Brilliant Dilletantes
When No-skill Was Productive

Diedrich Diederichsen attending re:publica 2013

When you talk about the West German subculture of the 1980s, you come sooner or later to the key concept of the Geniale Dilletanten (i.e.,Brilliant Dilttetantes). In an Interview, the pop theorist Diedrich Diederichsen explains the role that amateurism and self-organization then played in cultural production.

Mr Diederichsen, in 1981 “Die große Untergangsshow – Festival Genialer Dilletanten” (i.e., The Great Downfall Show – Festival of the Brilliant Dilletantes) took place in Berlin at the Tempodrom. Soon after, an anthology appeared under the same title. What were the Brilliant Dilletantes?

You can designate under this heading the Berlin bands that appeared at the festival and are represented in the eponymous book published by Merve. But everybody at that time had long been talking about the productive component of amateurism. There are two very different interpretations of the term. First, praise of abstemiousness towards chords and the related hope that everyone would then be creative. And secondly the idea that no-skill could bring forth the unforeseen and unplannable, greater complexity free of convention. So, either more creative or more and differently creative.

The Brilliant Dilletantes represented both ideas?

At the Berlin festival there were bands like Die Ichs (i.e., The Is) and Sprung aus den Wolken (i.e., Ripcord) that couldn’t do anything but also didn’t develop anything except an easily recognizable Berlin sound, which was simple and blunt yet had the advantage of not sounding like music. The same applied to the Einstürzende Neubauten (i.e., Collapsing New Buildings) in their early days. And then there were others like the Tödliche Doris (i.e., Deadly Doris) and Frieder Butzmann, who confronted the tonal with other parameters like performance. Whether those concerned were in fact amateurs (like Tödliche Doris) or not (like Frieder Butzmann) wasn’t as important as their idea of artistic practice. They were more the second generation of the Fluxus movement than the first generation of amateurism.

International Dilettantism

The discovery of amateurism at this time wasn’t only a German phenomenon.

Naturally a lot of other people also talked about the possibilities of no-skill, also in other countries. My favourite example is Jad Fair, the co-founder of the band Half Japanese. A whole world of amateurism rose up that we owe, among others, to people like the American artist and musician Daniel Johnston. The phenomenon should be seen in global terms.

Today attention falls particularly on the smooth transitions among art, music and film in the subculture of the eighties. Is “interdisciplinary” the right keyword?

Back then no would have said the goal was to mix disciplines. In both areas, in art and in avant-garde pop music, resources were scarce. There weren’t any places where a young joker who wanted to question the avant-garde ideas of the seventies could express himself. It wouldn’t have been enough to have stayed put in your own world, so you played at an art centre.

Booed off the stage

It’s part of amateurism that you not only make music and art yourself and establish venues for it, but also that you’re your own producer and distributor.

The scene organized itself and found headings for this such as Brilliant Dilletantes. There were British models for self-organisation through labels. The British punk singles, with their thick record sleeves, had an incredible fetish value. It became clear that a record needn’t be a standardized product, but rather could be something that you could co-design. Very soon there were successful versions of shops and labels like Zensor in Berlin, Rip Off and ZickZack in Hamburg. Before, festivals were organized by artists like Martin Kippenberger; now there were ZickZack festivals in every city.

How important was the idea of performance, of the theatrical?

The only thing everyone could agree about was that the enemy was called stadium rock, and that it was very theatrical. There were bands from punk circles which found any kind of performance arty, not realizing that what they thought was terrific was also a performance. Punks used to boo people off the stage if they performed too much. Me and my band, the Nachdenkliche Wehrpflichtigen (i.e., Thoughtful Draftees), have sometimes been booed off the stage.
Starting 23 April 2015 in Minsk (Belarus) and following with a global tour, the exhibition Geniale Dilettanten (Brilliant Dilletantes) will present the most comprehensive survey of German subculture of the 1980’s to date. It can be seen in Munich’s Haus der Kunst from June–October 2015. Geniale Dilletanten is a touring exhibition by the Goethe-Institut.