Life and Opinions of the Sprayer of Zürich


The lesson every "Anglo-Saxon" learns after a few years in Europe is this: When Europeans begin pontificating on political subjects, don't take what they say as any sort of guide to what they'll do. I suppose this is universal, but I can't shake the feeling that there's more hypocritical grandstanding on this side of the Atlantic.

This also applies to artists and writers: there's usually a positive relationship between the level of epater-les-bourgeois provocation they aim for and their dependence on government subsidies and social approval. Josef Beuys was so traumatized at being fired from his professor post at the Duesseldorf Art Academy (for, among other things, doing away with entrance criteria) that he circulated protest postcards claiming he'd been "Ruined by [the] State." State and federal authorities shower even the most mediocre German literary talents with awards and prizes. Those who get them invariably accept them, and those who don't are consumed with envy. The same theatre director who burns German flags onstage will go to the wall to protest a minor change to his pension benefits. As Karl Mannheim once remarked of Heidelberg professors, the more given to heaven-stormingly radical speeches they were, the more meekly bourgeois their lives.

The rule is: pose as an anti-authoritarian rebel, but get the the subsidy application in on time, and if the state offers you a lifetime civil-servant post, take it! By all means bite the hand that feeds you (don't worry — it'll keep coming back!). Never, ever slap it away.

The latest example is "The Sprayer of  Zürich," a man named Harald Naegeli (g). Naegeli started his artistic career in the late 1970s, spraying sinuous graffiti designs on buildings in Zürich in black spray-paint. This was, of course, illegal, so Naegeli kept his identity secret. He was caught after he forgot his glasses at one of his sites and returned for them. In 1981, he was sentenced to nine months in prison and a significant fine. Instead of serving his sentence, he fled Switzerland, staying in Duesseldorf and traveling around Europe. An international arrest warrant was issued for him. He was apprehended in 1984, and was required to serve out his sentence, despite interventions from various elite figures in Germany, such as Willy Brandt and Josef Beuys. After serving his time, he established himself in Duesseldorf, where he continues to produce some graffiti, as well as more conventional artworks.

So what's not to like? Certainly not the graffiti, which are elegant enough. But a recent radio interview on WDR5 was rather revealing. Naegeli rushed to reassure the interviewers that his work was "political" (and therefore, of course, Very Serious). Apparently, it was some sort of silent protest against of Switzlerand's bourgeois conformism and obsession with private property. Naegeli sniffs at today's graffiti artists because, he claims, they're not "political" enough. The interviewers seemed to share Naegeli's view , gently mocking the Swiss courts for going to such lengths to protect "sacred" private property.

But at the end of the interview, we learn something curious: Naegeli, who's now 70, does not have to work, because of a "rich inheritance." Of course, inheriting such large amounts of money is only possible in a social order that…protects private property. Naegeli also expressed dissatisfaction that no government authority had yet extended official historical-protection status to one of his plein-air works of art. Let's review: Use of state power to punish me for damaging other peoples' property without their consent: wrong. Use of state power to ensure I receive tons of cash without working for it, and that nobody else can damage my "property": right.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: artists, with rare exceptions, should be seen and not heard.*

* Let me clear a few things up. This post is about poseurs, not about my political and aesthetic positions, which are as follows:

Naegeli's graffiti? Delightful.

Arts subsidies? A fine investment, for which I gladly pay my taxes. Also, I want some! 

Cushy government jobs? I want one!

Private property? No problems with it. Have lots myself. 

Inheritance laws that permit parents to shower their children with unearned wealth? Not so hot on those, but they're probably unavoidable in a free legal order.

[Illustration: "Undine," a 1978 Naegeli graffito on a building at the University of Zurich (g)]

German Word of the Week: Insektensauger


Today's German Word of the Week comes to us from the Lahn-Post Lokalanzeiger, proudly serves the community of Lahn, which is near Limburg. This doesn't really bring me much farther, but perhaps this datum is exciting oohs and aahs of recognition from Limburgers. On Page 1 of the August 6th edition, we find an article about the Lahn Post "Beachsoccer" team, which won the "Beachsoccer"-Cup ( has more details). We're also advised of the Freienfels "Country & Western Games", in which Freienfelsians will be treated to a barbecue, Whisky and Tequila bar, and groovy (fetzig) music from the likes of "Album" and "Arizona." Not to mention "Square-and Line-Dancing" for all.


But this post is really about the article "Wasps and Hornets Aren't Monsters." Background: every summer, a plague of smallish yellow wasps descends upon Germany. Starting in mid-July, trillions of these evil little bastards appear from nowhere. They spend all 7 days of their sorry little lives trying vigorously to pollinate your beer. When that fails, they fly under your clothes. A few weeks ago, I was trying to have an adult conversation with a woman about Very Serious Matters when one of these little jackasses began trying to have sex with my nose. How these moronic creatures — I hesitate to dignify them with the title "insect" — manage to reproduce is beyond me. During these weeks, I join most Germans in entertaining gruesome fantasies of mass wasp extermination.


But not Hans-Juergen Herrman, the wasp-lover from Limburg. Oh no, he would never, ever, ever hurt one of these precious creatures! First, he advises us that we shouldn't gesticulate and run away when a wasp approaches. And if they build a nest on your property, should you immediately drench them with deadly chemicals, and cackle with glee as they write in death-agonies at your feet? Heaven forfend! Instead, you should call Hans-Juergen, and he will show up with his Insektensauger ("Insect-sucker"), apparently some sort of wasp-vacuum. He will suck all your wasps into a bag, drive far away, and release them into his ex-wife's car the wild, so they can gambol about in nature's fair bosom. How very enlightened of him!


As for me, I'm all for the deadly chemicals. Unfortunately, you can't get them over here, apparently. Thanks, Green Party!

Kinski on Herzog

I'm slapping together a short review of Alex Ross' book "The Rest is Noise," but while looking for a nice image of the book's cover, I came across this review by Ross of an English translation of Klaus Kinski's memoir, Kinski Uncut:

Episodes recorded in Kinski Uncut fall into four categories: 1) sexual encounters with hundreds of women, beautiful and ugly, young and old, in a grotesque pornographic idiom that excludes sensual pleasure; 2) Céline-esque voyages of degradation and misery, often involving vomit, excrement, and delirium; 3) excoriations of incompetent directors, producers, writers, actors, journalists, and generally, all individuals who are not Kinski; 4) bouts of self-righteousness mixed with intense self-loathing. He actively sets out to make himself appear the biggest creep who ever walked the earth.

[Kinski on Herzog]: "Herzog is a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, blackmailing, cowardly, thoroughly dishonest creep. His so-called 'talent' consists of nothing but tormenting helpless creatures and, if necessary, torturing them to death or simply murdering them. … Every scene, every angle, every shot is determined by me. … I can at least partly save the movie from being wrecked by Herzog's bungling,"

I should note that since Ross' review was written, Herzog made the excellent documentary Mein Liebster Feind (g) in which he tells the story of Kinski visiting him (at one point, Herzog and Kinski were neighbors), and asking Herzog to help select grotesquely insulting adjectives to describe himself. "I'm sorry to do this to you, Werner," he recalls Kinski saying, "but you know people — they only want to read the bad stuff!"

[Photo: ultra-creepy digital age-progression showing how Klaus Kinski would look today, created by a team (g) of programmers and filmmakers in Baden-Württemberg]

Quote of the Day: Musil on Ethnic Prejudice

Weimar Goethe Points Us to Weimar Haus

"She was not entirely free from the distaste the typical Austrian of her period felt for his German kin. It its classical form, which has become a rarity in our day, this distaste corresponded more or less to an image of the venerated heads of Goethe and Schiller planted guilelessly on bodies that had been fed on sticky puddings and gravies, and shared something of their nonhuman inwardness….  Now, ethnic prejudice is usually nothing more than self-hatred, dredged up from the murky depths of one's own conflicts and projected onto some convenient victim, a traditional practice from time immemorial when the shaman used a stick, said to be the repository of the demon's power, to draw the sickness out of the afflicted."

The Man Without Qualities, vol. 1, p. 461.

When I Hear the Word “Revolver”…

I came across this interview with Slavoj Zizek last week on Obscene Desserts:

Zizek makes interesting points about the displacement of political conflict over economic interests into anodyne debates about multiculturalism and "tolerance" (Walter Benn Michaels argues along similar lines here). Otherwise, Slavoj is in full-on vieillard terrible mode: advocating the death penalty for rapists, promising to send Peter Sloterdijk to the "gulag," even accusing cuddly, adorable Michael Palin of racism. At one point, Zizek proudly announces that he has "Joseph Goebbels' reaction" when he hears multicultural platitudes: "I draw my guns." 

Zizek gets it wrong, but we won't hold him to that, because it's a live interview. The interesting thing is that everyone else gets it wrong, too. The famous quotation that everyone attributes to Goebbels or Goering is "When I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my revolver." It's even been used as the refrain of a pop song by Mission of Burma, later covered by Moby.

But there's no record of those two officials ever saying anything about revolvers. The quote everyone is actually thinking of comes from the first scene of a 1933 play, Schlageter, by the Nazi playwright Hanns Johst. Schlageter tells the story of one of the first National Socialist "martyrs," Albert Leo Schlageter (g), a NSDAP member who was executed by a French military tribunal for acts of sabotage against the occupation of the Ruhr Valley in the early 1920s. Schlageter later became the focus of a Nazi martyr cult. Streets all over Germany were named after him during the Third Reich, and his biography (see photo above) was mandatory reading for students.

In Johst's play, Schlageter talkes with a fellow student, Thiemann, about politics. Thiemann utters a long rant which ends with the phrase: "Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning," which translates as: "Whenever I hear [the word] 'culture'… I release the safety on my Browning!" In the original, Schlageter reacts with shock to his friend's militance. But not the National Socialists: Baldur von Schirach apparently used the quotation in a speech.

But "release the safety on my Browning" isn't half so catchy as "reach for my revolver," which is how the phrase has been received into English. There are two problems here for the translator.  First, German actually has one catchy word for release the safety (entsichere="de-safety-ize"), but English doesn't. Second, Browning used to be a generic word for all sorts of pistols, but that's no longer the case.* Whoever first translated the phrase as "reach for my revolver" did a brilliant job, I would say. The translation preserves the original meaning, and makes the references more resistant to the passage of time. And it struck a chord, appearling both to American post-punk bands and Slovenian philosophers.

* These days, people are more likely to associated the word Browning with the English poet, which perhaps led to the ludicrous suggestion on the Wikiquote page that the reference to "my Browning" might actually be a literary pun. I like the idea of "releasing the safety" on a book of poetry, but that level of playful irony seems almost Wildean, and if there was one thing Nazi playwrights weren't, it was Wildean.


“Let’s Steak Together”

Granted, the last example of Denglish came from Frankfurt. But exquisite speciments also await the Denglish-hunter in Dresden:

Pimp Handy

Technically only the first web address is classical Denglish. Extra points for not realizing that pimp is a transitive verb (i.e., "pimp your ride," not "pimp up your ride"). Triple bonus points for using the formal mode of address in a pair of web addresses that also includes the word pimp. "Sehr geehrter Herr Dr. Dr. von Recklenburg, wuerden Sie es mir erlauben, Ihr tragbares Fernmeldegeraet voll geil aufzupimpen, Opfer?" 

And here's a kiosk that puts lesser feats of Denglish in the shade by turning an English noun into a German verb ("Steak Together in Front of the Grill":

)Gemeinsam Steaken

My beautiful brothers and sisters, let's steak together (take it away, Al):

German Word of the Week(2): Angstschweiss

First, the psychological study, advertised at the University of Duesseldorf:

Sweat Study

The translation: “Are you are a healthy man, a student, and are just about to undergo an important oral exam?  Are you prepared to carry a cotton pad in your armpit twice for 90 minutes at a time? Then get in touch with us…” You’ll get paid 80 euros, which seems like a fair sum for something I do every day anyway.

Which brings us to a repeat of a GWOW, Angstschweiss, or “fear-sweat.”  Comparable to the English-language flop-sweat.  But it involves fear, which, as I’ve noted before, is a very prominent theme in Northern Europe. All the fearful male readers of this blog (you know who you are) should sign up for the study.  Strange women will smell your sweat, and who knows what could that could lead to….