the conferencier from Cabaret:  in leather pants, straps, and high heels, eyes lined heavily in black, they gave legendary performances during which they belted out their hit Alle sind wir geile Tiere (We’re all horny animals). “My painting came out of the political struggle, the will to emancipate and to represent male sexuality in another form. This didn’t exist so offensively in painting before. My paintings were also a form of resistance against the sexual norm prevailing at the time,” Salomé recently explained in an interview with ArtMag. At the same time, he stressed that the early performances of Marina Abramović and Ulay also inspired him.
On the other hand, the Cologne painters of the “Mülheimer Freiheit” adopted the visual vocabulary of “primitive” art, of Art Brut and Outsider Art. It was only on the surface that Peter Bömmels, Walter Dahn, and Jiri Georg Dokoupil were interested in the subjectivity of painting and “personal” expression. On the contrary, they were far more concerned with a rebellious act of piracy and the annihilation of the authentic individual style. “Continuities in my work do not interest me,” asserted Dokoupil in 1981. “I’m interested in work with breaks, contradictions.”

It wasn’t a matter of continuing the modernist project, but of sabotaging it—entirely in the vein of post-modernist thought, which had arrived at the end of the “grand narratives” and could only proceed in a recombination of existing images and ideas. For the artists of the early eighties, recycling expressive painting was a subversive gesture that questioned the possibilities of “authentic” expression in a society increasingly defined by technology and media. Part of punk’s subversive attitude was always the rejection of the allegedly authentic, the cynical idea that it was all a media performance, a “Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle,” a rebellion that negates itself in a commercial sellout.

In the early eighties, entertainment was located somewhere between pain and pleasure. “Listen with pain” was how one song by Einstürzende Neubauten expressed it. Together with the Neubauten, bands like Die Tödliche Doris or Sprung aus den Wolken put on “Die große Untergangsshow—Festival Genialer Dilletanten” (The great downfall show—festival of the brilliant dillettantes). The misspelling of the word “dilettante” was originally an error on the flyer, and in the book of the same name published by Merve Verlag, it was to become a synonym for the Berlin scene, where punk’s “do-it-yourself” attitude led to a unique blend of music, performance, and fine arts. As the show Genial Dilletantes at the Haus der Kunst in Munich makes clear, the scene in the early 1980s was not only inspired by the pop culture of the time during this brief phase, but also by Dada, Fluxus, and the Situationist movement of the 1960s. The notion of a separation between established art history and subculture applies even less here than it did in earlier decades.

Looking back, the images of this era seem like the relics of a romantic and somewhat naïve time, when the world was easier to comprehend, and borders could actually still be transgressed. The fact, however, is that the eighties ushered in the end of subculture. As the squatters, musicians, and artists moved into “problem” districts, the gentrification began, with real estate agents following in the footsteps of the creative avant-garde. This commercialization of the “underground” was powerfully accelerated by MTV, which now supplied an audience in the suburbs with images and trends from a subculture that had previously only been accessible to the initiated.

But perhaps it was easier to take a position in the eighties than in today’s globalized, chaotic world. Today, this decade seems like a schizophrenic era that oscillates between activism and cool indifference, painting and appropriation, punk and disco, shoulder pads and thin ties, hedonism and AIDS. “Anything goes,” the leitmotif of contemporary culture, is based on phenomena that became a part of mass culture in the eighties—the juxtaposition of styles, the appropriation and recombination of various different signs and influences. Now, the Internet supplies us with an inexhaustible reservoir of images and sounds that can be sampled, worked over, and combined in new ways. The influence 1980s thinking had on the present day can be seen in the Albert Oehlen retrospective at the New Museum in New York. It’s dedicated to a painter who stands for an absolute plurality of styles and a radical critique of the very idea of painting, but who uses all means to investigate the possibilities this medium still has. And it’s for exactly this reason that young American artists like  Wade Guyton, Kelley Walker, or Seth Price hold him in such high esteem. They, too, work with all conceivable means and strategies. Photoshop might have long since replaced the Xerox machine, but the principle has remained the same since the eighties: copy & paste.

The ’80s. Figurative Painting in West Germany
7/22 – 10/18/2015
Städel Museum, Frankfurt

“Genial Dilletantes”: Subculture in Germany in the 1980s
6/26 – 10/11/2015
Haus der Kunst, Munich