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Does the upcoming Documenta exhibition in Kassel promote anti-Semitic tendencies in art?

  • Jun 10 2022
  • Hito Steyerl
    is a German filmmaker, moving image artist, writer, and innovator of the essay documentary.

Are some artists too close to the BDS movement? Should the curators have paid more attention to the fact that Israeli-Jewish artists are also present and not just those who are themselves opposed to the country’s Palestine policy? Corresponding allegations have been raised since the beginning of the year in the ZEIT, among others, and have repeatedly been linked to the post-colonial claim of the show. Does relating different mechanisms of oppression in the world to each other dismantle the German memory of the singularity of the Holocaust? A series of discussions in the run-up to the art show was supposed to address the allegations, but was canceled at short notice. At this point we present and document the updated lecture that the German artist Hito Steyerl would have actually wanted to give in this context.


I am not an expert on racism or anti-Semitism. Nowadays I mainly deal with digital technology. So I have no doubt that racism and anti-Semitism are very different and distinct phenomena. But when a run-of-the-mill old-school German Nazi tried to shoot dozens of Jews in a synagogue in Halle, and luckily the door withstood his attack, after already killing a passerby, he simply crossed the street to the kebab shop and shot someone there too. That corresponds to the reality in which I grew up. Can someone please explain this to me?

Around 2001 I was asked to submit my work for inspection at Documenta 11, curated by Okwui Enwezor. Among other things, I sent in a short video called Babenhausen 1997. This video documents a demonstration in the small town of the same name against a series of attacks on the Jewish family Merin, who had been subjected to threats and harassment for decades in the Hessian province. Tony Abraham Merin’s estate was eventually burned down and he emigrated to the United States. The investigations were discontinued without result.

The curators of Documenta 11 politely said to my work: nothing at all.

I still don’t know what the problem was. Content? Form? Maybe the package just got lost? It’s useless to speculate. This happens all the time in the art world. Something is always wrong. Still, I learned a lot from Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition. A fascinating, nuanced discussion opened up beyond some platitudes, horizons I was previously unaware of.

There were other reasons not to take the de facto rejection personally.

With all the minority rhetoric of Documenta 11 – where were artists like Ayse Erkmen or Marc Brandenburg? People who dealt with German racism and migration in their work? Germany was absent as a scene of the diverse global conflicts that were at the center of Documenta 11.

One of the tenets of postcolonial theory is (to put it briefly) that everything must be locally situated and historically contextualized. However, the situation in Babenhausen, Hesse, did not seem to represent a relevant context for Documenta 11. So I learned that in postcolonial theory everything has to be situated and contextualized unless it takes place in Germany. An invocation of the global as abstract as possible largely replaced an examination of Germany’s present and past. That was convenient because Germany seemed like neutral territory, a tabula rasa on which to culturally negotiate the rest of the world—a perspective that suited German soft-power ambitions.

What did not take place in the context of the postcolonial debates around 2002 was a resolute and society-wide examination of the real situation of German minorities – not only in the field of art. The NSU murder of Halit Yozgat in Kassel did not take place until a few years later. Could this and other murders have been prevented?

In any case, I was already considerably less optimistic around 2003 when I was working with my co-editor Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez on the introduction to an anthology called Can the Subaltern speak German? Our admittedly over-ambitious plan was to test the transferability of postcolonial studies to the German context – to a de facto immigration country that was mostly denied as such and at the same time was shaped by its post-genocidal constitution.

The exoticization of postcolonial theory

Most of the questions that led to bitter debates a good 20 years later, as part of the so-called second historians’ dispute, came up in our introduction. For example, we asked about the “impact that postcolonial concepts have on the understanding and transformation of the reality of migrants and members of minorities in reunified Germany, i.e. in a reality that is characterized by the increase in racist and anti-Semitic violence in a post-Nazi society “.

The presumed consequence of this transfer, however, was that in the end the field of postcolonial studies would be so plowed up that little would remain of the original concepts. An example is Ernst Nolte’s formulation of the “Asian act”, with which he meant a holocaust allegedly triggered by Stalin – and which triggered the first historians’ dispute. This arch-racist chaos of meaning is definitely not accessible with standard post-colonial works such as Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Instead of the necessary contextualization, however, the German public preferred to exoticize postcolonial theory and consume it as a pure theory import. It also meant that a whole generation of scholars and writers was more or less lost to this translation work, and the debate fell back a full 20 years. A massive brain drain set in in the Anglo-American world. Instead, thinkers like Achille Mbembe —and he’s now one random example among many— started representing postcolonial approaches to Germans. With all due respect to Mbembe’s work, I believe that the fact that his writings often lyrically negotiate an abstract “colony” that seems to have no real location also contributed to his popularity in Germany. This was perhaps also well received in Germany since everyone could think that this abstract colony was reassuringly far away – and the Humboldt Forum did not own any looted art from there.

Back to Documenta. Here’s a joke. Question: Why were the canvases of the American abstract expressionists so disproportionately huge at the first Documenta exhibitions? Answer: Because there was so much to hide!

The insights into the past of Werner Haftmann, the academic pacesetter of the first three Documentas and SA partisan hunter, were shocking but not surprising. The details in the documentation of the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM), which has done an excellent job of researching the Documenta and its makers in recent years, are drastic. According to an Italian newspaper report, Haftmann sticks his finger into the wounds of a tortured Italian partisan on the hospital bed. It is not known whether his team was also responsible for the torture. A few years later, Haftmann developed the academic branding for Documenta. Accordingly, she stood for the West, modernity and world art as such.

An interesting curatorial principle: the exhibition became an instrument of obfuscation. For example, the fact that many of the founders were members of relevant Nazi organizations. At the same time, the “art world” jargon was also a rather brazen blueprint for West German soft-power post-war imperialism. If you couldn’t conquer the world with tanks – maybe with art?

Here is a sketch of an argument. In the Documenta discourse, the “world” according to Haftmann’s façon was replaced for decades by postmodern globalization discourses, by liberal rhetoric of diversity and inclusion. Paradoxically, German identification with the West increasingly turned into identification with an Anglo-American academic critique of the West. One of these proxy-discourses was the so-called postcolonial theory at the last Documentas. And that sometimes tipped back into what not only we, 20 years ago, called “the often dangerously reactionary, anti-imperialist and anti-Western tendencies of postcolonial studies “.

There is also a turning point in relation to Documenta

If Putin’s ideologues are calling for the decolonization of Russia from some kind of Western-Jewish liberalism, then that notion of decolonization has been badly corrupted, and certainly not for the first time. Criticism of colonialism often regresses into a glorification of the old, innocent days populated by imaginary, Disneyfied versions of indigenous peoples. In many cases, the result is identity as voyeuristic branding. But also the new meanings that the term anti-fascism has developed recently in connection with the Russian invasion of Ukraine are hair-raising. Not only the present but also the past is getting out of joint  Putin is like Hitler, and any notion of a singularity for the Holocaust was swiftly discarded. The second historians’ dispute seems over. Instead, we find ourselves in an alternate version of the first, in which Nolte might have won this time.

So one has to ask how the Documenta’s post-war model, which now seems rather exhausted, is supposed to hold its own in a world that is severely de-globalizing, encircling, arduous, warming up and has been at constant war for decades? The current Documenta debate also reflects an overarching situation: the end of the post-war period or the end of the interregnum after 1989. The “world views” that made sense at that time – do they still apply today? Documenta as a cultural symbol of the so-called Pax Americana – can it face the actual end of this epoch? Has the exhibition outlived itself and still helplessly sputters and increasingly reactionary globalization phrases as said?

There is also a turning point in relation to Documenta: before the DHM exhibition and after. Perhaps curatorial teams could previously claim to not have to deal with the past of Documenta: after all, their task is to define contemporary art, not the study of history. It possibly still applies, that the Documenta represents the world as such and can therefore confidently ignore the local situation. But since the DHM exhibition, this applies: if the exhibition itself ignores its own history, then others will historicize it. And that means that the Documenta is the object of this investigation, just as “the world” has been the object of a (West) German Documenta view up to now. If the exhibition wants to remain relevant, she would be well advised to reassess the naïve claim to world status through the prism of its own history. However, this would require a team that would be able or interested in taking on this challenge. Otherwise, instead of writing history, it becomes history itself.

Especially since German cultural diplomacy has become much more robust or, to put it bluntly, more corrupt. A current example: one million euros in funding from the Federal Foreign Office for a privately organized exhibition with the almost comical name Diversity United, which culturally decorated German Nord Stream 2 business interests and whose patron was Vladimir Putin. This monstrous, fossilized Apparatschikschau was Germany’s cultural contribution to a right-wing authoritarian, fossil-fueled Russian war machine. Is the official flattery of autocrats increasingly replacing the foreign policy function that Documenta once had?

I would like to come back to Okwui Enwezor, for whom local issues initially seemed secondary and whose manifold impulses were nonetheless indispensable. He had moved to the Haus der Kunst in Munich out of all places, where he was harassed by the local bureaucracy. This is what Enwezor said shortly before his death in 2019 in Der Spiegel :

“Germany was so important for my intellectual and professional development. I was offered so many opportunities – Documenta, many other projects, also in Munich by the way. (…) But I am dismayed by the development it is taking now. (…) Here, not far from my home, Pegida supporters marched through the streets every Monday night. I was often on my way from work and saw them. That basically settled my position here, as an African in a mostly monocultural city, I am one that stands out. And then you’re like, ‘Can you feel safe? Who’s going to help you if something happens to you? It’s just something that goes through your mind.”

Enwezor’s words reminded me of Tony Merin’s story in Babenhausen. “Before they come with gas cans, I’d better get out,” he said. It seems German reality has caught up with Enwezor at this point as well. Enwezor was a great mind, a complex human being and extremely generous, and the fact that he had to feel so abandoned at the end of his life is a shame, as are the alleged attacks on current Documenta participants. The current Documenta is also being caught up by the German conditions that it – unlike the Berlin Biennale, for example – completely underestimated. It’s too late to contextualize now, unfortunately, that chance was missed. It only remains to be hoped that the ever-escalating campaigns will not continue stubbornly and coldly despite the threat of turning into physical violence and that no one will be harmed.

But if the Documenta is to have a future beyond that, now is the time to say goodbye to the arrogant paradigm of the world art show and to begin a phase of reflection. Or maybe it just has outlived itself?


The translation by Eric Meier was published on &&& after its original version was published on June 2 on Zeit Online. Edited by Anne Waak for Arts of the Working Class.

    Another Roadmap Africa Cluster (ARAC), ARAC/Arts Research Africa Symposium on Arts Education in Africa, Johannesburg, 2020, photo: Boipelo Khunou, courtesy ARAC



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