Dispute over poem on university facade: of flowers and beautiful women

A poem by Eugen Gomringer is on the facade of a Berlin university. Students find it sexist, now it has to move.

For a bucket? The comparison of flowers with women Photo: imago/Westend61

The man who admired women has to move. Until now he sat unchallenged huge on the facade of the Alice Salomon Hochschule in Berlin-Hellersdorf, but in 2018, when the facade is renovated, he and his poem will have to move to a smaller plaque at the foot of the wall. Large will be a new poem every five years from then on. Barbara Kohler is to make the start, with which work has not yet been determined.

What is it about? The sun is shining, the poet is sitting in the middle of the wide avenue, the flowers are shining in front of the stalls, between which women are strolling. He enjoys. He admires the beauty that spreads out before him. In 1951, the poet Eugen Gomringer turned this scenery into a parade work of concrete poetry in "Avenidas," which, with just six words in ever-changing combinations, is able to evoke this entire urban pastoral in swaying rhythms.

In strident contrast to the poem’s tranquility is the debate it has provoked. Since 2011, it has adorned the south facade of the Alice Salomon University of Applied Sciences for Social Work in Berlin. Its content, however, has been a source of irritation for students from the very beginning. Then, in 2016, the Asta requested that the poem be removed. Why?

"Not only does this poem reproduce a classic patriarchal art tradition in which women* are exclusively the beautiful muses who inspire male artists to creative acts, it is also an uncomfortable reminder of sexual harassment that women* are exposed to on a daily basis," the Asta’s statement reads. Gomringer’s entire oeuvre was not questioned, but it was doubted whether this poem was suitable as a signboard for the university. They want a redesign of the facade.

There is talk of censorship

Paff. #MeToo at Salomon University. The highly decorated Gomringer as an inspirer for women harassers. What is initially still treated as a "provincial pose", instigated by "crazy students" from gender overheated Berlin, quickly gains seriousness. One of the difficulties is that Gomringer gave the poem to the university as a thank-you for awarding him a poetry prize together with the Haus der Poesie in 2011.

The two institutions together award this prize on a regular basis, and the future facade artworks are now to be selected from among the prize winners. Even then, the Haus der Poesie reacted with horror. The spook should end immediately, otherwise they would leave the joint jury. On Tuesday, the institute got serious and ended the cooperation with the university. The jury, too, maximally humiliated, resigned in unison.

In stark contrast to the tranquility of the poem is the debate it has provoked

Already in 2017, the House of Poetry speaks of the "destruction of a work of art." The FAZ sees the poet Gomringer discriminated against and menetekelt that the university wants to take back their poetry awards from him and others. The honorary president of the Pen Center Germany, Christoph Hein, goes into a rage: "What is really scandalous about this barbaric bullshit of an Asta is: The Alice Salomon Hochschule Berlin is a university of applied sciences with a focus on education, i.e.. these cultural strikers will one day train the next generation," the Pen Center quotes him as saying in its official statement on the subject. There is talk of censorship everywhere.

He subject, she object

And then there is the debate about interpretation: the FAZ retreats entirely to the formal in an unreadable text that eagerly counts syllables. Nora Gomringer, herself a writer and daughter of the poet, calls the students’ interpretation simply "wrong". The admirer is not even juxtaposed with the objects, after all, there is an "and".

The renowned novelist Barbara Vinken sees the women allegorically: beauty itself is sung about here. If one wanted to eliminate the female muse from art history, the museums would suddenly be empty, many say.

"Can admiration belittle?" asks the FAZ again incredulously and has to be instructed by feminists that exactly this admiration, which only applies to the exterior and nothing else, can indeed be experienced as belittling and is called "benevolent sexism".

But overall, feminists are conspicuously restrained. Clearly, one recognizes the classic gender position of the history of art, science, and even society: he subject, she object.

The flower of woman

But the freedom of art weighs more heavily on the vast majority and keeps them silent. Besides, the poem is very beautiful, many think quite subjectively. Couldn’t a few more men and women be added to make it less harsh? Poetry addition contests are started. Some end with the postscript: "and crazy students". The students now seem all the more afflicted by gender mania.

You can’t censor out everything that goes against your idea of gender! Finally, Eugen Gomringer himself is almost in despair: He does not want to discriminate against women! That was never his intention! He has obviously not yet dealt with gender studies.

But men, women and flowers do not exist in a vacuum and unhistorical space. On the one hand, Gomringer has actually managed with the poem to sum up the last centuries of gender relations in art in six words. He is acting subject, she is beautiful object. For that alone, the poem must continue to be preserved in textbooks.

On the other hand, men who enjoy women like flowers have a court of association far beyond mere "beauty," according to Vinken. The woman’s flower traditionally lies between her legs, there is talk of "defloration" not by chance, the "Heideroslein" that the boy sees standing and breaks against his will. Everything there, too.

Strange authoritarianism

And the fact that a university, whose goal it is to train young women to become acting subjects, does not want to decorate its facade with these associative spaces is not so completely incomprehensible. Censorship would mean the state banning the poem. Here and now, however, anyone and everyone can go and paint the poem on their own facade – if Gomringer allows it.

In this respect, both sides of the debate have a strange authoritarianism: the students no longer want to see the poem. The apologists for artistic freedom simply find their interpretation "wrong" and want the university rector to put the insubordinates in their place, as if we were living in the days of the emperor and as if their generation had not even demonstrated for more democracy at universities.

Rector Uwe Bettig has made the best of his situation. He took his students seriously, but did not buckle before them. Nor did he cave in to the facade-high wall of the cultural establishment that was erected in front of him. He announced a competition, and the university voted online.

But again with different eyes

A poem by May Ayim and a quote by Alice Salomon were shortlisted. He himself proposed the alternate solution, which the Academic Senate then finally adopted yesterday. He has included Eugen Gomringer, who is to arrive – albeit unreconciled and under protest – for the unveiling of the plaque in 2018.

What remains? A debate in which feminist arguments have so far found little hearing. Crazy studierx with gender delusions have successfully censored away a work of art. However, in times when more people are willing to listen to women when they report on how the supposedly "quite normal" and "nicely meant" behavior of men restricts, harasses, and hurts them, one or the other might read the poem again with different eyes.

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