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Getting away with it: Germany’s Documenta art festival

Documenta has basically gotten away with organizing a festival stained with the most virulent antisemitism, and that there are no guarantees that such a scandal can be avoided in the future.

A Documenta installation. Credit: Facebook.
A Documenta installation. Credit: Facebook.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

Of the many stories involving antisemitism that dominated the headlines last year, probably the most disturbing involved the serial controversies over antisemitic displays at Germany’s prestigious Documenta festival of contemporary art.

The Documenta scandal was certainly not the story that garnered the most attention, particularly among anxious Jews worldwide. In a year when arguably the greatest artist in the history of hip hop outed himself as a vicious antisemite, for good measure taking a Holocaust denying wingman with him to dine at the home of a former American president, that was never going to happen.

But Documenta was important because it demonstrated quite painfully the persistence of classic antisemitic iconography—hooked noses, oversized hats, bags of money and a general sense of sheer ugliness—in contemporary art forms. It was important because there was not just one scandal, but many more than one, as the festival progressed in its June-September time slot. It was important because the controversies touched on the core manifestations of antisemitism over the last millennium, from the medieval blood libel to modern hatred of the State of Israel’s very existence. And it was important because it unfolded in Germany, the land of the Holocaust, where the phrase “Never Again” has become something of an empty mantra; coming off the back of a pandemic that witnessed an explosion in the popularity of antisemitic conspiracy theories in Germany, the festival was another critical sign that the country’s deadliest hatred is gaining visibility once more.

Many art critics fretted that the constant manifestations of antisemitism throughout the festival had derailed discussion of its artistic content. The festival’s curators—the Indonesian ruangrupa collective, who were chosen for the role as representatives of the “Global South”—studiously avoided any serious debate about antisemitism for its entire duration, preferring instead to hit critics with accusations of both censorship and insensitivity to the cultural traditions and sensibilities of artists from the developing world. Those heads that did roll as a result of the controversies—festival director Sabine Schormann, who quit in July, and her interim successor Alexander Farenholz, ousted the following month—all belonged to Germans.

The German government also got involved, appropriately given that the Documenta festival, which is mounted every five years in the city of Kassel, is partly supported with taxpayer funds. As the festival drew to a close, politicians at state and federal levels were warning that future funding would be contingent on ensuring that displays like those seen in 2022 are never seen again.

Yet nothing has actually been done to demonstrate that commitment. Germany’s Jewish community has not received a formal apology from the festival’s organizers. A proper internal reckoning with the antisemitic artworks—“People’s Justice,” but also others, like the “Tokyo Reels,” a video installation about Palestinian solidarity containing antisemitic invective—never occurred. And while Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a known art lover, nixed a visit to the festival over the summer in protest at the “disgusting images” on display, he did not address the subject any further. It was a missed opportunity for Germany’s elected leader to confront his fellow citizens with the antisemitism in their midst.

This week, however, a new possibility has arisen: That Documenta has basically gotten away with organizing a festival stained with the most virulent antisemitism, and that there are no guarantees that such a scandal can be avoided in the future.

I’ve arrived at that judgement on the basis of an interview published last Tuesday in the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung (NOZ) with the new director of Documenta, Andreas Hoffmann. I will admit that I don’t know much about Hoffmann beyond a publicly available resume that highlights his career as an antiquities expert and arts administrator. But going by what he said in the interview, he is hardly a safe pair of hands when it comes to challenging antisemitic motifs in works of art.

To begin with, Hoffmann did not seem remotely bothered by the controversies at last year’s festival. For him, what was “inspiring” was ruangrupa’s approach to artistic production, which invokes a “lumbung”—the Indonesian word for a rice barn—as a metaphor for its emphasis on the centrality of collective endeavor, rather than the achievement of individual greatness, in art.

With a hint of exasperation, the NOZ interviewer pressed Hoffmann for his response to the accusations of antisemitism. The transformation was telling. Hoffmann went from being an erudite, literate exponent of the potential for contemporary art to a mid-level bureaucrat churning out a scripted answer. The festival’s next edition, in 2027, would, he said, arrive at an agreement “on standards in dealing with artistic freedom and its limits, in dealing with any group-specific form of bigotry such as antisemitism, racism and antiziganism [anti-Roma discrimination].” And that was it: no citation of or regret for the antisemitic works that were shown to festival-goers, and no acknowledgement that racism and bigotry towards minorities of color and Roma people, however reprehensible, were simply not issues at last year’s festival. Burying the problem of antisemitism within a generalized concern about hate speech and hateful images is a tried and tested means of ducking the issue while telling the Jewish community that its concerns have been heard.

Nor does Hoffmann seem overly worried that his tenure as director will be marked by increased government intervention in the festival’s management. “The main question here is how the federal government will participate in the Documenta in the future or how it will contribute to the structures that already exist,” he said. But will government officials be able to inspect in advance and, if necessary, veto works that demean or defame Jews? Such a measure will doubtless lead to a chorus of voices crying censorship, and we shouldn’t be too shocked if Hoffmann’s is among them. Instead, a message is being sent to those who argue that art should not be given a pass when it comes to Jew-hatred—stop complaining.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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