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Arts

Germany's leading arts collective calls for dialogue with AfD to protect artistic freedom

Is artistic freedom in Germany at risk? After the AfD party's strong showing in elections, Germany's leading culture organization says it may be. It wants to invite AfD politicians to the theater in response.

Deutschland Olaf Zimmermann (C) Imago/J. Heinrich

Head of Germany's Kulturrat, Olaf Zimmermann, called for an open dialogue with AfD party representatives on the role of politics in the arts.

Germany's Kulturrat is an association of 246 culture organizations nationally, and acts both as a consultant in politics when it comes to cultural matters and as a representative for the interests of those in the cultural arena at the political level.

After the advance of the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) in three of Germany's states during elections on Sunday (14.3.16), the Kulturrat sent out an open call for opposition. Olaf Zimmermann, head of Germany's Kulturrat, spoke to DW's Gaby Reucher to explain why the AfD's representatives have to be given clear, strict boundaries from the start.

DW: The Alternative for Germany (AfD) is perhaps best known for its anti-refugee and anti-EU stance, but in the election program from the state of Saxony-Anhalt, it became clear that the party has its eye on cultural politics as well. What do you think this means for culture?

Olaf Zimmermann: The party has won enough votes in three state elections to gain parliamentary seats. In Saxony-Anhalt, the numbers were so high that they are now the second-largest party and the opposition leader since the other parties don't want to cooperate with them. In Germany, we forget that this means that as members of the opposition, they are afforded a number of rights because although they do not comprise a majority, the strongest opposition party does get to chair committees. That's an important position in the state parliament. And heaven forbid they take over the Committee on Arts and Culture. Via the household budget, the AfD can also shape how money is budgeted. Of course, we are then worried enough to keep an eye on what happens in cultural policies.

In their election program for Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD clearly outlined what their ideas of cultural policies are.

The AfD's manifesto says very clearly what they mean with cultural policies: the maintenance of Germany's core culture, identity-establishing cultural care in lieu of insignificant entertainment. That museums, orchestras and theaters shall in future be in the service of putting out a positive view of the homeland, that more classical German pieces should be performed and so forth. They're swinging toward the direction of a cultural censor, something that we, in Germany, already have two negative experiences with - under National Socialism and under East Germany - and that we no longer want to have.

One would think, however, that such ideas - even on the overall political level - aren't something that can be pushed through in Germany today.

Unfortunately, I absolutely don't believe that anymore. I'm very concerned, especially when I look to our neighbors. If you had told me a year ago that what is happening in Hungary or Poland would occur, I would've brushed you off and said, "That will never happen again!"

It shows though, that there is no guarantee in this area except to say that we need to continue to fight the fight anew. In Saxony-Anhalt, the cat was let out of the bag; in the other two states, we'll have to keep an eye on what cultural policies they will introduce as part of their program.

It's really a paradigm shift. Our politics don't change with the wind, decisions made according to the flavor of the day; instead it tries to develop a framework for good policies. The AfD believes that when they obtain power, they can shape art and culture. But that simply isn't the case. Even should they have power, they can't just form the art at will. That's where we need to let the AfD know that they can't do that with us - that we will massively protest this.

Artistic freedom is already something enshrined in our legal system; the boundaries have already been established.

Absolutely. They won't have this power, as the protection of artistic freedom has already been established in our constitution. Here we have to be loud and clear and make this known; that we cannot simply sit back and believe that is taken for granted. One cannot assume that it won't be so bad. It has become bad. It's a real crack in the seams that in one state nearly one-quarter of those who voted, voted AfD. It's not a laughing matter, but a punch in the face, something that will affect the arts. There's quite a bit of interest at the moment as to how the other parties will react to the question and how they will keep the AfD in line as far as the arts are concerned.

Just to be clear, because of the law protecting artistic freedom, the AfD cannot in any way affect the concert programs at the philharmonic or the opera house. One needs to clearly separate what the aims of the AfD are and what they can actually do.

Right, they can't limit the program offerings. But I could imagine that some of the representatives of the AfD would attempt to lead the discussion in that direction. It's a ridiculous notion that too few German pieces are being performed. So the first request to these representatives is to, first of all, visit these halls of culture and see for themselves what all takes place there. I believe that in doing so, their awareness will be raised and perhaps change. As it is on us as artists to work with these new politicians and convince them.

"Identity-establishing cultural maintenance in place of insignificant entertainment," is written into their election manifesto. That's a very clear judgment and stance. How dangerous is this line of thinking? Is it enough to say, please take a look at our performance schedule and see how culture has been presented to date?

That's precisely the point. In Saxony-Anhalt, we had two dictators, one after the other, who abused the arts in order to advance their own policies within the greater society. National Socialism followed by the East German state government taught us the need for the separation between politics and culture.

The instrumentalization of the arts is a big problem and in this case, we need to speak with the actors to see if they are even aware of what they have written into their election program and the implications and associations made in it. In this case, we have to argue our case with the representatives of the AfD, as we cannot simply ignore the numbers of people who elected them.

Likewise, I find it absolutely okay to have a debate over our values. In values I don't mean specifically German values but universal values, those of human rights and equality, freedom of speech and artistic freedom. But we should not be having these discussions only as a reaction to an event. We have to say that we uphold these values are for all people, not only for Germans. This is a discussion that we need to lead - not one that we should allow the AfD or other right-wing parties to lead us into.

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