I wonder what Syd Barrett was doing on July 21, 1990, whilst his former Pink Floyd bandmate Roger Waters was cranking the bombast to 11 in Berlin by supersizing that already bloated paean to bilious self-pity known as The Wall and conflating it with the decommissioning — six months prior — of the “anti-Fascist protective rampart” that had divided the German capital and stood as a symbol of Yankee/Soviet stalemate for the previous quarter century. Probably painting.

After his death in 2006, it was revealed that Syd had spent much of his three-decade withdrawal from show business making art, which he sometimes photographed before painting over or destroying. The question that nags me is this: Which is the greater creative act, micromanaging a spectacular but rehashed postmodern Gesamtkunstwerk for half a million people (and millions more via live satellite TV — and all ostensibly for charity!), or daubing away in a Cambridge cellar on a canvas that will probably never see the light of day?

What brings this to mind is “Art of Two Germanys: Cold War Cultures,” an ambitious and treasure-laden exhibit now happily displacing Damien Hirst (among others) from the second floor of LACMA’s BCAM building. It isn’t just the superficial Berlin Wall reference that summons the mighty Floyd, but the jostling polarities at play, that between hubristic historical importance and unrecorded humility as artistic motivators, and of the almost cosmic narrative of good and evil that drove Cold War politics — and tried to oblige Art into choosing a side.

Completing curator Stephanie Barron’s exceptional historical trilogy that began with 1991’s Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany and continued with ’97’s Exiles and Emigres: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler, Two Germanys adheres to this übernarrative closely, albeit in a subtly nuanced and richly detailed way. Beginning with Richard Peter Sr.’s claustrophobic, horizonless documentary photographs of the charred rubble (and citizens) of Dresden, the exhibit winds in a chronological circuit through the schizophrenic era of reconstruction toward the conceptual terminus of reunification. Shell-shocked attempts to assimilate the recent carnage with the tools of Modernism provide the first of many painterly gems, with the luminous biomorphic abstractions of Willie Baumeister, who chose to remain in Third Reich Germany, working in secret after being classified as degenerate.

The bifurcating streams of Communist Party–sanctioned Socialist Realism and laissez faire expressions of the Westside “economic miracle” afford glimpses into summarily disparaged modes of narrative figuration and prescient op/kinetic gizmoism respectively, while the first stirrings of anticonsumerist skepticism that blossomed in the “Capitalist Realism” of Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke are traced to the 1950s typewriter and sewing-machine portraits of Konrad Klapheck. A tableful of Dresdenite Herman Glöckner’s constructivist models — assembled in secret from tiny bits of trash to evade the disapproving eye of the East German Socialist Unity Party — provides a hauntingly poetic riposte to both official programs of aesthetic progress, while looking eerily contemporary — like something from last month’s grad-school open studios.

Ironically, in an exhibit whose central concept is the search for a new German national identity, one of its most consistent themes is the ongoing struggle to cope with the emerging global cultural dominance of the USA, particularly the fine-art legacy of Pop — itself an attempt to forge some sort of continuity between lingering European concepts of fine art with the torrent of formal and symbolic information generated by American consumerism. Perhaps the signal work in this vein is multimedia fluxus associate Wolf Vostell’s shredded-billboard decollage Coca-Cola, created in 1961 — the year the Wall went up.

Embodying a literal physical assault on the omnipresent pictorial manifestation of American commercial dominance, Coca-Cola nevertheless depends on the design virtuosity of the original materials for its success as a visual artwork — an ambivalence that remained at the heart of subsequent engagements with the popscape, from the aforementioned Capitalist Realists — represented by stellar reconfigurations of Polke’s painting suite The Fifties (1963-69) and Richter’s Volker Bradke (1966) installation — through the 1980s work of Martin Kippenberger and Rosemarie Trockel.

Similarly, the most prominent strain of postwar German art — the neo-expressionist figurative work of Georg Baselitz, Markus Lüpertz, Jörg Immendorf and A.R. Penck (plus the romantic landscapes of Anselm Kiefer), which eventually spearheaded the worldwide ’80s revival of picture-making — was initially a reaction against the ostensibly neutral politics of MOMA-promulgated doctrine of pure abstraction. This was exemplified by the New York School of AbEx giants, whose paintings were, in fact, covertly supported by the CIA as Trojan-horse exemplars of Western democratic freedom.

Of particular concern to these German artists was the image’s capacity to convey complex, simultaneous layers of narrative, historical, psychological and spiritual meaning — a necessary function if their art was to somehow channel the generational surge of national self-examination that erupted as Nazi atrocities finally breached the wall of collective denial in the 1960s. Their success is evident in some of the most powerful works in Two Germanys — Richter’s Eagle (1972) and Uncle Rudi (1965); Kiefer’s Germany’s Spiritual Heroes (1973) and Nuremberg (1983); Baselitz and Pandemonium I Manifesto co-author Eugen Schönebeck’s array of broken and collapsed heroic figures; Penck’s iconic, virtuosic pictograph Passage (1963).

The sincere semiotic universalism of Penck — whose best work was done when he was an officially nonrecognized artist in East Germany before finally emigrating in 1980 — along with Immendorff’s often scathing cartoon broadsides typifies the other thematic continuity in Two Germanys; one which persists through the detailing of the ’70s’ multimedia explosion before dissipating in the late ’80s with the erasure of the monumental symbolic and literal boundary of the Wall. That thematic continuity is the artists’ individual and collective attempt to wrest a genuine progressive political position from a context in which all the relevant terms and symbols have been co-opted by authoritarian administrations. Not so successful, though Joseph Beuys did his damnedest. In fact, with few exceptions, the work in the latter part of Two Germanys seems anemic, reflecting — or even embodying — the Western strategies of trivialization and marginalization that replaced the censorious supervision of the waning Eastern Bloc.

Which brings my mind back to Roger and Syd. The danger of a show like this — kick-ass though it may be in terms of narrative and overall artistic strength — lies in the possibility of Art being mistaken as a subset of History: as a series of decorative artifacts reflecting the shifting fortunes of groups of armed men squabbling over real estate. The triumph of West over East was not the resolution of any sort of polarity, merely the defeat of one profoundly dehumanizing military-industrial complex by a slightly shinier one. Art is something different. And in terms of creating something new under the sun, is a massive, hierarchically orchestrated spectacle celebrating the hegemonic absorption of that less shiny regime that much different from one soliciting consent to the waging of Total War? The answer is Syd. Syd was the artist. Roger Waters is a dick.

LACMA/BCAM, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; through April 19, 2009.

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