Steering art and culture in times of unrest and war | Carola Lentz of Goethe-Institut shares her thoughts

Cultural institutions can build bridges of solidarity that transcend divide and foster dialogue

April 22, 2024 02:22 pm | Updated 02:22 pm IST

‘Song of the Cosmos’, vocal symphony by performance group Crow, at Goethe-Institut/ Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi.

‘Song of the Cosmos’, vocal symphony by performance group Crow, at Goethe-Institut/ Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi.

Multiple crises in my home country, Germany, and around the world have reopened debates on the significance of artistic production and cultural work. Political intrusion into cultural spaces is not an unusual phenomenon because often culture is the symbolic arena where societies try to examine who they are, process what shapes them, and reflect on how to grow together. However, the global rise of illiberalism is increasingly challenging this vital function. 

As artists, cultural practitioners and intellectuals, our efforts to navigate ambiguities, understand diverse perspectives, and respect the rationality of alternative world-views are now constrained by questions that tend to interfere with fundamental freedoms: who are we allowed to criticise?; with whom are we expected to express solidarity?; which voices must be amplified, and which ones silenced or omitted?; to what extent should culture encompass the political? 

Culture can be, and has been in the past, used as a powerful instrument for propaganda, but also for liberation. The power of culture comes from its ability to influence people’s emotional states, particularly through formats that are not necessarily discursive, but more affective, such as music, images, performance, and art. Culture is a double-edged sword — it can embody greater understanding or be used to create more hatred and prejudice; wielding it as a cultural institution or practitioner is a great responsibility.

In Germany, for instance, I have observed that the conflict in West Asia has polarised public discussions and fuelled an intense debate on public funding of culture and the freedom of expression. I am convinced that owing to the historical weight of the Holocaust, Germany, along with its cultural institutions, must steadfastly denounce any and all instances of anti-Semitism. However, there is debate on how exactly to define anti-Semitism, and where to draw the necessary red lines. Right now, there seems to be a tendency to limit the spaces of discussion — through boycott calls, event cancellations and threats to funding — in mere anticipation of anti-Semitism, even before arguments are fully articulated.

An outreach activity at Simurgh Centre, an initiative of the Goethe-Institut/ Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi.

An outreach activity at Simurgh Centre, an initiative of the Goethe-Institut/ Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Anuj Rawat

Not everywhere in the world are the red lines defined in the exact same ways, and therefore robust debate is essential. However, it is equally crucial not to enable intolerant, repressive, and violent hate speech and actions in the name of freedom of expression. The discourse of cultural institutions thus becomes a balancing act where the urgency to create inclusive narratives that reflect varied experiences must be negotiated daily.

Listening and sharing 

As an anthropologist, I have learned that too rigid controls stifle expression that lies at the heart of human art and culture, and that curiosity permits authentic and relevant questions to emerge. As cultural arbiters in these unprecedented times, it is imperative that we build bridges of solidarity that transcend geopolitical divides and foster thoughtful dialogue. 

Since assuming the role of President of the Goethe-Institut in November 2020, I have witnessed how digitisation has opened new ways to bring unheard voices into cultural discussions and improved upon channels for listening and sharing information. Despite limitations, such as the exclusion of groups that do not have access to these mediums of communication, overall digital platforms have served as an important tool to advance inclusivity. For instance, Goethe-Institut set up a platform called ‘Goethe-Institut im Exil’, both a physical meeting place in Berlin and a digital network that serves as refuge for artists unable to pursue work in their native countries due to censorship or war. 

Carola Lentz, President of the Goethe-Institut.

Carola Lentz, President of the Goethe-Institut.

Around the world, nation-states dealing with the experience of colonialism have had to develop historical narratives and practices of remembering that support their independence and foment national unity. Memory deals with past events but always responds to agendas and exigencies in the present. This is why memories are repeatedly revised and adapted to emerging needs. At new political conjunctures, such as decolonisation and nation-building, for instance, memory makers reconsider who the heroes of their resistance are; which foundational figures are given place in the national pantheon; or what gets highlighted as precursors of independence for a nation-state. Obviously, all remembering is partial and incomplete. However, narrow or selective interpretations censor and even erase the multiple dimensions of remembrance. By contrast, encouraging a broad range of historical experiences to be remembered may help unlock a shared understanding of histories, integrating local, regional, national, and even global perspectives. 

Wider perspectives

Cultural institutions today, more than ever, need to safeguard against monolithic narratives. This is why in Mumbai it was reassuring for me to experience the ongoing transcontinental exhibition Ancient Sculptures: India Egypt Assyria Greece Rome, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, which brings to the Indian public the great and magnificent works of other cultures that were also witnesses to human history. This helps us to gain wider perspectives on the past. 

Similarly, the myriad expressions and movements at the closing choreography of the exhibition Critical Zones: In Search of a Common Ground at Goethe-Institut/ Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi recently, and an artists’ showcase at the contemporary dance festival March Dance 2024 organised by the Goethe-Institut/ Max Mueller Bhavan in Chennai, reminded me how artistic production and cultural work from different backgrounds can contribute to exciting and mutually enriching exchanges. Such experiences inspire the creative potential of societies and create avenues of cooperation.

As a cultural institution, the Goethe-Institut will continue to support cultural projects and exchanges that are relevant and impactful because they are developed meaningfully with local communities and trusted partners through collaborative and participatory processes. With a bottom-up focus on creativity, friendship, and innovation, we wish to contribute to a positive and resilient future for all. 

The writer is an internationally acclaimed anthropologist, and since 2020, the President of the Goethe-Institut.

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