documenta 15 art exhibition provides a platform for antisemitism

A commentary by Floriane Azoulay, Director of the Arolsen Archives, on the antisemitic images shown by the Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi at documenta 15.

Kassel is right on the doorstep of the Arolsen Archives, the world’s largest archive on the victims of Nazi persecution. The documents collected together here record the fates of people whose murderers made antisemitism the cornerstone of their worldview – and used it to “justify” the murder of millions of people.

Kassel is home to the documenta. Or would it be more apt to use the term “Antisemita 15,” the name recently coined by journalist Sascha Lobo, writing in the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel? The documenta, a renowned exhibition known for setting international standards, is showing artworks that contain explicit antisemitic stereotypes – in Germany, in 2022.

Looking away is one of the key themes you encounter when you study National Socialism. When you ask yourself how it could become possible for these crimes to be committed against Jews and how so many people played along with it all and looked the other way.

What shocks me about the current documenta is that many people saw these antisemitic artworks – before the exhibition was opened. And meetings were held in the run-up to the exhibition to debate artistic freedom and cultural relativism.

»I support freedom of expression – and I know that artists need space to do their work. But when it comes to antisemitism – and in this case we’re talking about crude antisemitic images – a line has most definitely been crossed. What happened? Why didn’t any of the decision-makers react sooner?«

Floriane Azoulay, Direktorin der Arolsen Archives

And the attempted apologies from the General Director of the documenta Sabine Schormann and the artists’ collective Taring Padi are only making things worse. Because this is not about “hurting people’s feelings” at all. 

Antisemitism has no place in public life in Germany – or anywhere else – and it certainly shouldn’t be paid for with public funds. The fact that Minister of State for Culture and the Media Claudia Roth is now calling for consequences is a move in the right direction – but in my opinion, it’s not enough.

Perhaps we need to look closer to home. This is important for civil society as a whole – and for the Arolsen Archives too as the repository of a collection of documents that serves as a source of knowledge for today’s society. It simply cannot be that antisemitism still isn’t recognized for what it is.

I invite all responsible persons and artists to our archive, because the documents show where antisemitism leads to.

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