September 23, 2022

What Kind of Science Is This?: On the documenta fifteen “Expert Panel”

Marion Detjen

With the seal of approval of science, the German public has now been officially told exactly what some wanted to have known before this documenta even opened: a majority of five members of the “Panel for the Expert Scientific Monitoring of documenta fifteen” determined that “the serious problems of documenta fifteen consist not only in the presentation of isolated works with anti-Semitic imagery and statements, but also in a curatorial and organizational structural environment that allowed an anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel sentiment.” The vote passed without the signatures, but also without the protest, of the three other members. The entire committee, “as a result of the ongoing disputes about individual exhibits … still assuming a special urgency during the current exhibition,” calls on the documenta shareholders in a kind of fire department action to “stop the screening of the compilation(s) of pro-Palestinian propaganda films from the 1960s–1980s [sic] by the collective ‘Subversive Film’ shown under the name ‘Tokyo Reels Film Festival.’”

The reason given: Israel is portrayed in a “one-sided negative” way, Palestinian terrorism and the attacks of its neighboring states are not mentioned, and furthermore, if the definition of anti-Semitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is taken as a basis, an “open anti-Semitism” can be identified: in the historical film material, Israel is accused of a “fascist” character and a “genocide” against the Palestinians, and this is an equation with Nazi Germany, i.e., anti-Semitism. Danger ahead—there was a danger of inciting the audience, also because the “historical propaganda material” was not critically framed, but “affirmed as a supposedly objective factual report.” And this “danger” justifies, one must conclude, a massive encroachment on artistic freedom, to which limits must be set when incitement, anti-Semitism, or racism are involved.

The fact that scientists in commissions of inquiry and committees of all kinds accompany and legitimize political decisions with sometimes short-term, not-very-carefully-worked-out recommendations that are not based on research is nothing new in itself. But a science in the mode of a quasi supra-legal emergency, which in the name of combating anti-Semitism puts all its authority on the line to have objects in an art exhibition “stopped”—that is unusual to say the least. It does not follow from the original mandate given to the committee by the shareholders of documenta. This mandate declared the committee

responsible for an initial stocktaking of the processes, structures and receptions surrounding documenta fifteen. [They] are to make recommendations for the reappraisal and discuss which aspects require more in-depth scientific analysis. They will also advise on the analysis of possible further anti-Semitic imagery and language, as well as works already identified as anti-Semitic.

These are all things that are perfectly compatible with the role of science.

But in the account given to the media by the panel’s chairwoman, this original mandate is narrowly drawn and truncated in a way that is already gut-wrenching: the mandate, she says, was to “work through the incidents of anti-Semitism that have occurred in recent months, to look at how could this have happened, and how something like this can be prevented in the future.” In addition, she reports on a request from the shareholders, which was apparently not made public, “that we take a closer look at works that have already been identified as problematic in advance and provide assessments of them while the exhibition is still running.” And finally: “In the case of Tokyo Reels, all the members were unanimous in their opinion that a boundary was being massively crossed here and that we really can’t tolerate this, that we can’t tolerate these films being shown.” She explains the urgent need for action to stop the “effect” these films have in the exhibition “every day.”

The committee thus recommends censorship and leaves it up to state power or the documenta shareholders to decide whether they want to or can exercise it. This is not fundamentally illegitimate. If a “danger” is really great, science can certainly place itself in the service of politics and provide reasons that justify bans. Constellations in which fundamental rights are restricted on the basis of scientific knowledge exist—for example, in the pandemic. However, we have also seen here how difficult and at the same time how essential the separation between science and politics is. Science can only provide expertise, assessments, and forecasts on the basis of its own integrity, and must not have its own agenda vis-à-vis politics, which alone is responsible for drawing the consequences from the recommendations. Moreover, the pandemic has once again shown how precarious and endangered the authority that science can still claim as an institution is, and what rapid losses of trust it is confronted with, especially when it is closely linked or has to be linked with politics.

When scientists feel compelled to pull the emergency brake in social crisis situations, they should do so only with the greatest scruples, and in compliance with all the rules taught in their introductory seminars:

First, science must pose its questions in an open-ended way. However, the constant narrowing and truncation in all publicly available statements by members of the panel to date indicate that this openness to results has not been forthcoming. The statements are full of presuppositions and implications. For example, the vote of the Five asserts that “an anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel sentiment” prevails at documenta fifteen, which can hardly be the result of a comprehensive analysis at this point. It is thus a presupposition that is actually speculative, but by being placed in a subordinate clause that attributes this “problem” to the “environment,” it appears like a fact. Cleverly, one avoids the sentence “We have established that …” because this would raise questions as to how exactly this was done. The sentence “We assume that …” is also avoided. Because that would already be an indication of bias and prejudice. The Five have obviously forgotten that as scientists, even if their personal impression and parts of the media coverage make it seem evident, they must not assume that what everyone says and what their gut feeling whispers to them is true. But that is all they disclose here.

Thus, this impression remains: they find exactly what they are looking for. They leave no room for the possibility that things may behave differently than their “opinion” suggests. Openness to results means that it is also not enough to check whether the thesis can be falsified or not. Rather, it requires an engagement with the overall context, a willingness to generate new knowledge, a curiosity to learn things that are just not yet known.

The question would be, for example: How do individual works, parts of the exhibition, or the exhibition as a whole relate to Israel and the Middle East conflict and to Jews and Judaism? As a result of researching the still unknown, one would certainly also arrive at diagnoses of anti-Semitism, as is the case, by the way, in researching very many social realities, only these would then no longer be denunciatory, pointing only at the other, but embedded in complex descriptions, differentiated, linked with insight, and instructive for all involved.

Second, when science makes an assertion or claim, it must put its reasons up for discussion. The panel’s press release contains little justification, and the reasons it gives to prove that there is a “danger” of incitement in the Tokyo Reels are highly contestable. It relies on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) woolly and weakly crafted definition of anti-Semitism, which numerous states and institutions have adopted in recent years and which nevertheless, or perhaps because of it, remains open to debate. Its scientific utility would have to be weighed against other definitions, such as the Jerusalem definition. But even if one opts for the IHRA definition, talk of the “fascist” character and “genocide” of the Palestinians—wrong and annoying as it may be—does not necessarily equate with Nazi Germany and anti-Semitism. The IHRA definition is a working definition; it was developed so that with its help statements about Israel and/or Judaism can be discussed contextually as to whether or not they are anti-Semitic. But this discussion has to be done first. Instead, the definition is being misused precisely not to have the discussion, but to cut it off and create a false uniqueness—a misuse that is not the first, and certainly not the last, and one that the authoritative author of the definition, the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, Kenneth Stern, bitterly deplores.

Even if we went as far as some would probably like and categorically declared in sweeping terms any articulation of solidarity with Palestinian struggle for sovereignty to be anti-Semitic, the argument that the film materials are “affirmed as a supposedly objective factual account” would remain questionable. First of all, it must be stated that the films are out of time in their entire style, testimonies of years long past, and so far away from us and from everything that has propagandistic effectiveness today that they initially seem only bizarre and alienating to the viewers of our day. That’s the great thing about historical sources: before they allow us access to the past, they first reveal the abyss of distance that separates us from it. The Tokyo Reels Film Festival is an archive, and as such it is used and processed artistically. Even if one concludes that it contains anti-Semitism, it is about as suitable for an incitement of today’s people as porno silent films from the 1920s are for today’s sex industry. Or Kaiser Wilhelm stills in comical poses for remonarchization.

And as much as contextualization would be desirable, if one misunderstands contextualization as didacticism, as a means of directing perception and exhortation, one is greatly mistaken in its modes of effect. The head teacher who shows his students a historical source that is initially alienating for the students and considers it necessary to put up a warning sign in front of it with an authoritarian gesture creates one effect above all: the students notice that the head teacher feels provoked by the source and they come up with the idea of looking for a truth content in the source after all. I myself have no memory from my documenta visit, which took place before this “scandal,” of the contemporary commentaries that are cut into the footage, except that I found them just as bizarre and out of time in their style and aesthetics as the films themselves. If their content were indeed the affirmation of a “supposedly objective factual report,” which would have to be proven first, then it would be thoroughly refuted by the form. And that would be an artistic procedure that the board could at least discuss. Then it could still find reasons to conclude that the work is anti-Semitic, but not dangerous—at least no more dangerous than the National Socialist wall relief that alienates visitors year after year and day after day at the “Memorial” in Karlsaue Park in the immediate vicinity of documenta.

Thirdly, science is always based on a methodically controlled procedure, and a “scientific accompaniment,” one should think, will use the various methods of the represented subjects for this purpose. There are no methodological considerations in the press statements. Even though the document signed by all committee members promises “in-depth analyses of the organizational structures of documenta, the curatorial responsibility of the artistic directors, and other works … at a later date,” one would like to know now what methodological safeguards the scholars will use to ensure that they do not fall prey to their own presuppositions or the assumptions that are politically opportune at the time. What instruments do they use? If it is not supposed to be a presupposition but a result of the analysis that “an anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel sentiment” prevails at documenta fifteen and was allowed by the management, then I would be curious to see the research design. In a very primitive way, I would find it helpful to have a halfway objective overview of how many works or partial works are dedicated to the Middle East at all, how many are indisputably anti-Semitic, and how many are “discussed as anti-Semitic.”

For qualitative evaluations, however, instruments would have to be presented that allow the various contexts in which the works and their statements are situated to be elaborated and made accessible. How does the panel intend to approach the contexts in which the works were created? If I see it correctly, the panel does not include anyone who would have expertise on the history of the Middle East conflict and the (pro-)Palestinian movements of terrorist and non-terrorist varieties. The two members who bring expertise on non-European contexts—historian Facil Tesfaye and historian Elsa Clavé—did not sign the Five’s press release, nor did museum director Marion Ackermann, who has curatorial experience and expertise on context and contextualization in exhibitions. Where do we go from here? Do the Five want the contexts of creation excluded altogether? Should the panel really only be concerned with the “curatorial and organizational structural environment” as the context that supposedly or actually allowed or somehow even produced the “mood”?

In the search for context, the curatorial concept and the contents of the exhibition would have to be taken really seriously. One looming thesis would be that the most important context for almost everything undertaken and exhibited at documenta fifteen is the liberation and resistance movements since World War II—in their transnational linkages and in their attempts to form their own traditions. And surely there are art-historical methods to examine how conceptually the contexts of the works’ creation and the “environment,” the context of the exhibition itself, are related to each other.

My untested thesis would be that the curators wanted to bring these contexts into alignment, to force them together, to bring them by hook or by crook into a continuity of resistance. Then one could examine “the Palestinian cause” as a symbolic reference point in these contexts. One could, for example, take a comparative approach and first explore what function exactly this often seemingly obsessive preoccupation with the “Palestinian cause” had for individual liberation and resistance movements. This would lead to differentiated findings, which certainly justify the diagnosis of Israel-related anti-Semitism in some cases, but which could also lead us to look beyond Israel to an international order of states in which tens of millions of members of stateless minorities, a good part of them Palestinians, but also a good part of them Rohingyas and other stateless ethnic groups, who have received much less attention, are searching in vain for their place.

In addition, the context of the no-less-obsessive German debate would have to be taken into account for the examination of the exhibition contexts. After all, this would also be a working hypothesis to be considered: the artists and curators were first invited to Germany, but then, like the “guest workers” in the old days, they were treated most inhospitably, measured exclusively by German needs, and committed to German priorities. While they were confronted with racist attacks in Kassel, they were asked to deal with German sensitivities in a way that struck them as hostile, chaotic, unfriendly. For a scholarly study of documenta’s “environment,” one would have to include what tensions and resistances this German context generates, especially when it encounters contexts marked by the experience of dictatorship, justified distrust of demonstrations of power, and the need to develop strategies of resistance.

Finally, fourth, scholarship must be collegial. The state of research must be taken into account, the knowledge of others must be consulted, the criticism of colleagues must not only be endured, but solicited, actively sought, for in the end it is exclusively colleagues who, under the conditions of freedom of research and teaching, determine what is science and what is not. The Five are, of course, free to publish their own paper, as long as there is no misunderstanding that these are more than just individual opinions of committee members. What is needed now, however, is an open discussion with the other three and with the many other colleagues in the international scientific community who can contribute something to these questions.

For there is already research on most of these questions—research that, open-ended, knowledge-oriented, and innovative, always opens up and expands the discourses in politics and culture and for this reason alone opposes authoritarian straightening of discourse. Neither of the two press releases indicate where research would or should have been incorporated into the evaluations. Especially the existing long-term research projects on visual anti-Semitism at the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism (ZfA) cannot simply be ignored. Why is its collection, which is probably the largest in Europe, and the expertise and offerings of its staff and many other researchers on the contexts of the “wandering images” of anti-Semitism, not being used in a recognizable way?

The damage we are now seeing to the relationship between science and politics is enormous. In parts of the media coverage, a contrast is now being posited between white, German, sober, objective scientists and the non-white, non-German, ideologized, and emotionalized curators that can only with difficulty be thought of without charges of racism. In order to assert the scientific authority of the panel’s recommendation, habitus and charisma (“level-headed people”) and the “more than impeccable reputation” of the panel members are now invoked—more than impeccable! Because impeccable alone is not enough.

Discussion, exchange, common learning seem to be possible only in niches. This catastrophic end, the cutting of the tablecloth, the termination, is the worst and probably also intended consequence of the authoritarian straightening of discourse, which the politically instrumentalized, misguided fight against anti-Semitism brings about. For this termination, the scientific panel now bears a share of responsibility.

Originally published in German at Zeit Online, September 18, 2022.

Contemporary Art

Marion Detjen is a historian at Bard College Berlin, where she oversees the scholarship program for students from war and crisis regions. Her focus is on European migration history, German history, and the boundaries between public and private.

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