This is how the documenta art festival works

  • Freedom of art and the fight against anti-Semitism are actually not opposites.
  • However, things can sometimes get complicated at the edges.
  • The documenta in Kassel got quite tangled up there.
  • How could this happen? This is how the art festival works.

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The documenta in Kassel wants to be a festival of world art. The international avant-garde is to meet here every five years and present innovative developments in contemporary art. To do this, the documenta has to reinvent itself every time. Did she get upset this time? In any case, the current allegations of showing anti-Semitic art have a different dimension than the controversies of previous years. The backgrounds:

This is how the documenta works

The art exhibition, which takes place every five years, is sponsored by a non-profit organization, documenta und Museum Fridericianum gGmbH. The city of Kassel and the state of Hesse are shareholders and financiers of this gGmbH. The federal government is not formally involved, but is on board as a financier through the Federal Cultural Foundation. Only representatives of the state and city sit on the supervisory board of the gGmbH. The chairman of the supervisory board is the respective mayor of the city of Kassel, currently Christian Geselle.

In the future, however, the federal government wants more influence: Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth described the federal government’s withdrawal from the supervisory board in 2018 as a “serious mistake”. That should change again.

The level below is made up of management and artistic direction. Managing Director – the position is now called General Manager – has been Sabine Schormann since November 2018. The respective artistic directors are appointed every five years by a selection committee. For the 15th documenta, the choice fell on an artist collective from Indonesia: Ruangrupa. For the first time, documenta is not being managed by an individual, but by a group.

Why the curators have so much power

The documenta expert Harald Kimpel calls it “the silverware of the documenta: the non-influence of politics on art”. For Kimpel, the strict separation between those who give the money and those who have the artistic freedom to spend it is the core of the documenta.

Director General Schormann also emphasizes this: “Artistic freedom is constitutive for the documenta,” she told the “Hessisch/Niedersächsische Allgemeine” (HNA, Thursday). “I have to guarantee the freedom of the artistic program. The artistic direction is responsible for the artistic program itself, i.e. for curating the exhibition, at this documenta Ruangrupa, supported by a five-person artistic team chosen by them.”

The collective principle multiplies the problem

Ruangrupa not only works as a collective itself – the collective almost exclusively invited other collectives to this documenta. “Since the focus is on collectivity, we first invited 14 collectives to build a transnational network, followed by the invitation of 53 artists, including many collectives, who in turn invited other participants,” explained Ruangrupa in the dpa interview shortly before the preview days their approach.

According to Schormann, the number of individual participants has now grown to over 1,500. “At the same time, this means that Ruangrupa does not see itself primarily as a curator in the classic sense. What is fundamentally new about Ruangrupa’s concept, on the other hand, is the radically open-ended process that opens up freedom for the invited artists and collectives and wants to enable new experiences,” as Schormann told the HNA.

In addition, this documenta is constantly changing more than its predecessors. “People in Kassel and those who have the opportunity to visit the documenta several times will find that the exhibition will also change over the course of the 100 days,” explained Ruangrupa.

Why there can be no censorship

At least since the scandal surrounding the Taring Padi hidden object picture, in which critics recognized anti-Semitic caricatures, many have wondered why nobody had examined the exhibited works beforehand. After all, anti-Israeli tendencies were suspected long before the opening.

The longtime chairman of the documenta forum, Jörg Sperling, categorically rejected such demands: “That would be censorship,” he told the dpa. On the one hand, given the number of objects on display at more than 30 locations, this is not affordable. On the other hand, it contradicts the idea of ​​the documenta. Sperling resigned on Friday after other members of the association distanced themselves from his statements. He had criticized that Taring Padi’s artwork was taken down “due to political pressure”.

Kimpel also believes that preliminary censorship is neither feasible nor desirable. The basic idea of ​​the documenta is to give the artistic direction a free hand: “They can then also show a collection of beer coasters.” In doing so, the documenta takes a new risk every five years. “So far it has always worked, this time it went wrong.” Sperling considers the debate about the work of art to be exaggerated: “A free world has to put up with it.”

The story of a scandal with announcement

At the beginning of the year, largely unfounded allegations of anti-Semitism were leveled against documenta and the curating team. Those responsible, including Minister of State for Culture Roth, made it clear: “Anti-Semitism has no place at the documenta” and at the same time emphasized artistic freedom as a “central point”.

The documenta wanted to discuss the topic in several forums with experts from colonialism and racism research, Holocaust and anti-Semitism research as well as art and culture. The series was canceled after the Central Council of Jews criticized the composition of the forums and the way anti-Semitism was dealt with. First of all, the artworks of the documenta should be the focus.

How big the damage is – or could become:

The current anti-Semitism debate will not harm the documenta, believes the chairman of the documenta forum. Scandals have been part of this exhibition from the very beginning: “As a world art show, the documenta offers a new look at art and culture every five years,” says Sperling.

The fact that this new thing sometimes encounters resistance is part of the concept. “It would be extremely boring if we had a documenta that wasn’t discussed.” At each of the 14 shows, critics “conjured up the end of the documenta,” said Sperling. In the end, she always came out stronger.

Kimpel isn’t so sure this time. From his point of view, the previous “scandals” were more like “provocations” in which individuals got upset about individual aspects. This time the scandal has “a different quality”: the debate has left art and shifted to politics. We are now dealing with a “deartistic, politicized documenta”.

Kimpel doesn’t believe that the history of the documenta is over either. “There will definitely be a 16th documenta.” Each documenta was different from the previous ones, “it always has to reinvent itself”. The question is what lessons the coming documenta will draw from this one. In retrospect, according to Kimpel, the current documenta is always the worst of all times, only in retrospect do you always find something good about the previous one. (dpa/lh)

After massive public criticism and an outcry on social media, documenta 15 officials have completely veiled the anti-Semitic artwork by Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi. © ProSiebenSat.1