The Autonomy of the Arts in Times of Crisis
Art vs. Crisis

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Goethe-Institut, at his opening address in Tokyo.
Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Goethe-Institut, at his opening address in Tokyo. | Photo: Yota Kataoka

The Autonomy of the Arts in Times of Crisis: two international panels discussed the subject at the Goethe-Institut Tokyo. Their focus was migration as a disruption and an opportunity and the current crisis of the concept of art.

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Goethe-Institut, and Klaus Vietze, envoy of the German Embassy in Tokyo, opened the symposium. In their welcoming speeches, they emphasised that art and culture should not allow themselves to be co-opted by identity politics, but that a liberal concept of freedom had to be in their centre.

Radio lectures along the Balkan route

The first part of the symposium resulted in a dialogue on immigration, transcultural processes and identity. The panel members agreed that culture and identity are only supposedly fixed concepts, which often serve to codify interpretive sovereignty, but in fact are processes that are subject to constant interchanges. The theatre director Akira Takayama underlined this point by presenting McDonald's Radio University in which refugee experts present their fields of expertise. The radio lectures are offered along the Balkan route in the eponymous fast food restaurants. Linking artistic processing with the acquisition of knowledge offers refugees a chance for autonomous self-empowerment.

Is art a luxury product?

In his personal contribution, the playwright Mohammad Al-Attar, present artist-in-residence at the Goethe-Institut Tokyo, described how since his displacement he has repeatedly been reduced to the role of the exiled artist from Syria. He repudiated this label being forced upon him as a person and artist for, of course, although he writes about the Syrian civil war, he also writes about globally relevant issues such as emancipation and religion.
At the start of the second panel, art historian Wolfgang Ullrich stated that the Western concept of art itself was in crisis. At one end of the spectrum, art is a privatised luxury product, at the other end conceptual and curatorial processes move to the forefront, but even these have hardly any social impact since they remain within their own milieu.

Panel at the symposium The Autonomy of the Arts in Times of Crisis Panel at the symposium The Autonomy of the Arts in Times of Crisis | Photo: Yota Kataoka

The democratically healing effect of art after crises

The Japanese guests disagreed with this considering the triple disaster of the earthquake, tsunami and accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The sociologist Akihiro Kitada had observed the political potential for change the crisis had triggered in Germany in 2011. The art critic Takayuki Hayashi diagnosed this as a democratically healing effect of art after crises.
At the same time, Kitada, in agreement with Ullrich, criticised that the market determines what art is thereby preventing a self-determined definition. But at least knowledge of this is magnified by market logic and, after all, gives more people access to art. Ullrich added that in contrast to earlier insights, the fragmenting fields of art are no longer disputatiously linked; rather, it is a matter of the dominance of one’s own understanding. But in this, too, he sees an opportunity: Due to the fragmentation, intermediary instances such as curators come into focus so that artists are no longer on their own.

For the power of art to change society

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann brought the two panels together at the following reception: Art today is determined not only by itself, but by social developments; but society is increasingly splintering and each of these splinters makes use of their own concept of art. This is tragic because art thus no longer has the power to change society. There is an urgent need for discussion and proposals. As one of the Goethe-Institut’s strengths, he emphasised its ability to counter the crisis-driven fragmentation through pluralistic, decentralised processes that promote dialogue and openness, in order to be able to offer art a platform for autonomous action.