Berlin: home of the welfare artist
Berlin - Comedy - Deutsche Welle

Berlin: home of the welfare artist

Berlin has the highest unemployment rate in any of Germany’s 16 states (12.8 percent). The capital is also easily the arty-fartiest place in the country. Coincidence? I think not!

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Most of my friends are losers. I mean that in a good way, obviously. They are all talented and creative and sometimes even a bit inspired, but they are also, each and every last one of them, work-shy fops. Obviously I am as well: It takes one to know one, as we used to say in primary school.

There’s a great sequence in the movie “Trainspotting” where junkie hero Renton explains the complex art of staying on the dole. It entails reverse-psychology tricks like going to a job interview and appearing psychotically eager to work in a leisure center. The film shows that such efforts require invention, nerve, subtlety, selfishness, discipline and some drugs – the exact elements of a successful artistic career.

There is probably no clearer illustration of one of the deeper truths of life in a western European social democracy: The attributes of an artist are exactly the same as the ones you need to successfully maintain your unemployment. This is heightened in Berlin, where it takes the sacrifice of an artist to truly perfect the art of not earning your living.

Creative industries

There are, they say, some broad similarities between my hometown, Manchester, and Berlin. Both were throbbing industrial powerhouses in the 19th century, lost their luster and declined in the late 20th century, only to become trendy pop cultural centers in the last 20 years – Manchester not so much anymore, but you get the general idea.

Both cities have also become famous for hanging their new economic hopes on the “creative industries.” This very spongy term refers to anything from actor to fashion designer, to independent shopkeeper, to web designer, and includes all the attendant skill sets, cameramen, lighting technicians, office managers etc. The point is you don’t make anything – you delight, you entertain, you disseminate knowledge and information, or you sing cabaret songs naked in a disused warehouse in front of an audience of twelve.

By capitalizing on the cache and the large student population, the two cities deliberately encouraged a whole class of freelance migrants engaged in some kind of creative endeavor in an attempt to re-invent the city’s economy.

But the similarity with Manchester ends when it comes to the social security system. In Berlin, many creative types live – at least partially – on the standard long-term unemployment benefit called Hartz IV. It doesn’t help the job statistics, but it does mean that the city’s economy is run, to a certain extent, by the welfare state.

Social security for the middle class

When it comes to dealing with the Job Center to claim your benefits, being an artist is a double-edged sword. Most artists do not earn enough to live from their art, so they are understandably unwilling to mention the meager side earnings their talents bring. They live double lives: naked Dadaist performance artists at night, out-of-work IT specialists by day.

But others have a little more nerve, and tell their case manager they are “professional” artists. If they have a degree as well (a degree puts you in a different, more exclusive waiting room) they get special dispensation from the endless round of pointless job applications and interviews that most Hartz IV recipients are forced to take.

Instead, professional unemployed artists are allowed to count applications for grants and scholarships as their applications, and can get the state to pay for acting lessons. So there’s a tip, if the hard times are getting to you.

Ben Knight doesn’t really think his friends are losers.

Filed under: Berlin - Comedy - Deutsche Welle