The documenta 2022 art exhibition will take place from June 18 to September 25 in the central German city of Kassel, bringing together artists from around the world who address today’s global challenges in their work – from climate change and digitalization to social upheaval and political radicalization.

However, for months, the exhibition, which takes place only once every five years, has been surrounded by controversy.

The first accusation was made in January: in an anonymous blog post, an anti-Semitism alliance criticized Ruangrupa, the Indonesian curatorial team behind the 15th edition of documenta.

The authors of the message claimed that a collective of Palestinian artists involved in the exhibition were anti-Semitic, as the artists supported the cultural boycott of Israel.

Ruangrupa, documenta and Museum Fridericianum gGmbH, the nonprofit that supports the show, denied the charges.

Documenta’s supervisory board, and even Claudia Roth of the Green Party, Germany’s Minister of State for Culture and Media, also supported the documenta team.

Documenta aims to address contemporary issues, including the current war in Ukraine

Ruangrupa released a statement in which they rejected attacks on artistic freedom, but came out in favor of political neutrality and declared their willingness to engage in dialogue.

A forum was planned in May to discuss the “fundamental right to artistic freedom in the face of anti-Semitism, racism and Islamophobia” and three online discussions were planned for May 8, 15 and 22, under the title “It we need to talk !”

Yet, in a surprising twist, the events were canceled just days before they were due to take place.

Round tables removed

“Documenta has decided, in consultation with various participants, to suspend the series of events scheduled for May 8, 15 and 22, 2022, ‘We must speak! Art – Freedom – Solidarity'”, the organizers of the event announced in a statement on the show’s website on May 4.

Documenta “will open the exhibit and let it speak for itself first, as a basis for further discussion in a productive way,” organizers said.

“At this time, documenta’s intended purpose for the series of discussions – to open a multi-perspective dialogue beyond institutional frameworks in the perspective of documenta 15 – is unfortunately not feasible.”

Nevertheless, writes the organization, it is very important “that this thread of conversation is not cut”.

The group wrote that the documenta aims to “build on the existing approach to discussion” during the months the show will be in Kassel. It seems that the organizers are responding to concerns that have again been raised in the public sphere in recent days.

A portrait of Claudia Roth looking into the camera.

Claudia Roth, Germany’s Minister of State for Culture and Media, approved the initial decision to hold talks

Not everyone is happy with the talks

The choice of guests invited to participate in the discussions sparked controversy, as suggested by a letter from the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, to Roth.

Schuster did not make his letter public, and DW’s requests to see it went unanswered. But the German news agency dpa reported key passages. According to Schuster, the only way to fight anti-Semitism is “clear confessions and resolute political action at all levels of politics, art, culture and society”.

It remains unclear whether or not a representative of the Central Council of Jews wanted to sit at the discussion table, or whether Schuster disagreed with the selection of experts.

One of the discussions, for example, addressed, according to the documenta announcement, the differences in “the German and international understanding of anti-Semitism and racism”, while another dealt with the “phenomenon of racism anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian”. The people involved in the events came from a variety of backgrounds.

Joseph Schuster speaks into a microphone on a podium.

Josef Schuster, the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, wrote a letter expressing his dissatisfaction with the documenta

Berlin-based Islam scholar Schirin Amir-Moazami was scheduled to attend, as were Israeli author Omri Boehm and anti-Semitism researcher Marina Chernivsky, who is also an adviser to the federal government’s commissioner for Jewish life in Germany.

The Minister of Culture of the Land of Hesse, Angela Dorn, who is also vice-president of the supervisory board of documenta, had initially hosted the panel of experts, thanks to her “voices from different fields such as research on the ‘Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, Colonialism and Racism Research, Land Rights Studies, Indigenous Studies, Law, Media, Art and Culture.’ Negotiating the topic of artistic freedom in this case, she said, that’s fine. The importance and defense of Israel’s right to exist, Dorn said, is inextricably linked to Germany’s historical responsibility.

This article was originally written in German.