When the Penny Drops

The strange persistence of class difference in art

Reihenhaus Dichterviertel Geilenkirchen (Fotografie: Jan Verwoert)

Terrace house Poet’s Quarter Geilenkirchen (Photograph: Jan Verwoert)

…So I’’m standing at the ticket machine outside the train station in my native Geilenkirchen and hear this builder on the nearby scaffolding call out to his mate: ‘make mine another caffè latte, Kollege!’ (German for mate, colleague or comrade) Meanwhile, the machine returned my crumpled ten euro note for the umpteenth time. Some things keep coming back, some things change.

Or do they? Born in the 1970s and raised accordingly, I’d been under the impression that education for all abolished the differences of class: Education brings freedom and equality, privileges are mere delusions, etc. Whether or not the differences ever went away, they’re back and when they show, they do so in ways that tend to be startlingly concrete. Invited to dinner by collectors in Mexico City, you’re picked up by their chauffeur. The window’s wound down halfway: You look, but it takes you a while to realize what you’re seeing. Then the penny drops. From that moment, you know you didn’t know how thick bullet-proof glass was (finger-thick): transparent and impenetrable, like the style of the intelligentsia from the social strata that today increasingly embodies the promise of education. You notice the difference in the critical debates: With Americans, it’s the unassailable rhetoric of the Ivy League graduate; with Germans, there’s often an added element of ideological certainty. Those who have inherited money can always reproach – impressively and with high morality – those who must still earn their living for being dependent on the market. In times of need, even the devil dreads the question: Which side are you on, Kollege?

Yes indeed, which side? Destination Upper West or Lower East?

On the side of the lane that takes you up to the Heath or down to the Market?

Tricky. What if neither nor?

I had even more problems answering the tax inspector’s question: ‘How can it be that you travel so much and earn so little?’ Unfortunately, I couldn’t sufficiently prove that I really don’t have the money that I’m not making. As a result, I now authenticate my relative poverty by giving the little that I do have back to the Tax Office Berlin Friedrichshain. Makes sense. The taxman guards the difference. Did I see someone move over there? Back to where you came from!

But life goes on. So says my neighbour on Karl-Marx-Allee. She’s survived two husbands and regimes. And because I occasionally take out the rubbish for her, she gives me little bottles of schnapps, oranges and her weekly women’s magazine when she’s through with it.

My grandfather had a set-up like this too, when he was playing dance music for Russian soldiers in Bautzen near Dresden after the war. They always bought rounds of vodka for the band. His dilemma: If you don’t accept, they take offence. But if you do, you end up too drunk to play, and they beat you up. The solution was a deal with the barmaid: She discreetly served him water instead of vodka, and later shared the money for what he hadn’t been obliged to drink.

Perhaps the bottom line is this: For anyone whose existence still actually depends on getting paid, the only morals that make a difference are business ethics.

I’’ll drink to that, Kollege!
If need be, with water.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Issue 1

First published in Issue 1

Summer 2011

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