Something Is Rotten in Germany’s Arts Sector

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BERLIN — Museums are strange. Serving as one of few establishments claiming to represent both the past and the future, their colossal mandate warrants scrutiny, more so in Berlin than in most other places. For a couple of decades after East and West Germany shook hands and collapsed walls in 1989, state-funded art institutions affirmed their progressive outlook by winking at their histories: How could we not set the groundwork for an equitable tomorrow when judging our deeds of yesteryear? Bureaucrats and politicians were eager to rebrand the metropolitan as a capital of culture. Doing so meant pouring hefty amounts of state funds into museums, festivals, and galleries such as the Berlinale festivals, the House of World Cultures, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, the New Society for Visual Arts, and more. Investing in cultural capital promised returns in economic revenues. These are just some noticeable examples of progressive spaces that put taxpayers’ earnings to good use.

This seems like a calculated quid pro quo, bartering that pleases officials and cultural workers alike. But while Germany presented itself then as an indulging patron of the arts to the public and private institutions it funded, it simultaneously demolished shared cultural spaces. Creativity has been privatized. Communes and squats around town were struck down as police charged in. First it was Mainzerstraße in 1990. Then Kreuzigerstraße, Rosenthalerstraße, Liebigstraße, and Yorckstraße. All were cleansed with tear gas and a fair amount of police brutality, as well as a political interest in changing the demographics of neighborhoods and ridding them of anarchist movements that bred an aesthetic and existence that were later subsumed and absorbed into financial speculation; places of creative conviviality were mutating into real estate fodder. 

Matters have plummeted since, making it close to impossible to envision art and culture in the city without such interference. Bars in Berlin with political events are constantly policed. Muslim cultural centers are forced to shut down, as often happens in the predominantly migrant neighborhoods in the city. Vigils for Palestine are quashed. Talk about a “culture of remembrance,” huh? Swaths of Berliners are unable to create and converse under the conditions most fitting to their needs. In fact, there is a name for a condition such as this one that supresses  all attempts to generate alternative forms of production and expression: monopoly.

Many Berliners are growing estranged from the cultural institutions our taxes fund. Hard as it is for someone like me to admit, economic hardships and the dwindling number of unclaimed spaces have forced many of us to be far more conservative than preceding generations. Heatless and lacking political imagination, we no longer envision barging into abandoned housing and kickstarting the world afresh. The best we could aspire to is serving as functionaries in a museum.

Proclamations of freedom without means for its collective realizations define museums, galleries, and other art institutions in Berlin. Whereas art communes of the ’90s and early aughts such as the fabled Kunsthaus Tacheles once hosted, presented, and offered amenities for dozens of artists from all corners of the earth, its current successor, Fotografiska Berlin, exclusively showcases just three exhibitions at a time yet has the audacity to host panel discussions about inclusivity in the arts. Entering Fotografiska Berlin, its walls remain encrusted with the artworks of its former residents. Their paintings and interventions are on full display — taxidermied moments of a once-wildlife that are staged as trophies. Just as a hunter would in a cabin. This is a rotten apparatus. So let’s take it a step further. We should call the assumption that a select few who operate in and benefit from private institutions can represent the needs of the 99% what it really is: trickle-down economics. But faith in private art funds promising that decolonization and diversification at the top will filter down to generate cultural growth and political emancipation is not uncommon. Who are the artists and thinkers who participate in such a farce?

Thanks to selective governmental investment in the arts within Germany, a sad joke has emerged. State-funded “radicals.” Cultural workers who want to have their cake and eat it, too. Bashing Germany while pampered in the bourgeois living it provides them. Maybe such a pairing granted mutual benefits. But since October 7 and the ongoing besiegement of Gaza, the bond between the German cultural sector and those it sponsored went down the drain. Exhibitions of Palestinian artists and their supporters are called off seemingly every other week. Events with Jewish participants who challenge the German state apparatus are getting canceled by government-funded institutions for alleged antisemitism. In one dire case, the Berlin Senate for Culture pushed for and then dropped a clause stipulating that public funds for artistic projects would depend on the recognition of Israel. Whatever one might think of the bureaucratization of historical trauma and geopolitical reparations, most of us can agree that a blind obligation to any societal structure, from a government to an art institution, is antithetical to the very notion of artistic practice, critical thinking, and the avant-garde on which Berlin’s political forces wish to capitalize. While this troubling stipulation was revoked in January thanks to the persistent demonstration of cultural workers, both anti-Palestinian resentment and antisemitism are still a huge problem in the German cultural sector.

Unfortunately, I’ve learned this from personal experience. As a former editor for a Berlin-based art journal that was occasionally state-funded, a coworker and I were summoned by municipal representatives to attend a hearing last July for a decision I made to publish an interview with a Palestinian nonviolent resister. Taking place months before the first bullet was fired in the current siege, the German bureaucrats at the hearing described the decision I made as an Israeli Jew to be antisemitic and promoting hatred of Jews. Our meeting concluded with an unspoken suggestion: Avoid publishing about such matters in the future, or be prepared to kiss your funding goodbye.

As the saying goes, politicians always have two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason. The so-called good reason for growing political interventions in the arts is that the German government proclaims it is targeting Palestinians, Muslims, Arabs, and human rights advocates who happen to be migrants in order to combat the rise in antisemitism. This notion is known in Germany as imported antisemitism. Now, could it be that some migrants hold antisemitic beliefs about Jews? Absolutely — just as Israelis in Germany may have resentment and hatred against Muslims. Yet there is no public debate surrounding imported Islamophobia. But perhaps one true reason for these political interventions is an economic one. Recessions and expenditures affect cultural organizations. Yet since the state cannot declare that it no longer has the resources to invest in arts and culture, moralization and policing have taken hold as a distraction. We should also keep in mind that the ongoing silencing of Palestinian and Jewish leaders in Berlin takes place under the watch of a conservative coalition, most likely as a means of attracting swing voters away from the neo-fascist Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) party. 

Make no mistake: Governmental investment in cultural establishments is remarkable and effective in the majority of cases. But it can stifle rather than prompt innovation. Would art forms like graffiti, hip hop, and techno have emerged as global cultural phenomenons were a state sponsorship or the interests of private companies responsible for their development, or condition their emergence to their own interests? Hardly. Creative output necessitates unlimited margins of trial and error in order to bloom; these conditions of spontaneous conduct, removed from economic and political speculation, once made Berlin attractive. If the city wishes to return to that, the creation of its art demands a return to anarchism.

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