Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth (Greens) has called for the removal of a work of art that was covered up after allegations of anti-Semitism at the “documenta fifteen” art exhibition. “The mere disguise and statement by the artist collective Taring Padi was absolutely unacceptable,” she said in Berlin on Tuesday.
Anti-Semitism shouldn’t have a place at art exhibitions or in German society. This also applies to racism and any form of misanthropy. “These are the clear boundaries for artistic freedom.” A clearly anti-Semitic imagery cannot be explained or put into perspective by another context.
According to Roth, the removal of the mural must be followed by a clarification as to how the picture with anti-Semitic pictorial elements could have been installed there. In addition, those responsible would have to immediately check whether other anti-Semitic pictorial elements are being shown at the documenta.
The Hessian Minister of Art Angela Dorn (Greens) also sees the covering as only the “first important step”. “Anti-Semitic content must not be shown or reproduced,” stressed Dorn on Tuesday in Wiesbaden. “We have to work through how it was possible at the documenta that such a visual language was shown publicly”.
The other works by the Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi, which was criticized in the present case, would also have to be “taken more closely into account”. Dorn had already stated on Monday that she had therefore contacted Documenta Director General Sabine Schormann.
The goal: “to bring about clarification as quickly as possible, if necessary also with the involvement of experts on anti-Semitism from academia”. For this she had brought a special meeting of the “partners of the documenta gGmbH” into play.
The International Auschwitz Committee reacted with outrage to the work. “Survivors of the Holocaust are following the desolate developments surrounding documenta 15 with disbelief,” said the committee’s executive vice president, Christoph Heubner, on Tuesday in Berlin. He called for clarification of the background to the creation of the work. The depiction of Jewish people is fraught with anti-Semitic clichés.
On Monday, after the sharp criticism of the obviously anti-Semitic motifs, the management of the Kassel art fair decided to cover the artwork in question. In addition to the covering of the work of the Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi on Friedrichsplatz, an explanation will also be installed.
A detail of the artist collective’s People’s Justice banner shows a man in a suit and tie, shark-like ruffled teeth protruding from his mouth, and a cigar next to him.
A hinted side curl hangs down, the SS rune is emblazoned on the hat. Another detail shows a person in uniform under a cannon barrel, wearing the nose of a pig, which devout Jews consider unclean. The Star of David can be seen on the red scarf and the name of the Israeli secret service Mossad on the helmet.
“It’s high time to hear the artists from which world view these pictures were created and to explain publicly on the part of the documenta why these pictures are met with resistance and rejection here,” Heubner continued.
In fact, Taring Padi commented on the case Monday in a statement that appeared on the Documenta website. There it says, among other things:
The artists also explain that it is the first time that the banner, created in 2002, is being shown in a European and German context. It has previously been seen in Australia and China, among other places.
They are committed to “diversity and respect,” the artists said. The banner is “in no way related to anti-Semitism”. And further: “We are sad that details of this banner are understood differently than their original purpose. We apologize for the injuries caused in this context.”
Hesse’s Minister of Art Dorn criticized the statement by the artist group on Tuesday. “The work of art contains anti-Semitic codes that Jews rightly feel offended by. Of course, no dialogue is possible on the basis of insults and injuries”.
Since the details of the work of art became known, criticism of the exhibition organizers has not abated. But the political leaders are also on the defensive. Because even before the start of the exhibition, the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel tendencies of the exhibition organizers had been discussed.
The director of the Anne Frank educational institution, Meron Mendel, asked those responsible for the world art exhibition in Kassel to remove the contribution of the Indonesian artist collective because of anti-Semitic motives.
“This is a clear crossing of borders,” Mendel told the German Press Agency on Monday. “These images leave absolutely no room for interpretation. This is clear anti-Semitic agitation.”
At best, the work would have to be removed, he demanded. In the second step, there needs to be a dialogue about what went wrong and where the blind spots of this documenta are.
Months ago, an alliance in Kassel accused the Indonesian curator collective Ruangrupa of also involving organizations that supported the cultural boycott of Israel or were anti-Semitic. Ruangrupa and the Documenta firmly denied the allegations.
Later, the Central Council of Jews in Germany also got involved. A series of discussions intended to calm people down has been cancelled.
So far, Mendel had backed the Documenta in the debate. He said he saw no anti-Semitism there, but criticized the lack of positions by Jewish artists from Israel. Mendel emphasized on Monday that not the entire exhibition should be described as anti-Semitic.
“You have to differentiate. Something must have gone wrong. But something like that shouldn’t happen.” The responsibility for ensuring this now lies with the curators and the management of documenta fifteen.
Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth also found clear words on Monday: “In my view, this is anti-Semitic imagery,” said the Green politician. “I’ll say it again: human dignity, protection against anti-Semitism, as well as against racism and any form of misanthropy are the foundations of our coexistence, and this is where artistic freedom finds its limits.”
The Documenta must immediately make this clear to the curators and artists and draw “the necessary conclusions”.
The President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, was also outraged on Monday. The Council had been criticized from many quarters for its concerns about this year’s Documenta. He was even indirectly accused of racism. “However, it doesn’t matter where artists who spread anti-Semitism come from,” emphasized Schuster.
Artistic freedom ends where misanthropy begins. “This red line was crossed at the Documenta.” Those responsible now have to live up to their social responsibility and draw the necessary conclusions, he demanded.
The Israeli embassy also sharply criticized the documenta. The elements shown in some exhibits would be reminiscent “of the propaganda of Goebbels and his henchmen in dark times of German history”. “All the red lines have not only been crossed, they have been smashed,” says a press release.
The embassy demanded that the artworks be removed from the exhibition immediately. “They have absolutely nothing to do with freedom of expression, but are an expression of old-style anti-Semitism.”
The AfD in the Hessian state parliament even demanded that Documenta fifteen be ended. The anti-Semitic art must be removed immediately and Schormann resign, said Frank Grobe, cultural policy spokesman for the AfD parliamentary group.
“She has to bear the responsibility that anti-Semitic pictures are shown in Germany of all places at the world’s most important exhibition for contemporary art.”
Against the background of the debate about the 15th edition of the Documenta, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had already emphasized the limits of artistic freedom at the opening of the show on Saturday. It is an important pillar of democratic societies, but it also has its limits.
“Art can be offensive, it should trigger debates.” Criticism of Israeli politics is allowed. “But where criticism of Israel turns into questioning of its existence, the limit has been crossed,” he had said.