German Jews Call for Resignation of New Documenta Art Festival Director as Antisemitism Scandal Festers
The scandal over antisemitic artworks on display at Germany’s prestigious Documenta festival of contemporary art continued to fester on Friday, as Jewish activists demanded the resignation of the festival’s interim director just two weeks after he was appointed to the post.
In an open letter widely reported on by German media outlets, Elio Adler — chair of the Jewish Values Initiative — said that interim director Alexander Farenholtz had been “overwhelmed” by the dispute over antisemitism that has completely overshadowed the current edition of the festival, which is staged in the city of Kassel every five years.
Farenholtz was appointed at the end of July to replace the previous director, Sabine Schormann, whom Adler said was forced to resign because she hadn’t “found the right answers to the ongoing antisemitism scandal, which was fueled again and again by the constant discovery of anti-Jewish exhibits.”
A key event in the art world’s calendar, the fifteenth edition of the Documenta festival will be remembered for the row over antisemitism rather than any of the artworks exhibited.
Initial concerns were raised in the build-up to the festival in January, regarding the participation of artistic groups who support the campaign to isolate the State of Israel through a comprehensive boycott, among them the Indonesian curators of the festival, the artists collective known as ruangrupa.
Shortly after the festival opened in June, another scandal unfolded that centered on a mural which included ugly antisemitic stereotypes — among them the depiction of an Israeli soldier as a pig wearing a helmet emblazoned with the word “Mossad,” for the Israeli intelligence agency, and a caricature of an Orthodox Jew with a hooked nose and traditional hate embossed with the letters “SS”, for the Nazi paramilitary organization. Although the mural was removed from display, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz canceled a visit to the festival in protest at the “disgusting” images it contained.
Meanwhile, a fresh scandal emerged last week when visitors to the exhibition discovered a brochure containing antisemitic caricatures drawn by the Syrian artist Burhan Karkoutly. The brochure’s appearance infuriated Jewish groups and German politicians, who attacked Farenholtz over his refusal to conduct a systematic review of the exhibition in order to root out antisemitic images.
“Alexander Farenholtz thus contributes to the normalization of antisemitic thought patterns in Germany,” Adler stated in the letter addressed to Angela Dorn, the arts minister for the state of Hesse, where Kassel is located.
“It is this normalization, through which hatred of Jews is simply accepted, that gives us, Jewish people in Germany, deep, real fears,” Adler continued.
Criticism of the festival’s management was also voiced this week by the members of a newly-created committee to review the scandals over antisemitism.
“We are irritated that the management of the Documenta, despite their commitment to openness, seems to be defining essential questions about how to deal with antisemitic art at just the moment when the committee that is supposed to guide their work is being created,” the committee members said.
They added that it was “all the more regrettable that the impact of the debate on the Jewish community has so far hardly been taken into account in the public statements on the art show.” They then pledged that “as a committee, we will work to ensure that Jewish perspectives are considered and included in the processing of the events.”
Adler concluded his letter with an appeal for both Farenholtz and ruangrupa to be relieved of their roles. “If the antisemitism scandal continues to have no meaningful and lasting consequences, it is doubtful that the city of Kassel and the state of Hesse will be able to organize the art show in principle and in the future,” he said.
Support for Documenta’s beleaguered management came from three German academics who disputed whether the images in the controversial mural could be considered antisemitic.
Referring to the stereotypical depiction of an Orthodox Jew, the academics — led by Werner Ruf, a political scientist at the University of Kassel — asked: “Does that stand for the ‘hateful, rapacious Jew’ or a shrewd broker who symbolically represents the financial capital that the riches and natural resources of the countries of the ‘Third World’ peddled on the stock market?”