Even greyer day

politics, art, history

Grey Day by George Grosz - while I have seen the reproductions of it before, it's only a couple of weeks ago when I saw it at the exhibition.

George Grosz - Grey Day (1921)

This is not exactly what the white museum label next to it read, but like pretty much any other essay you can google, the explanation was the juxtaposition of the 'well off bureaucrat' against the gaunt figure of a war veteran. Some articles also mention other characters: the faceless worker and the bespectacled men peeking around the corner, but that's usually about it.

What attracted my attention though were the distinctive scars on the bureaucrat's face. My first thought was that it could be a hint that the man is a veteran himself, and so instead of a blatant conflict between the well off and the forgotten we are looking at how different the life can still be for people who once could be freezing in the same trench. Yet the fact that there are multiple similar scars, all at the lower part of his cheek, makes it almost certain he got them on a fraternity duel.

That tradition, once popular enough among male students in German speaking parts of Europe to become a memorable cultural trope, was basically  young men striking each other's faces with blades while wearing only essential protection to cover their eyes and noses. Getting a few nasty looking but not life threatening scars in the process was not a concern, but rather a desirable goal - the opponents weren't supposed to move around much dodging the attacks.

Similar scars can be seen on the faces of other Grosz's characters, but unlike with Grey Day, those people are mostly unambiguous Nazi warmongers. Their scars are there for the same reason as the swastika badges (which are, of course, also helpfully in place) and along with other unmistakable visual attributes they leave no room for other interpretations:

George Grosz - The Pillars of Society (1926)
George Grosz - This Is Orgesch Who Our Stinnes Loves! (1919-1920)

Compare that to the goofy cross eyed figure of the bureaucrat from Grey Day. If it wasn't for the scars, he is no way threatening - just ignorant, perhaps, of what's going on behind the unfinished wall.

Yet it is not just the scars. He is also wearing a black, white and red ribbon - the colours of the monarchy and not the Weimar Republic which replaced it. It is more prominent and visible for us today, yet I believe that it's together with the scars that its meaning is amplified, eliminating the possibility that it might not be carrying a message.

It also seems unlikely that the ribbon is here to tell that the bureaucrat has simply been decorated for his war service, as there doesn't seem to be a ribbon in the same colours and stripe proportions among the German awards of that era.

Copyright Wehrmacht-Awards.com LLC
Copyright Wehrmacht-Awards.com LLC

It is a political message then, right in our faces. Around that time (early 1920s) DNVP (which flag and colours were identical to that of the German Empire) was a political home for different kinds of right wing opposition, including the future Nazi party supporters. It wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that someone who once enjoyed fraternity duels (it takes a certain type of people to find pleasure in such exercises) was also later in life not in favour of the 'decadent' Weimar state and then was likely an enthusiastic member of Nazi institutions or SS military.

Among the numerous Grosz's drawings and sketches from the same period there is one also finished in 1921, which very much resembles more famous Grey Day. While most of the figures are recognisable, the 'bureaucrat' is not. The face scars are still here (although they are less prominent and can be mistaken for the skin folds), but the facial features are exaggerated in a different way, radiating aggression instead of the goofiness.

George Grosz - Unemployed (1921)

If the assumption that the sketch was completed before the painting (which how it usually happens) is correct, the transformation of the bureaucrat was intentional as well, and artist's first thought was indeed to make it more straightforward, with a menacing looking man naturally being a more obvious reference.

So this change is also a part of the message Grey Day sends.

We are now suddenly looking at a very different artwork. It doesn't simply expose inequality and the harsh realities of post-war life in Germany (the faceless worker / the forgotten veteran / the indifferent civil servant). More than just that, it also makes a prediction: we are watching a new war in the making, as the person confident and consistent in his beliefs, with the grim reality readily confirming them for him, marches into the future. A middle class educated office worker, he seems harmless now with his briefcase and the ruler, but it's him who is the architect of the new reality, even if he isn't yet recognised as such. One of the many who are going to ruin it for everyone.

Quite a prediction, as for 1921.

Thoughts on EUref

immigration, politics

Funny that it comes straight after the post on becoming a UK national, but that serves me right for not posting frequently enough. After a lot of panic-induced tweets and retweets today, here are some of a bit more detailed thoughts on the EU membership referendum that I think would be interesting for myself to re-read later:

  1. I predict we are going to see the unlikely alliance of economically disadvantaged people and free market capitalism adepts crumbling. The former served as a vehicle for the latter thanks to the fact they both happened to dislike the EU at the same time. Voters hit by globalisation (and by immigration from the 'new EU' as by one of the most visible aspects of it) on many occasions have clearly expressed the feel of being neglected and not looked after. This doesn’t have much in common with ‘negotiating bold trade deals at the free market while not restricted by silly regulations’ argument – in fact, they are fairly opposite. It is not going to take long for these two views to collide, and it is going to be spectacular. Although it is not going to happen immediately – for some time it may run on nationalism and on ‘putting England back on the globe’ spirit only, but inevitably the economy will speak again.

  2. Old magic no longer works. It is not only because of the overuse of the word ‘racism’ which is difficult to deny (although not every time it was used it was an ‘overuse’), but it is officially no longer a cultural taboo. Accusations in bigotry no longer stick and mean little to people that don’t already agree with you on the subject in question. It is true and impossible to argue that pretty much all of the far rights and neo-nazis were in the Leave camp, but it is no longer recognised as a problem big enough to vote otherwise by people who in theory could have voted otherwise (as it is also true far rights are still a minority of those who voted Leave). Which brings us to the next point:

  3. A decent number of naturalised white immigrants and native-born or naturalised non-whites have voted to leave the EU. While this seems to strengthen the point promoted by the free market capitalists from p.1 (it’s all about foreign control, and we are not against the foreigners themselves!), these votes – as far as I can judge – are also fuelled by the desire to halt the immigration. In the circles of naturalised ex-USSR citizens (the community I obviously am the most familiar with) this reason is quoted in at about 90% of cases, both in personal conversations and on online forums. I am confident this is going to backfire on all those people badly as they will soon find out a non-white person is still an immigrant and a naturalised white still sounds foreign to some people possibly including their neighbours and their kids’ classmates (who are now ‘red pilled’ and know that being called a racist no longer means an argument lost by the accused). Nor does the above mean that only the ‘uncontrolled’ immigration is disliked – try having a similar referendum on the controlled one. This, of course, doesn't mean the whole idea is now invalid - as I said, it no longer works like that. It's just that actions have consequences.

  4. I hope that the gone fear of being called a racist is not the only way in which everyday culture is going to change from now on. What certainly needs to die is that old trope about the establishment having control on everything and feeding the public convenient lies from the controlled media which are in an alliance with intelligentsia. Of course the establishment by definition enjoys an enormous control over our lives as well as there is plenty of lies in the press, but they are not monolithic, they fight each other and seek for public support which they not always receive. Almost all of the supposedly almighty university elite was against what just happened, yet it did. If I were a progressive journalist, I would do everything for this drum to no longer get banged on without making the person doing it look like a shameless populist even by today’s standards.

  5. Since the political balance in this country is visibly shifting to the right (and possibly staying there for ages if Scotland leaves), the opposition to Tories needs to return to the centre. It might not be a reason to let the Blairites back in, but it is crystal clear that Corbyn and similar die-hard figures are not going to deliver a feasible alternative, unless a guaranteed support (which seems to be like 15%, right?) from the safe core voters is considered enough (hint: it isn’t). In other words, Labour party needs to go back to being less marginalised social democrats in order to maintain a chance of winning. I think it would be better even for those supporters of it who are happy with the current leader. Another problem is that their safe core voters seem to be divided on the EU membership, which might mean they might shrink even further. I am considering signing up in case there will be a chance for a public vote on the party leadership again.

I am of course an edge case both culturally and economically being both of a foreign background as well as someone who has bought property in London at the peak prices and rock bottom rates (both of which are now guaranteed to change), so I am undoubtedly biased towards the status quo. But I honestly consider this decision was a mistake that is both going to fail the promises made to those who voted for it and prove the fears of those who voted against.

Yet this country remains strong and has definitely been through challenges far worse than that, so I also believe it is still going to be not that bad. And frankly, EU is a mess. I also suspect that some of the things that I now consider to be wrong may turn out for the best, because I am not an expert and my personal experience is quite limited. It’s probably not going to be that bad, and London will be London, England will be England, and maybe even the UK will remain no less United than it currently is.

It’s just that I genuinely believe it could have been much better, and this is why I am sad today.