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Debates about antisemitism
Cultural work must remain independent!

Carola Lentz
© Goethe-Institut/Loredana La Rocca

Organisations such as the Goethe-Institut must not become the ‘extended arm’ of the government, particularly in difficult political times. Tests of conviction and moral imperialism will not help to overcome crises.

By Carola Lentz

I can well remember the times when the political and social relevance of culture had to be conjured up – its role seemed to be so vague and secondary. This has thoroughly changed. We stumble from one geopolitical crisis to the next. It is often no longer possible to intellectually digest the complex processes on an equal footing with the events themselves. Meanwhile, in the context of the war in the Middle East, cultural work has taken on an almost frightening significance. We are faced with an increasingly intolerant climate of debate, on the street, in the press, and above all on social media. And it doesn’t stop with debates.

Pressure is growing – from all sides

The number of antisemitic attacks is increasing rapidly, and it is unacceptable when pro-Palestinian rallies are dominated by pro-Hamas chants. It is also intolerable, however, when right-wing populists ascribe antisemitism above all to migrants and campaign against immigration and Muslims in general.

One of the consequences of these polarising debates: the pressure on (German) cultural institutions is growing, from all sides. A veritable culture war is unfolding. Events are cancelled in rapid succession; award ceremonies postponed or withdrawn; calls for boycott are launched out against critical voices. Some intellectuals, such as the American-German philosopher Susan Neiman, are even speaking of a ‘new McCarthyism’ in the cultural world. This raises several questions: Will the much quoted ‘Staatsräson’ (state interest) in relation to Israel’s right to exist be prioritised over the right of artistic freedom? Will empathy with the victims of the Hamas murders automatically be associated with support for Israeli policy? Will victim be pitted against victim?

Members of the Bundestag are currently working on a resolution, ‘Appreciating historical responsibility – protecting Jewish life in Germany’, which may make the definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) obligatory for all institutions who work with public funds. The Berlin Senatsverwaltung für Kultur und Gesellschaftlichen Zusammenhalt (Department for Culture and Societal Cohesion) has already made a corresponding antidiscrimination clause, ordering the IHRA definition as obligatory for all financial grants for cultural work.[1]

The latest resolution of the Kultusministerkonferenz (Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Federal States) on measures against antisemitism and hostility to Israel as well as the profession of the Deutscher Kulturrat (German Cultural Council) on the IHRA definition are heading in the same direction. But many academics, including Jewish intellectuals, dispute this definition, above all because it is too vague, was never intended to be applied in a legal context and does not distinguish sufficiently between antisemitism and criticism of the State of Israel. Protest is growing against these limitations to freedom of expression and artistic freedom.

Cultural work is becoming an arena

In general, it seems to become more difficult to insist on nuances and to address historic complexities. Cultural work is apparently turning into the most important arena in which politicians and grant-making organisations, journalists and societal stakeholders expect unambiguous moral positioning. And this although (or: because?) in other fields such as energy provision and economic collaboration, Germany’s cooperation with authoritarian regimes is not banned in any way, including relations with regimes that deny Israel’s right to exist. By contrast, in the field of cultural work, that is: at a symbolic level where economic or political interests are not directly at stake, value-based foreign policy is to be followed closely.

This moral rigorism ultimately threatens the internationality of cultural work in Germany, and the work of globally active German organisations such as the Goethe-Institut. Longstanding partners in the international cultural world are losing trust in the liberality of Germany’s democracy. The fact that the selection committee for the forthcoming documenta has collectively resigned, and that questions are openly being asked about whether it is still possible to organise such a cosmopolitan exhibition in Germany, is a worrying development.

In the light of this polarised situation, I believe it is important to reopen a fundamental debate on the role of cultural work and cultural exchange in the political sphere. Aren’t culture and artistic production always political against the backdrop of worldwide crises? Could or should art escape such politicisation? Do artists and cultural institutions defer too readily to political pressure?

For cultural work within Germany itself, the basic rights of the freedom of art and science do not allow that demands of societal and political relevance can be imposed on artistic productions, for example, serving as an instrument of ‘promoting democracy.’ Hopefully, even the antidiscrimination clause of the Berlin Senate Department did not aim to fundamentally interfere with these freedoms, even if its wording ‘Kunst ist frei! aber nicht regellos’ (‘Art is free! But not without rules!’) appeared open to interpretation. Who would make the rules, is a question that immediately comes to mind.

Politicians want unambiguousness and control

What about the issue of political relevance in the field of international cultural work, the so-called foreign cultural and educational politics (Auswärtige Kultur- und Bildungspolitik, AKBP)? How strongly do German governmental institutions and their intermediary organisations, such as the Goethe-Institut, intervene in the work of the cultural professionals and intellectuals they fund? Should the AKBP support only persons or groups who accommodate the political/moral agendas of the respective German government?

Expectations like these do in fact appear to be circulating within the public debate. But would this not encumber cultural work with too much societal responsibility? Does this expectation carry the danger of political instrumentalization or even exploitation?

In any event, one can observe that politicians and ministerial bureaucracies are reacting to the multiplication of crises with a desire to exercise more control and monitoring of independent civil society organisations. This applies not only to culture, but also to science and other fields. There is a longing for unambiguousness; the vagueness and ambiguity that are so characteristic of art seem hard to bear.
Situations of crisis produce a climate of general suspicion which in turn provokes the desire for bureaucratic regimentation. ‘Mistakes’ must be avoided, and crises should not be made more complicated, for example by the imprudent actions of independent societal stakeholders. What is more, in the light of the limited resources available, politicians feel the need to justify expenditures; funding should not be wasted in initiatives or programmes that attract criticism.

However, intensive control and moralistic-political instrumentalization smother cultural work while it underestimates the anarchistic power of art and its creative potential. Aesthetic productions have a playful dimension; cultural work needs ‘state-free’ spaces to think and act, and it can contribute to societal cohesion and international understanding in quite unexpected ways.

Particularly in international cultural exchange in this era of multiple crises, it is essential to keep spaces open for joint reflection, to bring nuances to the debate and, above all, to encourage productive changes of perspective. More than ever, we need networks of trust between societies. Productive international cultural exchange has three conditions without which it will be difficult to escape the suffocating dynamic of the tests of conviction described above.

First, cultural organisations such as the Goethe-Institut must remain independent and must be neither be treated nor perceived as the extended arm of government. This is the only way they can make their contribution to Germany’s reputation and to building trust in the world. They need to be allowed to find their own path, in order to react to the ‘Zeitenwende’, the epochal shift, with strategical decisions.
Secondly, cultural exchange must not be conceived one-sidedly from a German perspective but focus on regional and local circumstances and needs, which differ throughout the world. Organisations such as the Goethe-Institut, the DAAD or political foundations are sure to become involved as critical discussion partners who point out their red lines where necessary. But nowhere is moral imperialism or even paternalism needed. That is why successful cultural work will look different in different locations.

And thirdly, productive international cultural exchange requires freedom to act and readiness to take risks. Innovation and creativity can only succeed if there is an openness for unexpected results and a tolerance of mistakes. It is the joint task of cultural institutions, the media, and cultural policy organisations to keep spaces for reflection open, to encourage a change of perspective, and to enable creative potential, even and particularly in times of uncertainty.

[1] The German version of this text was composed in December 2023 and published on 14 January 2024. In the meantime, the obligatory declaration clause has been withdrawn.

First published in Der Spiegel.