Berlin was a beacon of artistic freedom. Gaza changed everything.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Monday, June 24, 2024

Berlin was a beacon of artistic freedom. Gaza changed everything.
Pro-Israel graffiti in the Friedrichshain district of Berlin, March 31, 2024. The home of boundary-pushing artists from around the world has been upended by debates about what can and can’t be said about Israel and the war. (Andrew White/The New York Times)

by Jason Farago

BERLIN.- When musician Laurie Anderson was beginning her career in the early 1970s, an avant-garde artist who wanted to work at scale had to go abroad — to one place in particular.

“I got my start in Germany, because of state-supported art,” recalled Anderson, who exhibited at its national museums and performed with its symphony orchestras when she was still an emerging talent. She lived for a time in West Berlin. She met Lou Reed, her future husband and a sometime Berliner himself, in Germany in 1992.

Fitting, then, that she would accept a prestigious guest professorship this year at a German art school. Then, in late January, a local blogger fulminated after finding her signature among 16,000 names on a 2-year-old open letter that denounced “apartheid” in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The university then called, seeking explanations. Rather than distill her thoughts about “this unbelievably tragic war” into the kind of public statement they seemed to want, she withdrew. “It did teach me that I didn’t really want to have that kind of sponsorship,” she concluded. “If I’d known they were going to ask things like that, I never would have accepted that job in the first place.”

She’s far from the only artist who finds herself unsure of her welcome here these days. The arts scene in Germany — and especially Berlin — has been turned upside down by Hamas’ attacks in Israel on Oct. 7, and the siege and bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

Prizes have been rescinded. Conferences called off. Plays taken off the boards. Government cultural officials have suggested tying funding to what artists and institutions say about the conflict, and media — both traditional and social — bubble with public denunciations of this writer, that artist, this DJ, that dancer. The disinvitations have brought counterboycotts. And a climate of fear and recrimination has put Berlin’s status as an international cultural capital in greater hazard than at any time since 1989.

Berlin had once been the artistic beacon of all Europe, but what’s happening here today is a very German story. The country’s responsibility for the Holocaust still defines a cultural sector whose institutions are committed to a national process of reckoning and atonement. That culture of remembrance also undergirds Germany’s staunch support for Israel, and the strict limits it places on criticisms of its ally. (Only recently has the rising toll in Gaza prompted some German leaders to question their unwavering support.) So while artists around the world — from the stage of the Oscars to the Whitney Biennial — have been vocal about the war, in Germany, such statements can have a major cost: canceled performances, lost funding and accusations of antisemitism in a society where no charge is more serious.

“Berlin was broke, but a community was there,” said electroclash star Peaches, who has lived here since 2000, when we met up for breakfast in Prenzlauer Berg. I asked her what’s changed lately, and she noted how risk-taking institutions were already running scared amid threats to funding. “What was going on here was openness to all these intersections. And since the last few months, there’s been a lot of that taken away.”

That sense of new limitations, new controls, new anxieties, is already exacting a price on culture in a city that had made a welcome of artists into its post-Wall calling card.

“This angst makes it harder for us to work internationally, attract the best talent on the highest level and bring diverse audiences together,” said Klaus Biesenbach, director of the Neue Nationalgalerie, who previously led museums in New York and Los Angeles. “If the artists leave, one of the last real bonuses that Berlin has would be gone.”

The cancellations, postponements and uproars have hit every cultural sector, with anger and accusations coming from as high as the chancellery. The Berlin International Film Festival saw withdrawals and protests this year — and after its closing ceremony, at which several laureates called for a cease-fire in Gaza, federal and state officials issued threats to withhold future support.

DJs have been dropped from lineups at Berghain and other clubs, sometimes after posting anti-Israeli statements, but often for much milder support for Palestinian lives.

The Maxim Gorki Theater, one of the city’s most acclaimed playhouses, canceled a prizewinning play about Israelis and Palestinians in Berlin — leading several intellectuals and artists to cancel appearances there in turn.

In the galleries of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, a hub for the city’s art scene, recently shipped sculptures are sitting in unpacked crates. Their creators now refuse to exhibit in Germany to protest what they describe as restrictions of speech supporting Palestinians.

Some cultural leaders are raising alarms. In January, the Berlin state government proposed a new funding clause that would require grantees to sign a document opposing “any form of antisemitism” — and used a definition that listed certain criticisms of Israeli policy as antisemitic. Artists protested, and the proposal was withdrawn, but the outgoing director of the Goethe-Institut, which promotes German language and literature abroad, fretted in Der Spiegel that “long-standing partners in the international cultural world are losing confidence in the liberalism of German democracy.”

For many artists, especially foreigners who settled in Berlin as a place of freedom and cultural abundance, the very survival of the city as an artistic capital is in doubt, or perhaps already gone.

“Berlin, in my view, is not a place where artists can create freely,” said Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist and dissident, who keeps a studio in Berlin but no longer lives here. “Whenever I hear about German government officials imposing restrictions on artists’ freedom of speech, or expression, it fills me with despair.”

It is, of course, not just in the capital. The Frankfurt Book Fair “indefinitely postponed” a prize ceremony for Adania Shibli, an acclaimed Palestinian writer and Berlin resident. The city of Bremen reneged on its own prize ceremony for Jewish writer Masha Gessen over an essay comparing Gaza to the ghettos of Nazi-occupied cities. Berlin-based artists Jumana Manna, who is Palestinian, and Candice Breitz, who is Jewish, both had exhibitions at regional museums canceled on the grounds of (as usual) controversial social media posts. Even Greta Thunberg, a climate Cassandra, has been canceled in Germany after wearing a kaffiyeh and calling for a cease-fire at a recent protest.

But it is Berlin that stands to lose the most from all these disinvitations and denunciations, and from the larger malaise in German democracy from which they spring. The success of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, and the broader advance of the populist right in Europe, have shaken postwar and post-Wall norms of historical responsibility. The arrival of 1 million refugees from Syria and elsewhere in 2015 continues to shape ongoing debates about who is a German. New spending freezes and austerity budgets, triggered by restrictions on government debt, spell trouble for a capital that still has three major opera houses.

All this while indisputably antisemitic rhetoric, and even violence, have been rising in Germany. In October, masked assailants chucked Molotov cocktails at a synagogue (they missed; no one was hurt). Anti-Jewish slurs and stars of David were painted on government buildings and residences.

When pro-Palestinian activists came to the Hamburger Bahnhof, one of Berlin’s leading institutions for contemporary art, and shouted down the director of one of the country’s Jewish museums with slogans such as “Zionism is a crime,” they affirmed the belief of many here that anti-Israeli rhetoric is just a step away from antisemitism.

Against that backdrop, some Jewish Berliners see criticism of Israel as much more than a foreign policy dispute. “I’m an aggressive Zionist for only one reason: because I want to survive,” Maxim Biller, author of the novel “Mama Odessa” and one of the country’s leading columnists, told me over coffee. “And I can be a German writer with a Jewish project here only because there is a state of Israel.”

Naturally, there is a German compound noun for that interdependence, endlessly slung around and debated in the past few months. The word is Staatsrason, or “reason of state”: a national interest that is not just nonnegotiable but existential, defining the state as such. Angela Merkel, the former chancellor, described Israel’s security as Germany’s Staatsrason in a historic address to the Knesset in 2008. Her successor, Olaf Scholz, has repeatedly invoked Staatsrason in his defenses of Israeli policy since Oct. 7.

“Staatsrason means: The existence of Israel is a condition of possibility for the existence of Germany,” said Johannes von Moltke, a professor of German cultural history at the University of Michigan, who is in Berlin. “Because if there is no Israel, then Germany’s guilt is all-consuming again. And you can’t countenance that possibility.”

In other words, the cultural crackup of the past few months only appears to be part of an international conflict. It is, in fact, resolutely German. What is really being fought over here is a hazy, transcendent national concept that, since Oct. 7, has overtaken more firmly constitutional principles of free expression and free association.

The tensions have been building since at least 2019, when the federal parliament adopted a resolution designating the movement calling for a boycott of Israel as antisemitic, and urging local governments and “public stakeholders” not to fund organizations or individuals that support it. That makes a big difference here, since so many artists, writers and musicians receive generous government aid. The resolution, though nonbinding, led some cultural institutions to rescind invitations to critics of Israeli policy, and many more to take a hesitant approach.

“People in cultural institutions are risk-averse,” said Tobias Haberkorn, who edits the Berlin Review, a new literary publication. “So if they have to decide ‘Am I going to invite this or that artist with a Middle Eastern background, or not?,’ I can very well see them not inviting them. Just to avoid the potential hassle.”

Since Oct. 7, accusations of antisemitism have flown much more broadly. Some are merited. Many others are dubious. Quite a number of those accused of antisemitism have been Jewish, such as Gessen.

“There are many Jewish perspectives, and that is not being honored here in a country where the history cannot be excused,” said Peaches, who is also Jewish. “For any progressive Jewish person who is thinking about what is going on, and understanding the history of what is going on, to be called antisemitic — by Germans — is ridiculous. Never did I think in 2024 that I would be thinking about that.”

Yet, it’s worth pointing out how few of these accusations revolve around cultural production. It is rare for Berlin’s theaters or festivals to cancel someone for what they actually sing or paint or film. What gets you now are statements, posts, likes, signatures: the imperatives of social media, which are swallowing culture wholesale. Once, debates such as this would have played out in Germany’s elite press, where intellectuals clashed over the country’s moral responsibility to the past. Today, the national papers, and the institutions, too, are playing catch-up to Ruhrbarone, a small website from the provincial city of Bochum that took down Anderson and many others.

Perhaps the lowest point yet came at the end of this year’s film festival, when numerous prizewinners called for a cease-fire in Gaza; two went further, using the words “genocide” and “apartheid” to describe Israel’s actions. That prompted Germany’s culture minister, Claudia Roth, to announce an inquiry into the film festival’s governance. In a subsequent interview with Der Spiegel, Roth said that “the freedom of the arts includes curatorial responsibility,” and suggested that the festival’s organizers had to ask themselves: “Which films are being selected? How are the juries appointed?”

The festival’s outgoing artistic director, Carlo Chatrian, hit back at that government interference in an open letter, accusing German officials and news organizations of rhetoric that “weaponizes and instrumentalizes antisemitism for political means.”

Surely this city ought to have learned by now that directing culture toward political ends rarely ends well. Those who have forgotten might take a walk over to the Gendarmenmarkt, a grand central square now gashed by construction barriers, and its monumental statue of a German playwright and philosopher with a rather subtler understanding of how culture and government inform each other. His name was Friedrich Schiller, and what he saw was that the arts were not aristocratic luxuries, not decorations; they were the very motor of human freedom. The arts, Schiller taught his fellow Germans in 1795, “enjoy an absolute immunity from human capriciousness. The political legislator can bar the way to its domain, but he cannot rule within it.”

This freedom of the arts still defines Berlin, which knows better than most cities what dangers lurk when they are overregulated. It defined the Weimar Republic, when Otto Dix caricatured the powerful and August Sander photographed society without embellishment. And the postwar era, when novelists forged a new German literature in a register that definitively broke from the Nazi past. And also the Cold War, when punk bands on either side of the Wall made music in defiance of national aims. And especially the heady years after reunification, when a global generation of designers and DJs reestablished the unlovely city as Europe’s beating heart.

Lose that cultural freedom and you lose much more than a “scene.” You lose the very ground — the ground of sympathetic imagination — upon which you combat antisemitism and all other forms of bigotry. “The opportunity to experiment for creatives and artists from all over the world is one of the most important things Berlin still has going for it,” said Biesenbach. “We need to protect it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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