Last year, I found myself in a modern art gallery in a sprawling Berlin apartment. The collection belonged to a wealthy couple who had converted the lower floors of their private residence into a museum—or at least, so I surmised. Having vastly over-estimated my German speaking abilities, I had signed up for the German tour.
I understood maybe 20% of the proceedings. Aside from definite and indefinite articles, with which I had managed to develop some modicum of familiarity during my month and a half in Germany, the occasional noun stood out to me as a rare point of comprehensibility. Words like “Kunst” (art) or “Bedeutung” (meaning) were definite and graspable fish in a sea of otherwise murky and unpronounceable waters.
We had been asked to swap out our shoes for slippers, for reasons that remained opaque to my English-speaking sensibilities but presumably had something to do with the floors, crafted of a wood so pale that it recalled the delicate color of frost. The rooms were too large for their contents, and the emptiness of the place bordered on desolation. The windows were interrupted only sporadically by narrow strips of wall. We shuffled from one room to the next in our oversized slippers.
I understood nothing. The artworks displayed in the gallery did not lend themselves to easy interpretation, and my amateur interest in art criticism extended no further than the second episode of Civilization, a series that concerns itself primarily with establishing the superiority of the Western cultural tradition in supercilious British tones.
Nothing in my limited experience had prepared me to intelligently analyze a crate on which the words “freedom” and “FUCK” had been painted in bright purple letters. I did not know what to make of the room draped entirely in yarn.
“dfadfadfala, efaelkjaefad. asasde Kunst asldakls jalkjalk,” the tour guide offered helpfully.
My companions were all unassailably hip. They had earrings in unexpected places, and they walked with the assurance of seasoned gallery goers. During the tour guide’s explanations, they nodded knowingly and asked what I assumed were appropriately timed and insightful questions.
I imagined them ordering dinner in comprehensible, even elegant, German; I imagined them navigating Berlin’s complex public transportation system with ease, without even consulting the maps affixed to the wall of each bus stop and subway station; I imagined them automatically selecting the correct adjective ending from the set of 36 possibilities with which the German tongue has been blessed and cursed.
Even their slippers suited them.
The day before, I had spent three hours on trains I had chosen almost at random, seeking a restaurant that had closed by the time I managed to locate it. At each train station, I had scrutinized the intricate tangle of intersecting colored lines from which I was somehow supposed to extract my route and sympathized with Kafka’s K, who stands longingly before the gates of a complex and impenetrable castle.
“Saefaefadiufaefealkjaf, die Bedeutung der Kunst,” said the tour guide. Something something something, the meaning of art, I internally translated. He nodded, satisfied that we had absorbed his point.
Without warning, there was a breakfast table.
It was in the middle of a room hung with conventionally unconventional pieces—canvases painted entirely red, collages rife with radical feminist undertones. If these works did not make sense to me on an individual level, the general fact of their presence was unsurprising. They belonged here, in a modern art gallery.
The breakfast table was different. It was a real breakfast table, and it was laden with real food. There was a basket of real rolls, and a bowl of real strawberries, and small plate upon which a beleaguered slice of butter was sweating real sweat. Its presence was genuinely unexpected, genuinely jarring. The hip crowd around me was not prepared for the intrusion of the inexplicable into the comfortable confines of an art gallery, where they were satisfied to parrot fashionable postmodern dicta.
Everyone looked confused. The tour guide discoursed for several moments, waving his arms for emphasis. I shifted uncomfortably in my slippers. He cleared his throat and asked, “Was ist die Kunst?”
What is art, I thought. An entire sentence that was in at least some sense accessible to me.
The tour guide paused dramatically and launched into an explanation that I did not understand. Without further ado, we proceeded to the Frank Stella installations.
Unsatisfied I wondered, was ist die Kunst?
Traveling from this interrogative origin all the way to its destination would take longer than riding from Zehlendorf to Prenzlauer Berg, I thought (“Here, you must transfer from the U3 to Wittenberg Platz. Then transfer to the U1. Take the U1 to Nollendorf Platz. Then you must transfer again. Then take the U2….”).
Gazing out the window of one of the many trains I would have to take on my long journey home, I felt a kinship with the breakfast table whose presence no one could explain. Uprooted from my accustomed context, I, too, struggled to account for my presence. The answer to the riddle of my existence in Berlin was not readily forthcoming.
For the first time in my life, my surroundings insisted on actively raising questions for me, an outsider: Excuse me, do you know the way to Kreuzberg? What’s up with these light switches? How do I get into Berghain? Holy fuck, bicycle lanes? What does that word mean? And that one, and that one, and that one? What am I doing here? What is art?
Well, I’ll have to think about it. After all, the answer is in a language that I still barely speak. First, I’ll take the U3 to Wittenberg Platz…