Documenta in Kassel ends in a few weeks, and hopefully the accusations of anti-Semitism that the curators – the Indonesian collective ruangrupa – had to endure. Much has been written and said about it, but the discussion will resonate in the Western art world for a long time to come. There is much to criticize about this current edition – be it the pedantic approach, the underrepresentation of artistic imagination or the hermetic mode of presentation – but focus on Global South remains an interesting approach and adds substance to the monocultural contemporary ‘universal art style’. Does not usual suspects of the international art world were central, but – to us – still unknown artist collectives place at the table serve in the primarily Western-oriented international art landscape. Because ‘international’ still means ‘inter-western’.
Still, most of the attention went to a series of caricatures of Jews in various works. In Germany in particular, it was seen as evidence of embedded anti-Semitism, but this is above all an interesting example of the West’s difficult relationship with non-Western art. It also puts the concept of institutional criticism, which underlies contemporary art, in a new light.
On the one hand, they want to break the Western hegemony in the international art world by offering voice and space to other artists and art forms, on the other hand, the West has difficulty accepting that other voices have a different view of Western history. Certainly when it comes to Islamic artists, or people from Muslim countries, such as ruangrupa.
While the persecution of Jews and anti-Semitism form the basis for thinking about Judaism and the state of Israel in Global Northplay these in Global South logically a much smaller role. Much greater is Israel’s role in persecuting (Islamic) Palestinians and expropriating – or colonizing – their land. Above all, it is not about something that happened in the past, but something that is still happening almost daily.
Also read: Is Germany hypersensitive to anti-Semitism?
As a Jew who was born and raised in Israel, I can relate to that. I do not see these expressions as Jew-hatred or anti-Semitism, but as questioning the very existence of the state of Israel at the expense of indigenous communities. Once, in high school in Israel, our history teacher argued that the defect underlying the creation of the country is the definition of Israel as a Jewish state for the Jewish people. A Jewish state does not mean separation of church (or shul) and state, which in turn is an open door to countless discriminatory measures and laws against non-Jews. And so, for almost 75 years, Muslims all over the world have seen how their co-religionists the unhuman be reduced.
Without the feeling of being partly to blame for the persecution of the Jews, there remains only an indignation at the injustice and solidarity; a feeling that one tries to express through art, among other things.
Judaism is different from Zionism. It cannot be repeated often enough. Hell, there are even ultra-orthodox Jewish movements that are anti-Zionist! Being Jewish is not the same as being a Zionist. And being anti-Zionist is not the same as being anti-Jewish. It is possible to criticize the country without criticizing Judaism. Understandably, a Syrian artist who has to see his brothers murdered across the border would want to oppose the occupying state through art. We call it ‘decolonialisation’.
And here, in my opinion, lies the crux of the trouble – the outrage and anger that criticism of Israel provokes in some spectators has less to do with anti-Semitism and more to do with a sense of guilt that they want to suppress. People seem to feel personally accused. Because the criticism that can be heard is not only directed at Jews or the State of Israel, it is explicit criticism of Global North who constantly holds his hand over the state of Israel. As people in the art world like to say: silence is compliance.
Smell of antisemitism
It is a shame that Documenta 15 is overshadowed by the smell of anti-Semitism. You hear people say that the organization could have known better, especially in Germany. That the organization itself could have avoided this situation by not criticizing Israel, which is so sensitive. But does this not apply to Western artists who criticize, for example, heteronormative culture in places where heteroculture is still widespread? Isn’t it precisely the essence of institutional criticism to criticize the institutions in which the artist operates?
If we have one place at the table If we want to give to communities from other parts of the world, we must accept that these communities sometimes have different worldviews. We must be strong enough to hear the criticism and confront it. Because otherwise it is nothing more than window covering: we give ‘the other’ a stage on the condition that they conform to us. And so we haven’t moved an inch. Then there is no question of institutional criticism.