Cultural policy Germany

Backlash in Germany at wisdom of Beijing exhibition

Artist's arrest prompts a heated debate on ethical implications for country's museums

Beijing’s National Museum of China

Two days after the “Art of the Enlightenment” (until March 2012) opened in Beijing’s National Museum of China (above), the arrest of Ai Weiwei prompted a heated debate in Germany on the ethical implications for its museums of working with authoritarian regimes. The show was jointly organised by the Berlin, Munich and Dresden state museums.

German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said that he expected the artist to be released “without delay” and stressed that while in Beijing for the opening he had spoken about the importance of freedom of speech. The €10m exhibition received E6.6m from the ministry, with the rest from sponsors.

But Martin Roth, the director of the Dresden State Art Collections, and director designate of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, appeared to downplay the matter, saying: “There are hundreds of artists like [Ai Weiwei], but no one talks about them, because they are not pop stars.” This earned a swift rebuke from the German minister for culture, Bernd Neumann, who called such comments a “mockery of a courageous artist”.

There have been many calls in Germany to cancel the show. The Nobel Prize winning author, Herta Müller, said it was “decoration for an authoritarian regime”. The president of the Bundestag, Norbert Lammert, said that he has not excluded the possibility of cutting short the show. He also criticised the museums’ directors for their “high levels of naïvety”. Criticism has increased following reports in the German press that the show is attracting relatively little interest in China.

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