In a time when democracy feels threatened, can beauty lead the way?
Decked out in a crisp dark blue suit with a pocket square neatly tucked into his left-hand pocket, Thomas Girst stands out even amongst the other well-heeled diners at the Literaturhaus Berlin. The author’s fastidious dressing reflects not only his attention to detail but also the dual work role he plays: alongside authoring seven works of non-fiction, Girst is the head of Cultural Engagement at the BMW Group, a role where looking good in a suit is practically part of the job description.
Based in Munich, the location of BMW’s Headquarters, Girst is in Berlin to promote his most recent book, a slim volume of essays dedicated to, in his own words, “what human beings are capable of when they take their time.” Spanning the fields of mathematics, biology, literature, and the arts, Alle Zeit der Welt (All the Time in the World) is inspired by a poem from the French poet Baudelaire, which posits that through art, humans can communicate with each other across decades, centuries, and even millennia like lighthouses along the nightshore.
“I wanted to write something that at least on my personal level would build a little dam between me and the ugliness of the world, and have people come and join that party.”
One of the book’s twenty-eight chapters features the curious tale of Ferdinand Cheval, a French mailman who, over the course of 33 years, built a “palace” out of stones and shells he found on his daily route. “He wasn't an architect, but because photography was something that then was employed in postcards and magazines that he distributed, he had some idea of what Hindu temples looked like and he put all of those ideas into his ‘Palais idéal,’” explains Girst. “I thought that if one man can do that just by chancing upon a stone, what are we capable of?”
Girst’s hope is that the book will inspire people to make the most of their potential as well as learn about and appreciate the great thinkers and makers of the past. “I write about Marcel Proust or Marcel Duchamp taking their time, a decade, over a decade, to come up with an amazing work that still excites people and it still has meaning embedded in it 50-100 years later,” he says. “I would measure the success of the book by how many people will read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; how many people will look into Marcel Duchamp, Dorothea Tanning, Beatrice Wood, Teresa of Avila, Louise Bourgeois—people who have contributed to the beauty of humankind on this planet.”
Despite the timelessness of the works these renowned figures in contemporary art and literature created, for Girst, the focus on beauty is a direct response to our contemporary moment. “In this time and age, it seems that ugliness is spreading while beauty is on the decline everywhere,” he explains. “So I start out with saying [in the preface] that I need something to hold onto in a time when you have to be scared about where democracy is going… when you have to think about nationalism being on the rise again. I wanted to write something that at least on a personal level would build a little dam between me and the ugliness of the world and have people come and join that party.”
A popular but precocious child, Girst turned to books early, reading modern classics by Robert Musil and James Joyce as well as books on Surrealism and Dada as a teenager. “At the risk of sounding pretentious, growing up in the middle of a backwards town… they were more real to me than my surroundings,” he says of the figures who went on to inspire his book. Aged 19, Girst started a literary journal named Die Aussenseite des Elementes (The Outside of the Element) as part of his Non Profit Art Movement, where he—rather ironically given his current employer—wrote manifestos “against any influence of business or companies within the arts.” After studying in Hamburg and New York City, stints working in galleries, as a correspondent for the German daily TAZ, and at Stephen Jay Gould’s Art Science Research Laboratory followed before he started running the global arts program for BMW in 2003. “For a long time I felt like I had to justify switching sides on the table,” he says, “but then you also see the beauty of business. The shelf life of an international company is 50 years. [The question is], how can companies exist for 100 years, taking care of, as is the case with BMW, 135,000 people and their families?”
This switch has not been without compromise. With a full-time job, teaching responsibilities, and being a father to his three young children, Girst resorted to writing chunks of the book on the transatlantic flights he regularly takes for BMW. “When the publishing house asked me to send in a picture of my desk, which many authors had done, I just sent them a picture of my seat on the plane because that’s where the book was written,” he jokes of his punishing schedule, which sometimes involved getting up at 4.30am to write. “I don’t actually want to pride myself on not needing that much sleep because it can also have a negative affect on your health, but I always think that when you have shelter and food, when you’re in good health, then you have the obligation to fulfill your possibilities.”
Thomas Girst is a writer and cultural manager living in Munich. Alle Zeit der Welt is published by Hanser and is available in German now.
Looking for more interviews with inspiring people? Then check out our 2015 interview with Christoph Niemann, the illustrator who created the cover art for Alle Zeit der Welt.
Text: Chloe Stead