Culture and Politics “If art doesn’t do politics, who will?”

A literary classic reinvented as a ballet for the first time: Reginaldo Oliveira’s “Anne Frank”
A literary classic reinvented as a ballet for the first time: Reginaldo Oliveira’s “Anne Frank” | Photo (detail): © Uli Deck / picture alliance / dpa

Art and politics have always been inextricably linked, though the two continually renegotiate the terms of their relationship. How political is art in Germany? And what limits art?

Have you ever wondered how far back socio-political satire actually goes? The first caricatures were quite literally set in stone, or sketched onto papyrus. Unflattering depictions mocking public people and personal enemies were not unknown in ancient times. And for at least as long, monumental buildings and sculptures have attested to the power of ruling castes, from the clerical to the political. Privately commissioned work of art and art as protest are as old as humanity and propaganda and socio-political commentary have always been elements of artistic expression.
 
The debate on the role of art in politics, whether it can and should be political, is as old as political art itself. A quick perusal of the 2017 catalogues of German museums and programmes of German theatres – both private and publically funded – provides a clear, concise answer: it can and should. The majority of contemporary exhibits and performances explored the socio-political issues of the day.

Media hype and crowdfunding: political art pays

In 2017, a number of pieces dealt with the current debate on migration and xenophobia, and drew a lot of media attention in the process. In autumn when the Munich Kammerspeile put on Josef Bierbichler’s Bavarian family saga Mittelreich with an ensemble of Black actors and musicians, theatre critics took up their pens with enthusiasm. They analysed its role in the ongoing debate on the refugee crisis and the rise of racism, with some calling it “the most innovative and political performance of the season.”
 
Meanwhile in the neighbouring state of Baden-Württemberg, the Badische Staatstheater Karlsruhe was also garnering some of the limelight. It revisited Reginaldo Oliveira’s Anne Frank, the first ballet adaptation of the great classic of German literature, and even caught the attention of the tabloids. In Germany, the story of Anne Frank, a Jew who fled from National Socialism in the 1930s and fell victim to the Holocaust as the war drew to a close, is held up as a cautionary tale of the terrible consequences of hate and persecution.
 
The Zentrum für politische Schönheit (The Center for Political Beauty, ZPS) performance collective skilfully employs the media spotlight. When AfD representative Björn Höcke called the Berlin memorial to Europe’s murdered Jews a “monument of shame”, the collective responded by constructing a smaller version of the monument close enough for the right-wing populist to see from his home. Unlike conventional theatres, the ZPS receives no state funding, and depends in part on crowdfunding, the support from the like-minded public, to pay for its attention-grabbing operations.

“Artists have to toe the line”

In summer, documenta curator Dieter Roelstraete raised an important question with his art students: “If art doesn’t do politics, who will?” At the world’s largest exhibition series for contemporary art, politics is often the order of the day. Germany is unique in that artistic freedom is anchored in its constitution, and Article 5, paragraph 3 is even one of the country’s best protected fundamental rights. According to Mela Chu, curator and lecturer for creative management, “Apolitical art is boring. Sensual art is not controversial; political art has greater potential for depth.”
 
Even in Germany, artists are still subject to pressures, often financial in nature. Independent organizations may have free artistic license, but they still have to bring in funds from the audience, sponsors or other sources. Public art institutions are free of this immediate monetary strain, since they get their funding from a state or city budget. But this has an indirect influence on the art they produce, as musicologist and cultural manager Markus Kiesel explains. Not only does the state often decide who is named artistic director, Kiesel notes, but, “the states and city governments also have the power to assign a cultural brief to an artistic director or museum, for example. This may include stipulations like a certain amount in revenue the institution has to take in. This automatically limits artistic freedom because now the budget is influencing artistic production.”
 
In recent years, political pressure on public artistic and cultural institutions to justify their existence has increased as well. The amount of the budget earmarked for high culture is a frequent subject of debate, seeing as it only reaches a small percentage of the population. According to Artistic Director and Chairman of the Deutscher Bühnenverein (German Theatre Association) Klaus Zehelein, people in art often have to shift their focus from the socio-political issues they wish to address to how to attract a variety of target groups to the opera.
 
Chu is convinced that there is no real freedom of thought in the cultural scene anymore – and not just in the large institutions. “Artists have to toe the line to be successful,” she says. “Left-wing sentiments are the flavour of the month right now. But anyone looking to engage is real political discourse is going to find it tough going in the art world – in terms of both audience and funding.”
 
Kiesel notes that in theory at least, free artistic expression doesn’t require a democratic majority. “In reality though, money is allocated pretty much exclusively based on democratic majorities. And here is where there is the greatest potential for conflict between politics and free artistic expression.”