Hanno Rauterberg
What are we talking about when we talk about the freedom of art

Is what I am seeing, hearing, reading politically correct? Art critic Hanno Rauterberg explores the origins and salient features of the current mode of analysis in the reception of art and culture.

By Friederike van Stephaudt

Wie frei ist die Kunst © Suhrkamp
The concept of political correctness has long been wandering through discussions and debates - but what exactly we mean by it and what significance we attach to it is often unclear. For a long time, the corresponding discourses were irrelevant to the production and reception of art; art was a space of extremes, provocations and freedoms. Now, however, art is also under scrutiny for its political correctness.

The literary supplements are full of articles that defend or demolish works of art - not in terms of their artistic value, but their ethical infallibility. The key questions are: How politically correct is art? Is what it presents ethically justifiable? Is the person who created it free of defects? But are these in any way the standards to which art itself attempts to respond? Doesn't art unfold its full potential precisely in its freedom, its independence from such valuation models?


In his new book, Wie frei ist die Kunst? Der neue Kulturkampf und die Krise des Liberalismus   (i.e. how free is art? The new culture war and the crisis of liberalism), journalist Hanno Rauterberg investigates both questions – the one which attempts to judge art in terms of ethical categories, and the one that views art detached from social values. Politically correct or incorrect, art is classified in its current popular reading by examining it for racist, sexist, colonial or paedophile representations and backgrounds. If even a hint of suspicion is possible, activists often demand the destruction of the work in question. Hanno Rauterberg describes the prevailing debate as a "culture war", which now has also revealed the "crisis of liberalism." According to the art historian, this crisis becomes manifest in the intensity of the discussions: "A doubt exists as to the value of freedom, and this doubt turns the dispute over art into a societal conflict."

Rauterberg skilfully demonstrates that the current debate about art includes the societal dimension mentioned above. Developments must be followed and origins defined. In this sense, the ZEIT editor makes use of each of his five chapters to formulate further questions in line with his text's basic reflective stance: How free are artists? How free is the institution that presents art, the museum? How free are those who view these works of art? How free is a society that is becoming an echo chamber of all these questions? And finally: how free is freedom?


Rauterberg analyses cases, backgrounds and debates, at times making use of philosophical positions in order to open up new possibilities of observation, and quotes topically from current German literary pages. In his dense compilation of current examples, Rauterberg shows how little consensus is possible on taste, values, and especially sensitivities. Henceforth, the prevailing dictum seems to be: "He (the artist) should be the conciliatory centre, not the extreme periphery". Art should please and validate, should lead beyond the irreconcilable and negate the extreme. What art is able to contribute to understanding, rapprochement and societal discussion is thereby forgotten: Incentives, positions and provocations, a space for reflection on abuses and power.

In the spirit of the essay genre, Rauterberg's book is above all a text of questions, of openness: he does not seek to join the ranks of those who think they have unambiguous answers to ambiguous questions. The issue here is not an assessment, yet another position in the "Kulturkampf", but reflection on existing positions. Wie frei ist die Kunst? is not a plea for artistic freedom, not a polemic, but a book of objective debates and thus a refreshingly un-agitated contribution to a heated discussion.
Cherry Picker

Rauterberg, Hanno
Wie frei ist die Kunst? Der neue Kulturkampf und die Krise des Liberalismus
Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2018. 141 S.
ISBN 978-3-518-12725-4

You can also find this title in our Onleihe