A symposium in Kassel was supposed to address the anti-Semitism of documenta 15. But above all it showed the crisis art is currently in.
The banner “People’s Justice” by the Taring Padi collective is displayed at documenta 15 Photo: Swen Pförtner/dpa
What can art still do in these dark times, asked the Israeli philosopher and artist Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger. A bitter question that she addressed to the documenta from Tel Aviv a few days ago in a letter, somehow processing the terrible impressions of the Hamas massacre on October 7th.
With the letter, Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger announced her resignation from the search committee, which was actually supposed to appoint a new curatorial director for the next edition of the art show in 2027. But October 7th is a turning point.
At a symposium hosted by the documenta Institute in Kassel last weekend, Meron Mendel, director of the Anne Frank educational institution, said that an extremely violent discourse has prevailed since then. The long-planned conference, on the other hand, was intended to retrospectively address the anti-Semitic misconduct, the curatorial chaos and the unwillingness of the last documenta fifteen.
The symposium has now been overtaken by the crises. The hardly surprising resignation of the search committee for documenta 16, which had recently become known, overshadowed the conference as more than just another debacle. It is also a reflection of a toxic confusion in global social media and its moral rigor. Bracha Lichtenberg had asked Ettinger in vain to postpone the search process before her resignation, but there were no major expressions of empathy.
However, her commission colleague, who also resigned, the Indian cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskoté, who apparently deliberately concealed his signing of a harshly anti-Semitic BDS letter from 2019, came under local media criticism after it was uncovered. The other members of the search committee ultimately expressed their solidarity with Hoskoté and, in their letter of resignation, accused documenta of an “emotional and intellectual climate of over-simplification of complex realities”.
All of them, and this is remarkable, quickly published their letters of resignation, including on the US Internet platform e-flux. And in some cases even before documenta knew about their requests. The outrage in the social networks of the international art world over alleged censorship in Germany came faster than the documenta could react. The documenta as a forum for the world’s art, it can no longer keep up with the world.
Think about art
The management now wants to start a completely new search process and, after completing an ongoing organizational investigation, they want to reform the entire institution, it was said at the weekend. However, if you talk to the documenta managing director, Andreas Hoffmann, this reorganization seems to amount to a readjustment of the internal structure, better external communication, more committees, perhaps even more bureaucracy.
But actually one should think more about art, in this “world of multi-crises,” as artist Hito Steyerl put it in a radio interview about the resignation of the search committee. A world in which every statement is spread and commented on and every bomb that hits the Middle East immediately flows into the global image channels with a meme on Instagram and Titok.
At the symposium, literary scholar Yael Kupferberg emphasized that anti-Semitism can always be found in the images and at the same time said: You cannot censor this anti-Semitism, but you have to deal with it with attitude.
But how can an exhibiting institution convey such a confident relationship to difficult images when the means of communication are out of control? When the artists themselves circulate texts and images that no longer pass through the critical filter, but are produced raw and from everywhere. When “art has lost its innocence,” as Steyerl says. Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger’s question perhaps needs to be rephrased: What is art in these dark times?