This NEH Institute for college and university teachers seeks to break new ground in our understanding of socialist modernity—recently the focus of much scholarship on material culture and the built environment—by exploring new research to provide a sustained, interdisciplinary examination into the role of cultural policy and the individual in the visual arts, music and film in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany). Drawing on the latest research in art history, musicology, film studies, and German studies, the Institute will seek to: re-evaluate debates about artistic freedom and censorship; consider relations between high and low (popular), as well as official and alternative arts cultures; and establish the importance and timeliness of revisiting this period of recent history in today’s college classrooms.

Scholarship on the arts under socialism began undergoing an important shift about ten years ago, as it attempted to overcome an exclusive focus on the impact of repressive social structures; this was closely tied to a flattening and devaluation of socialist cultural achievements. Newer scholarship seeks to re-appropriate the field by bringing contemporary interests and research questions to bear upon it; it is now yielding more nuanced and in-depth insights, which highlight commonalities, as well as differences between socialist and capitalist modernity. The Institute gathers and builds upon this new scholarship, incorporating work on the visual arts, music and film and focusing on the GDR. Given that the different disciplines that we engage exhibit significant interpretive differences and the experience of GDR artists working in different media was also quite varied, the Institute expects to break new ground by challenging conventional assumptions about periodization and socialist ideology and cultural policies.

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