The Rambling American: A Lost Generation in Berlin

Locke McKenzie confronts the idyllic concept of the “starving artist.”

Sven Regener is an artist with a sharp eye. As a novelist, Regener paints insightful portraits of all different branches of German society: the army men, punks, yuppies, lapsed communists, and students, to name a few. In his second book, Neue Vahr Süd, no one is immune to both sentiment and critique.

Knowing his ability to mix nostalgia with reality, I was surprised when reading the interview he did with Die Zeit Magzin a few weeks ago. Throughout the interview, Regener gave many prize insights on life in Berlin, but his dialogue ran almost exclusively on the side of sentimentality. His description of Berlin is not one of a long-time inhabitant. He plays into the stereotype everyone wants to believe.

“I always found [the image of people sitting at the window and watching the street] cool. It encompasses something Zen Buddhist…[my first apartment] was in a back courtyard of a building with a bombed-out front. We paid 80 mark for two people. Out the window one saw garbage cans.”

This is the romanticized picture of Berlin: bombed-out, garbage-filled, cheap, and therefore Zen-like.

“Poor, but sexy,” are the words Mayor Klaus Wowereit uses to describe it. For many, this makes Berlin the perfect artist’s city. As Regener later relates:

“[In other cities] the people that do what I do [write and make music] are all ten years younger than me. By my age they had long since transferred into the working world. In Berlin, many people my age and older are still doing what I’m doing.”

Nikolas Kulish, German correspondent to The New York Times, seconds this:

“Those low rents famously have allowed industrial artists to find studios for their massive sculptures, and bands to lease rehearsal spaces for their practice sessions.

“Applied on the minute scale, that means ultracheap nooks for the aspiring authors who need room only for a laptop (or, in advanced cases of the writing bug, an antique typewriter) and a precarious stack of books.

“There are cheaper places in the world, though one has to go much farther east nowadays than Warsaw to find them, but none that also have the breadth of cultural offering.”

According to these men, Berlin is a place where the poor starving artists of the world can flourish without the mainstreaming oppression of the Bourgeoisie. Sucked into the myth, people come from all over the world to be artists in Berlin.

That seems to be the modern-day dream. And, to be honest, it is one that I want to buy into. I am a fan of the great expatriate authors that lived in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. There is nothing I would love more than to have the new epicenter for such lively activity happening just down the street from me. Anytime I was lacking inspiration, I could simply go get a dose in Berlin.

Unfortunately, as a friend pointed out, this is sentiment and not reality.

“Berlin is cheap, but that doesn’t mean that it is any more artistic than other major cities,” she said. “Look at how much music and art comes out of New York, Paris, and London. What do you know that has come out of modern day Berlin? Art is less developed in Berlin. Berlin is cheap, but cheap just means an excuse for hipsters to hang around and do nothing.”

At first I didn’t want to believe it, but the more I have thought about her words, the more I see what she means.

People often tend to associate art with poverty. This is perhaps because it’s a damn near impossible way to make a living. Berlin’s low cost of living makes it an attractive place for artists to be. In their dreams, they envision themselves sitting in their studios making art all day. The bitter reality is that most people making art still have to work to pay their bills, and there are no jobs in Berlin. With its extraordinarily high unemployment rate, it’s hard for nationals to find work. For expatriates, the figures are even more depressing. The poor starving artists may have plenty of time to work on their art, but the result is that many people actually are poor and starving, often forcing them to leave.

Another problem is that people tend to label cities “creative cities.” The reality is that New York, London, Paris, and now Berlin are simply big Western cities. The fact that a lot of art appealing to Western sentimentalities comes out of those places is as much a statistics game as anything. Traveling to said city will not make one an artist, but it will make you part of the scene.

And Berlin certainly has a scene. Scattered about the hip districts are some of the coolest bars I have been to. Little more than a door with a hand-made sign, these places define the poor-but-sexy Berlin. In the air, one notes the smell of cheap beer and hash, and hears the DJ’s newest beats. On the dance floor the owners of scarves and thick-rimmed glasses shake their hips and speak together in accented tongues. It’s an amazing place to see and be seen, but terrible for productivity.

As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray:

“A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize.”

If other forms of art are anything like writing, then they rarely go hand in hand with a good party. A week after their Berlin feature, Die Zeit interviewed three artists from another German city: Munich. When discussing their studios, the overall impression was one of quiet focus. I would argue that this is the atmosphere for many artists who take themselves seriously. Hemingway, who regularly wrote about drinking (and did a damn good job of it too), never mixed his words and drink. Creation requires concentration and patience. It’s the sort of thing that drives man to frustration and drinking.

Perhaps, then, Berlin is a good place to quit creating.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.