Documenta will now be under increased government scrutiny in light of new accusations of anti-Semitism, Germany’s culture minister says
Documenta is an exhibition renowned for slowly burning its critical legacy, but the opening of its 15th edition earlier this month in Kassel (until September 25) has drawn backlash from politicians and media more close to a forest fire. In the most recent turn of events, a growing row over alleged anti-Semitism and racism at the exhibition, organized this year by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, has prompted the German federal government to demand greater control of the five-year state-funded exhibition.
The latest scandal erupted last week, following the display of a 60ft banner by the Taring Padi collective, also from Indonesia, which was accused of containing an ‘anti-Semitic caricature of a Jewish person’ as well as derogatory references to the Mossad, the Israeli army. People’s justice (2002) has since been removed entirely from its dominant position on Friederichsplatz and its content is now being reviewed by Documenta and a team of independent sensitivity consultants. This measure is described as “excessive” by a member of the artistic team of Documenta, who wishes to remain anonymous. They wonder if the work would have been placed under such a high level of scrutiny if the artists were from the North.
A formal apology has since been issued by Documenta’s curators and artistic team. His Managing Director Sabine Schormann, who avoided being ousted despite calls for her dismissal from a number of Jewish groups, said she had not “fulfilled her promise” that “there would be no anti-Semitic content at the Documenta 15”, which “has no place in Germany”. Meanwhile, ruangrupa expressed regret for the “pain and fear” caused by the images and said that in consultation with Taring Padi, he supported the decision to remove the work.
But it seems that the damage is already done. On Friday, it was reported by the German newspaper Time that Claudia Roth, the country’s culture minister, released a document announcing plans to “reform” the exhibition’s governance and funding structure.
Currently, Roth said, “local responsibility” is disproportionate to the global importance of Documenta and that the federal government does not have “sufficient opportunity to participate.” Time reports. She said federal funds will now depend on greater “compulsory” influence from the government, as well as “international expertise”, which will involve the “plurality of German society, including the Central Council of Jews”. Roth assured The Spiegel that federal funding for Documenta would continue for the foreseeable future. She is currently in talks with Hesse’s Minister of Art, Angela Dorn, to carry out these reforms, according to Time.
Roth, a Green Party politician nominated last year in German parliamentary elections, initially remained more neutral on accusations of anti-Semitism leveled at Documenta. When the exhibition was criticized by Jewish groups across Germany for giving a platform to a number of pro-Palestinian and pro-BDS artists, she defended “artistic license”. She has since denounced Tarang Padi’s work as anti-Semitic and “disturbing” in a statement last week, adding that her faith in the exhibit had been “betrayed”.
Currently, Documenta has a budget of over 40 million euros, the largest of any exhibition in Germany. In addition to ticket sales, it is financed by the following stakeholders: the city of Kassel, the State of Hesse and the German Federal Cultural Foundation. The latter, under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture, represents 4.5 M€. Its management is shared between these authorities and the artistic team of the exhibition. However, the balance of power between the four parties has changed since Documenta was founded in 1955.
In fact, Roth’s plan is not unprecedented and will bring Documenta closer to its pre-2018 structure, when the federal government had more control over the show. Four years ago, the former federal government decided to withdraw from Documenta’s supervisory board while partially financing the exhibition. This decision was a “mistake”, says Roth The Spiegeland should be cancelled.
“Documenta has a huge budget. It can be both a blessing and a curse,” said institutional finance expert Shwetal Patel. The arts journal. He co-organized a now very topical conference conference in Kassel on June 29– which was planned long before Roth’s most recent announcement – which will address the dual necessities and complications of public funding for the arts.
“The financial crises of the previous decade, Covid and current recession fears mean that sustained public funding for the arts is more precarious than ever. In this context, it is natural that the new government in Berlin (and its agencies) would want to review the way it funds the arts,” says Patel. “At this point, it’s also about optics. Documenta is an important tool of soft power for Germany and I imagine that its new government is keen to take a stand against any hint of intolerance.”
While Patel, who is one of the founding members of the Kochi Biennale, is reluctant to speculate on whether the current row could have been avoided with greater control from the federal government, he says it is clear other biennial type events that “government agencies and bureaucrats should not run arts organisations; this job should be left to a passionate and dedicated team that is embedded and invested in Kassel.