Science criticism from uncalled side.
On an alleged scandal concerning one of the most important representatives
of postcolonial theory
by Angela Stercken und Gabriele Genge
Arts & Humanities: Memories of Mandela
"Scholars and leading Africanist thinkers gathered Tuesday to reflect on the life and legacy of the late Nelson Mandela. One of the panels included Adam Habib (from left), Achille Mbembe, Margaret Marshall, and Jean Comaroff. President Drew Faust gave the opening remarks." Photo by Rose Lincoln. Harvard News, 3/2014.
Actually, it can hardly be in the interest of those sciences that deal with global cultural theoretical, historical and philosophical questions to quickly give a statement on a current "dispute" that has been initiated apart from academic debates, has meanwhile found a lively press response and thus developed a fatal momentum of its own. In fact, there are many arguments against taking this step. The interests are too different, too diverse are the instruments and forms with which topics are taken up and negotiated in politics, culture and science, too divergent the objectives as well as the level of knowledge, and the skills.
However, the bottomless accusations against Achille Mbembe, which have now become a "causa", are currently causing great damage – to the detriment of the global scientific community and the world-wide operating expert committees, the bilateral research associations and projects, not to mention the consequences for cultural and cultural policy actors and institutions in Germany.
As is widely known, the pseudo-conflict over the invitation to the Ruhrtriennale to the renowned historian and philosopher, cultural theorist and representative of contemporary postcolonial theory was triggered by the obviously politically motivated accusation of the FDP party politician, Lorenz Deutsch (member of the state parliament, Northrhine-Westfalia). However, enriched in the meantime by the clumsy critique of postcolonial theory in general, it continues at the lowest level in the German press and digital media.
If the vulgar-loud tenor, with whom first Deutsch and now his self-proclaimed comrades-in-arms are currently expressing their views on the matter, also has all the characteristics of a provincial pose, it is now also expanding into largely conservative feuilletons to include a general attack of Germany as a location for humanities. The fact that the German-language Wikipedia post on Achille Mbembe under the heading "Criticism" – in addition to numerous online contributions of questionable sources – already reduces the current, completely unsubstantiated accusations from politics and the media landscape unfilteredly and also links to the articles of some accusers of Mbembe, already makes clear the spectrum of effects up to the social media.
This article is not intended to "explain" or interpret Achille Mbembe's publications to a broader audience, which requires the efforts of qualified scientific editors and art pages. Nor is it intended to defend or even rehabilitate Mbembe in the current, highly embarrassing "cause" – which would be completely absurd, if only because of the alarming level of public discussion. In view of the current conflict in the political assessment of the scholar Achille Mbembe, however, it seems appropriate to start at the point from which the accusations against him take their official character and tone, as it were: Namely, the approach and critical point of Felix Klein, the Federal Commissioner for Anti-Semitism, who has been in office since 2018 and who seems to lack both an awareness of cultural historical and cultural studies contexts as an interest in the approaches by critical, postcolonial theory in particular.
The absurdity of the criticism against the scholar, which is far removed from the subject, becomes particularly clear when viewed from the perspective of globally oriented cultural studies (including in Germany) and in the light of the predominant research perspectives in the disciplines addressed, which – together with Mbembe – are now equally affected. This also reveals the obvious political interest that seems to have guided the disavowal of Mbembe's position and, with it, of global intellectual thought as such.
"Appointed" to criticize
The public éclat – because this is not an academic debate at eye level or a dispute among colleagues – was notoriously renewed by Felix Klein's public critique of Achille Mbembe's alleged "anti-Semitism" in April. Apart from the obvious lack of prior expert advice (which is promised on the official website for his position), Klein's accusation any basis in the first instance. But also, and this is far more crucial, the necessary expertise and scholarly skills.
In an interview (DeutschlandFunkKultur, 21.4.2020), this became particularly clear where Klein, struggling in part with scholarly diction, relied on a single, obviously randomly selected passage from one of the writings of what he called "Africa's very important philosopher": Mbembe's supposedly questionable attitude towards Judaism and the State of Israel is obviously to be exemplified here by a single text excerpt – unfortunately completely incoherent, without any knowledge of the subject, Mbembe's writings in total nor of the larger cultural-theoretical-philosophical context, and therefore inevitably quibbling and arbitrary. And, as if the anti-Semitism commissioner does not have any more burning tasks in view of the increasing radical right-wing influence on (cultural) politics and the cultural landscape in Germany and the current rise in everyday anti-Semitism.
Holocaust vs. Apartheid ?
Interestingly enough, Klein was quick to set his own, richly muddled idea of the non-comparability of historical events (here Holocaust vs. Apartheid) against Mbembe's misinterpreted position – a political demarcation line that he sees crossed in a single "essay" by Mbembe, from which Klein had again selectively taken only a few signal terms. Actually the reference point was the detailed book essay, Politik der Feindschaft (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 2017; engl. trans. Necropolitics, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019), in which Achille Mbembe bundles his previous theoretical considerations – on the philosophy and history of (post-)colonialism, the structures and visible manifestations of racism and its institutionalization forms – and focuses on current, authoritarian forms of governance. It is simply an essay that usually gives room for the free unfolding of thoughts, for experimental thinking as well as for great drafts of ideas.
In fact, as previously in scholarly publications, the political and phenomenological-psychiatric approaches of the African-diasporic theorist Frantz Fanon, which trace the genesis of the racial subject in the identity thinking of Western philosophy, play a central role in this writing by Mbembe. Here, they are exemplarily related to the paradigm of enmity, war and its constant reconfiguration: conquest, occupation, terror and revolt. In its focus on the space of the Black Atlantic, this investigation is therefore necessarily cross-historical and cross-cultural. And it refers to practices, forms and perceptions of the separation, division and segregation of "races" in modern societies, whose structures Mbeme traces until the present.
Klein's criticism of Mbembe's statements would hardly be worthy of attention if it had not led to such fatal consequences for the current public perception of the scholar Achille Mbembe in Germany immediately after its articulation. For it starts with the indiscriminately selected alleged "equation" of two racist repressive regimes, which Klein believes he can take from the above mentioned book's second chapter ("Die Gesellschaft der Feindschaft", engl. trans: "The Society of Enmity") with a representative claim. In fact, Mbembe himself states: "The apartheid regime in South Africa and the destruction of Jews in Europe – the latter in an extreme fashion and within a distinct context – constitute two emblematic manifestations of this phantasy of separation" (qtd. from engl. trans, p. 50; german trans., p. 89). According to Klein's personal reading this results in an explosive constellation: "For me these sentences are also to be interpreted as a relativization of the Holocaust, and in my capacity as anti-Semitism commissioner I feel appointed to intervene in such a debate and then also to express my concern that this may be misunderstood here. (…)." (www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de, 21.4.2020, trans. by the authors).
Obviously, the self-appointed official prosecutor's certainty of citation and interpretation has already reached its natural limits. For the image of "emblematic manifestations" used by Mbembe does not only refer to the global segregation and camp structures and the practices derived from them. The author also claims to treat their visibility and irrational violence comparatively and to examine their transcultural interconnections, effectiveness and modes of operation in a broadly based dispositif. Similarly, the globally oriented historical, cultural and social sciences pursue modern global phenomena of violence, which include colonialism as well as political strategies of exclusion, segregation and internment, mass destruction and the Holocaust. Beyond the scholarly sphere, such considerations and approaches are neither per se generally intelligible nor easily comprehensible without extended contexts of knowledge and further explanation.
Felix Klein, in contrast, judges that "it is something completely different, these fantasies of separation" – admittedly, without telling us at the same time where differences to what might lie. Klein feels that the equation of the "national ideology of the Nazis" with the "system of apartheid", which he diagnoses, is inappropriate "because this all-encompassing destruction and racial mania of the Nazis led to the systematic and industrial destruction of human beings." And he also considers this, "if I include Mr. Mbembe's South African or Cameroonian perspective, really problematic, especially since, even if he also refers to Israel, he puts the situation in which Israel finds itself too much on a par with what was in South Africa" (ibid.; trans. by the authors).
Such estimations are indeed problematic. For they document not only the obvious blanks in
the Federal Anti-Semitism Commissioner's understanding of history, but especially also serious gaps in the knowledge of the long history of (national) state and globally effective violence,
expansion and annihilation policies – colonization, slavery and overseas slave deportation and the internment and annihilation of Africans (also in the German-colonized parts of Africa) and the
system of segregation and apartheid – which is by no means limited to the African continent and the consequences of which are still struggled with on both sides of the Black Atlantic, in Africa
and in the African diaspora today.
Felix Klein's evaluations seem to have been born out of a far-reaching desire to take up past debates in historical scholarship as the
Historians' dispute ("Historikerstreit") of the 1980s and, admittedly on a modest level, to take a belated position on the discussed incomparability of historical phenomena at that time. Or
perhaps they are simply based on foreign policy calculations. After all, isn't the vociferous anti-Semitism accusation against Achille Mbembe derived exclusively from his critique of Israel's
Palestine policy (which in Mbembe's case actually refers exclusively to the administrative methods in the occupied territories)? This is where the
political dimension of Klein's critique becomes apparent again. And with it, at the same time, a general conflict of interests – between realpolitik and scholarly research, between
state-conformist performance of duties and critical theory – as it also becomes clear by the repeated accusations against Mbembe's alleged proximity to the goals of the BDS in the media.
At least this would explain Felix Klein's questionable position to some extent, although it became hardly more relevant for all scholars who deal – with academic mandate, in a subject-related form and with adequate terminology, but occasionally also in essayistic form – with such global contexts around state violence, exclusion and segregation, war and destruction, migration and diasporic life, and from whom both evidence-based research results and innovative models of thought are expected.
Felix Klein's indictment, which is necessarily far removed from the subject matter - but apparently also resistant to advice - finally
results in a direct, highly embarrassing rebuke in the aforementioned Deutschlandfunkkultur interview (ibid.). It is now addressed to the historian and scholar Mbembe, who, after studying and
completing his doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris and important stages at the most important US universities (Columbia, Berkeley, Yale, Duke), is now teaching at the Institute of Social and
Economic Research (WISER) of the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa, since 2001, and who, in addition to numerous awards from research institutions in Germany, he has received
the Geschwister Scholl Prize in Munich in 2015 and the Albertus Magnus Professorship at the University of Cologne in 2019:
One had to "formulate carefully," as Klein once again points out in the mentioned interview: "This is what I also expect from a philosopher from Africa who, when he writes a scholarly text, actually has enough space and possibilities to clarify this. It is good that we are having the debate about what is still permissible criticism of the actions of the State of Israel and where the criticism overshoots the mark, where it then becomes anti-Semitic" (ibid.; trans. by the authors).
The form of negotiation, diction and understanding of science of the German diplomat and federal anti-Semitism commissioner Felix Klein may speak for themselves again. However, the strategies of othering, which run through his formulations and do not even stop at banal topoi of difference, are in need of comment: For the schoolmasterly critique of the scholar Mbembe is obviously also associated by the attempt to discredit the academic status of the "African philosopher." That this strategy already found its way into the public eye is already shown by digital media and newspaper articles in recent weeks.
A "dispute" – about what, and by whom?
"That's why I took the floor, and I think the dispute that is now
taking place is very appropriate," said Felix Klein in the same interview (ibid.). But who is conducting a "dispute" here? Up to now, solely the
contribution and unfounded critique of the Federal Anti-Semitism Commissioner has been voiced, albeit multiplied through many channels and in the meantime also repeated by several German
feuilletonists having joined the tenor.
What does this
supposed "dispute", set in motion by Klein's critique, refer to? To an approach of an historian published in an essayistic form, which, despite a
multitude of previous distinguished research, despite lively scholarly reviews and acceptance, is now apparently to be stylized equally as an enemy of the state or even doubter of the legitimacy
of Israel, as an anti-Semite and relativizer of the Holocaust, and thus as well to be made the counterpart of German domestic, foreign and cultural policy? On the scholarly position and writings
of an internationally recognized historian, cultural theorist, and philosopher, which are recognizably unread or hardly sufficiently comprehended beyond the academic
And where and
with whom should this alleged argument be carried out? Within a political and party scene without specialized knowledge and scholarly instruments? Or
even in the general public, to whom Achille Mbembe's methods, approaches and theses are apparently just as unfamiliar as the intellectual traditions and theories of thought on the European
continent – or even his frequently invoked, supposedly consistent "values"?
Perhaps in the co-editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Jürgen Kaube, who was quick to speak out on the matter (FAZ, 20.4.2020), we find a second voice at eye level in this
alleged "argument"? At least, this suggests the tone and level of his scathing review, apparently inspired by Klein's steep model. And this, at least, would explain the once again selective
reading of the second chapter ("The Society of Enmity") from Mbembe's Necropolitics (Politik der
Feindschaft), now by newspaper man Kaube. But with his article entitled "All in one pot," the graduated economist Kaube – going far
beyond other critical voices – now also attempts a total demolition of Achille Mbembe – as a scholar and theorist.
One of the astonishing results of Kaub's often confused remarks in the FAZ – in which a lack of specialized knowledge is combined with the desire to vaporize basic philosophical concepts – is obviously the principle of collective punishment: Together with Mbembe, who is accused of lacking quality, now all those colleagues, universities, research institutes and foundations are also included in Kaube's demolition, who have ever honoured the scholar's work in Germany or entered into specialized debates with him. Among them is the Gerda Henkel Foundation, which at the beginning of the anti-Mbembe campaign (Ruhrtriennale), in response to a request from politicians, had clearly expressed its complete rejection of any evidence of an anti-Semitic attitude in Mbembe's writings.
However, Achille Bembe's own statement (Die Zeit, 23.4.2020) comes as no surprise given the media frenzy that has already
arisen. It is neither lachrymose or merciless towards his accusers, nor is it designed as a subsequent self-rehabilitation, how could it be? Rather, his article serves to explain his scholarly
position, but also the areas of work and perspectives in his central field of investigation - colonialism and its principles, the "laboratories of racism" and its institutionalized forms.
However, the current remarks also apply to the rejection of the publicly made accusations of Lorenz Deutsch and Felix Klein, which he treats extremely leniently, but also quite rightly describes
as implausible and reckless. Implausible, indeed, because their critics have neither instruments, knowledge nor evidence to be able to make such a judgement. Reckless, because they would have
done a "disservice" to the work against anti-Semitism, to which Mbembe also feels obliged.
The fact that a (also in Germany) highly decorated scholar is publicly reprimanded by dilettantes to such an extent that such clarification is required by the person
concerned himself is the real scandal here. And one can only hope that Achille Mbembe will pay just as little attention to the unsubstantiated accusations spread by Felix Klein & Co. from
official sources as he does to the no less embarrassing remarks by the self-appointed science critics in the current press.
We can only hope that the universities and research institutions in Germany will continue to involve Achille Mbembe in those globally focused conferences, symposia and listen to his voice in scholarly debates, which can provide far more promising approaches and results for politics and society than the current sham dispute does. |
A Short Half Century against Blindness.
On the death of Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019)
Okwui Enwezor, Lagos/ Nigeria, 2013, Photo: © Anne-Lena Michel
Despite the busy exhibition business, the past weekend at the Munich Haus der Kunst was very quiet. Footsteps in the large, empty central hall seemed almost like inappropriate noise. As the current editorial message on the website conveys, the team of the exhibition house mourns for his on last Friday deceased head Okwui Enwezor – and combines this with the expression of great gratitude for the "extension to our perspective" made possible by him, his new "guiding principle" of the exhibition house, but above all for "the conviction that the developmental lines of contemporary art are global and multi-layered and cannot be limited by geographic, conceptual and cultural boundaries." For the audience of the last weekend, the visit of Enwezors last great show to the work El-Anatsui as well seems to have been more in the sign of condolence.
Since Friday, the daily and specialist press has been full of tributes and obituaries to the exceptional curator Okwui Enwezor, who has so decisively shaped the international exhibition events and art debates of the past decades and enriched the entire exhibition and museum system with his globally expanded approach. For the discipline of art history, however, the enormous value of his work lies not only in the large, elementary exhibitions – in the format of a documenta 11 of 2002 or the Venice Biennale of 2015, through whose platform model and decentralized approach Enwezor set a rethinking in the perception of the actually global intertwined modern and contemporary art in motion.
Earlier exhibitions such as "Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994" from 2001, which grounded on the cooperation of the Munich Villa Stuck with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin and subsequently was shown internationally, focused specifically those political, Art and cultural histories, here of the African continent, which hitherto was devalued as historyless, and therefore excluded from the great (Western) historical narratives. Enwezor's merit was to counteract precisely this alleged lack of history and timelessness and to counter the status of a supposedly oral-based reference to the past in Africa with a tremendous array of art, images and source material, and thus at the same time to trace and relocate the cultural and artistic production and history since Modernity, in the Post-war period and phase of de-colonization up to the present time in its intellectual context.
In the later exhibition, "Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and Bureaucracy of Daily Life", which was also realized at Haus der Kunst in 2013, Enwezor re-established this strategy. Once again he confronted the exhibition visitors with a wealth of press and artistic photography, images and written sources; again, through the globally contextualized presentation – here of the historical circumstances of violence and resistance in South Africa and of domestic and foreign policy negotiation and international solidarity – he highlighted the blind spots in the perception of historical, cultural and artistic forms of negotiation and proceedings. Like Jacques Derrida, to whom he devoted an interdisciplinary anthology to African-diasporic modernity, postmodernity and contemporaneity in 2009, seemingly also his concern is to situate art in a new understanding of a pictorially perceptible writtenness – as a form of fragile marking, a non-pathetic trace and fundamental (not textual) cultural expression.
Okwui Enwezor, who saw himself as a curator, author, and scholar, is brought together much more with his groundbreaking curatorial achievements than with his
academic approaches and numerous publications in and beyond the exhibition scene. In fact, not only did he draw attention to countless highly relevant artistic positions in their global contexts
and connections, which he opened up to postcolonial debates, but above all he also groundbreakingly questioned the objects and the
repertoire of methods in traditional art history. In addition to the demonstrative side of his exhibition projects showing these shifting processes away from the old centers of Western art, it is Enwezor merit to have enlarged the art historical focus into large transoceanic spatial contexts, in which the artistic connections and
cultural intertwining could only expose an aesthetic of migration – not as a special case of history, but as its continuum.
Already through topics of African and African-diasporic art since the multiple modernity, which are still in the debate of the Journal of Contemporary African Art, nka – founded by Enwezor in 1994, and edited together with Salah M. Hassan and Chika Okeke-Agulu since then – the critical negotiation extended in the transatlantic area long before his groundbreaking documenta 11 or the later post-war exhibition 2016/17 in Munich. Changing forms of contextualization and localization and a henceforth global intellectual dialogue on art and culture, especially after 1945 and across national borders and schools, but also the cross-media reappraisal of transcultural phenomena and artistic positions in scientific articles and reviews, in published interviews and art historical discussions in the Journal provided important impetus for a fundamental revision of a discipline that still struggles with the blind spots of its euro- and west-centered anchoring – even though the current politically driven public debates on the opening up of the art system, art institutions, or issues of restitution may give the impression of an already completed renewal process in the broadest possible consensus today.
With co-authors and publishers - such as Rory Bester, Nancy Condee, Olu Oguibe, Chika Okeke-Agulu, Terry Smith and many others - Okwui Enwezor has also sharpened the contours of African modern and contemporary art in extensive overviews (Reading the Contemporary, 1999; Contemporary African Art Since 1980, 2009). Numerous monographic publications on significant periods of time and on the oeuvre of individual African artists, such as Zarina Bhimji, Meschac Gaba, Bodys Isek Kingelez to El Anatsui, whom Enwezor mostly exhibited in big shows and thereby introduced to the specialist and to a wider public, but also his Munich publications on extraordinary diasporic and African-American artistic positions, such as Kendell Geers, Ellen Gallagher, Lorna Simpson oder Frank Bowling, stand for his successful concept of visualization and his systematic work in research desiderata.
Only in this way Enwezor could succeed in turning overseen or marginalized Anchor figures into objects of (now Western) art history as actors in a global art production that profits from continuous migration processes. Indeed, these inclusion processes made it possible to raise categorial questions to a entangled modern and contemporary art and to the issues of culturally determined concepts of temporality and art scientific periodization models from such an expanded perspective – as happened in his Anthology Antinomies of Art and Culture from 2009, which is dedicated to Jacques Derrida.
The end of Okwui Enwezor's so successful tenure at the Munich Haus der Kunst was obviously overshadowed by political tactics, penny-pinching and cultural incomprehension, but also by the provincialism of cultural policy makers, to which the already seriously ill curator expressed himself last year in the German magazine Der Spiegel: "Perhaps our concept did not fit into the current political climate," Enwezor summerized the causes of his premature farewell in August 2018. "The political climate in this country is causing many people to give up everything that has been achieved in the past decades. And you can see that most clearly in dealing with the refugees. (...)." The curator linked the expression of his disappointment over the lack of esteem of his work by the Bavarian cultural policy with the open criticism of a recently growing racism in the country, and of the diction of "hostility" in politics and the media – whereby he as well alluded at the political exploitation and consequences of the so called "refugee crisis" from the summer of 2015, and again opened an expanded, political context.
Okwui Enwezor's death, which we deeply mourn, leaves also an empty space in our discipline.
Imprint, see kritische berichte, 2/2019
In Memoriam Bisi Silva (1963-2019)
Bisi Silva, Lagos, Nigeria, 2013, Photo: © Anne-Lena Michel
On February 12, the Nigerian curator Bisi Silva died at the age of 56 years.
Members of our network got to know her under different circumstances and at different points in time as an energetic exhibition maker, scholar and author. Bisi Silva pioneered cultural policy in particular in Nigeria by creating conditions for artists, curators and art historians in which they could work. Energetically, empathically and always visionary she was able to initiate dialogues between different local positions, to incorporate international guests and to collaborate with colleagues from the Global South. Bisi took charge of the processing of African contemporary art and was so firmly committed to the realization of exhibition projects that also promoted young positions in Nigeria and elsewhere, who first made important artistic positions from Africa familiar to the art world. She researched artists from the history of Nigeria until the present and explorated the subject of diversity.
After completing her language studies in Dijon, Bisi Silva graduated from the Royal College of Art in London with a Masters degree in Curating Contemporary Art and then returned to Lagos, where she became one of the central figures in the art and exhibition scene. In 2007, she founded the Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos (CCA), which has become more than just an exhibition space for contemporary art, especially for young, even lesser-known or new positions, a crucial place of first exhibition and public perception.
It corresponded to Bisi Silva's self-image as a scholar and author of renowned art magazines and journals (such as Agufon, Artforum, Art Monthly, Metropolis M, or Third Text) and her tremendous vision of building up a comprehensive art and cultural science library in the CCA, one of a kind in Nigeria which made the CCA a highly important meeting place, a place of research and negotiation for the local art scene, as well as international researchers and guests. Especially in recent years, he became for Bisi Silva, who wanted to focus
more on artist projects, research projects and publications, a central work place, without renouncing her presence at all relevant international exhibitions of African and Diasporic contemporary art, on whose conception she took Influence.
Bisi Silva was an important mentor to many young artists in Nigeria. She understood this support as an elementary part of her work, and from this understanding she also initiated the Àsìkò program as an independent of the political-administrative structures and interdisciplinary wandering training center for curators, artists and theoreticians, which was hosted at various locations in Africa, including Senegal, Ghana and Ethiopia.
She worked as a curator or co-curator for countless exhibitions and international biennials, such as the 7th Biennale for Contemporary Art in Dakar (DakArt) of 2006 or the exhibition "Praxis: Art in Times of Uncertainty" as part of the 2nd Thessaloniki Biennial of 2009, and later became a member of the jury for the 55th Venice Biennial "The Encyclopaedic Palace" in 2013. In 2011, she realized the show "Moments of Beauty" in Finland, which drew on her decades of work with the Nigerian photographer J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere (1930 - 2014) that resulted in the publication of a first extensive monograph on the photographer's oeuvre (2015).
We will miss Bisi Silva heavily.
Imprint, see kritische berichte, 3/2019
Statement to the documenta14 (2017)
From the point of view of the
Research Group ART PRODUCTION AND ART THEORY IN THE AGE OF GLOBAL MIGRATION the documenta14 has:
_ through their theoretical subsidence,
_ through the diversity of chosen locations, exhibition formats and presentation forms as well as
_ by initiating public debates in various media formats
enabled heterogeneous, particularistic perspectives on art. The exhibition has established "other" narratives of art history – i.a. from the view of exiles, refugees, displaced persons – and thus from the perspective of those who are in the (western) art system generally not perceived or consciously marginalized.
With this concept and the choice of the two equal locations Athens and Kassel, the international curatorial team led by Adam Szymczyk deepened the critical approaches of earlier documenta editions as well as it expanded the narrowed view of the art production and art theory in the wake of global migration by a non-Eurocentric perspective.
The following aspects of the d14 should be emphasized as being particularly innovative and traiblazing:
On the critique of the documenta14
Particularly the thematic focus of the documenta14 on migration and flight, as well as the decisions of the curatorial team far from the art market, have led to violent, often disproportionate and unspecific critique while and after the exhibition – of the entire structure of the d14, and finally of the freedom of it’s artistic director (incl. the supervisory board, selection committee and rules of procedure).
For example, the German newspaper Die Zeit opposed against the installation of the Arnold Bode Prize winner 2017 Olu Oguibe on the Kassel Königsplatz and the new exhibition sites in the Kassel Nordstadt: "The Documenta offers platitudes [...] in excess [...]. A concrete obelisk quotes the Bible: 'I was a stranger and you hosted me'.” And the critique finally led to the statement "[...] that Documenta14 had crashed so badly at the end that she abuses the art and does not even shrink from making Kassel's migrant Nordstadt the backdrop for her repentance and lamentations [...]."(Die ZEIT, 15.6.2017).
Daily newspapers such as Die Welt called for the "absolute freedom" of the Documenta curators to be restricted, to control the supervisory board and, if necessary, to depose him, as well as to replace the artistic director if he turns out to be as "negligent and incompetent as Adam Szymczyk" (Die Welt, 28.7.2017); and the Neue Züricher Zeitung pleaded for the "disempowerment of the airy-fairy and intellectually outraged curatorial caste" and questioned the selection committee and the rules of procedure fundamentally (NZZ, 2.8.2017).
When, after many protests, the performance Auschwitz on the Beach was cancelled by the documenta management in Kassel and replaced by a conference – in which the Italian philosopher and activist Franco "Bifo" Berardi brought up and explained his (regretted) comparison of the European migration policy with the Holocaust – the predominantly negative judgment in the press was sealed. There were only a few voices left, who supported the documenta team's response on this issue, as Philipp Ruch, the spokesman for the "Center for Political Beauty" in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, (SZ, 27.8.2017) or the editor the magazine Monopol Elke Buhr, who was committed to the "great-like setting" of the show.
But there were also distinctly different voices, so by the German party “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD), which called Olu Ogiube’s obelisk on the Königsplatz as "ideologizing and disfiguring art" and furthermore connected this statement with the announcement, to call for demonstrations in front of the Obelisk in "every attempt by refugees".
After the end of documenta14 and the news of the budget overrun, the exhibition motto "Learning from Athens" became the vehicle for the renewed stereotypical devaluation of Greece, as it had already emerged in the wake of the former financial crisis: The press response ranged from rather ironic headlines in the German television news Tagesthemen ("Learning from Athens – the failure documenta14", 14.9.2017) or on Deutschlandfunk ("To learn from Athens – does that mean debts?", 23.8.2017), up to more accusingly statements on a populist website close to the AfD ("Learned from Athens: The bankruptcy of documenta", achgut.com, 13.9.2017). This was followed by a complaint filed by the AfD at the Kassel prosecutor's office against the documenta management "for embezzlement” and to proceed “all other crimes coming into consideration". Here the overlapping of the (cultural) political dimension of the criticism of the documenta14 by particularly right-wing party-political objectives became particularly clear.
The prevailing image of the "failure" of the documenta has been increasingly relativized in recent months – through comments by the participating artists and associates, through analyzes in the press (including Deutschlandfunk, 17.9.2017, Der Spiegel, 3.12.2017), in art-historical journals (Kunstchronik, 12/2017), and an open letter from more than 130 museum directors, artists and other experts from 16.1.2018.
With our statement we want to support the previous comments and demands, as well as continue the debate.
The Research Group ART PRODUCTION AND ART THEORY IN THE AGE OF GLOBAL MIGRATION
vehemently takes a stand:
_against the exclusive, hasty and populist focus on the budget overrun of the d14, which was not singular in the history of the exhibition, and which is attributed to the longer duration and the exhibition in two places in the current case;
_against the political absorption of exhibitions and exhibition critique, which is guided by migrant / xenophobic interests and contradicts the specialized requirements of global exhibition projects;
_against the public distribution and media dissemination of marginalizing and segregating political content and political insistence in the context of the documenta14, which stand in stark contrast to the requirements for a balanced and competent press work as well as the cultural-political tasks in Germany, and which in the sense of a competent, free and open cultural promotion are not acceptable.
Looking to the future, the Research Group ART PRODUCTION AND ART THEORY IN THE AGE OF GLOBAL MIGRATION shares the view of the documenta14 team:
"that it is time to put the system of added value to such mega exhibitions as the documenta to the test. [...]. The expectations of ever-growing success and economic growth not only lead directly to exploitative working conditions, but also jeopardize the possibility that the exhibition will remain a place of critical action as well as an artistic field of experimentation."
However, this will only succeed,
policy-makers in Germany bethink of their duty of cultural promotion and educational mandate, fundamentally reflect the framework and budgeting of exhibition projects as the documenta, and if
they expressly speak up for the continuity of one of the most important exhibitions for contemporary art under artistic and curatorial acceptable economic and socio-political
_if curatorial independence and adequate artistic-curatorial working conditions are ensured before, on and after documenta (e.g. 5-year contracts, etc.);
_if, as an exposed international exhibition, documenta remains fundamentally committed to its history and the diversity of artistic positions and modes of work, as well as to the recent global conditions of contemporary art production beyond conditions of the art market.
On the subject of documenta14, Monopol aptly states: "Adam Szymczyk's documenta14 captures the best of documenta's history: Arnold Bode's insistence on democracy, Harald Szeemann's radical questioning of the concept of art and the courage to chaos, and from Catherine David and especially from Okwui Enwezor the insight that the Western art system is a west-centred, colonial organization that desperately needs a more global perspective." (Monopol, July 15, 2017).
For the research group ART PRODUCTION AND ART THEORIE IN THE AGE OF GLOBAL MIGRATION and its members, the documenta14 has provided new impulses for the further examination of the manifestations, cultural practices and subject-specific dimensions of migration and flight. The documenta14 has made it clear that artistic theory and practice in its history up to the present is generally not conceivable without a continuous, open and lively cultural exchange – and that the migration of actors, ideas, insights and things is the actual "normal case" plural cultural expression.
We hope from the next documenta that their artistic direction with an international team of curators will continue to develop different perspectives on the role of art and the conditions of global art production and present it to an international audience – free from market interests and without unprofessional, petty-bourgeois or right-wing populist motivated permanent criticism.
The statement will be published in Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte in June 2018.
Representing the Research Group ART PRODUCTION AND ART THEORY IN THE AGE OF GLOBAL MIGRATION, this statement is signed by:
Dr. Buket Altinoba, Institut für Kunst- und Baugeschichte, Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT)
Dr. Charlotte Bank, Berlin
Dr. Irene Below, Werther/Westf.
Dr. Cathrine Bublatzky, Heidelberg Zentrum für Transkulturelle Studien, Universität Heidelberg
Prof. Dr. Burcu Dogramaci, Institut für Kunstgeschichte, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Prof. Dr. Elke Gaugele, Institut für das Künstlerische Lehramt, Akademie der Bildenden Künste Wien
Prof. Dr. Gabriele Genge, Institut für Kunst und Kunstwissenschaft, Universität Duisburg-Essen
Prof. Dr. Birgit Hopfener, Art History, Carleton University, Ottawa, CA
Prof. Dr. Alexandra Karentzos, Arbeitsbereich Mode und Ästhetik, Technische Universität Darmstadt
Dr. Franziska Koch, Cluster of Excellence Asia and Europe in a Global Context, Universität Heidelberg
Katrin Nahidi, Berlin
Dr. Miriam Oesterreich, Arbeitsbereich Mode und Ästhetik,Technische Universität Darmstadt
Prof. Dr. Kerstin Pinther, Institut für Kunstgeschichte, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Dr. Angela Stercken, Institut für Kunst und Kunstwissenschaft, Universität Duisburg-Essen
Apl. Prof. Dr. Melanie Ulz, Institut für Migrationsforschung und Interkulturelle Studien (IMIS), Universität Osnabrück
External signatures of the statement
Prof. Dr. Anja Baumhoff, Kunst- und Designgeschichte, Hochschule Hannover Fb III
Regula Rickert, Kunstpädagogin, neue-galerie.net
Dr. Anja Baumhoff, Hochschule Hannover
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