03. April 2018

Wolfgang Kraushaar is a political scientist who has been conducting research for decades on the protests of 1968, radicalization, and the Red Army Faction (RAF). In conversation with the SCHIRN MAG he explains to what extent protest movements have changed and the role art plays in them.

By Ege Tufan

Mr. Kraushaar, political scientists have been observing a crisis of democracy for some time now. In your opinion, do the waves of protest in recent years stand for re-politicization?

That depends entirely on what you mean by “re-politicization.” For the last three or four years Germany has been witnessing a political offensive not from the left, but rather from the right. Just think of the demonstrations in Leipzig and Dresden, and the fact that a party that was initially euro-skeptic before becoming increasingly right-wing populist has managed to be elected to the Bundestag, the German parliament. The fear that right-wing nationalist forces could spread even further is universally palpable. And a dynamic like this can certainly be considered a form of “re-politicization” – if we first abstract it from the associated political position. This is a form, however, that could damage democracy, if it hasn’t long since done so already.

In political circles the word extremism often surfaces in connection with violent protests. Yet you view the term critically.

In my eyes it is superficial, static, a label. Instead I prefer the term radicalism. First and foremost because it forces you to take a closer look and think about what actually characterizes radicalness, what its motivations are. If someone claims to want to get to the root of things, you have to address this on a thematic level too.

Wolfgang Kraushaar, photo: Sacha Hartgers, (c) Wolfgang Kraushaar

In many protest movements media companies often serve as the enemy stereotype, for example the Axel Springer publishing company in left-wing movements. Has media criticism been part of the DNA of protest movements since 1968?

Many people would no doubt say so. After all, the student movement at the time even called for the expropriation of Axel Springer Verlag. But chastisement of the media or press has been going on for a lot longer. Essentially it was a constant companion of protest after 1945. If you look at the history of the Easter marches for instance, which have been held here in Germany since 1960, you keep on coming across claims against the press. And they were certainly justified. During the Cold War public debate was incredibly ideologically charged. Indeed, more than a few newspapers saw peace protesters as nothing but “Moscow’s useful idiots,” who were simply being used by the communists. And those affected sought to defend themselves against this.

Right-wing movements are mobilizing against the supposed “lying press.” Is that comparable?

The ongoing cries about the “lying press” are hysterical and have little to nothing to do with the conditions and situation in the media, which in many cases are no doubt reprehensible, but not condemnable per se. The root of this unbounded behavior seems to me to lie in ethnocentrism, but not in supposed disinformation on the part of the media organs.

Berlin, Easter march, Heinrich-Heine-Straße, 15. April 1990, photo: Bernd Settnik, via Wikicommons

Demonstrations were once the key form of articulating political will, such as for the protests of 1968. Does the Internet represent a turning point?

Yes, in the digital age truly everything has changed – naturally that goes for protest movements as well. In earlier decades it took a lot more to mobilize people. I still remember very well call trees, and even church bells that were sometimes rung to call people to a demonstration, blockade or whatever. Today this kind of thing has become possible almost at the push of a button.

Flash mobs, for instance, are a vivid demonstration of that. The virtual community is able, almost at will, to initiate smart mobs where thousands of people gather at the drop of a hat on city plazas or streets to support or oppose something. Without a form of mobilization such as this the famous “18 days of anger” in Cairo, which led to the fall of Mubarak’s regime in February 2011, for example, would not have been possible.

Do you also see disadvantages in this mobilization of the virtual community?

“Clicktivism” has too often taken the place of social mobilization. When I look at a website such as that of an NGO, which adopts the slogan “Bewegt Politik (Influence politics) – Campact!” and notes that it has almost two million registered users, that might well all be so. But what does it mean in practical terms? I am very skeptical in this regard, because such figures can’t simply be made a social and certainly not a political reality. People are just deluding themselves.

Mark Flood, 5000 Likes, 2015/16, Installationsansicht © Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt 2018, Photo: Norbert Miguletz

Philosophers served as important idea generators for the protests of 1968. Have theoretical texts lost significance in the new millennium?

Experts have long since taken the place of philosophers and intellectuals, in a far broader sense. Meaning specialists whose fragmented specialist knowledge is required both in the public sphere and in policy consultation. Yet what is no longer in demand is something like a critical authority that bears an ability to judge even in more complex domains. Take Bertrand Russell, for instance, who organized a tribunal investigating the Vietnam War, Jean-Paul Sartre, who was a globetrotter in crisis management mode and who could afford to decline a Nobel Prize, or Václav Havel, a powerless writer who ultimately became president.

And to what extent were visual artists received in protest movements?

That of course happened from time to time. Just think of a hugely influential artist such as Pablo Picasso. With “Guernica” he gave the victims a form and with his dove of peace gave the international peace movement an emblem. I believe however that the reverse impact is more frequently and more strongly evident. Take someone like Joseph Beuys, who truly absorbed the impulses from the student movement, even in a city like Düsseldorf, and increasingly saw himself as a fundamentally democratically oriented and eco-conscious protester.

Manifesto, Festum Fluxorum Fluxus, Düsseldorf, Februar 1963, via Wikicommons

Could one go as far as seeing politically critical art movements as protest movements as well?

Yes, I certainly would. Just think of the Fluxus movement, which brought forth or at least influenced such widely differing innovators as Charlotte Moorman, John Cage, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell and Yoko Ono. The genre of happenings alone was a dynamic form that attracted international attention and broke through the customary borders between artists and actors on the one hand, and visitors and participants on the other. It was able to quickly advance into the political sphere and continue exerting influence there. In this regard a great deal happened that could be considered a sub-form of protest within art, yet art also frequently affected and altered the formal principles of protest movements themselves.

Taking the opposite perspective, to what extent does criticism of the current situation equate to criticism of cultural institutions and artists?

The artistic, literary and aesthetic movements in general that veritably exploded in the years around 1968 essentially uprooted everything. And of course that also meant that the cultural sector as such had to be thrown open.

The Cannes Film Festival, the Venice Biennale, the documenta in Kassel were fundamentally questioned in this magical year. I remember well the first Frankfurt “Experimenta,” for example, which gave rise to such pieces as Peter Handke’s legendary “Offending the Audience.” In actual fact, for a while everything had to a greater or lesser extent become an experiment. And in this climate the institutions, operations and operations managers were for the most part considered bothersome.