By the time my wife and I got to Kassel to see the latest edition of the Documenta — the once-in-five-years event that, in the contemporary art world, rivals the Venice Biennale for direction-setting importance — its centerpiece had been removed from public view, its director had resigned in disgrace and the German government was promising to step up its supervision of the exhibitions to follow.

The scandal that engulfed what the German Jewish newspaper, Juedische Allgemeine, dubbed “Documenta of Shame” has implications that reach beyond the borders of Germany and the contemporary art milieu. The Western world, with its surfeit of money and its growing shortage of creativity, has been settling into the role of benevolent funder of whatever the creative energy of the downtrodden can produce. That energy, however, is anything but benevolent. The feeding hand may get bitten off — and that’s a scary prospect for Western bureaucrats and politicians, both in and outside the arts.

Documenta, set up in 1955 by artist, architect and designer Arnold Bode to breathe new life into his bombed-out home city of Kassel, began as a large modern art exhibition and went through a number of permutations to arrive at its current format: Although a non-profit foundation partly funded by the German federal government, the state of Hesse and the city of Kassel runs the business side of things, the curator, chosen by an advisory board, has a free hand to pick the artists and organize the exhibition spaces. For artists from countries burdened with various forms of censorship, the curator’s freedom of action is a Western gift almost as valuable as the considerable money that sustains the effort: This year, the budget is 42.2 million euros, but that limit may be exceeded, as it was in 2017, when the city and state had to assume Documenta’s debts to save it. 

Thanks to both the curatorial freedom and the generous funding, visitor numbers have steadily increased, with close to a million people making the pilgrimage to Kassel, population 200,000, over Documenta’s June-to-September run. It’s a wonder to behold: The entire city, from central museums to bridges, lawns and pedestrian underpasses, turns into a backdrop for all kinds of artistic experiments. In 1972, Joseph Beuys famously heaped 7,000 large stones on the city’s central square as part of a plan to plant as many oaks throughout Kassel. A stone was to be taken away with each tree planted; the project took five years to complete.

This year, the Documenta, taking place a year late because of the Covid pandemic, has been curated by an Indonesian collective called ruangrupa. Its approach has been to invite other artistic groupings, mostly from Asia and Africa, to fill up the diverse exhibition spaces however they chose. They, in turn, could invite other collaborators. It is, in effect, a communist utopia played out at the expense of the German taxpayer and the relatively well-to-do visitors who can afford the trip, the hotels — one day is not enough to see everything worth seeing — and the tickets. As the traditional main square centerpiece — think Beuys’ stones or 2017’s giant replica of the Parthenon built from books forbidden in different countries — ruangrupa chose an enormous banner called “People’s Justice” created by another Indonesian collective, Taring Padi.

Some of the Documenta’s first visitors immediately noticed among the many characters a pig-faced creature wearing a helmet marked “Mossad” and a depiction of a vampire-like individual with Jewish sidelocks with the lettering “SS” on his bowler hat. Jewish organizations and the media were understandably up in arms. “People’s Justice” was removed, leaving the central square bare, and both ruangrupa and Taring Padi apologized. Further accusations followed: Palestinian artists’ work is very much in evidence at Documenta 15, while Israeli artists are not visibly represented, amounting to a silent boycott of Israel. Ruangrupa has denied imposing it, but it hasn’t helped: The scandal built until Documenta’s supervisory board, headed by the mayor of Kassel, fired the nonprofit’s director, Sabine Schormann.

In a speech to the German parliament earlier this month, ruangrupa’s director and curator Ade Darmawan referred, by way of explanation, to Indonesia’s turbulent history:

This history also includes centuries of colonialist exploitation by European empires, like the Dutch, and by the Japanese during World War II. Part of this colonialist violence entailed pitching different non-white people against each other. You undoubtedly know that in the case of Indonesia this involved playing Indonesians against Chinese minorities, and to do this, as you also may know, Dutch colonial officers introduced originally European antisemitic ideas and images to portray Chinese in the way Europeans have portrayed Jews, and to draw a connection. This in a shocking and shameful way has come full circle in the artwork. The image is of European origin, then transformed and appropriated within our own cultural context in an unacceptable way. This is certainly something we need to process and reflect upon.

This is not so much an apology as an accusation: anti-Semitism is, according to this view, a colonialist import from Europe that has now washed up on Kassel’s placid shores on a wave of subversive post-colonial creativity. One could argue that everything ruangrupa did in Kassel this year follows the same logic — throwing back at the West the misery it can be accused of wreaking upon the rest of the world. A visitor cannot escape being educated about the plight of Australia’s Indigenous people, the Palestinians of Gaza (where artists have to smuggle in paint), the Sinti and the Roma, the Kurds, dissidents everywhere from the Philippines to Hungary — the list is as endless as human suffering. The works of art shown during this educational process are, by and large, props that serve an overriding purpose: To make the wealthy Western viewer feel shame as an oppressor, or at least an oppressor’s accomplice. 

I don’t know if my wife and I can be forgiven for not feeling personally responsible for the plight of Ugandan moviemakers forced to shoot on a $200 budget or for the “imported” anti-Semitism of an Indonesian mural painter. We’d come for the art — but after two days of being harangued with every national flavor of far-left rhetoric, we struggled to remember even a dozen truly impressive works we’d seen, ones that would stand on their own feet as art, not as part of a plaintive or aggressive narrative. The ones we could recall told subtler stories, ones that didn’t require a video or an explanatory text — like Kenyan artist Ngugi Waweru’s huge installation made entirely from kitchen knives found in a Nairobi slum, most of them whetted down to a needle before they were thrown away.

On the other hand, the uncomfortable feeling of being shouted at, talked at, whispered at, sometimes openly mocked was likely the curators’ objective. That a distinctly non-Western brand of Jew-hatred was part of it wasn’t really an accident, much as the German management under Schormann might have tried to present it as such. When you turn the keys over to the non-Western world, with parlous art collectives distributing an enormous government grant among themselves in a kind of collective farm process, you get that and more; what you don’t get is awe before Western culture, or even respect for Western creativity, such as it is these days. You’re simply told that it’s no longer your turn to talk.

The German government’s frightened response — ostensibly just to the antisemitic images, but, more likely, to the whole event as it has shaped up — is to step in and demand more control. Culture Minister Claudia Roth has declared the federal government’s 2018 decision to leave Documenta’s supervisory board “a grave mistake” and demanded a “structural reform” that would rule out “any form of hatred” from the exhibits. What this likely means is the end of the unlimited curatorial freedom and a degree of what can only be described as censorship — the good kind, Roth would have us believe.

Documenta, however, isn’t just a show — it’s both a trendsetter and a weathervane. If, as one can also sense from other major events like the most recent Berlin Biennale, the trend has turned toward the so-called Global South, letting the more sterile, timid and repetitive western output fall by the wayside, it’s pointless to try to impose rules on what this tide pulls in. That would be an effort akin to Western attempts to limit immigration — something you cannot do with art without diminishing its power. 

My only complaint about the trend as documented in Kassel this year is that the rhetorical points being made are stronger than the artistic ones. Perhaps it’s only natural when so many new languages are being shouted in, but a new, coherent language may yet emerge from the clamor. My disappointment is part anticipation.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• The Scam of Authenticity: Adrian Wooldridge

• Art Is an Investment to Appreciate: Tyler Cowen

• Rich Millennials Are Splashing Millions on Crypto Art: Andrea Felsted

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”

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