The trigger for the documenta fifteen scandal was a huge mural about 12 meters (40 feet) high. During the opening weekend, the installation “People’s Justice” dominated the famous artistic event. It was hard to ignore him.
It depicted an international tribunal featuring an Israeli soldier with a pig’s face and a Star of David and a helmet that had the word “Mossad” inscribed on it, the name of Israel’s intelligence agency.
It depicts another figure with the curls associated with Orthodox Jews, bloodshot fangs and eyes, and wearing a black hat with the SS insignia.
Portrayals like this of anti-Semitic stereotypes have been criticized by Jewish groups
The reaction was swift: politicians, representatives of Jewish organizations and even the Israeli Embassy in Berlin criticized the facility.
On Monday, documenta general manager Sabine Schormann said she regretted that the art installation had hurt feelings. In what she said was a joint decision with the creators of the mural, Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi, the artwork would be concealed and an explanatory note added.
“Mob justice” must now be a symbol of dialogue which is impossible at the moment, said the Taring Padi group, regretting that their work “is perceived as offensive in this particular context in Germany”.
Impotent justification despite warnings
But it’s not just about Germany. The depictions on the mural serve up the nastiest anti-Semitic stereotypes, which have sparked widespread outrage far beyond Germany.
The assertion of the director of documenta that works of art cannot be submitted for examination in advance is only a helpless justification.
As the event approached, all criticism of the selection of certain artistic groups for alleged anti-Semitic leanings was dismissed, including by documenta organizers. An opportunity for dialogue was missed when the planned talk series, “We Need to Talk,” which was to discuss the right to artistic freedom in the face of racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, was canceled in May.
There had already been warnings for months, mainly from the Central Council of Jews in Germany, which now sees itself justified.
Sabine Kieselbach from DW
Even before the scandal broke, there had been strong criticism of the works of a group of Palestinian artists, who equated the actions of the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip with those of the Wehrmacht in Guernica, in Spain.
The scandal harmed the participating artists
Is the documenta as a whole anti-Semitic? No. But the scandal caused immense damage, especially to the approximately 1,700 artists around the world who wanted to use the occasion to offer the people of Kassel a new, non-Western perspective on art. They wanted to steer discussions at this year’s documenta towards justice, equality, democracy and capitalism – topics that have now been overshadowed by scandal.
So where do things go from here? In a statement on Tuesday, German Minister of State for Culture and Media Claudia Roth, whose ministry is one of documenta’s main sponsors, said it would not be enough to simply conceal the work of incriminated art.
Shortly after, documenta announced that the offending illustration would be removed completely. This, Roth said, could only be a first step. She didn’t say what might be next, or whether heads should roll.
Not a typical German debate
It’s clear that the concept of this year’s documenta has gotten out of control for the organizers. And even politicians, like Claudia Roth and Hesse’s culture minister, Angela Dorn, thought too long that they could stay out of the debate.
This is because almost every edition of documenta in the past has sparked fierce controversy. But the warnings of anti-Semitic tendencies should have sounded the alarm. Instead, the objections were dismissed like a typical German debate. It was a mistake.
Especially since it also dashed the hopes of artists from the South to enter into dialogue with the North. After all, documenta is considered one of the most important contemporary art exhibitions in the world. That’s a shame.
This opinion piece was originally written in German