The White Hut and the Städel Museum

In late June 2020, rantyluisa posted a text on Instagram in which the author called on the Städel Museum to take down a painting by Georg Herold called "Ziegelneger". The painting shows a mob of agitators with a brick flying towards a dark-skinned figure and a green traffic light with the head of the person being attacked. This depiction of a racist act of violence entered the Städel Museum's collection as a private donation in 2015 and has been on display at the museum since this year. Rantyluisa informed the Städel Museum that in her eyes the picture had no aesthetic value, but was a poorly made display of violence against Black people.

In a perfect world, the curator of the exhibition, Martin Engler, and the director of the museum, Philipp Demandt, would have apologised, admitted that they had misread the picture and talked to rantyluisa, beheardffm and other stakeholders of Black people about how to deal with this depiction of violence. But as we know, we do not live in such a world. In Germany, the dignity and equality of all people are enshrined in the Basic Law, but who talks to whom is finely balanced. To this day, the masters of the city hide behind the concept of artistic freedom, deny any wrongdoing, and the painting continues to hang in the museum.

The White Hut

Yana Tsegay in front of "The White Hut": "The stairs to the Olympus of art are different distances for everyone".

A few weeks later, the exhibition OADE #2 - Developing the Green Cube, curated by KVTV, takes place in a semi-public garden. For the exhibition, Frankfurt-based artist Yana Tsegay has created The White Hut. Tsegay is the founder and first director of The White Hut. A good fifty visitors have come to the opening and listen to the eloquent young woman. She stands in front of the new institution and gives a speech whose choice of words, gestures and facial expressions correspond to the usual style of opening speeches in the art world. In her speech, Yana Tsegay talks about the aesthetic and social significance of art institutions. But something is different. The White Hut is situated in an abandoned garden hut and is a fictitious institution. The façade of the hut is dilapidated, a door is missing and a penetrating smell of smoke and barbecue emanates from the institution. It comes from a wild boar decoy, which the artist has used to paint a large drawing and the words "COLONIAL NOSTALGIA LATRINE" on the walls of the hut. The White Hut is an aesthetic intervention that positions itself against structural racism in the art world and in German society.

Tsegay and KVTV are in the tradition of Andrea Fraser and Institutional Critique. Through minimal shifts, institutional power and dismissive structures become visible and questioned. Something comes to light that would have remained hidden without this intervention. Without a word of accusation, Tsegay exposes the good looks of latent everyday racism in the art world. The complexity of The White Hut defies easy interpretation. The White Hut deals with a political issue through aesthetic means. Perhaps one might call it defensive art. The final step of cognition is left to the recipient, Tsegay trusts in the power of aesthetic reflection and the work succeeds. The freedom of art is realised as overcoming boundaries and opening up new spaces of thought and experience. With the means of art, Tsegay confronts the lack of freedom and the social lack of morality without being political herself.

In the run-up to the opening, Yana Tsegay and KVTV sent a personal letter to those responsible at the Städel Museum as well as other cultural workers and politicians in the city of Frankfurt inviting them to the opening of The White Hut in order to discuss with them how to proceed with the "Ziegeln----" matter. Only the cultural policy spokesperson of the CDU Frankfurt came. After the opening speech, he defends „Ziegeln----" in the name of artistic freedom. Provocations have to be endured, is the tenor. Different perspectives are heard, a conversation begins and for a brief moment people meet at eye level. The White Hut breaks open a bit and the CDU city councillor declares himself ready to extend another invitation to the museum management on behalf of Yana Tsegay and KVTV for a further discourse. But a few weeks later, the second approach fails. The Städel Museum also turned down the personally submitted request for a discussion. KVTV and Yana Tsegay are not recognised by the Städel. They refuse to deal with their questions, concerns and ideas. The doors of the institution remain closed, no one comes out, no one comes in. The museum is content with half-hearted announcements that the issue will be dealt with internally. The museum management has neither recognised the urgency of the issue nor does it seem to be familiar with the Frankfurt precedent on art and morality.

The Garbage, the City and Death

In 1985, the play Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod by Rainer Werner Fassbinder was to be performed at the Frankfurt Schauspielhaus. Massive resistance was formed against the performance from the Jewish community in Frankfurt am Main. Accusations of anti-Semitism were made and the confrontation culminated in an occupation of the premiere stage. The occupiers - among them Ignatz Bubis and Michel Friedmann - unfurled a banner with the inscription "subsidised anti-Semitism". There were long discussions on stage and the premiere evening ended without a performance. In the weeks that followed, the moral, political and social pressure remained immense and further attempts to stage the play again failed due to the resistance of Jewish citizens. Finally, the then artistic director Gunther Rühle cancelled the play.

Let us now imagine for a moment that the painting in the Städel is not called „Ziegeln----" but "Brick Jew". Instead of the dark-skinned figure, a light-skinned and hunchbacked person would be seen. He would have a beard, a big nose and evil glinting eyes. A brick would also be flying towards his face. To make things clear, the artist would have painted a Star of David in the green traffic light.

It is evident that the Städel would not exhibit such a painting. It would - hopefully - not even have been accepted as a donation. Should an anti-Semitic picture nevertheless find its way into the Städel, a brief look at recent Frankfurt history is enough to guess the power and determination with which Jewish citizens would take action against such a depiction. So fortunately, anti-Semitic violence will hardly be exhibited in the Städel. But why is there racist violence on display there? Why does one deal with a racist depiction of violence differently than one would with an anti-Semitic one? Is misanthropy viewed in a morally differentiated way in the Städel Museum? Or do the gentlemen of the Städel Museum even know an aesthetic difference between anti-Semitism and racism?

Then as now, a group of people feel that their dignity has been violated by an artistic work and deny the work aesthetic legitimacy and recognition in the name of morality. The facts are confusingly similar. The difference is that the Black people in Frankfurt lack the political unity and willingness to fight as well as the economic and social capital to occupy the Städel Museum or to take down the painting single-handedly. While the Jewish community succeeded in creating political pressure in the name of morality and had the play cancelled, the moral cause of rantyluisa and other Black people is not recognised. Their power is not enough to force the Frankfurt art establishment to recognise their position.

At this point at the latest, Adorno may be recalled. For all his devotion to the aesthetic reflection that a successful work of art can evoke, he always kept in mind that a work of art is always also made, always also a fait social. The freedom of art - even if it is manifested in law - is never fully realised in fact, but must remain ideal. It can only be realised together with other values, especially with the idea of equality. As long as serious social and economic inequalities exist among people, it should be the concern of the Städel Museum to counteract the obvious obstacles on the way to a free and equal society through transparent and generous scholarship and support programmes. Not, however, to defend the depiction of a racist act of violence in the name of the freedom of art.

The only way for the Städel Museum to erase the accusation of latent racism would be to put forward a rational or an aesthetic reason why a painting called "Brick Jew" would be unacceptable, but a painting called „Ziegeln----" can be legitimised as an expression of artistic freedom. Since this could only be a racist reason and thus not a reasonable or aesthetic reason, the picture must be taken down and sold. It is an expression of inequality and lack of freedom in art. As long as it remains in the Städel's collection, it is important to fight together against the painting.

Text: Leon Joskowitz for Textland, 2020

Photos: Ivan Murzin