Although in less than a year Brecht would proceed to write more rigorous, explicitly didactic forms of Lehrstücke, the transformation of the ‘theatre apparatus’ by The Threepenny Opera, based on Brecht’s assertion that ‘a criminal is a bourgeois and a bourgeois is a criminal,’ was achieved through an alteration of the existing notions of theatre ‘genres’ and the play’s relationship with the audience.
Despite countless popular interpretations, undertaken by artists from varying backgrounds (such as Tom Waits, William S. Burroughs and the Pet Shop Boys, to name just a few), the song ‘What keeps mankind alive?’ has lost nothing of its power to unsettle and mobilise, and continued to play a special and almost emblematic role in the popular culture of the 20th century. Still, as the title of exhibition, it surely could be seen as being grandiose—not to mention the question mark implying that the point is in the asking and not the answering—making it even more pretentious. And why not? Isn’t the question posed by Brecht equally urgent today? And is it not true that we live haunted by the fears of approaching global changes, consequences of which could have lasting disastrous effects, not unlike those that transformed the world after the economic collapse of 1929? And aren’t today’s questions about the role of art in instigating social changes equally pressing as they were in the 1930s, when the Left confronted fascism and Stalinism? Or do we really consider them today to be solved within an all-encompassing system of cultural industry and its contemporary malformations, confined to art genres, predictable as cultural trends, and profitable for the purposes of marketing?
However, the International İstanbul Biennial is a highly representative art manifestation, burdened as such by the usual complexity of dynamics between the local, the national, and the international in all its guises and titles, and a grandiose title seems quite appropriate—sufficiently open to marketing, political, theoretical and artistic uses and misuses to trigger an avalanche of hopefully useful contradictions and unexpected constellations.
It certainly seems that, seen from the dominant contemporary perspective(s), Brecht’s Marxism and his belief in utopia, utopian potential and open political engagement of art all look a bit dated, historically irrelevant, in dissonance with this time of the crumbling of institutional Left and the rise of neoliberal hegemony. But the real question is, isn’t this in fact symptomatic? Doesn’t the way in which Brecht is now ‘forgotten’ and ‘unfashionable’—after his immense popularity in the 1960s and 70s and a smooth transformation into ‘a classic’—precisely indicate that something has gone wrong with contemporary society, along with the role of art within it?
The Threepenny Opera thematises the process of redistributon of ownership within bourgeois society and, through a literary narrative, offers a still valid ‘representation of capitalism itself—how to express the economic—or, even better, the peculiar realities and dynamics of money as such’.1 The play sheds an unforgiving light onto a variety of elements of bourgeis ideology such as charity, judiciary and police system, marriage, romance, fraternal love, religion and sovereign authority, at the very peak of the Weimar Republic in 1928, just before Hitler’s accession to power in Germany. Brecht himself pointed out similarities between the time of early industrial capitalism when Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera was written, and his own time: ‘We still have, however, the same sociological situation. Just like two hundred years ago we have a social order in which virtually all levels, albeit in a wide variety of ways, pay respect to moral principles not by leading a moral life but by living off morality.’2 The situation continues to this day, with the emphasis sliding periodically back and forth between religious morality and liberal democracy.
Today the question ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ seems to be more urgent and topical than when it was first posed by Brecht in 1928. The similarities between the influence of rapid developments of liberal economy on the disintegration of hitherto existing social consensus in 1928 and in contemporary times are striking, and in this respect it is useful to recall the analysis of another great author of the mid-twentieth century, political economist Karl Polanyi, who published his seminal work The Great Transformation in 1944. Through analysis of the development of ‘the deregulated market economy’ and consequent rise of fascism, Polanyi warned against long-term tendencies of separating social from economical development, which in the end results in social chaos and rise of totalitarian regimes.
Just like Polanyi’s, Brecht’s analysis of pre-WWII developments bears alarming resemblance to contemporary times where the insistence on exposing false moral standards that work to perpetuate poverty and repression in the world is still in place. ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ will serve as a trigger, as well as a certain script for the exhibition, allowing us and the artists to pose questions of economic and social urgency today. Even a quick look at the lyrics will discover many possible themes, such as the distribution of wealth and poverty, food and hunger, political manipulations, gender oppression, social norms, double morality, religious hypocrisy, personal responsibility and consent to oppression, issues certainly ‘relevant’ and almost predictable, which many exhibitions—especially contemporary biennial exhibitions—set out to engage with.
Today, biennial exhibitions are elements of cultural tourism through which cities attempt to use their benign and internationally communicative regional specificities to position themselves on the map of the globalised world; they are manifestations tending to ‘cultural shopping’ in which art is often presented as cool, fun, entertaining… Brecht was certainly critical of what he called a ‘culinary’ treatment of art solely as a means of entertainment, but he did not shy away from the entertaining role of art. In the popular and mass culture, as Brecht warned us, the problem is not pleasure, but its function. The question is therefore how to ‘set pleasure free,’ how to regain revolutionary role of enjoyment in a society in which, as Žižek points out, demands of the Super-Ego to enjoy—and not repression of enjoyment—have become the main mechanism of social regulation and repression.
Bringing back Brecht is an attempt to think about the role of artistic endeavour in the conditions of contemporary capitalism, to reevaluate our everyday practices, our value systems and modes of operation. Of course, as Fredric Jameson points out, there would be something “profoundly unBrechtian in the attempt to reinvent and revive some ‘Brecht for our times’, some ‘what is living and what is dead in Brecht’, some postmodern Brecht or Brecht for the future, a postsocialist or even post-Marxist Brecht, Brecht of queer theory or of identity politics…”3 But can we go back to Brecht’s oeuvre not as a classic that needs to be rediscovered and shown to new generations, but as a source for a variety of models, proposals, strategies of artistic practice, understanding of art?
In taking Brecht as a starting position for developing the Biennial concept, the question of method is crucial. Is it possible to follow Brecht while disregarding his contemporary image of a Che Guevara of the academic Left, or a canonical author of the traditional orthodox Left, nonchalantly paying no attention to ‘brechtology’ and an apparent cul-de-sac in which countless reinventions of his experiments have ended? Is it possible, instead, to follow Brecht as a kind of (red) thread that leads the way in a search for a form and format for the exhibition, which would be, so to speak, ‘beyond looking,’ and could transform a viewer into a more productive participant—even accomplice?
What are Brecht’s gestures, approaches and techniques that we, as artists, writers, curators, can repeat today? What could be the result? Collective creativity, epic theatre, Verfremdungseffekt, art as a means of popular education and political agitation… Aren’t these models for a position of socially engaged artist, and of art itself, still exciting? It does not mean that from today’s perspective Brecht is offering a deus ex machina solution or a forgotten method that we can directly translate, but exactly the opposite—it is about creating a certain political-aesthetic puzzle that could stimulate us to properly formulate the problems of the present.
Brecht invites us to rethink our position again and again, to see the world as amateur actors, without dulling our critical faculties or our potential for intervention and change by learning the rules all too well. As a writer and a director, Brecht continuously sought to slice open and display, then deconstruct and transform the theatre’s ‘production apparatus’—it is this approach that should lead us out of the current deadlock of ‘contemporary art apparatus.’ At this time, the question of ‘usability’ of Brecht means first and foremost a repeated need to observe the interaction of art and social relations. And in İstanbul and Turkey, where ‘the conflict between an orthodox left position and contemporary art plays a critical role today in the understanding of contemporary art,’4 to exit the impasse of double-bind discourses of global neoliberalism and local ethno-nationalism seems to be the only endeavour worth all the trouble.
1 Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method (London-New York: Verso, 2000), p. 13.
2 Bertolt Brecht. ‘On the Threepenny Opera’, in Threepenny Opera, translated and edited by Ralph Manheim and John Willett (Penguin Classics, 2008), p. 92.
3 Jameson, Brecht and Method, p. 5.
4 Süreyyya Evren, in ‘Art + Politics. From the Collection of the City of Vienna’, edited by Hedwig Saxenhuber for the Department for Cultural Affairs of the City of Vienna, 2008 (Museum on Demand: SpringerWienNew York), pp. 170-183.