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  • “These cultural entities must be free from state interference”: The exposed divisions of Berlin’s cultural sector

Editor's Column

“These cultural entities must be free from state interference”: The exposed divisions of Berlin’s cultural sector

Our Art Editor reflects on the Berlin Cultural Senate's self-declaration against “any form of antisemitism”, and what it could have meant for the city's cultural sector.

Demo of cultural workers on January 8th outside the Abgeordnetenhaus. Photo: Sandra Teitge

The war in the Middle East and the public discourse around it have exposed serious divisions in Berlin’s cultural sector. Artists – concerned they will have shows cancelled – have been reluctant to speak out about the conflict. Meanwhile, institutions – already struggling to find a response that their staff and members could all agree on – had to contend with the Berlin Cultural Senate’s attempt to force them to sign a self-declaration against “any form of antisemitism” as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Failure to do so would result in a loss of state funding and, in the case of Oyoun cultural centre, potential closure.

The self-declaration, introduced at the start of January, contained a controversial clause that its critics claimed would “serve to create an administrative basis for disinviting and cancelling events with cultural workers who are critical of Israel”. After a significant backlash, the controversial clause was withdrawn in late January.

Berlin’s Senator for Culture, Joe Chialo (CDU), the driving force behind the declaration’s introduction, admitted: “I have to take seriously the legal and critical voices that saw the introduced clause as a restriction on artistic freedom.”

The whole episode marked an extraordinary chapter in Berlin’s cultural history. Had the implementation of the self-declaration gone through, Germany’s most liberal city would have become a testing ground for the instrumentalisation of state funding, jeopardising Berlin’s hard-fought reputation as a bastion of progressive thinking.

The success of the Berlin-based cultural producers who led opposition to the clause cannot be downplayed. Their 6,000-name petition swayed public opinion, helping to force the Senate to realise that it is not the “task of the cultural administration to define the social boundaries of freedom of art”.

The anti-discrimination clause would have imposed a form of bureaucratic control over cultural production.

Far better to leave it up to Berlin’s diverse array of institutions. These cultural entities must be free from state interference, so they can meaningfully challenge Germany’s views, attitudes, history and foreign policy. This is only possible if they remain fully independent and separate from state control.

For some artists, however, the measured response of certain institutions was simply not enough. Late last year, the South African Jewish artist Candice Breitz accused the state-funded Akademie Der Künste – one of Germany’s oldest and most revered institutions – and its director, Jeanine Meerapfel, of being “vague” and “toothless” in their official response to the infringement on artistic freedom.

Artist Candice Breitz is at the forefront of the debate. Photo: IMAGO / gezett

It came as Breitz’ upcoming exhibition at the Saarlandmuseum in Saarbrücken was cancelled after she was accused of being antisemitic. According to Breitz, who has described the October 7 attack as a “horrific loss of innocent lives in Israel”, the accusation was a result of her refusal to “unquestioningly endorse Israel’s bombardment” of Gaza.

The cancellation seems only to have galvanised Breitz, who continues to speak out against Israel’s attacks and relished Chialo’s humiliating climbdown. But whether you agree with her views or not, she should have the freedom to express her opinion without fear of cancellation. Artists, curators and cultural workers must have the leeway to try things out, to interrogate, question and, even at times, get things wrong.

The introduction of the anti-discrimination clause would have imposed a form of bureaucratic control over cultural production, disregarding the art and culture sector’s ability to self-regulate and scrutinise the actions and opinions of individuals and governments. It’s an act that fundamentally undermines the complex and ambiguous freedoms that make art and culture so essential to a free and progressive society.