The International Auschwitz Committee has reacted with outrage to a work that was covered up at the documenta fifteen art exhibition after allegations of anti-Semitism.
“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.
“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.
He complained that the political and artistic participants’ lack of ability to engage in dialogue during the preparations for the documenta had led to an undignified situation that threatened to strengthen anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli clichés.
A detail of the now-shrouded People’s Justice banner by Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi shows a man in a suit and tie, shark-like ruffled teeth sticking out of 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.
The collective responsible for the work, Taring Padi, emphasized that they are “committed to supporting and respecting diversity”. The work does not contain “content aimed at portraying any population groups in a negative way”.
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.
The Hessian Minister of Art Angela Dorn (Greens) wants to follow up on the clues. “My personal impression is that there is anti-Semitic imagery here,” Dorn said on Monday in Wiesbaden.
She therefore contacted Documenta Director General Sabine Schormann with the aim of “clarifying things as quickly as possible, possibly also with the help of experts on anti-Semitism from academia”.
The minister emphasized that she expects “that we, as shareholders of documenta gGmbH, will soon deal with the results in a special meeting”.
“I’ve always said that anti-Semitic resentment and anti-Semitism shouldn’t be expressed at the Documenta,” says Dorn. The Documenta and Ruangrupa themselves have emphasized this again and again.
Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth also found clear words: “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.