Guest Post by Jaime Groetsema
Brecht’s Modus Operandi for Writers and Truth-Seekers:
Another trial against apartment gallery documentiers
In the 1966 English translation of Galileo, an interpretation of Galileo Galilee’s life written by Bertolt Brecht in the form of a stage play, Galileo, an important Italian figure who is considered responsible for the development of modern science in the early 17th century, is for Brecht, just an example. Within the play, Brecht highlights the consistency to which Galileo is both challenged and forced to deny the validity of his own astronomical observations by authority figures within the church and those that support the church. But only in the face of his potential execution–he is literally shown the instruments of torture and death–does Galileo publicly renounce his ideas to those figures so that he might live and finish his final work, the Discorsi. In this work he describes two new valuable properties that influenced the creation of modern physics: the strength of materials and the motion of projected objects. The completed Discorsi was taken by an old student from Galileo when he was on house arrest in Italy towards the end of his life. The student, Andrea Sarti smuggled the book into the Netherlands where it could be printed without permission or approval.
But for Brecht, these actions weigh heavily as he responded personally to the fascism of German political powers in the 1930s with his play Galileo. Throughout the play Brecht ultimately defines his hero, truth-seeker Galileo Galilee by way of his actions: his persistence in relaying the truth of his findings; his self-imposed responsibility for society in promoting these truths, and his subsequent detainment as an example of a complex resistance to the oppressive powers of the church’s authority figures. Still responding to the contemporary climate, Brecht goes one step further and makes a call to his contemporaries. In addition to the play, he has written an essay titled Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties that has been published as an appendix to Galileo. In the essay Brecht includes powerful reflections and descriptions of what characteristics one must maintain in order communicate effectively those truths hidden by means of oppression–‘suppressed’ truths–for the sake of bettering humanity (135). He summarizes his requirements thus (his italics): “He must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons” (133). Brecht in listing these requirements, also expects that a writer with the courage to speak against one’s oppressors must also use that courage to examine one’s own failures, i.e. one must be critical of one’s self and society. He continues to say that those that have the courage to speak truth in the face of an oppressor may not necessarily have the knowledge, or ability, to adequately decode those purposely-hidden truths. Truths, he says, can be obtained only by a careful and concentrated study of both history and economics and he implores writers to be exact in defining these truths and to extract the specifics of truth when vague or abstract generalizations prevail. He continues to say that writers must write to an audience; to any reader that can use the text as a tool or realize the truth through it. These truths must be readable and understood by everyone. Without truth-seekers and truth-tellers oppressors will motivate societies by way of fear to inhabit silence and stagnation.
Brecht’s important transition from ‘courage’ to ‘keenness’ leaves us with some significant evidence (133). For one to appropriately use courage, it is crucial that one must develop a well-considered methodology for study and learning. Only when one uses history and economics as a basis for their knowledge does the ability to find and tell truths develop for effectivity. He stresses the necessity of this development by saying that, “Method is good in all inquiry, but it is possible to make discoveries without using any method–indeed, even without inquiry. But by such a casual procedure one does not come to the kind of presentation of truth which will enable men to act on the basis of that presentation” (137). Without a methodology, one is not able to act on the knowledge that one has, therefore one cannot act with a effective criticism and definitely not with a criticism that will improve the impoverished conditions of one’s society. Similarly, if a writer is uninterested in the prospects of humanity, it is so because this writer is without the knowledge needed to see hidden truths; without the ability to act truly courageously; without the evidence to respond critically to others or one’s self. These differentiations are incredibly important when considering criticism of any kind, yet for essayists dealing with Chicago popular culture, a relevant detail cannot be missed. These critical and acting observers with the knowledge and the ability to dissect truth must necessarily confront and decipher falsehood as well; to critical observers not everything is a truth.
When looking at popular contemporary writings on apartment galleries or alternative spaces in Chicago-specific publications like Proximity, Time Out, and Newcity, one is shown very similar texts. As the ephemerality of these spaces is a consistent concern in this setting, writers have become more like documentiers, cataloging spaces, people, and events for an invisible archive of the future. This condition should not be mistaken as a tactful historicism, as documenting an object does not necessarily clarify its process or meaning. History and documentation are important for understanding complex social movements, yet, when documentation stands in for effective critical writing there remains a severe vacancy in the discourse (or if even a discourse at all) of cultural production. Using Brecht’s text as more than just symbolism, the writers of those pieces do little to decode the truths of a truly suppressed society, let alone be critical of it, themselves, or their publications.
Brecht, Bertolt. Galileo. Translated from the German by Charles Laughton. New York, NY: Grove Press, Inc., 1966.
 Originally Dichter sollen die Wahrheit schreiben/Poets Are to Tell the Truth; Published in German in 1935, English translation 1948.
Jamie Groetsema is an artist and one of the co-founders of The Green Bicycle Organization (thegbo.wikispaces.com). You can read more about the project here.
Editors’ Note: All this week we’re running some of the essays written for Floor Length and Tux’s “Untitled Circus” event this past weekend. A number of essays on Chicago’s thriving domestic/apartment gallery art space scene were solicited from local writers/artists/curators involved in the running of such spaces, and we’re posting some of them here on Bad at Sports as a way to extend the discussion. Please feel free to email us with your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you’d like to contact the folks at FLAT directly, you can email Erik at erik@ floorlengthandtux.com.