Statement | Documenta delivers flat politics instead of art

The international press has gone home and the buzz of the anti-Semitism riot has faded somewhat. The director of Documenta in Kassel (can be visited until September 25) has since resigned, and the last remnants of the offensive painting, People’s Justice by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi, has been cleaned up. What remains is an empty Friedrichsplatz as the silent witness to a decapitated event.

All attention was focused on these anti-Semitic caricatures. Although there is every reason to zoom in further on the event. Two things in particular come into focus: Documenta offers a prominent platform for vulgar anti-Western rhetoric and – perhaps even more importantly – in the world’s largest exhibition of contemporary art, art is explicitly set aside.

What has been overlooked in all the commotion is that the stumbling block, People’s Justicewas not just a work, but the eye-catcher in this Documenta, the character with which the exhibition makers wanted to deliver a powerful and recognizable statement.

a lot of pathos

The chosen form and content is also clear from the other works by Taring Padi, which are exhibited in Kassel. Such as from the more than a hundred canvases on display in Hallenbad. Work them, like People’s Justice, sings with much pathos the blessings of the class struggle. “Hungry coals become hammers” and “The art of dismantling tyranny” we read on the triumphal arch over the entrance. Those who don’t know better imagine themselves in Russia and China in the twentieth century: flat propaganda in the service of a totalitarian ideology.

Also read: Documenta censors artwork after accusation of anti-Semitism

How is it possible that Documenta, the event that contributed like no other to the moral rehabilitation of post-war Germany, now offers a stage for works that evoke memories of the darkest days of the last century?

The answer is simple: the same freedom regained after a bloody war is now identified as one of the main causes of a global crisis. We must look for the deeper cause of this crisis in our typically Western fixation on individuality and self-realization. It is therefore high time for a general reassessment of the established value system.

Relevant topic for sure! Only: how to find a solution without going astray, as we have gone so often?

The lessons of history are clear and obvious. Ever since its inception, the modern world has been accused of being cold, empty and impersonal. However, there are shortcomings that are just as valid as the prerequisites for freedom and self-realization. It is up to art to contrast this with another reality, a space where the free individual can experience life in its fullness and closeness.

The regained freedom is now identified as one of the main causes of a global crisis

In order to fulfill this role, art must be free, free from the laws of nature, free from any practical use, free also from the mores of society.

When art was made subject to politics, things went wrong. Along with the loss of her freedom, the freedom of the individual was also lost. These lessons are clearly not used at the exhibition makers in Kassel. Neither the criticisms made nor the proposed solutions are new.

Collectivism as an answer to the shortcomings of the free world? One look at the history and you will be shocked.

The romantic idealization of life in the countryside, of the exotic and the distant? It has also been a story for centuries.

Also read Toef Jaeger’s interview with Richard Bell: “Calling this Documenta anti-Semitic is Islamophobia”


Under the cheerful motto Make friends, not art art is dismissed as the toy of the elite and as the product of a corrupt system. Implicitly or explicitly, in images and in text, it is clear in everything that the evil in the world has a name: ‘The West’. A brand to which others are added at will: capitalism and neoliberalism, exploitation and domination, greed and decadence, emptiness and desolation.

We can read how it can be done differently on the exhibition’s website. Look at Indonesia! A culture where “Freundschaft, Solidarität and Gemeinschaft eine zentrale Bedeutung haveben”. Talk about generalizing platitudes.

It is also noteworthy that a large part of the press went uncritically and in the style of one feel good-magazine promotes the exhibition as an indispensable summer festival for alternative ways of living and thinking.

Finally, a question that also arises: What would have happened if we had known about Russia’s ‘special military operation’ earlier? Is it conceivable that Germany would still have been a prominent stage for the cheap, anti-Western rhetoric used in Kassel? Or, in the meantime, would you have noticed that this one is very similar to the sounds that also come from Moscow and Beijing?

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