Life and Opinions of the Sprayer of Zürich

Naegeli_undine

The lesson every "Anglo-Saxon" learns after a few years in Europe is this: When Europeans begin pontificating on political subjects, don't take what they say as any sort of guide to what they'll do. I suppose this is universal, but I can't shake the feeling that there's more hypocritical grandstanding on this side of the Atlantic.

This also applies to artists and writers: there's usually a positive relationship between the level of epater-les-bourgeois provocation they aim for and their dependence on government subsidies and social approval. Josef Beuys was so traumatized at being fired from his professor post at the Duesseldorf Art Academy (for, among other things, doing away with entrance criteria) that he circulated protest postcards claiming he'd been "Ruined by [the] State." State and federal authorities shower even the most mediocre German literary talents with awards and prizes. Those who get them invariably accept them, and those who don't are consumed with envy. The same theatre director who burns German flags onstage will go to the wall to protest a minor change to his pension benefits. As Karl Mannheim once remarked of Heidelberg professors, the more given to heaven-stormingly radical speeches they were, the more meekly bourgeois their lives.

The rule is: pose as an anti-authoritarian rebel, but get the the subsidy application in on time, and if the state offers you a lifetime civil-servant post, take it! By all means bite the hand that feeds you (don't worry — it'll keep coming back!). Never, ever slap it away.

The latest example is "The Sprayer of  Zürich," a man named Harald Naegeli (g). Naegeli started his artistic career in the late 1970s, spraying sinuous graffiti designs on buildings in Zürich in black spray-paint. This was, of course, illegal, so Naegeli kept his identity secret. He was caught after he forgot his glasses at one of his sites and returned for them. In 1981, he was sentenced to nine months in prison and a significant fine. Instead of serving his sentence, he fled Switzerland, staying in Duesseldorf and traveling around Europe. An international arrest warrant was issued for him. He was apprehended in 1984, and was required to serve out his sentence, despite interventions from various elite figures in Germany, such as Willy Brandt and Josef Beuys. After serving his time, he established himself in Duesseldorf, where he continues to produce some graffiti, as well as more conventional artworks.

So what's not to like? Certainly not the graffiti, which are elegant enough. But a recent radio interview on WDR5 was rather revealing. Naegeli rushed to reassure the interviewers that his work was "political" (and therefore, of course, Very Serious). Apparently, it was some sort of silent protest against of Switzlerand's bourgeois conformism and obsession with private property. Naegeli sniffs at today's graffiti artists because, he claims, they're not "political" enough. The interviewers seemed to share Naegeli's view , gently mocking the Swiss courts for going to such lengths to protect "sacred" private property.

But at the end of the interview, we learn something curious: Naegeli, who's now 70, does not have to work, because of a "rich inheritance." Of course, inheriting such large amounts of money is only possible in a social order that…protects private property. Naegeli also expressed dissatisfaction that no government authority had yet extended official historical-protection status to one of his plein-air works of art. Let's review: Use of state power to punish me for damaging other peoples' property without their consent: wrong. Use of state power to ensure I receive tons of cash without working for it, and that nobody else can damage my "property": right.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: artists, with rare exceptions, should be seen and not heard.*

* Let me clear a few things up. This post is about poseurs, not about my political and aesthetic positions, which are as follows:

Naegeli's graffiti? Delightful.

Arts subsidies? A fine investment, for which I gladly pay my taxes. Also, I want some! 

Cushy government jobs? I want one!

Private property? No problems with it. Have lots myself. 

Inheritance laws that permit parents to shower their children with unearned wealth? Not so hot on those, but they're probably unavoidable in a free legal order.

[Illustration: "Undine," a 1978 Naegeli graffito on a building at the University of Zurich (g)]

10 thoughts on “Life and Opinions of the Sprayer of Zürich

  1. I think no people are more known for separating what they say from what they mean than the Americans. I’m fuzzy about what you mean by “Anglo-Saxon”, do you mean American? I’m Hispanic, but born in the states. Still I share most of your observations when I lived in Berlin for three years.

    I like what you wrote about artists and writers, a very poignant and could-be funny observation. It just started off weird when you generalized Europeans. It’s the kind of atomizing thing I heard expats do often in Germany and it always made me cringe. Though I understand such feelings increase when you’re overseas.

    You included a photograph named Undine. I recommend reading Fouque’s novella “Undine, eine Erzaehlung” from 1819. It’s about a water sprite, and preceeds Hans Christian Anderson’s little mermaid by more than a decade. A foreigner like you may feel a lot in common with Undine.

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  2. I think no people are more known for separating what they say from what they mean than the Americans. I’m fuzzy about what you mean by “Anglo-Saxon”, do you mean American? I’m Hispanic, but born in the states. Still I share most of your observations when I lived in Berlin for three years.

    I like what you wrote about artists and writers, a very poignant and could-be funny observation. It just started off weird when you generalized Europeans. It’s the kind of atomizing thing I heard expats do often in Germany and it always made me cringe. Though I understand such feelings increase when you’re overseas.

    You included a photograph named Undine. I recommend reading Fouque’s novella “Undine, eine Erzaehlung” from 1819. It’s about a water sprite, and preceeds Hans Christian Anderson’s little mermaid by more than a decade. A foreigner like you may feel a lot in common with Undine.

    Like

  3. inheritance = unearned wealth.
    if i follow up this line of thought, also the donations given by individuals to various institutions such as hunger relief or for the research against deadly diseases are unwarranted.
    to debate the right of people how to use their wealth, i.e. to what purpose and to whom they deem best, is one of the weakest points expressed in this comment.
    i understood your thoughts in a way that if one dies, all his material wealth should default back to the government or a government fund.
    or is this the case you make: it’s ok to make gifts to others, but not to one’s own next of kin.
    if i run a company, my kids would not have the right to continue owning and running it, correct?
    please give me your arguments for ultimately promoting dispossession.

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  4. inheritance = unearned wealth.
    if i follow up this line of thought, also the donations given by individuals to various institutions such as hunger relief or for the research against deadly diseases are unwarranted.
    to debate the right of people how to use their wealth, i.e. to what purpose and to whom they deem best, is one of the weakest points expressed in this comment.
    i understood your thoughts in a way that if one dies, all his material wealth should default back to the government or a government fund.
    or is this the case you make: it’s ok to make gifts to others, but not to one’s own next of kin.
    if i run a company, my kids would not have the right to continue owning and running it, correct?
    please give me your arguments for ultimately promoting dispossession.

    Like

  5. Alex: You can search my post in vain for a suggestion that inheritances be outlawed. My point was that someone who has greatly benefited from the legal framework that protects private property — such as Naegeli — can’t be taken seriously when he attacks that legal framework.

    As for inheritances, there are actually plenty of arguments for taxing them pretty heavily. (Nobody is suggesting outright confiscation.)

    The social-democratic argument for a hefty inheritance tax is, of course, based on fairness. It’s obviously incompatible with lots of intuitive notions of fairness to permit Citizen A never to work a day in his life because his parents were rich and decided to bestow him with a large endowment, while forcing Citizen B to work simply because he had the bad luck not to be born to rich parents. That’s not to say that society should be perfectly fair. But any obvious instance of unfairness should be offset by competing social goals that justify the fairness sacrifice (see Rawls). Preserving the right of extremely wealthy people to permanently exempt their offspring from the obligation to work is not a particularly compelling goal to most people. The existence of a large class of people who live like kings without having to work inevitably generates social friction.

    There’s also a small-l liberal argument for inheritance taxes. Society’s overall general prosperity is best maximized by an economic system that encourages all assets to be put to the most productive use possible. Under this view, there’s no question that allowing some inherited wealth to be passed on is economically efficient, since it provides an extra incentive for citizens to create wealth so that they can pass it on to their family members. (The question is, of course, whether the incentive of passing on wealth to family members adds very much to the basic incentive — being rich yourself — which we can all agree is a pretty strong incentive.)

    Under this view, it’s questionable whether bestowing large fortunes on your offspring is a productive use of private wealth. Subsidizing the lifestyles of your children — even the lazy ne’er-do-wells — isn’t a particularly productive use of private wealth. The extreme version of this problem is seen in heavily corrupt societies, in which massive amounts of private wealth are siphoned off to provide luxurious lifestyles to the family members and cronies of the powerful. Another example is the American real estate magnate Leona Helmsley, who left between 5 and 8 billion dollars of her estate to fund the care and welfare of dogs, and $10 million to her white Maltese ‘Trouble’.

    For that matter, why should it be particularly desirable for wealthy owners of large business enterprises to ensure that their offspring continue to lead those enterprises? Those offspring might, after all, turn out to be corrupt or ineffective managers who will run family companies into the ground. The money and effort used to ensure a business “stays in the family” could, alternatively, be used to recruit well-trained professional managers to run the business instead, providing more jobs for everybody and increasing tax revenue.

    So there are pretty good arguments from two opposing schools of thought for taxing inheritances pretty heavily.

    Like

  6. Alex: You can search my post in vain for a suggestion that inheritances be outlawed. My point was that someone who has greatly benefited from the legal framework that protects private property — such as Naegeli — can’t be taken seriously when he attacks that legal framework.

    As for inheritances, there are actually plenty of arguments for taxing them pretty heavily. (Nobody is suggesting outright confiscation.)

    The social-democratic argument for a hefty inheritance tax is, of course, based on fairness. It’s obviously incompatible with lots of intuitive notions of fairness to permit Citizen A never to work a day in his life because his parents were rich and decided to bestow him with a large endowment, while forcing Citizen B to work simply because he had the bad luck not to be born to rich parents. That’s not to say that society should be perfectly fair. But any obvious instance of unfairness should be offset by competing social goals that justify the fairness sacrifice (see Rawls). Preserving the right of extremely wealthy people to permanently exempt their offspring from the obligation to work is not a particularly compelling goal to most people. The existence of a large class of people who live like kings without having to work inevitably generates social friction.

    There’s also a small-l liberal argument for inheritance taxes. Society’s overall general prosperity is best maximized by an economic system that encourages all assets to be put to the most productive use possible. Under this view, there’s no question that allowing some inherited wealth to be passed on is economically efficient, since it provides an extra incentive for citizens to create wealth so that they can pass it on to their family members. (The question is, of course, whether the incentive of passing on wealth to family members adds very much to the basic incentive — being rich yourself — which we can all agree is a pretty strong incentive.)

    Under this view, it’s questionable whether bestowing large fortunes on your offspring is a productive use of private wealth. Subsidizing the lifestyles of your children — even the lazy ne’er-do-wells — isn’t a particularly productive use of private wealth. The extreme version of this problem is seen in heavily corrupt societies, in which massive amounts of private wealth are siphoned off to provide luxurious lifestyles to the family members and cronies of the powerful. Another example is the American real estate magnate Leona Helmsley, who left between 5 and 8 billion dollars of her estate to fund the care and welfare of dogs, and $10 million to her white Maltese ‘Trouble’.

    For that matter, why should it be particularly desirable for wealthy owners of large business enterprises to ensure that their offspring continue to lead those enterprises? Those offspring might, after all, turn out to be corrupt or ineffective managers who will run family companies into the ground. The money and effort used to ensure a business “stays in the family” could, alternatively, be used to recruit well-trained professional managers to run the business instead, providing more jobs for everybody and increasing tax revenue.

    So there are pretty good arguments from two opposing schools of thought for taxing inheritances pretty heavily.

    Like

  7. The only people having enough time to occupy themselves with politics early on are those whose property was protected as a child already (and therefore might dare getting in trouble — their parents will get them out and it won’t have lots of consequences), and it’s those people, too, who have parents that care about or even politics. This rules out many or all children from lower-class families.
    The remaining ones now either develop into conformists or non-conformists (or something in between).
    Neben dem Weg: the free-Tibet protesters are largely recruited from rich families, too (that is, if they’re not native Tibetans).

    Like

  8. The only people having enough time to occupy themselves with politics early on are those whose property was protected as a child already (and therefore might dare getting in trouble — their parents will get them out and it won’t have lots of consequences), and it’s those people, too, who have parents that care about or even politics. This rules out many or all children from lower-class families.
    The remaining ones now either develop into conformists or non-conformists (or something in between).
    Neben dem Weg: the free-Tibet protesters are largely recruited from rich families, too (that is, if they’re not native Tibetans).

    Like

  9. @alex: Property/posession is an artificial construct created by the state. Most of what you consider property wouldn’t exist in an anarchy, only what you can defend yourself and that is very little. Wouldn’t the burden of proof be on those who favor extending those property rights to descendants as to why they’d want that? Don’t ask me why I’d want to ‘dispossess’ your children, I’m asking you why I’d want to entitle them to your possessions in the first place.

    Like

  10. @alex: Property/posession is an artificial construct created by the state. Most of what you consider property wouldn’t exist in an anarchy, only what you can defend yourself and that is very little. Wouldn’t the burden of proof be on those who favor extending those property rights to descendants as to why they’d want that? Don’t ask me why I’d want to ‘dispossess’ your children, I’m asking you why I’d want to entitle them to your possessions in the first place.

    Like

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