A painful anecdote:
I recently re-watched the 2006 German film “The Lives of Others,” and I was moved yet again by its quiet poignancy. The story is set in Cold War East Germany, where the secret police monitor anyone perceived to be a danger to the party (which, in practice, means anyone the powerful folks don’t like). A playwright falls afoul of the wrong man, who determines to catch him doing something suspicious. The rest of the film follows the secret policeman tasked with spying on him.
The officer’s life, like the cold world in which the film is set, is bland, purposeless, meaningless. In true Marxist fashion, the man’s life is his work. Yet as he watches the playwright, he sees a man who loves his work yet is not defined by it—whose life has higher purposes than the Party. The playwright loves a woman; the officer can only hire prostitutes. The playwright lives in a warm apartment and reads poetry; the officer lives in a sterile collectivist cell and watches the news. The playwright plays the piano and remarks, “I do not think anyone who has heard this music—I mean really heard it—can be really bad;” the officer has nothing to listen to but the voices of the lives he ruins.
It was this meaninglessness against which America set itself during the Cold War, yet as the American government grew more and more like the centralized states it opposed, so did American culture. Art and architecture became first more sterile and efficient (witness any large building built between 1950 and 1970), and then (in an attempt to escape modernism) more wild and weird.
Yesterday, I accompanied some young Russian politicians on a tour of an American city. We passed a recently-completed art museum. The museum was oddly shaped, “artistic” angles everywhere, covered in brown metal. It was, in short, hideous. One of the Russians asked, “What is that—the prison?”
Little did he know how right he was, or how ironic it was that the question came from him.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.