The Trilogie des Wiedersehens is surely a controversial play: there is no real plot but just a series of characters brought together into the space of an art exhibition. The audience is put in a critical position as they are asked to observe the attitude of the characters towards the works of art on stage as well as to analyze their own attitude towards the play. Taking the title given to the exhibition as a starting point, the main question I want to address is how the Trilogie depicts the effects of capitalism on the way art is experienced by the individual and how the function of the artist has changed with the emergence of a profit-centered society. Confronting the Trilogie with Steiner’s text Real Presences, I will see how the capitalistic process of commodification of reality can be understood in terms of the logic of the secondary, which aims at hampering the directness of art and at stifling its communicative power. In the light of these considerations I will also try to delineate the two opposite options that the play suggests about the development of art in a capitalistic society: either it succumbs to being objectified and turned into intellectual merchandise, or it becomes a means through which the self can transcend his individuality and thus reach a spiritual and moral liberation. Eventually, taking into account Theodor Adorno’s theories about cultural industry, I will try analyze how some characters in the play seem to warn against the danger, in a society dominated by mechanized production, for the subject to be alienated from their own subjectivity.
2. The Logic of Capitalism as Secondary Discourse against the Autonomy of Art
In his essay Der Aufstand gegen die Sekund äre Welt Botho Strauß comments on George Steiner’s book Real Presences. Strauß evokes Steiner’s denunciation of the despotic dominion of the logos over the manifold manifestations of artistic creation and upholds the consequent conviction that real encounters with works of art can only happen through immediate and direct engagement.1 In his book, Steiner stresses the necessity to “learn anew what is comprised within a full experience of created sense” and “the enigma of creation as it is made sensible in the poem, in the painting, in the musical statement.”2 In order to do so, he proposes the idea of a city where any discussion about the arts is prohibited. The education system of such a city should then be grounded on “a politics of the primary”3 and should endorse direct experience of a work of art as opposed to the logical and rational analysis carried out through verbal language. It is most important to point out that the 3 politics of secondary criticism, understood as an intellectual mystification of works of art and of outer reality in general, is also a kern concept of the politics of capitalism. The question of value in a capitalistic society necessarily occupies a controversial position, since capitalism does not recognize value as an inherent quality within reality, but rather understands it as the virtual tension between a product and the demand of the mass of consumers. George Steiner outlines a substantial difference between the “ingestion” and the mere “consumption”4 of art: in the former the impressions left by a work of art are actively assimilated into the consciousness, so that they become a “complication of our identity”[5 ], whereas the latter denotes a superficial approach, defined not by a sensory-based interaction with the piece, but by the intercession of mechanical mediations between the subject and the work of art. If we also understand language - and the ideology that supports a certain use of language - as a mechanical mediator, it can be argued that the evaluation of art is no longer entrusted to a private, emotional response, but rather to the linguistic and ideological construct that surrounds it. In this sense ideology becomes more determinative than objective content and works of art become substantial only if they can be inscribed in certain “fetten Begriffe”6. In this respect, Botho Strauß’s Trilogie des Wiedersehens reminds us that often ideologies intervene to twist , and at times spoil, the perception we have of a work of art by imposing on it a prepackaged meaning. At the end of the final act of the Trilogie, the characters try their hand at rearranging the order of the paintings according to a logic that would do justice to their (alleged) truest significance. Interfering with existing art pieces according to a line of interpretation can surely be legitimized as active participation in the creative process; interpretation is an unavoidable component of the history of a work of art and is thus vital to its spiritual survival, but the idea that there should be a correct logic imposed upon the arrangement of the paintings appears paradoxical since it implies a value judgment which, as we are dealing with interpretation, can lay no possible claims for universality. Kiepert’s accusation of lack of coherence and connection between the paintings is so fundamentally logical that Moritz must yield to the exactness of the criticism, but he also counteracts it by positing irrationality, and even sentimentality, as the guiding principle that should lead to the comprehension of the paintings 4 Meine Ausstellung - es fehlen die Zusammenhänge, heißt es. Mag sein. Wo gibt es schon Zusammenhänge, mein Gott…? Diese Künstler sind doch alle, wie sie da sind, ohne Ausnahme, jeder gegen alle, sind sie verbissene Einzelkämpfer, ein heroisches Ich neben dem anderen. Die haben jeder sein eigenes Weltbild im Kopf und das malen sie auch.7
Moritz reminds us in this scene that if art should paint a faithful picture of reality, then it must also reproduce its lack of coherence and its chaotic nature. Kiepert raises an interesting issue about the title chosen for the exhibition, which seemingly functions as a meaningless appendix to an exhibition whose content has nothing to do with capitalist ideologies: “Kapitalistischer Realismus als Titel ebenso großspurig wie inhaltlich nichtssagend… planlos gehängtes Bildergut… gesichtslose Vielfalt.”8 The reference to capitalism might not in fact be related to the content of the paintings, but rather to the context of their exposition. It refers most likely to the transformation of art, in the age of unrestrained consumption, into one more good to thoughtlessly consume. The way the characters relate themselves to the paintings appears to be quite superficial, since they are ready to change their mind about the exhibition according to what seems most convenient for them to believe. They lack the sensibility that would allow them to establish a deeper connection with the paintings and get in touch with their emotions. There is one painting in the whole exhibition that appears the most problematic: “Der Karneval der Direktoren” depicts a quite dissolute scene and we can clearly recognize Kiepert’s face in one of the portrayed characters. We thus come to know that Kiepert’s strict criticism of the exhibition is far from being genuine and objective, but is rather driven by personal interest and particularly by the desire to banish that infamous painting. Kiepert's character is embodied evidence of how secondary discourses can be used in order to warp the perception of reality and persuade people to share his own interpretation. One other possible explanation for the choice of “Kapitalistischer Realismus” as a title could therefore be the desire to show the pervasiveness of capitalism in every aspect of social and personal life. In the age of capitalism, the potentially revolutionary quality of a piece of art to reawaken the consciousness of the individual, is absorbed into a wider mechanism of objectification which reduces art to intellectual decoration, something which can be inscribed into an ideology but in no way directly experienced. In this sense the play exposes the danger of secondary discourses, as they take away from a work of art its spontaneity, and therefore, its most poignant communicative power. A society where the communicative channels inherent in art are made ineffectual is necessarily a society 5 easily subjected to manipulation. This consideration can easily be linked to Adorno’s acute observations in his essay “Kulturindustrie” about the effects of the industrialization of culture. He affirms that the unobstructed flourishing of industrialized culture, and thus of capitalism itself, is based on the capability of deadening opposing forces through incorporating them within the same structure they oppose.9 So the characters in Die Trilogie prove to be unable to defend Moritz and to stand up for the rightful autonomy of art; instead they come to agree with Kiepert’s perspective, so that in the end, in a last attempt to save the exhibition, they decide to completely rearrange it. The paintings are grouped differently and each section is renamed with new titles but the core of the exhibition has not changed: the paintings are still the same (except for “Der Karneval der Direktoren” which has been taken down), just presented to the audience through a different logic which seems to be more consistent and legitimate. At this point the play poses an unavoidable question: is it still the same exhibition? Or have secondary discourses the power to affect the meaning of the paintings and the way the observer experience them?
3. Creation versus Commodification: the new Role of the Artist
The Trilogie des Wiedersehens also shows an interest in how the definition of artist should be handled in an age of ruthless mechanization. Through characters like Felix, Botho Strauss mocks the type of bourgeois man which aspires to the status of connoisseur of the human soul and of the beautiful as an attempt to redeem himself from the accusation of venality and superficiality. Felix is a salesman, his job consists of enriching people’s lives with superfluous commodities. He suffers from an inferiority complex which stems from the awareness of performing in society a superfluous function and which surely lies at the origin of his need to establish himself as a lover of the “schöne Dinge”10. The quarrel which involves Marlies and Felix in the first act epitomizes the ideological opposition between two irreconcilable principles: artistic creation against commodification, but the divide between these two spheres of action is not so clearly outlined. The alleged nobility ascribed to the power of artistic creation reveals itself, through Marlies, in the shape of self-conceited pretension. Marlies is the example of an artist so absorbed in her own private understanding of the world that no one else is allowed access to the meaning of her works, to the extent that one should infer they have no meaning at all:
Die Objekte, die du machst, die finde ich - und auch ewig diese Bilder mit den aufgeklebten Haaren…schwer zu verstehen für mich […] Ich habe mich infolgedessen mehr und mehr zu einem kritischen Beobachter entwickelt. Und meine eigentlichen Träume konnten sich nicht emanzipieren11 Felix on the other hand is so preoccupied that art should be a reflection of the deepest nature of humanity, so entangled in his preconceptions to believe that a painting without human beings cannot say anything about the human condition. Moritz reveals about Felix that Stillleben zum Beispiel sieht er sich prinzipiell nicht an. Egal aus welcher Epoche, von welchem Meister. Er ist gegen das ganze Genre. Ich will Menschen sehen, sagt er, und über Menschen hinweg ins Weite. Ein Gemälde mit leblosen Dingen im Vordergrund ist nicht mythisch. Mythisch ist leider seit neusten sein Lieblingswort.12
1 Botho Strauß: Der Aufstand gegen die Sekundäre Welt Bemerkungen zu einer Ästhetik der Anwesenheit. Carl Hanser Verlag 2004, München, p.50
2 George Steiner: Real Presences. Faber and Faber. London 1991, p.4
3 George Steiner: Real Presences, p.6
4 George Steiner: Real Presences, p.10
5 Botho Strauß: Theaterstücke 1972-1978.
6 Botho Strauß: Theaterstücke 1972-1978, p.370
7 Botho Strauß: Theaterstücke 1972-1978, p. 367
8 Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH & Co. KG 2000, München, p. 339
9 Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, : Kulturindustrie Aufklärung als Massenbetrug. In: Dialektik der Aufklärung Philosophische Fragmente, 1947, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag (2006), Frankfurt am Main, pp.128-176, here p.140
10 Botho Strauß: Theaterstücke 1972-1978, p. 343
11 Botho Strauß: Theaterstücke 1972-1978, p. 323
12 Botho Strauß: Theaterstücke 1972-1978, p. 344