For the past week, my mind has repeatedly strayed to an unsettling and provocative article that appeared in the New York Times on August 14. The article was one of Michael Kimmelman’s regular, and regularly insightful, culture-minded dispatches from Europe, where he—the Times’ chief art critic—has been living in Berlin for the past few years. The article’s dateline read “Dresden,” and it concerned the July courtroom murder of a pregnant Egyptian pharmacist who lived there. She was stabbed to death by a Russian-born German man who had previously called her an “Islamist, a terrorist and a slut.” After her murder, thousands of Muslim and Arab mourners marched in Egypt and Berlin—even the doubtful Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denounced (ironically, all considered) Germany’s “brutality.”
If this horrific hate crime was obviously newsworthy, it struck me as a strange topic for Kimmelman to alight on, despite his admirable openness about his political concerns. As I was reading the piece I glanced up at the newspaper’s heading to confirm that I was indeed still in the Times’ Arts section. Then three paragraphs down, all came clear: “Dresden is one of the great cultural capitals of Europe,” Kimmelman intoned. And: “One wonders how to reconcile the heights of the city’s culture with the gutter of these events.” Wait, what?
Kimmelman evokes Dresden’s city center as a “marvel of civility, a restored Baroque fairyland surrounded by Socialist-era and post-Socialist-era sprawl. The rebuilt Frauenkirche, the great Baroque cathedral where Bach played, again marks the skyline with its bell-shaped dome, as it did for centuries.” And he seems aghast that in this bastion of “civility”—where Bach played even!—has come the steady rise of right-wing xenophobia and murders like the one he chronicles. But his umbrage seems, to me, incredibly strange. Take Paris and New York—two cultural capitals if ever there were ones—and cities where hates crimes, crime itself, happen with regularity. What if one were to say contrast the Metropolitan Museum’s pacifically high-minded Egyptian room and a murder that happened behind it in Central Park, and then pose the question: how could this crime happen in proximity to such artistic greatness? If I were to hazard a guess, the reaction would probably be: the twain don’t meet.
After Kimmelman gives a bit of alarming and sad (and yet sadly familiar) exposition about anti-Islamic sentiment in Germany, and the rise in hate crimes and far-right-wing political parties there, he pulls out the big rhetorical guns: “What are the humanizing effects of culture?” Kimmelman asks, soberly answering: “Evidently, there are none.” Reading his answer, with its plainspoken shock and awe, I tried to feel his same sense of revelation and horror. But I couldn’t. Instead I went to my bookshelf, where I pulled down a recent memoir by a famous German man of letters. This was the paragraph that I was looking for:
“The pictures I lusted after were colour reproductions of European masterpieces. From them I learned early on to mispronounce the names of Giorgione, Mantegna, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Caravaggio… Even as a ten-year-old I was able to tell Hans Baldung, called Grien, from Mattias Grunewald; Frans Hals from Rembrandt; and Filppp Lippi from Cimabue—all at first glance.”
What this 10-year-old boy—and later 12- and 14- and 18-year-old boy—could not do with equal skill was develop an ethical conscience. During the same years that he craved European masterpieces he also enthusiastically joined the SS, ignored the uncle and classmates who were killed or sent to the camps, and fought not uncertainly as a Nazi in WWII. The boy with the inordinate love of masterpieces is Günter Grass, and the memoir, Peeling the Onion, is about his quick study of art, and about the much longer amount of time it took him to get around to learning moral principles. Reading Grass’s memoir, this is what repeatedly startled and shook me (and appears to shake him now): how his aesthetics lapped his ethics again and again until some years after WWII’s end. One scene, after the war, when Grass comes across a show of Klee’s paintings and wonders a bit blithely about them, particularly stunned me. Klee’s work, of course, had been banned and derided by the Nazis, while Klee himself had been fired from his professorship in Düsseldorf and with his family had to flee to Switzerland. This, while Grass, the young veteran, wonders idly, a few years later, about the artistic value of Klee’s work.
But I shouldn’t have been so surprised by Grass’s precociously advanced aesthetics and lack of moral distinction, not in a country that had famously (maybe apocryphally) sent out its boy soldiers with Goethe and Nietzsche in their backpacks. That Kimmelman’s article concerns this same country makes his surprise at its cultural limitations somewhat, well, surprising (which is not to say that the limits of culture only makes itself known in the West; look at Iran’s love affair with poetry and its rich artistic tradition, or China’s, or anywhere, really). More interesting, to me, is Kimmelman’s discussion of the hate crime itself, and the anti-Muslim xenophobia that currently grips much of Europe. The mass immigration of Muslims to Europe in the past few decades, and the racism that often greets them, has been well-documented, not least by the Times itself. A recent book review of Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West explored this wave of immigration, focusing on the ways in which Muslim immigrants have chosen not to integrate into European society—which sounds very close to offering an “excuse” for the backlash that has met them. If not xenophobic itself, the book appears to veer worryingly close, yet the Times notes this and still gives it a pretty measured review.
In any case, Kimmelman’s own conclusion at culture’s apparent lack of superhero ardor for saving us from ourselves, is this: “…while the arts won’t save us, we should save them anyway. Because the enemies of civilized society are always just outside the door.” This sounds like a war of manners. But what if those enemies, just outside the door, come armed with Bach and Mozart and Caravaggio and Goethe? To that end, what if the enemy is the great Austrian writer Peter Handke and he is defending the genocidal leader Slobodan Milosevic? As a friend put it, what if the Russian-born German man who killed the Egyptian woman had some Pushkin in his backpack, and was a devoted patron of the Hermitage, what then? That art is necessary and should be “saved” seems to me an obvious point. The more perplexing question to ask is what determines a “civilized society”? Artistic greatness or democratic inclusiveness? What is their relationship? As years of colonization has taught us, one culture’s civilization can be another culture’s ruin. As the recent murder in Dresden teaches us, one’s own civilization may not save you either.