By Daniel S. Mariaschin
Once again, the nexus of art, culture, politics and political bias against Israel and antisemitism is roiling Germany.
The 15th Documenta, an international art show held every five years in Kassel, Germany, opened on June 18 and runs through Sept. 25. Curated this year by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa and including work by Taring Padi — an artists’ collective based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia — the exhibition highlights works on violence and war, some of it focusing on the late Indonesian dictator Suharto. Included in the exhibition is an egregious antisemitic banner in the style of street art or people’s art, depicting Mossad operatives with pig heads and faces against a backdrop of a classic antisemitic character of an Orthodox Jew with peyot and fangs, smoking a cigar and wearing a hat adorned by an SS symbol.
At first covered up after significant outcry, it was finally removed. But not before it was widely seen. Removing the piece does not undo the damage.
Called out for this Der Stürmer-type “art,” Tarang Padi’s response could be seen as either daft or intentionally meant to defend the purpose of the piece: “It is not meant to be related in any way to anti-Semitism. … We are saddened that details in this banner are understood differently from its original purpose. We apologize for the hurt caused in this context.”
“Understood differently from its original purpose”? For heaven’s sake, this exhibition is occurring in Germany. There is no hidden meaning in any of this. For all to see, are symbols like that of the SS that are banned from being displayed publicly in Germany. And the Mossad with pig’s faces? Who could miss this?
After an initial feeble response about respect for “artistic freedom,” Germany’s Minister of Culture Claudia Roth recalibrated and said that such an expression “finds its limits” with pieces like this. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in his remarks at the opening of the exhibition, after saying that “art must provoke,” acknowledged the antisemitism in the Taring Padi piece by adding: “There is a need to talk about these limits.”
The Israeli embassy in Germany simply called it out for what it is: “Goebbels-style propaganda.”
Adding insult to injury, the inclusion in the exhibition of the Palestinian collective, “Question of Funding,” seemingly unconnected to Taring Padi, has added additional fuel to the Documenta fire. A number of German Jewish organizations expressed their outrage over the presence of the group, targeting Documenta for politicizing its exhibition through the participation of a group with a pronounced bias against Israel.
How does this happen in Germany? For the past several years, some government-supported Jewish museums, of all places, have been criticized for politically tinged exhibitions that promote the BDS campaign against Israel and criticize Israeli settlement policy.
And now this.
The immediate reaction by Documenta, in a moment of public-relations panic, was to cover the offensive piece.
But covering up art revealed to be so egregiously offensive is merely to apply a Band-Aid. It doesn’t speak to how such antisemitic-soaked pieces like this manage to make their way into otherwise respectable museums, galleries and exhibitions. Is it sheer sloppiness and inattention to detail? Or is it more than that: a way of using art to express deeply held biases and prejudice? Or in the case of Germany, is it a generational issue, where the present leaders in politics, art and culture don’t see the need or urgency or are removed from the historical imperative, to block such expressions of antisemitism on German soil?
Or all of the above?
In taking down the piece, Kassel Mayor Christian Geselle said “we feel ashamed” with the appearance of the Taring Padi piece having caused “immense damage to the City of Kassel, the State of Hesse and Documenta.” Roth has called for an investigation into how the banner was included in the exhibition in the first place.
Documenta’s general director, Sabine Schormann, who also heads its primary exhibition space in Kassel — the Fridericianum — has come under pointed criticism for her handling of the issue, offering apologies to those “who have been hurt” by the controversy and distancing her organization from the Taring Padi piece.
Too often, our community has been on the receiving end of expressions of remorse or “pain caused” to the point where, once revealed, we sort of expect that apologetic knock on the proverbial door from a neighbor who just didn’t realize what antisemitism is or why it causes us to rise up when it appears.
The concern is not about this piece only. If this is “art” — with its hooked noses and stereotypical side locks, which was the stuff of incessant attacks on German Jewry less than eight decades ago, within the memory today of those who survived the Shoah — then something needs to be done, and soon, to sensitize institutions like Documenta. There is no shelf-life on Holocaust remembrance or on the antisemitism that brought it all about.
Pig faces and SS symbols have no place appearing in today’s Germany or anywhere else.
That is concerning enough.
Still, are we the only ones who are exercised about this? As antisemitism sweeps the globe, aided by the Internet through “art” like this, it is a question to seriously ponder.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the CEO of B’nai B’rith International.