“Beautiful Politics” The Highest Form of Art?

The “White Crosses” at the present
The “White Crosses” at the present | © Centre for Political Beauty

Questions relating to the handling of the refugee issue are increasingly the focus of artistic scenarios. Politics and art join hands in actions that draw attention to the drama of migration.

In salt water, dead bodies quickly disintegrate into nothing, animal feeding and microorganisms ensure a burial without a trace in the depths of the sea. These are the research findings of the artists’ group Zentrum für politische Schönheit (Centre for Political Beauty). They confirm experts’ suspicion that the number of undetected cases of refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean is far higher than estimated to date.

For the dead who have been rescued from the sea, dignified funerals are finally to be held in the homeland of their hopes and dreams that they have at least reached in death. Open graves are to be seen on the website of the team of artists, in which official dignitaries lower the white coffins of the refugees. One van read the names of the invited EU politicians on the first rows of seats. The Centre calls for donations. The funeral service for the drowned refugees with the title Die Toten kommen (The Dead Are Coming) is so well staged that it’s sad irony becomes apparent only at second glance.

Expanded commemoration

The action Erster Europäischer Mauerfall (First Fall of the European Wall) is all the more painful because it is staged directly along the pulsing heart of German reunification nostalgia. With it, the artists draw attention to the threat to people who today are facing similarly insurmountable and deadly borders. For this action, the white commemorative crosses for the GDR refugees who died at this border were taken from their site at the Reichstag and secretly brought to the most dangerous locations of the EU’s outer boundaries: to the containment facility at the Bulgarian-Turkish border, at the Greek border and at Melilla, the Spanish exclave on the North African coast. In perfect timing for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the white crosses are now blinking from among the faces of African refugees, thereby directing attention to the new walls of the EU’s borders. “We seek to expand German commemoration in terms of one crucial concept: the present,” comments Philipp Ruch, member of the artists’ group Zentrum für Politische Schönheit, and asks, “The fall of what wall should we celebrate as long as tens of thousands of people are drowning on account of Europe’s outer walls?”

The public as material of artistic actions

The urgent question of the refugee issue has become the theme of a new socially engaged and participatory art that is no longer concerned with re-presentations of reality. Instead, the public and society themselves are the materials of artistic actions, blurring the boundaries between activism, political action and works of art. For instance when refugees arriving from Lampedusa in Hamburg’s Kampnagelfabrik set up the future lab Ecofavela Lampedusa Nord together with the artists’ group Baltic Raw. It is intended to provide the refugees with social protection in addition to shelter. Or when Tobias Zielony exhibits photographs of African migrants and their stories in the German Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale that are then published in newspapers in their home countries. The work is intended to stimulate discussion about their fate in both Europe and the migrants’ homelands.


Forerunners were needed for us to be able to interpret these projects operating at the intersections of art, life, politics and society as art. Above all it was the Fluxus artists of the 1960’s who placed actions at the epicentre of their artistic activity and proclaimed the unity of art and life. With his concept of Sozialen Plastik (social sculpture) and his Erweiterter Kunstbegriff (extended definition of art), Joseph Beuys laid the foundations of a new understanding of art; as did Christoph Schlingensief later on with actions such as: Chance 2000 – Partei der letzten Chance (1998) and Aktion 18 Lesereise: Tötet Politik (2002). In his Aktionstagebuch (i.e. Aktion 18 Diary) we thus read: “Our jeans tucked in our boots and our fishing vests on. Beuys is with us.” Both conceived of art as a medium of processes of social change.

Radical interest

If the influence of art on political realities hitherto has consisted of actions involving raising awareness and provocation, the question asked of it now is its utility or immediate effects. Today, art is even more radically interested in reality. Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s concept is called Arte Ùtil, useful art. With her project Immigrant Movement International (2011), she initiated a political platform for migrants in Queens (New York) and proclaimed political action per se as art. Crises call for action, including a more radical approach in art. The staging of a political action as a work of art is an artistic response to the fault lines and border fences surrounding us and at the same time a new form of artistic practice in which “beautiful politics” can be the highest form of art.

To what extent migrants themselves can become active actors within these discourses, or whether they merely benefit from the direct utility of artistic actions is a question we have yet to ask them.