The Documenta Art Fair got ugly because of anti-Semitism and agitprop

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By the time my wife and I arrived in Kassel to see the latest edition of Documenta – the once-in-five-year event that in the contemporary art world rivals the Venice Biennale for importance orientation – its centerpiece had been removed from public view, its director had resigned in disgrace, and the German government was promising to step up its oversight of future exhibitions.

The scandal that engulfed what the German Jewish newspaper, Juedische Allgemeine, dubbed “Documenta of Shame” has implications that go beyond the borders of Germany and the contemporary art world. The Western world, with its excess of money and growing scarcity of creativity, has settled into the role of benevolent funder of all that the creative energy of the oppressed can produce. This energy, however, is anything but benevolent. The nurturing hand can get bitten off – and that’s a frightening prospect for Western bureaucrats and politicians, both in and out of the arts.

Documenta, created in 1955 by artist, architect and designer Arnold Bode to breathe new life into his bombed-out hometown of Kassel, began as a major exhibition of modern art and underwent a number of permutations to arrive at its current format: Although a nonprofit foundation funded in part by the German federal government, the state of Hesse and the city of Kassel handles the business side of things, the curator, chosen by an advisory board, has carte blanche to choose the artists and organize the exhibition the spaces. For artists in countries burdened by various forms of censorship, the curator’s freedom of action is a Western gift almost as valuable as the sizable money that backs the effort: this year’s budget is $42.2 million. euros, but this limit can be exceeded, because it was in 2017, when the city and the state had to assume the debts of Documenta to save it.

Thanks to freedom of preservation and generous funding, the number of visitors has steadily increased, with almost a million people making the pilgrimage to Kassel, or 200,000 inhabitants, during the June Documenta tour. to September. It’s a wonder to behold: the entire city, from the central museums to the bridges, lawns and pedestrian underpasses, becomes the backdrop for all kinds of artistic experiences. In 1972, Joseph Beuys piled up 7,000 large stones in the city’s central square as part of a plan to plant as many oak trees in Kassel. A stone had to be removed with each tree planted; the project lasted five years.

This year, Documenta, which takes place a year late because of the Covid pandemic, was organized by an Indonesian collective called ruangrupa. Its approach has been to invite other artistic groups, mainly from Asia and Africa, to fill the various exhibition spaces as they choose. They could in turn invite other collaborators. It is indeed a communist utopia which is played out at the expense of the German taxpayer and relatively well-to-do visitors who can afford the trip, hotels – one day is not enough to see everything – and tickets. As the traditional centerpiece of the main square – think Beuys stones or the giant 2017 Parthenon replica built from books banned in different countries – ruangrupa chose a huge banner called “People’s Justice” created by another Indonesian collective , Taring Padi.

Some of Documenta’s first visitors immediately noticed among the many figures a pig-headed creature wearing a helmet marked “Mossad” and a depiction of a vampire-like individual with Jewish padlocks with the inscription “SS” on it. his bowler hat. Jewish organizations and the media were understandably angry. “People’s Justice” was deleted, leaving the central plaza bare, and ruangrupa and Taring Padi apologized. Other accusations followed: the work of Palestinian artists features prominently at Documenta 15, while Israeli artists are not visibly represented, which amounts to a silent boycott of Israel. Ruangrupa denied having imposed it, but that did not help: the scandal built until Documenta’s supervisory board, headed by the mayor of Kassel, dismissed the association’s director, Sabine Schorman.

In a speech to the German parliament earlier this month, ruangrupa director and curator Ade Darmawan explained Indonesia’s checkered history:

This history also includes centuries of colonialist exploitation by European empires, such as the Dutch, and by the Japanese during World War II. Part of this colonialist violence involved pitting different non-white people against each other. You may know that in the case of Indonesia, this involved playing Indonesians against Chinese minorities, and to do this, as you may also know, Dutch colonial officers introduced anti-Semitic ideas and images originally European to portray the Chinese as Europeans portrayed the Jews, and to establish a connection. This, in a shocking and shameful way, has come full circle in the artwork. The image is of European origin, then transformed and appropriated in our own cultural context in an unacceptable way. It’s definitely something we need to deal with and think about.

This is not so much an excuse as an accusation: anti-Semitism is, according to this view, a colonialist import from Europe that has now washed up on the placid shores of Kassel on a wave of post-colonial creativity. subversive. Arguably, everything ruangrupa has done in Kassel this year follows the same logic: to blame on the West the misery it can be accused of causing the rest of the world. A visitor cannot fail to be educated about the plight of the indigenous peoples of Australia, the Palestinians of Gaza (where artists must smuggle paint), Sinti and Roma, Kurds, dissidents everywhere, from the Philippines to Hungary – the list is as endless as human suffering. The works of art presented during this educational process are, on the whole, props that serve a primary purpose: to make the wealthy Western viewer feel ashamed as an oppressor, or at least an accomplice to an oppressor.

I don’t know if my wife and I can be forgiven for not feeling personally responsible for the plight of Ugandan filmmakers forced to shoot on a $200 budget or the “imported” anti-Semitism of an Indonesian mural painter. We would have come for the art – but after two days of being harangued with all the national flavors of far-left rhetoric, we struggled to remember even a dozen truly impressive works we had seen. , those that would stand as art. , and not in the context of a plaintive or aggressive narrative. The ones we remember told more subtle stories, ones that didn’t require video or explanatory text – like Kenyan artist Ngugi Waweru’s massive installation made entirely from kitchen knives found in a Nairobi slum, most of them being reduced to a needle before being used. were thrown away.

On the other hand, the uncomfortable feeling of being shouted at, talked about, whispered to, sometimes openly mocked at was probably the goal of the conservatives. That a distinctly non-Western form of Jew-hatred was part of it was hardly an accident, just as the German leadership under Schormann might have tried to portray it as such. When you give the keys to the non-Western world, with alarming art collectives doling out a huge government subsidy among themselves in a sort of collective farm process, you get that and more; what you don’t get is admiration for western culture, or even respect for western creativity as it is today. You are simply told that it is no longer your place to speak.

The German government’s frightened response – ostensibly just to the anti-Semitic imagery, but, more likely, to the whole event as it unfolded – is to step in and demand more control. Culture Minister Claudia Roth said the federal government’s decision in 2018 to leave Documenta’s supervisory board was “a serious mistake” and demanded “structural reform” that would exclude “all forms of hatred”. exhibitions. What this probably means is the end of unrestricted freedom of preservation and a degree of what can only be described as censorship – the good kind, Roth would have us believe.

Documenta, however, isn’t just a show – it’s both a trailblazer and a weather vane. If, as can also be felt from other major events such as the last Berlin Biennale, the trend has turned towards the so-called Global South, leaving aside the more sterile, timid and repetitive Western production, it is futile to try to impose rules on what this tide attracts. It would be an effort akin to Western attempts to limit immigration – something you can’t do with art without diminishing its power.

My only complaint about the trend as documented in Kassel this year is that rhetorical arguments are stronger than artistic ones. It may be natural when so many new languages ​​are being shouted, but a coherent new language can still emerge from the clamor. My disappointment is partly anticipated.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• The Authenticity Scam: Adrian Wooldridge

• Art is an investment to be enjoyed: Tyler Cowen

• Wealthy millennials splash millions on crypto art: Andrea Felsted

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky, former Europe columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team. He recently published Russian translations of “1984” by George Orwell and “The Trial” by Franz Kafka.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

About Norma Wade

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