Can anti-Semitism be art?
On the scandal at the Documenta art festival
A bitter dispute over anti-Semitism, racism and freedom of expression has been bubbling away all through the summer in the normally sleepy German town of Kassel. In the past few days the pot has boiled over.
Every five years Kassel awakes to become the centre of the art world for 100 days, when it puts on Documenta, the world's largest art festival.
Dating back to the 1950s, the festival was a conscious effort to make a break with the Nazis’ censorship of avant garde art.
Eye-catching installations from festivals past have included a life-sized Athenian parthenon made of books. But, despite its reputation for daring, the festival was ultimately a place where collectors and gallerists came to spot the latest trends. Lead billing could send an artist’s reputation into the stratosphere.
For the 15th iteration though, the organisers decided to break with convention completely. Instead of asking an established western artist to curate, they recruited an Indonesian collective to show off work from "the global south."
The collective, ruangrupa, said they wanted the event to be based on the concept of lumbung, the Indonesian word for a barn where rice is stored for communal use. In other words: this year’s Documenta was supposed to be a big communal space at which challenging ideas were chewed upon. The curators happily admitted that they had little knowledge of what the artists would actually show - a conscious effort to create more room for positive discussion.
But things didn’t really turn out like that.
One of the centrepieces of the festival, a giant mural called People’s Justice by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi, included a pig-headed soldier wearing a Star of David neckerchief and a figure wearing a hat emblazoned with SS symbols, who has payot locks, pointy teeth, and blood-coloured eyes.
The images scandalized Germany. Everyone from the Bundespresident down felt obliged to comment.
People’s Justice was subsequently removed, and the lead organiser on the German side lost her job. Meanwhile, Documenta decided to bring in a “scientific advisory panel” who were tasked with independently evaluating the rest of the artworks for anti-Semitic themes.
At the weekend that panel published their report. Citing a film installation called “Tokyo Reels Film Festival”, which shows Palestinian "propaganda" videos from the mid-20th century, the panel said that "the footage is laced with anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist set pieces" while a commentary by the artists "legitimises the source material's hatred of Israel and glorification of terrorism."
Blame ultimately rests with ruangrupa, the academics said, because they “deliberately relinquished control over the exhibition" and also failed to give a voice to Israeli or Jewish artists.
That led to a defiant rebuttal by the ruangrupa, who accused the panel of “a racist drift into a pernicious structure of censorship.” The artists argued that the panel had conflated criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews. “What kind of academic integrity purposely ignores history and facts in service of racist and hegemonic agendas,” they asked.
What has the reaction been?
Some of the criticism is legitimate, writes Johannes Schneider in Der Zeit, but the accusation that the curators are ultimately at fault is problematic. “By calling ruangrupa to account for their principle of organised irresponsibility, the panel is negating their entire curatorial idea of the lumbung of autonomously acting collectives.” It's not surprising that ruangrupa see this as an attack on them by "the racist guardians of history from the global North.”
The problem with the much-hyped lumbung, is that it is just that - hype, write Julia Alfandari und Meron Mendel in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The authors, two Jewish women, went to Kassel to seek dialogue in the spirit of lumbung. But they found an artists collective who "contextualized" anti-Semitic art by claiming that some people “couldn’t understand” what they were viewing. “Who recognizes the principle of lumbung here? Where is the lauded learning process? Where is the respect for a variety of opinions?"
The curators' response to the panel's finding was "resentment-laden vomit," writes Nils Minkmar, also in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “How can such people be allowed to run the Documenta? He demands that the festival should not end as planned at the end of next week. “It should end now."
With a little over a week of the 100-day festival still to go, there is still room for more controversy yet. The curators have refused to follow the advice of the academic panel, saying that they use “Germancentric—superiority as a form of disciplining, managing and taming." The Tokyo Reels film will still be shown one last time as scheduled on September 21st.
That viewing is likely to lead to more hefty protests. After that ruangrupa have promised to withdraw from any association with Documenta and take their lumbung with them.