A Struggle in the House of Art

A wave of politicised hirings and firings in the public theatres and art galleries of Germany show an 'anti-globalist' trend turning into open nationalism.

In September, workers stood outside Munich’s Haus der Kunst (House of Art) dressed in boiler suits and identical grim, white masks, holding a banner: NO OUTSOURCING. Sparse numbers added to the pathos. The gallery had announced in July that two thirds of its workforce would be outsourced to private firms. It is a story identical with that of casualised art workers around the world, except that – as the Haus der Kunst’s website acknowledges – its history is not just any history.

Commissioned to sanctify Munich as the art capital of Third Reich, the Haus der Deutschen Kunst opened with the Great German Art Exhibition in 1937. It was designed to nullify the trajectory of international modernism shown in the Degenerate Art exhibition, held concurrently in the gloomy corridors of the nearby Institute of Archaeology. Under a trio of curators since 1992 – Christoph Vitali, Chris Dercon and Okwui Enwezor – the Haus der Kunst developed a new mission as a global destination for contemporary art, underpinned by a public-private partnership. Vitali brought the workforce in-house. They were to wear their own clothes and act not as functionaries but as individuals. The purpose was to graft a human face onto a building that had been constructed to obliterate human scale. His successors continued the tradition, which they saw as essential to the museum’s identity. A petition against outsourcing now circulates online with the hashtag #individualiätstattuniform – “individuality not uniform”. 

Munich’s Haus der Kunst is at the centre of a disturbing trend in German cultural politics, whereby artistic directors are hostage to political approval. Internationalist and postcolonial positions are under fire, as are those highlighting the migrant experience. As recession applies pressure to Germany’s generous arts budget, there are questions about using local funds to finance internationalist programmes. However, artistic directors stress that their work requires a global approach. Bernd Scherer, director of Berlin’s House of World Cultures, explains it like this: “There are situations in which [existing concepts] can no longer adequately represent reality. That is our present situation… Our society can no longer be understood without thinking about the rest of the world.” 

This takes place in the context of a far-right surge since the formation of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in 2013. The AfD now has 11-15% of German seats in the EU, federal, and state parliaments, and polls at over 30% in parts of the former East. In state elections in Brandenburg in early September, the AfD took second place, just three percentage points behind the SPD. It is entirely possible that it will take control of its first senate when Thuringia goes to the polls on October 27th. But the far right is not the only force behind cultural conservatism, which cuts across the political spectrum with the collaboration of entrenched cultural elites. This not only normalises AfD positions by establishing common ground with mainstream cultural politics but strikes against the freedom of artists to develop new strategies to reveal the world we inhabit.

In the last two years, three of the world’s most prominent artistic directors have been driven out of Germany’s leading state institutions. The reason that this has happened so transparently in Germany is that leaders of state-funded institutions are hired and fired by the responsible ministry, whether that’s the city of Berlin, the state of Brandenburg, or the federal government. This has the benefit of avoiding bureaucracy but puts artistic directors at the mercy of political factionalism and electioneering. Germany is the canary in the mine of cultural politics, not just because of how appointments are made, but because its cultural policy has been – until now – one of Europe’s most liberal.

The first to go was Chris Dercon, who was forced to resign within a year of taking over Berlin’s Volksbühne in 2017. Located in former East Berlin, the Volksbühne is rooted in the radical workers’ theatre movement. Since 1992 it had been helmed by Frank Castorf, whose punk aesthetic became synonymous with post-reunification Berlin and stood as a symbol of East German resistance to the new political settlement. By 2017, Castorf had been in post for quarter of a century and what began as a radical aesthetic position had ossified into a style propped up by cultural power. It had become, in the words of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung‘s Hubert Spiegel, “the revolt that no longer knows any historical goal except its own permanence”.

The programme designed by Dercon’s team attempted to interrogate theatre for the twenty-first century, building German theatre into an internationalist, cross-artform remit that included online performances and public discussions. Castorf’s supporters positioned this as a battle between an indigenous leftist avant-garde (Castorf) and the neoliberal forces of the global art market (Dercon). The reality was more complicated. The result was an almighty turf war. All Berlin’s grievances – rocketing rents, squat clearance, nostalgia for the 90s, a surfeit of struggling artists and the widespread use of English – were decanted into a symbolic battle that peaked in a week-long occupation of the Volksbühne. Sneering attacks on ‘global’ – as semaphore for anything other than indigenous German – culture prompted German-Japanese artist and academic Hito Steyerl to remark on its proximity to the rhetoric of populist nationalism and the ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ slur used in East Germany against the composer and Brecht collaborator Hanns Eisler.

Within two months of Dercon’s resignation, the Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor stood down as director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, officially for health reasons – he passed away within the year – but the circumstances of his resignation were strange. In 2017, Enwezor was held accountable for bizarre scandals and annual financial losses, even though the scandals preceded his tenure and losses were approaching the half million-euro mark before his arrival. The CSU-run Bavarian government had tried the same gambit on Vitali in 2002, but was pulled up for it by Die Welt (Germany’s national paper of record), which noted a history of ‘chronic underfinancing’ and pointed out that Bonn’s comparable Kunsthalle had five times the budget of the Haus der Kunst’s meagre €3 million. That the Haus der Kunst proved influential around the world is testament to the ingenuity of its curators. Had they gone ahead, Enwezor’s trilogy of exhibitions – Post-War, Postcolonial and Postcommunism – promised to functionally rewrite the history of modern art as global and make a comprehensive attempt to supply a narrative that illuminates the strange ideological space we are in. They were cancelled after the first instalment.

Four months before Enwezor’s departure, the Bavarian culture ministry hired Bernhard Spies, commercial director of Kunsthaus Bonn and local politician for the CSU’s sister party, the Christian Democrats, to provide financial oversight. As Enwezor worked on an El Anatsui exhibition from his hospital bed, Spies unilaterally cancelled Joan Jonas and Adrian Piper retrospectives, replacing them with solo shows dedicated to Jörg Immendorff and Markus Lüpertz. Backed up by dog-whistle suggestions in local newspapers that his successor ought to speak German, Enwezor was blamed for ‘management mistakes’ that implied fault for the slow train-wreck caused by underfunding. Jörg Heiser, writing in Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, suspected stealth privatisation and noted the symbolism of replacing works by female artists who pioneered new artforms and discourses around race with paintings by German men. 

Since 2015, Matthias Lilienthal has run the Münchner Kammerspiele (Munich’s city theatre) as an ongoing investigation of what contemporary theatre can be. He departs in 2020. The theatre established solidarity with migrants by creating an open border ensemble of Syrian actors to address the (post-) migrant experience. Its main ensemble is made up of several nationalities. Its productions break down traditional disciplinary boundaries: they are genuinely innovative without lapsing into gimmickry and inclusive without succumbing to patronising tokenism. Invited artists are those who, like Rabih Mroué, work between countries, across contemporary art, theatre and performance. The programme is consistent with the curatorial strategy Lilienthal developed at Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer theatre complex, which grew out of Berlin’s subcultures, and is held together by the aesthetic rigour for which German theatre is known.

Like Dercon and Enwezor, Lilienthal prioritised work that grapples with the present from a perspective that is globally oriented yet rooted in its location. Unlike them, he is German. Even so, he was targeted by the conservative Bavarian government, which pointed to audience figures of 63% and made allegations of financial losses that were dropped after Lilienthal threatened legal action. Comments by CSU spokesman Richard Quaas made clear that, as in the case of Enwezor and Dercon, financial questions provided cover for other motives: “The time for financial and artistic experiment is over”, he has said. “Munich is not culturally the same as Berlin. Nor does it want to be.” In August, Lilienthal was vindicated at Germany’s biggest theatre awards, where the Kammerspiele swept the board.

Progressive aesthetics in Germany is not dead but it is under attack. In Stuttgart, the AfD has required state institutions to provide information on the training and nationality of their artists. In nearby Austria, Nicolaus Schafhausen, curator of Kunsthalle Wien, stood down this year, citing a lack of political support in confronting a climate of nationalism. German artists and institutions were sufficiently concerned in 2017 to form a nationwide solidarity network to defend their commitment to an open society and international mindset. In Munich, the two largest left-leaning parties in the Bavarian parliament have intervened over the Haus der Kunst. The Greens’ culture representative, artist and filmmaker Sanne Kurz, presented a position paper to the Bavarian parliament in September describing the CSU’s handling of the Haus der Kunst as a “nuclear-grade disaster” and calling for a public debate. The SPD has promised to oppose the outsourcing of workers. 

As history has shown, at times of crisis, cultural politics becomes the field of battle: it is no coincidence that the Haus der Deutschen Kunst was the first major construction of the Third Reich. Cultural populism plays out according to a reliable pattern. First come protests against progressive artists by local conservative groups – sometimes astroturfed, but often authentic. This happened in Russia and Poland before it happened in Germany. Then come bad reviews by a conservative commentariat – a problem that beset Lilienthal in Munich. After that, it can go one of two ways. In the first case, politicians who are keen to suppress artists take advantage of political cover to do so, often claiming financial irregularities or poor turnout. In Russia, following protests from local conservative groups, Kirill Serebrennikov, director of the Gogol Centre, was imprisoned on the pretext of embezzlement. But it is the second, subtler approach that is far more likely and has wider implications. Directors of state-run intuitions rely on moral and financial support from their political paymasters. If politicians turn off that tap, an artistic director’s position becomes untenable. Lilienthal, Schafhausen and Enwezor all claimed a failure of political support. None of them were fired. All of them resigned.

The experience of artists in Western European democracies is beginning to resemble that of more obviously authoritarian countries. At the same time, there is no shortage of struggling reactionary artists only too happy to gain access to state-funded institutions. Events in Germany offer a relatively transparent example of how easily this can occur. The irony is that all this is happening because our reality has changed. Existing institutions and artforms can no longer model it. Progressive artists are trying to evolve new ones that do, so that we can all make better sense of it. “It is the wretched duty of politics to protect the freedom of creative artists, so that they can work independently and sustainably,” Simone Barrientos, Die Linke’s parliamentary spokesperson for culture, told the Bundestag in September. The time has come for political activists to heed those words and pursue solidarity with artists. Cultural conservatism is not merely a product of political authoritarianism, it can also create it. In countries such as the UK, where artistic appointments are made by bureaucratic quangos rather than ministers, we should be especially vigilant.

About the Author

Sam Williams is a theatremaker and writer on art and politics, working between the UK and Germany. She would like to thank Christian Hartwig-Steinau, a researcher at Munich University, for sharing documents and photos used in the preparation of this article.