When Art Censorship Backfires

A censorship scandal is sweeping Documenta 15, overshadowing the artwork and calling the German exhibition’s future into question.

Photography by Peter Hartenfelser/IMAGO

Artistic expression has been censored throughout history—and contemporary times are no different. Nearly 90 percent of the world’s population live in countries that actively seek to restrict civil liberties, including freedom of expression. The latest censorship issue to rile the art world is underway in Germany. The 15th edition of Documenta, the quinquennial exhibition whose prestige rivals the Venice Biennale, was supposed to be unbound—and friendly. 

The curators, Indonesian collective Ruangrupa, modeled this year’s edition after the “lumbung” (a collective rice granary), a setting that encourages “nongkrong” (the fine art of hanging out). These laid-back sensibilities inform Documenta’s programming: visitors can cook with Bangladesh’s Britto Arts Trust, attend flag-making workshops with Argentine silkscreening collective Serigrafistas Queer, or brush up on Moroccan cinema courtesy of Marrakech-based artist group Le 18’s screening area. By inviting 67 artists to participate, many from the Global South and steeped in other collectives, Ruangrupa’s decentralized curatorial strategy aimed to facilitate dialogue about social and political issues. 

That vision was set to succeed—the New York Times even described Documenta 15 as “a whole vibe”—until anti-Semitism allegations ensnared the show in scandal. In January, the protest group Alliance Against Antisemitism Kassel accused Ruangrupa of supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel, which Germany’s Parliament declared to be antisemitic, saying they also included the Palestinian art collective The Question of Funding that also reportedly support the boycott. 

Photography by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

German newspapers were quick to pick up on the anti-Semitism allegations in a manner described by Ruangrupa as “uncritically and in defiance of basic journalistic standards.” The collective continues: “The fact that this falsification of history in the name of silencing and censoring free speech and expression was so carelessly adopted in the name of Germany’s special ‘historical responsibility’ is not without a certain ironic quality. The consequences are extremely serious, revealing the dangerous proximity between German historical ignorance and racist smears.”

The crisis escalated when an artwork accused of containing antisemitic imagery was installed, covered up, and removed shortly after Documenta opened on June 18. The piece, a 40-foot-long tableau, People’s Justice (2002) by Indonesian collective Taring Padi, features cartoon-like depictions of activists under Indonesia’s Suharto dictatorship, among them a military figure with a pig head wearing a Star of David neckerchief and a helmet that reads “Mossad,” the name of Israel’s security service. 

Although Taring Padi issued an apology, they’ve been forceful in their rebuttal, declaring that their piece depicts the injustices by Western powers after the Korean and Vietnam Wars when the soon-to-be dictator Suharto’s coup d’état emboldened Indonesia’s “former colonizer” and other western democracies. They note that the artwork was created in 2002, not long after some of their friends were killed during the 1998 uprising that unseated Suharto’s reign, and that it also portrays intelligence services from other countries. 

Photography by Uwe Zucchi

“The banner was born out of our struggles of living under Suharto’s military dictatorship, where violence, exploitation, and censorship were a daily reality,” Taring Padi said in a statement. “Like all of our artwork, the banner attempts to expose the complex power relationships that are at play behind these injustices and the erasure of public memory surrounding the Indonesian genocide in 1965, where more than 500,000 people were murdered.”

“The imagery of People’s Justice presents these internal and external powers in a pictorial scene and tries to capture the complex historical circumstances through a visual language that is at once as disturbing as the reality of the violence itself,” Taring Padi continued. “People’s Justice was painted almost 20 years ago now, and expresses our disappointment, frustration, and anger as politicized art students who had also lost many of our friends in the street fighting of the 1998 popular uprising that finally led to the stepping down of the dictator.”

Claudia Roth, Germany’s culture minister, decried the artwork as antisemitic. She has since gone on record saying that Documenta would need “fundamental structural reform” in order to secure funding from Germany’s government in the future. The show was to be inspected for other potentially antisemitic works with the help of Meron Mendel, director of the Anne Frank Educational Center in Frankfurt, who resigned from the Documenta role shortly after because he claimed there wasn’t an “honest dialogue” over anti-Semitism. Over the weekend, Documenta’s director general Sabine Schormann stepped down only 28 days into the exhibition’s 100-day run. 

Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

In the days following the allegations, Remko Leemhuis, director of the American Jewish Committee Berlin Lawrence, noted the “massive problem” with anti-Semitism in German culture on the international stage. Still, it’s unlikely that Documenta 15 will avoid being overshadowed by this dispute, and artist and filmmaker Hito Steyerl even withdrew her work from the exhibition amid the fallout. 

The controversy is rekindling censorship debates within the art sphere. It’s a contentious issue—Hong Kong’s newly opened M+ museum removed three politically themed works by artists whose views oppose mainland China. The island’s status as a semi-autonomous region has cemented it as an arts destination, but a 2020 security law that gave Beijing the power to curtail any expression deemed “anti-government” stoked censorship concerns. The political developments have called into question the M+ museum’s mission to be a cultural bridge between China and the West. This past year, a traveling retrospective of Philip Guston’s paintings that depict Ku Klux Klan members sparked backlash when four institutions chose to postpone the show so “the message of social and racial justice” within his work “can be more clearly interpreted.”

As far as Documenta is concerned, it’s obvious why Germany would be hyper-sensitive to a government-sponsored exhibition showcasing artwork deemed to be antisemitic. Its stilted removal suggests that organizers may not have had a plan in place should these issues arise—and seems to oppose Ruangrupa’s ethos of facilitating cultural and political dialogue. As Noam Chomsky once said, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” 

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