“Kultur Als Kopfkino:” Hermann Glaser’s Critical Visions for the Arts and Social Entertainment: Translating German “Culture as Civil Right” for the European Project

This is part of our special feature on European Culture and the Moving Image.


The blueprint of a house precedes its construction. That much is clear. With a European Project that started in 1950 as the European Coal and Steel Community, a common culture was that blueprint, and it was meant to construct a union of all and for all: in a shared culture that was alive and thriving. Regardless of its imperfections, the aim was to end the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours that culminated in the Second World War. Hermann Glaser hypothesised as much in Bürgerrecht Kultur (1983)[i], Culture as Civil Right. In the book, he also proposes that flawed designs of inclusive culture need to be corrected before they can be realized and truly include all. In short, the blueprint of culture today needs fixing so that the reality of that culture can be better tomorrow.

Some key passages from Glaser’s text show what sort of fix he had in mind, so it would be easier for us to get the way to improve Europe into our minds. Nearly forty years on, we translate to interrogate: how well has his political picture palace aged?


Die Weltkultur von morgen wird auf einemneue. Verhältnis von Stofflichkeit und Kreativität gründ en müssen, verwirklicht im Bürgerrecht Kultur, Kultur letzlich verstanden als Einübung in soziales, humanes Handeln.


A world culture that’s yet to come will require a new relationship between materialism and creativity as its foundation. It will have to be realised on the principle of culture as a civil right; in the final analysis, culture means a learned praxis of social and humane action. (Glaser & Stahl, 1983, p. 139)


Scepticism about culture unity is persistent. Nobody knows this better than the preeminent minds and shrewd managers of the EU. At the current height of the COVID-19 pandemic and what has been an ongoing crisis of supranational stability in Europe, many newspapers and culture scholars suggest that the European project may not survive. To confront the insecurity, would it help to subscribe to Glaser’s ideal of culture for all and to put it in dialogue with a Europe for all? We do just that to test the unique nature of European culture that Glaser’s reflections outline in a national, German paradigm.

The idea of a “legal entitlement to culture” holds both allure and scepticism. What can compel communities to desire being human and acting humane in the same way? Where and how would members of such a civic culture community be dealing with problems of expansion and inclusion? How could new voices emerge? How could the whole of society hear them to recognize a plurality of cultures? A “culture for all,” which formed Glaser’s key principle of equity socialism, spelled out an agenda, which his center-right critics referred to as naïve multiculturalism of the radical Left. All this led Glaser to visions of vertical integration: “deep,” as opposed to “shallow,” inclusionism.

Mere lip service performance that is limited to the few with access won’t do much. “Culture for all,” if also understood as “access to culture for all,” must include cultural, social, and economic dimensions. To paraphrase his son Uli Glaser,[ii]whom we consulted in a Zoom interview about his father’s life work: “What good is an opera house from the outside?” Meaning, that deep and true integration of individuals into culture as community is only possible through active engagement.

Glaser was born in 1928 in Nürnberg, Germany. WWII shaped his formative years in the city he never left and that never left him. The right to one’s ‘Kulturheimat,’ a cultural home that thrived on change, vitalises a German culture for all; at least, that is how Glaser envisaged it. And the spirit of ‘culture as home,’ as much as it meant “many cultures in a home,” didn’t assail change or defy diversity. More than anything, Hermann Glaser believed in culture as community.

Glaser’s life holds a legacy of public intellectualism. He was convinced that culture equalled commonality. Living culture as a community spelled out the process of forming bonds that must never be static, lest they serve as an exclusionary mechanism for newcomers.


Kulturtopographie macht Kulturvermittlung an Kulturorten fest: Sie begreift ‘Heimat’ als kulturelle Identität, die sich lokalisiert, wobei das, was solche Orte prägen soll – nämlich die Qualität, Quantität  und Kontinuität von gesellschaftlichen und indivuellen Erigenissen – ihren wahrnehmungsäthetischen Wert darstellt.


Cultural topography locates cultural mediation at the places of culture: it recognises ‘Heimat’ as a cultural identity that creates itself in the place that it happens in. What shapes these places of culture has to do with the quality, quantity, and continuity of social and individual events that transpire in them. This constitutes the aesthetic value that one can see in them. (Glaser & Stahl, 1983, p. 30)



To stoke conversation about cultural community was to present a range of ideas. But what conceptualization of culture as a universal right is necessary to translate into concrete reality what Hermann Glaser’s adversaries called lofty idealism? Translating Glaser’s impressionist snapshot aesthetic that we liken here to a “written cinema for the head” (“Kopfkino”) delivers an answer to this conundrum. Glaser saw the value of culture in many places of culture, and many cultures in one place: for better or worse, the German notion of “Kultur” as Culture with a capital C thus evades easy translation. It is a plurality of experience that one cannot “read about” but one must “see about.” In other words, diversity is to culture what the senses are to the brain. Only the aggregate assembly of them all provides a satisfactory image of the world.

In an ingenious move of emplacing Culture, Hermann Glaser produces a multi-site collage: a rhetoric of culture for all—in all sites and places and spaces that culture dwells in. Today’s social media influencers could learn a thing or two from Glaser’s ability to create a gripping Insta-story across 300 print pages. To call Glaser’s book “a read” would be misleading. It is a view, a viewpoint—many perspectives: his daring medley of Germanness for all creates a dialectic that—as Glaser’s son stated about his father’s oeuvre—was intended to unsettle overt nostalgia of the petty civic bourgeoisie, the “Spießbürgertum.”


Die Nostalgie muss jedoch über das Heimweh zur Progression finden; nicht nach Arkadien zurückkehren, wohl aber nach Elysium fortschreiten wollen; über die Provinz zur Urbanität sich mausern. […] – Versteht man unter ‘Biedermeier’ nicht das Kuhglück der Saturiertheit, nicht simple Verflachung,  signalisert der Begriff statt dessen Heiterkeit auf dem Grunde der Schwermut; verfeinerte Verinnerlichung; durchdachte Bescheidenheit; Aufnahme von Kultur als Erlebnis von Gegenständlichkeit. Homesickness must drive the progress of nostalgia; wanting to find Paradise in the future rather than Arcadia in the past; to evolve from the provincial to the urban. […] If one does not confuse the term ‘Biedermeier bourgeoisie’ with the simple happiness of a grazing cow whose emotions are numbed and flat, then it is a cheerfulness that rests on melancholy; refined introspection; reflective humility; accepting a culture that emerges from one‘s tangible realities; (Glaser & Stahl, 1983, p. 86-87)


This visual pedagogy in Hermann Glaser’s writing aids to decipher his intellectual lessons. The reader encounters the vivid images that the culture critic paints on a leisurely stroll through streets and quarters, and ideological communities of a city that could be anywhere in Europe. The assembly of images yields a much more accurate description of what German culture(s) within the nation state felt like and what their cultural places made others feel. The viewer can experience the images that Glaser transcribes on the pages of his proposal. Yet, it would be pointless to hope for instructions.[iii] Glaser abstained from giving us a manual. Instead, it is for the reader-viewer to consume the puzzling impressions that appear like disarrayed jigsaw pieces. Those pieces can fit anywhere into a larger scene.

Glaser’s technique interrogates generalization. His notion of “Kultur” dismisses an essentialism that would have to be wide and broad, an all-encompassing set of values: the MacGerman. The mechanics of writing about “culture for all” in the way it is seen “by all” explains why translating Glaser’s work poses certain challenges. Some of them have been plaguing the European Union for decades. To this day, the vision of shared cultural policies in the European Union have failed to forge unity, a shared aesthetic. Glaser conveys this dilemma with a “language of omission” that avoids active verbs or objects—asking the reader to fill in the gaps around succinct catchphrases.


Kulturpolitik im Zeichen der Grenzen des Wachstums muß dementsprechend in einer ‘neuen Ästhetik’ fundiert werden – in Überwindung der a-politischen und affirmativen Vorstellung von Kultur; in Nutzbarmachung des geistigen Schocks technisch reproduzierbarer Kultur; in Gegensteuerung zur warenästhetischen, vernebelnden Befriedigung; als Ermöglichung identifikatorischer Gestaltwahrnehung.  – Ästhetik als Movens auf dem Weg nach einem kulutrellen Utopia: zur demoktratischen Kutlur in kultureller Demokratie.


While it’s expanding within its framing, cultural politics must be grounded in a “new aesthetic” – [by overcoming] an apolitical and affirmative idea of culture; [by utilising] the mechanical reproducibility of culture; [by running] a counter-offensive to a consumer aesthetic that obfuscates the truth with a sense of satisfaction; [and by enabling] a clear view of how to shape [society]. -an aesthetic [is needed] as the driving force to a cultural utopia: [on to] a democratic culture in a cultural democracy. (Glaser & Stahl, 1983, p. 90)


Abstracting further from this idealistic and unattainable conceptualization of culture-by-and-for-all, Glaser inserts cultural democracy into the conversation. An equally lofty, if not inaccessible goal, cultural democracy has evaded contemporary Europe. Glaser demands that what looks attractive and what is useful must form an equipoise, a platform that we can all agree on so that there is a place that we all can talk in: talk to set in motion debates about systemic issues for the body culture and the body pragmatic; namely, multiculturalism, culture wars, and more generally, a neoliberal understanding of what is the goal for a European society.


Die kulturelle Demokratie darf nicht eine des Scheins sein; sie muß auch dem Wesen nach verwirklicht werden. Nicht im Reiche des ästhetischen Schein ist das Ideal der Gleichheit zu erfüllen, im Reiche der Realität muß das Schöne dem Nützlichen Gegengewicht sein können und dürfen.


Cultural democracy mustn’t be a surface projection; it has to be real down to its deep core. Equality as an ideal can’t occur in the realm of aesthetic illusion. The aesthetic has to be counterweight to the useful, to build balance in the realm of reality. (Glaser & Stahl, 1983, blurb on book cover)


Glaser’s slogan politics are an indicator of factional loyalties. Well before “cancel culture” and “culture wars,” they served to focus critical thought and induce political action in mainstream culture. On the Left, Germany’s preeminent thinkers used them to advocate cultural socialism. Encouraged by the Council of Europe’s principles of communal democracy in the 1970s, Glaser spoke of a democratisation of culture, indeed even a cultural democracy. His genealogy of humanness offers corresponding levity to this dense, and one might say, rigid terminology.


Der homo faber hat Erstaunliches zuwege gebracht; der homo consumens genießt diese Errungenschaften (freilich nur in einigen Teilen der Welt) in ungeheurem und ungeheuerlichen Maße; der homo oeconomicus hat Wachstum fetischisiert; jetzt kommt es auf den Homo sapiens an, der als Neuling (als homo novus) die Weltbühne zu betreten hätte. Homo faber has accomplished miraculous things; homo consumes enjoys these accomplishments (of course, this is only true for same parts of the world) in a measure that is both unbelievable and uncanny; homo oeconomicus has turned economic growth into a fetish; now, it is down to homo sapiens who would have to enter the world stage as the latest development (as homo novus); (Glaser & Stahl, 1983, p. 95/96)



Visions of human progress dominate every aspect of Glaser’s utopia mundus. Democracy and culture become highly individualistic actions and are bound together by an actively engaged society. Glaser’s ideals challenge each of us to not only participate, but to shape and to better our changing societies. Visual arts and entertainment occupied a most crucial position in all this. For the purpose of this article’s context that is a special issue on visual arts in Europe, we would like to emphasize this fact.

Formulated during a period of major redefining and generational distancing, Glaser’s thoughts emerged in post-war Nuremberg when the city that had to renegotiate its place in post-Nazi-Germany. Following his methodology of cultural topography, he travels the city, defining and finding topoi that can act as a nucleus for society. Places appear where cultural democracy is tangible and can act as catalyst for wider evolution—the place and praxis of theatre being a prime catalyst.


Das Spezifische des Theaters ist heute (in seiner Gleichzeitigkeit mit Film und Fernsehen), daß es nicht Bilder verkauft, sondern Menschen zusammenbringt. Immer noch ist es ein Modell der lebendigen Gemeinschaft. Es müßte aber wieder zu deren Forum werden; im Theater müsste man spielen, diskutieren und vielleicht auch tanzen.


The specific [aesthetic value] of the theatre today is (just as it is with film and television), that it doesn’t sell images, but that it brings people together. It still is a model for a living society. However, it should also become a social forum once again; In the theatre, one should play, discuss, and maybe also dance (Glaser & Stahl, 1983, p. 238)


Theater forms a place where culture and democracy are intertwined entities that challenge one another. Its art and entertainment venue centre the homo novus as an agent of cultural individualism, who must continuously challenge norms to improve society as a whole.


Das entscheidende Merkmal einer funktionierenden demokratischen Gesellschaft ist es, daß Reflexion und Selbstreflexion immer wieder in Gang kommen und in Gang gehalten werden; dazu bedürfen sie ständiger Impulse und Herausforderungen. Diese Dynamik kann vor allem auch durch die provozierenden Anstöße des Theaters bewirkt werden – provokativ insofern, da dieses dem ‘Üblichen’, Gewohnten, Etablierten, Erwarteten entgegengestezt ist, Stereotypie für das Wachstum von Pluralität ‘umankert’.


The significant characteristic of a functioning democratic society is that reflecting and self-reflecting always gain momentum and are being given momentum. To achieve this effect, it needs constant impulses and challenges. Especially the provocative impulses of theatre can create this dynamic – provocative in as so far as it is opposed to the ‚normal‘, the habitual, the established, the experienced and is it ‘re-anchors’ stereotypes for a growth in plurality. (Glaser & Stahl, 1983, p. 240)



Visual culture is fundamental for democratic education in Glaser’s view. Cultural education, Glaser in fact calls it “cultivation,” underpins all sociality. It is the lack thereof that makes people not only disengage but also actively push against the ideas of cultural engagement. This then turns into the project of conservative protectionism, a “defense” of the civic petty bourgeoisie’s love for nostalgia:


Im Wesentlichen bestehen die Publikumsbarrieren darin, daß einem sehr großen Teil des möglichen Publikums im Rahmen seiner Erziehung entweder keine Zeit gegeben wird, Bildung zu internalisieren, oder es aber Bildung so übergestülpt bekommt (durch eine ‘affirmative Schule’), daß kulturelle Indifferenz als ‘Abwehrreaktion’ die Folge ist. (Ein amerikanischer Bildhauer hat einmal diesbezüglich gesagt: Kunst ist, was man tut; Kultur ist, was man uns antut.) Eine Gesellschaft, die in ihrer Erziehung nicht genügend Spielraum für die Aktivierung und die Entfaltung von Kreativität läßt, wird sich auch nicht ein Theaterpublikum auf wirklich breiter Basis schaffen können. Eine solche Fehlentwicklung ist zum Beispiel duch eine besondere Förderung des Jugendtheaters wenigstens partiell korrigierbar.


Barriers for audiences are, in the main, that a majority of potential audiences either doesn’t get time to internalise cultivation as part of their education, or it has cultivation imposed on them (as an affirmative school of thought), so that cultural indifference becomes a ‘defence mechanism’ in return. (An American sculptor once said: art is what you do, culture is what they do to you). A society which doesn’t leave enough space for the activation and unfolding of creativity in the way it educates will also not create a wide platform for theatre audiences. Such undesirable developments are, however, partially correctable through specific support for youth theatres. (Glaser & Stahl, 1983, p. 238-239)


Glaser is synonymous with a praxis of public intellectualism in Germany. His reflections influenced actions on the ground, especially those of future generations that include his son. There is hardly any aspect of cultural history and the arts in public life that he did not examine. Glaser had lived through Nazi Germany. Prompted by Primo Levi’s dire warning about the possibility to repeat that which has already happened, he saw it as his mission to study German culture and thought and to prevent the socio-cultural patterns that had enabled the Holocaust.


Die Tradition einer kulinarisch konzipierten Ästhetik ist endgültig zu Grabe getragen, die Kunst hat sich in der Kommunikation der realen Zeitsituation ein neues Wirkungsfeld erobert, sie wird zum experimentellen Modelentwurf, zur visuellen Demonstration von Zuständigkeit und Veränderung, sie wandelt sch vom kulinarischen Vergnügen zur experimentellen Problemforschung der Umwelt.


The tradition of an aesthetic that was defined by culinary practices and the notion of culture being product has finally been buried; art has made new strides in communicating the moment in time that we live in and it is becoming an experimental sketch that visually demonstrates responsibility and change; Art has grown from an experimental research practice, from recipes of its creation to the problems in its environment. (Glaser & Stahl, 1983, p. 234)


“Culture as Civil Right [for all citizens of Germany and Europe]” was perhaps Glaser’s most popular slogan. The book that we have translated excerpts from here to intersperse throughout the text expounds on this concept and drives home a simple message: art must rally against Philistinism. It has to reject the petty civic bourgeoisie (Spießbürgertum) that allowed Nazism to thrive. Those who love art must rally the people who enjoy it, must embrace everyone’s deep integration into culture, and must ready the people for change.

Glaser’s is the story of the diametric of mass versus artisan culture. The aesthetic of cultural democracy lifts civic consciousness and elevates it to a new level of consciousness culture. Nostalgic backwardness will dull the senses. Flat, shallow mass culture is going to be a barrier to change, possibly cultural community’s own, short-sighted undoing.

Während die Festival-Kultur Bewußt-losigkeit verbreitet, ist Kunst längst dabei, kritisches Bewußtsein zu mobiliserien. Wenn man in Absage an die affirmative und manipulative Kultur Ästhetik als kritischen Movens (als Sensibilisierung für Umwelt, als Bereitschaft, das jeweils ‘ganz andere’ in der Kunst und mit der Kunst erleben zu können) und damit den revolutionären Charakter von Kunst begreift – von Kunst, die, indem sie für die Veränderung der Welt eintritt, Zweidimensionalität ermöglicht, nämlich die kritische Konfrontation des Bewußtseins mit der Wirklichkeit (‘in  Bestandteile der ästhetischen Form überführt, werden Wörter, Klänge, Umrisse und Farben ihrem gewohntem Gebrauch und ihrer gewohnten Funktion enthoben und frei für eine neue Dimension des Daseins)  – wird ästhetische Erziehung angesichts der technischen Reproduzierbarkeit von Kunst zu einem sehr wichtigen Teil von Sozialpolitik.


Whilst festival culture spreads an anti-aware numbing, art has long been mobilising a critical consciousness. [But it can only be] if one understands art as critical affect (as a moving sensitization for the experience of one’s environment; if one understands it as a preparedness to experience the ‚totally different‘ in art and with art) instead of an affirmative and manipulative cultural aesthetic; and, thus, also understands the revolutionary character of art – of an art which means changes in the world, one that allows for two-dimensionality as it critically confronts one’s conscience with one’s reality (‘transferred as the components of an aesthetic form: words, sounds, silhouettes and colours are stripped of their common usage and their everyday function and are freed up for a new dimension of existence’); [only] then [does] aesthetic education become a very important part of social politics in light of the reproducibility of art. (Glaser & Stahl, 1983, p. 234)



We cite here, one last time, directly from Glaser and the jibe he took at bland event culture to illustrate his work’s wisdom: there is little doubt that culture finds itself often in crises and struggles to sustain community. But over time, cultural unity can survive self-inflicted wounds and flourish if the force that rejuvenates democratic sociality is recognised: the critical potential of art, be it performance, literal, aural, or visual.

This is the hope Glaser spells out for the European project despite political tensions and cultural disparities that seek to tear the union apart. Glaser committed to an anti-nationalist agenda that he translated into cultural critique and concrete political action. It was a duality of thought and action, directed at all levels of culture in European society and the spaces of its public life, most of all the cities and cultural institutions. The thought of a future as one Europe must be guided by a redefinition of culture instead of trade policies. The people of Europe must be kept wide awake by social awareness and cultural agility: not only a participatory demos, but also a participating demos.

Everything that Glaser wrote turned on the question of why a community rich in culture and thought and tradition could so easily think that national barbarism was preferable to international community, to a union for all. The prophetic words of Franz Grillparzer reverberate throughout all of Glaser’s prolific oeuvre: “The new road of thinking leads/From humanism/Through nationality/To beastiality.”[4] With new talk of a Europe of independent nations, the question that returns is how a shared culture can be a source of stability and strength, rather than a sign of weakness and frailty.




Irina Herrschner is the Manager of the Gateway Office of the University of Bayreuth in Melbourne. Her academic work centers on cultural and cinematic diplomacy as forms of transnational mobilities. 


Benjamin Nickl is a cultural studies researcher at The University of Sydney, Australia. He is currently working on several projects that examine popular culture and the applications of cultural technologies and posthuman culture theory.   




Glaser, Hermann, and Karl H. Stahl. Bürgerrecht Kultur. Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein Sachbuch, 1983. Print.

Glaser, Hermann, and Karl H. Stahl. Die Wiedergewinnung des Ästhetischen: Perspektiven Und Modelle Einer Neuen Soziokultur. München: Juventa, 1974. Print.

Glaser, Hermann. Kleine Kulturgeschichte Deutschlands Im 20. Jahrhundert. München: Beck, 2002. Print.

Grillparzer, Franz. Sämtliche Werke, Ausgewählte Briefe, Gespräche, Berichte: 1. München: Hanser, 1969. Print.

Liedel, Herbert, Uli Glaser, and Elizabeth Ellis. Nürnberg: Panorama; Begegnungen mit dem Zentrum einer Europäischen Metropolregion. Nürnber: Müller, 2005. Print.

[i] The book first appeared as a hardcover edition in 1974, titled “Die Wiedergewinnung des Ästhetischen: Perspektiven und Modelle einer neuen Soziokultur” (trans. “The Recuperation of Aesthetic: Perspectives and Models of a new Cultural Sociality”). Glaser reworked the title as “Bürgerrecht KULTUR” for the paperback reprint in 1983. That version served to mass-culturize the text as a popular text about the arts and entertainment culture in Germany. We thank the publisher for their permissions regarding reprint of text, book cover image, and translation. Glaser’s co-author was his former student, Karl-Heinz Stahl. As Glaser’s son Uli remembers, Stahl was Hermann’s long-time collaborator and dear friend. To the best of our knowledge, however, Hermann Glaser was the primary author and principal thinker. Stahl’s biography is hard to trace, as public information is sparse and he never single-authored a publication. Specific circumstances for why the collaboration with Glaser ended cannot be confirmed.

[ii] We would like to thank Uli Glaser for being so generous with his time and spending hours on Zoom to talk to us about his father’s work and his own. Uli Glaser followed in his father’s footsteps and has dedicated his life to a culture for all and institutions that foster social equity in German society (for details, see Liedel, Glaser, and Ellis, 2005).

[iii] We demonstrate the task of interpretating Glaser’s snapshot style in the previous quote. By contrast, offering a clearer directive as a literary pedagogy, may be Brecht’s well known “food first, then morality” (transl. “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral”, Brecht, 1928; appeared first in the ballade “Wovon lebt der Mensch“/What keeps Mankind Alive? that Brecht wrote for the Dreigroschenoper/Three Penny Opera).

[4] Org. (1849): “Der Weg der neuern Bildung geht/Von Humanität/Durch Nationalität/Zur Bestialität.” Franz Grillparzer: Sämtliche Werke, p. 500.


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