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The Institute  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 individuals, cultural policy and international trends in the arts.

It is generally known that film—considered an important tool for educating the masses—was granted a special status in state socialism. Less well known is that arts and artists were granted a special status in these societies, where they and other members of the intelligentsia were to be role models, leading the way and inspiring people to create the new socialist society. One manifestation of this was that artists were often the subject of films and novels. Arbitrary and opaque cultural policies, however, often led to massive cultural debates, friction with artists, and censure of the artworks they created.

In the first years after the Cold War ended, scholarship on the arts in socialist countries often flattened and devalued the topic of culture, seen as inextricably tied to the state. About ten years ago this began undergoing an important shift , as scholars moved beyond an initial focus on repressive social structures.[1] Newer scholarship is now yielding more nuanced and in-depth insights into the Cold War period, which highlight commonalities as well as differences between the experience of modernity in socialism and capitalism.

Gathering and building upon such new scholarship in art history, musicology, film studies, and German studies, this Institute will seek to: re-evaluate debates about artistic freedom and censorship in socialism; 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. As the experience of GDR artists working in different media was quite varied, and the disciplines that we engage also exhibit significant interpretive differences, the Institute expects to break new ground by challenging conventional assumptions regarding periodization, national identity, international collaboration and communication, and socialist ideology and cultural policies.

The Institute examines the case of the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany), focusing on art, music and film. East Germany is a particularly productive arena for humanities study. With its ties to a “canonic” European cultural tradition, debates on the arts in the GDR were connected both to past treasures of the Enlightenment, and to the avant-garde and modernist experiments of the late-19th and early-20th centuries that had been violently suppressed by the Nazi regime; it is ironic that the latter were then targeted by Stalinist cultural politics as well.

Methodological and historical reasons also make the GDR an ideal case study for examining socialist modernity. An important methodological advantage resides in the availability of an unparalleled amount of material in English, especially on GDR history and cinema. The DEFA Film Library at UMass Amherst is also able obtain, and provide English voice-overs and subtitles for, many hitherto unavailable films. Historically, Germany’s rapid rebound at the end of the Cold War also resulted in a healthier environment for research on Germany than on other Eastern European countries. Most evident in history, German studies and, more recently, musicology, art historians have been slower to revise their approach, and research on East Bloc artists still struggles for acceptance in some circles. These differing disciplinary trajectories provide a rich field for a critical approach to the intellectual history of Cold War modernity and culture.

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[1] Important events in this evolution included the 2009 LACMA exhibit on Art of Two Germanys: Cold War Cultures and a 2007 conference at Dickinson College and the edited volume that emerged from it (Elaine Kelly and Amy Wlodarski, eds. Art Outside the Lines: New Perspectives on GDR Art Culture. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi. 2011).


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