President Steinmeier’s criticism of the Documenta culture

President Steinmeier's criticism of the Documenta culture

How important Germany is Documenta is also shown by the fact that it is traditionally opened by the Federal President. He then has the curators explain this or that work of art to him, praises the show for its importance for Germany’s reputation in the world, pats artists on the back – and drives off again. Usually. At the opening of the fifteenth Documenta on Saturday, Frank-Walter Steinmeier broke with this tradition and thus ushered in a new phase of the debate about the alleged anti-Semitic tendencies of the large-scale exhibition and its organizers.

Steinmeier was so alarmed by the reports of the past few weeks and months that he saw only two scenarios for himself: One was to boycott the Documenta: “I want to be open. In the past few weeks I wasn’t sure whether I would be here with you today.” But he then decided to take another, just as drastic step: instead of being a benevolent keynote speaker, he appeared as a harsh critic of the Documenta, its curators and those responsible and indirectly also those politically responsible – from Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth and the Hessian state government to the mayor of Kassel Christian journeyman. He reprimanded them – without getting specific – for their “frivolous” dealings with Israel and accused them of not having adequately supervised the Indonesian collective Ruangrupa, which was commissioned with the conception of the show, at work. Responsibility, he said, “cannot be outsourced”.

Steinmeier has just returned from Indonesia, the home country of the Ruangrupa collective

When Steinmeier and his collaborators wrote the speech, he had not yet seen the Documenta. But what he had seen was Indonesia. The President only returned from a state visit there the night before the appearance in Kassel. Many therefore expected Steinmeier to be particularly receptive to Ruangrupa’s ideas. And that’s how it seemed at first.

“I saw in Indonesia how (…) people live on seemingly endless garbage dumps. I saw how plastic waste – Western plastic waste – is processed into bricks in an art project (…). These stones are supposed to be used for the local residents and residents of the landfill a house will be built – as a place for the artbut also as a place for a foundation from which people benefit financially.” The project is not part of the Documenta, but it embodies Ruangrupa’s understanding of art in an exemplary manner.

Steinmeier expressly welcomed the fact that for the first time curators from the Global South are responsible for the Documenta. And he made it unmistakably clear how aware he is of the injustice that this part of the world is being subjected to by the West and how necessary he considers it to be to come to terms with old and new colonialism. According to Steinmeier, art plays an important role in this. Their freedom is of great value: “A democratic society must not patronize artists, certainly not exploit them. Art has no political mandate. Politics does not judge the quality of art.”

“The recognition of Israel is the basis and prerequisite for the debate with us!”

The freedom of art also includes the freedom to criticize Israel, Steinmeier now turned to the topic that was at the center of his speech. “Some criticism of Israeli policy, such as the building of settlements,” is “justified.” But this freedom of criticism has its limits, and “to make that clear, I’m speaking here today”: “Where criticism of Israel turns into questioning of its existence, the limit has been crossed,” he said. “As a German Federal President I state for my country: the recognition of Israel is the basis and prerequisite for the debate with us!”

Steinmeier did not say which Documenta artworks he considered offensive. Nor did he explicitly state that some Ruangrupa members are close to the anti-Israel BDS campaign. However, it is noticeable that “there are probably no Jewish artists from Israel represented at this important exhibition of contemporary art”.

Steinmeier complained that the “We Need to Talk” series of discussions planned in the run-up to the Documenta did not take place. Open debates are more important than ever, he said, but at the same time he also set a condition: “Nobody who wants to be taken seriously as a debater in Germany can speak to Israel but remain silent about the six million murdered Jews.”

Before concluding with a commitment to the importance of art and the Documenta, he gave those responsible another task: He would “very much appreciate it,” he said, if they would “intensely” take on the “demanding task of mediation” – meaning that Mediation between political and cultural standpoints of the Global South and the special sensitivity that is required in Germany when dealing with the country of Israel.

At a demonstration that took place shortly after Steinmeier’s speech in front of the “Ruruhaus”, the visitor center for the Documenta, some pro-Israeli demonstrators, waving Israeli flags, praised Steinmeier for his words and often quoted them. Others expressed outrage that he had come and that the show was allowed to take place. They lamented the “anti-Semitism from the left”, which she believes is rampant in the German cultural scene. Some speakers called for a boycott of the Documenta.

The federal government’s anti-Semitism commissioner, Felix Klein, also spoke up at the weekend. Those responsible for the documenta “did not succeed in dispelling the allegations of anti-Semitism in a credible manner,” he said picture on sunday. Klein said he shares the President’s critical assessment: “It cannot be that anti-Semitism is part of the publicly funded artistic discourse in Germany.” Even Klein did not specify which works of art he considered anti-Semitic.

It is now unclear how the Documenta makers will deal with Steinmeier’s allegations and what consequences they could have for this year’s edition, but also for the future of what is probably the most important art exhibition in the world. At the weekend it was still unclear how the members of Ruangrupa will react and whether sponsors will withdraw or international visitors will stay away.

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