The freedom of art and its limits

This year’s Documenta, one of the most important art shows in the world, which takes place in Kassel every five years, only started seemingly carefree. With lots of music, karaoke and good weather. The collective Ruangrupa from Indonesia, which is curating the documenta this year, felt like it was present at all exhibition locations at the same time, chatting and mingling with the people.

The artistic directors of this mega exhibition have rarely shown themselves to be so approachable. Nevertheless, a dark shadow hangs over this show, which, despite all the happiness and benevolence, cannot be dissolved so easily.

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There have been allegations of anti-Semitism against Ruangrupa beforehand. Parts of the management team and invited artists are said to be close to the Israel boycott movement BDS. Ruangrupa have repeatedly emphasized that they reject any form of anti-Semitism. You want to believe them. But uncertainty remains.

No one knows exactly how Ruangrupa feel about BDS and Israel. There are no Jewish-Israeli artists at this documenta. Is this an expression of a boycott or a coincidence? One would have liked to have had a concrete answer from the Documenta.

[Lesen Sie auch: Eröffnung der Documenta fifteen – Eintauchen in Kassels Osten (T+)]

For the credibility of the event, it would have been good to have Israeli participants. There are many voices in the art scene that sympathize with the BDS. One must not trivialize that.

With this show, the documenta opens up more than ever before to non-Western perspectives, multiple perspectives on art, on the economy, on institutions and solidarity. But it also opens up different perspectives on the state of Israel, although that is not even a topic in the exhibition itself.

Critical tones from the Federal President

It is when you first visit the exhibition not realizing that red lines were crossed in relation to Israel. The many artists and collectives from the Global South show how they stand up for their rights, fight water shortages, propagate sustainability and work collectively. There are works that address the difficult situation in Palestine, but that too is allowed.

In his opening speech at the Documenta, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier once again summed up what shouldn’t be and explicitly pointed out the limits of artistic freedom. “Freedom of opinion and freedom of art are at the heart of our constitution. Criticism of Israeli policies is allowed,” he said. “But where criticism of Israel turns into questioning of its existence, the limit has been crossed.”

[Lesen Sie auch: Eröffnung der Documenta fifteen – zehn Tipps für einen Besuch in Kassel (T+)]

The fact that Documenta canceled a discussion event on artistic freedom in times of growing anti-Semitism and racism was a big mistake. The excessive demands may be understandable, the issues extremely complex, also because, in addition to anti-Semitism, it is also about racism against people from the Global South.

Discussing this in a differentiated manner and without polarization is a major task. The Documenta must face up to this responsibility. At least at the beginning of the show, however, it seemed as if the organizers wanted to avoid the topic of anti-Semitism even being discussed. Now it has outgrown the organizers and Ruangrupa.

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