A young musician from Melbourne called Robert F. Coleman brought his band to Berlin in April to work on an album. Robert lived with his three bandmates in a shared €500 flat in Neukölln, went to “raves in empty airports” and “parties in empty public swimming pools”, watched parents drink beer from XL bottles in a playground (“weird!”), stared at nudists in the park (super-weird!), enjoyed the “best dance music in the world”. But alas, all this fun and weirdness destroyed morale in the band and they failed to record an album. Bummer. You can read about this harrowing experience in the New York Times.
After three months of living the Berlin life, Robert realised it was “too easy” here. With no need to “hustle”, the young musicians’ discipline was eroded by consecutive hangovers and come-downs. Rather than produce art, Robert had consumed fun. Hence, the activities of he and his bandmates seemed limited to the normal behaviour of young men from English-speaking countries:
A member of our band was incarcerated for 17 hours, receiving a 1,600-euro fine for damage to private property. There were fights and drunken backgammon sessions resulting in heads breaking windows. There were infected arms, cut legs. We were the victims of credit-card fraud, theft and immoral drug dealers.
Immoral drug dealers!
After a romp through every Berlin cliché, the article ends in revelation:
While we were in Berlin, we noticed a growing animosity toward the so-called “EasyJet set” — tourists taking advantage of cheap international flights to join in Berlin’s party scene. Was this why I never met an artist who had a coming exhibition or showing or play? Because they didn’t leave their studios for every party? Because maybe they didn’t want to go out and meet the likes of me?
But what was really going on here?
I don’t think Berlin was “ruining” Robert and his band – though the opposite could be argued. I think the problem was a fundamental clash of culture. Robert was an ambitious, young musician who lacked the inner Lebenseinstellung – I cannot think of an appropriate word in English – to be able to enjoy Bohemian Berlin properly without going crazy.
Going back to the 1970s – or maybe even to the 1910s – there has existed a decadent, artistic underground here which has placed little value on “making it” for the sake of making it. The king of decadent Berlin is the “poor but sexy” Lebenskünstler, an archetype who has had a huge influence on culture and nightlife here till this day. The Lebenskünstler cares little about his next record deal or art opening or publishing deal. Instead, life is his art. Only “now” matters and how you can make the most out of each moment. Screw success and any concept of “the future” because for decades Berliners – think of WWII, the Cold War etc. – have felt there is NO tomorrow (and they are right of course – we will all die).
The Lebenskünstler‘s dilettantish self-expression might have no audience other than his circle of friends or 30 people in some tiny Kleinkunst venue. Or he might just express his sense of existential freedom by taking off his clothes in a public park because it feels good. He feels no guilt due to lack of achievement.
To outsiders like Robert, who come here with rock star fantasies and middleclass dreams of “making it” this is a totally foreign notion. To him – and the rest of Western civilisation – the Lebenskünstler is just a loser. In fact. A loser whose lack of ambition makes the likes of Robert uncomfortable:
All around us, cafes were teeming, the canal banks were lined with people reading, talking and laughing, and the vast parks were brimming with blankets and smoke and sunshine. But no one seemed to be working.
While this disturbing sight is anathema to the work ethic of Robert’s native culture and his dream of becoming the next Bowie, I was a bit cheered up by his article. As someone who came here 15 years ago, I tend to wallow in nostalgia for a time when everything did seem possible, when rents were really low, when beer was even more ridiculously cheap. For people like me, the Berlin of today appears largely ruined by gentrification, homogenising global trends, mainstream ideas and the relentless quest for profit. And yet, compared to much of the rest of the world, the likes of Robert make it clear that the Lebenskünstler are still alive and kicking: dreamers from around the planet, living in their personal utopia of a life made of ‘meaningful experiences’, art and creative endeavours and, who, rather than complain that “no one seemed to be working”, ask themselves…”Why should I work?”