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25 Years of German Reunification

Defender of Artistic Freedom: The Berlin University of the Arts

Few of the world’s universities of the arts can compete with the Berlin University of the Arts when it comes to size, diversity, and wealth of tradition. The courses on offer cover the entire spectrum of the arts and art-related sciences. Located in the heart of Europe, UdK Berlin defends the freedom and the intrinsic value of the arts and of arts education not only since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“With the realization dawning that, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the creative momentum that initially grabbed the city is slowing and that new ideas are needed to address rising rents, large-scale projects, and national and international competition for top minds, UdK Berlin with its excellent international network is better positioned than ever before. Artistic training has always been at the heart of the UdK Berlin. Excellent professors in each of our university faculties, together with continuous efforts to advance our teaching methods, help ensure and improve the high level of artistic and scientific arts education available in Berlin today.

Berlin is attractive, and evidence to explain and document why is plentiful and easy to find: figures highlighting the city’s international character, data on cultural institutions, qualitative and quantitative analyses of Berlin’s visitors, and the sheer number of new Berlin residents. To me, however, there is one aspect in particular that offers great potential and seems more pronounced in Berlin than anywhere else in the world: the juxtaposition of tradition with creative change.

Both of these elements can also be found at the Berlin University of the Arts. Almost all of the degree programs offered at UdK Berlin have a history that goes back centuries. Having evolved from individual arts academies, these programs were consolidated in the “Hochschule der Künste Berlin” in 1975. Over the last 25 years, they developed into a network of university faculties that intersect both artistically and thematically. The annual changeover of a large portion of the university’s members and their development from applicants to students and graduates offer an intriguing contrast with the university’s traditional teaching formats – formats that still deserve our protection as they guarantee that all students are free to creatively develop their artistic personality, a freedom that proves increasingly crucial today. In every era it was not just the university itself, but also its location at the heart of Berlin that made the institution so attractive. The UdK Berlin would be unthinkable without its hometown, and I am convinced that it is no coincidence that an institution such as the UdK Berlin should have developed precisely here in Berlin. Thus the fate, development, and identity of UdK are more closely linked to the city of Berlin than is the case for many other institutions.

After 25 years it is legitimate to long for the feeling of, for once, having arrived. And it is necessary and justifiable to ask whether the invocation of change and creative unfinishedness has not, in many quarters of Berlin, long since degenerated into mere rhetoric and lack of imagination, reflected in an impotent acceptance of difficulties that arise. A permanent spirit of optimism and change, as a mere principle, 25 years after the fall of the Wall, is just as questionable as automatic calls for permanence and the continuation of old patterns that may seem comfortable and inviting for the moment, but won't be sustainable in just a few short years.

Nevertheless, I am not worried about the German capital. And I am not worried about the institution I represent within it. There is hardly another place in the world where the idea of freedom is as evident and perceptible as here.

Every day on Campus Charlottenburg, thousands of UdK Berlin and Technical University students walk across Ernst Reuter Square, which is adjacent to many significant buildings from both universities. Whenever students and teachers let their eyes wander around the square, they can read the following words by its eminent Berlin namesake:  “Peace can only exist in freedom.” It is not least this awareness to which UdK Berlin feels bound whenever the institution defends freedom: the freedom of art, the freedom of the artist, and freedom itself.

It has been three years since UdK Berlin was able to appoint Chinese artist Ai Weiwei as Visiting Professor, with the help of the Einstein Foundation Berlin, another institution Berlin is fortunate to have. In a recent exchange of ideas, Ai Weiwei expressed sorrow over the predicament of his country’s young people, who were denied the chance to freely develop their personalities by the Chinese government, and he warned of the frightening consequences he fears for Chinese society. Our own freedom – which we increasingly seem to accept as a matter of course – often becomes appreciable only in light of the oppression of others. 

Freedom and uncertainty – Joseph Beuys asks us to make friends with both. Caution, however, is advised even here: In my observation, the insecurity we increasingly expect many of our young people to bear, today more than ever, is often glibly reinterpreted and disguised as freedom. There is much talk about freedom, and yet it is hard to fathom the immense value it represents once it has been won responsibly and become commonplace in an emancipated society. And while it is difficult to recognize and understand freedom, it is just as difficult to recognize its curtailment. Where education and the expansion of knowledge, teaching and research, art and science are subjected to the logic of competition and to a worldview centered on economics, we have to be especially vigilant.

Even 25 years after the fall of the Wall, there is no doubt that the city of Berlin can expect great artistic and scientific achievements, creative impulses, thoughtful viewpoints, and essential discourses to emanate from the University of the Arts and to continue to have positive impact on society and public discourse. The UdK Berlin as a defender of artistic freedom – this is something Berliners can count on for the next 25 years and beyond.”


Prof. Martin Rennert, President of the Berlin University of the Arts

The German version of this article can be found in „Das neue Berlin  – 25 Jahre nach dem Fall der Mauer” (The New Berlin – 25 Years after the Fall of the Wall), a Themenheft published by Berliner Wirtschaftsgespräche e. V.

November 9, 2014