So there it was: the first discussion on the Documenta anti-Semitism scandal. On Wednesday evening in Kassel, the Anne Frank educational institution and the documenta gGmbH sponsoring association invited to a panel on the subject of “Anti-Semitism in Art”.
It is probably thanks to the patience and willingness to mediate of Meron Mendel, director of the Anne Frank educational institution, who has tirelessly given, explained and classified interviews in the last ten days since the picture with the anti-Semitic elements was exhibited. Always striving for a factual, unexcited debate in this emotional minefield. Four other people are now sitting with him on the podium.
Hortensia Völkers from the German Federal Cultural Foundation sat on the podium as one of the sponsors of the documenta, as one of those politically responsible, representative of an institution that now has to ask itself whether it didn’t look enough, whether it negligently gave up its control function. Curator Adam Szymczyk, who directed Documenta 14 and can assess whether he should have been more closely monitored, was also there.
Nikita Dhawan, Professor of Political Theory and History of Ideas at TU Dresden, was there as a representative of the postcolonial discourse, who has to argue away the suspicion of anti-Semitism that weighs heavily on her field of research. Last but not least, Doron Kiesel, scientific director of the education department of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the nationwide representation of interests of the Jewish communities, who would have wanted to be brought on board much earlier in the whole discussion about the Documenta; and who also does not get an answer to the question on this evening as to whether Jewish-Israeli artists were deliberately excluded from the Kassel show. Does it exist, the “Silence Boycott”, the quiet boycott of Jewish artists, which Meron Mendel is also beginning to believe exists in the international art scene.
Ruangrupa just sits in the audience again. At least their spokesman Ade Darmawan speaks before the discussion, says what the Indonesian curatorial team has said so often: We are here to learn, to listen. We are there! In other words, no one shies away from responsibility here. But it might also mean that we cannot have this debate in Germany. But that’s not what anti-Semitism is: a German debate.
Doron Kiesel from the Central Council of Jews on Wednesday evening spoke of a shake in confidence in the ability of society and “certain circles of those responsible” to deal with their own history. Everyone who lives or performs in Germany has to deal with it. The Central Council of Jews had long wanted to relinquish the “guardian function”, but one had to realize that precisely in the enlightened contexts of artists and postcolonial thinkers, the relevance of the topic of anti-Semitism showed no resonance whatsoever.
“It’s not about how we Jews feel. It’s about how German society sees itself as it develops, about its values, its rights, its orientation,” said Doron Kiesel on Wednesday evening. It’s about sustainability when the victims and perpetrators increasingly no longer live among us.”
The picture on display caused deep irritation among the Jews. “Anti-Semitism is not only to be found in the context of a specific national, cultural, religious dwelling.” The image with the anti-Semitic content that was shown at the documenta was “universal”. “Suddenly pictures appear here that Adolf Eichmann and Goebbels would have been happy about (…) And it has no consequences,” says Kiesel. “I don’t think that a dialogue, a conversation, is still necessary here,” says Kiesel. It doesn’t matter who dealt with what and how much. “Everyone who appears here is responsible for what happens here.”
Adam Szymczyk, on the other hand, advocates dialogue and mutual trust. “It doesn’t help if we juxtapose different memories,” he says. The Documenta is the place where a different debate about memory can begin.
Meron Mendel suggests that when Palestinian artists are invited to a show like the Documenta, Jewish-Israeli perspectives should also be included. Nikita Dhawan advocates taking “multidirectional, critical perspectives” and not dividing anti-Semitism and racism. Reported on a “history of alliances” that not only existed between Jewish and black jazz musicians.
And Hortensia Völkers would like to switch from the “mode of accusations to a healing process”, is convinced that the autonomy of the artists, the institutions, even at publicly funded events such as the Documenta, must be protected. “We were told at the time that the supervisory board would be reformed,” said Völckers. “That has not happened to this day.”
However, this debate is a sham fight. “It’s always easy to say that if we had been on the board, that wouldn’t have happened. I wouldn’t have noticed either. I wouldn’t have hung out here every day either,” she admitted. The Federal Cultural Foundation withdrew from the documenta supervisory board in 2018, but continues to support the show with 3.5 million euros.
The event was intended to kick off the public debate about the scandal overshadowing documenta fifteen. A work of art by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi, classified as anti-Semitic, was dismantled just days after the start of the show. Anti-Semitism allegations against Ruangrupa had been raised since January.
Hesse’s Minister of Art, Angela Dorn, emphasized in her welcoming address on Wednesday that the podium could only be the first step in dealing with the scandal. The Greens politician reaffirmed the need for a structural reform of the documenta, as requested by Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth (Greens).
The sponsor of the exhibition is a non-profit company, with representatives from the state and city sitting on the supervisory board. The supervisory board is chaired by Kassel’s Lord Mayor Christian Geselle (SPD), his deputy is Angela Dorn. Underneath lies the management with general director Sabine Schormann and artistic direction. As a consequence of the events, Roth wants more influence from the federal government. She threatens to turn off the money supply otherwise.