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Charting the Course for Culture Amidst Global Tensions: Insights from the Goethe-Institut’s Carola Lentz

In an era marked by widespread crises, both within Germany and across the globe, the role of artistic expression and cultural efforts has come under intense scrutiny. These challenging times have led to a resurgence in discussions about the essences of art and its impact on society, especially as culture becomes a critical arena for collective introspection, identity exploration, and communal growth.

Indeed, the encroachment of politics into cultural domains is far from a novel concept. Culture and art have historically served as symbolic battlegrounds, wherein a society contemplates its core values, processes formative events, and contemplates potential paths forward. Nonetheless, the contemporary incline towards illiberal tendencies positions a formidable obstacle to the indispensable functions of cultural exchange and artistic freedom.

In this complex landscape, artists, cultural workers, and intellectuals find themselves wrestling with pressing questions that impinge upon foundational liberties. These queries encompass the bounds of criticism, compulsory forms of solidarity, the selective amplification of certain voices over others, and the extent of cultural intersection with political matters.

Culture wields a formidable potential, capable of propagating ideological messages or paving the way for emancipation. Its unique power to resonate on emotional levels—through non-discursive forms such as music, imagery, performance, and the visual arts—endsows it with influence over hearts and minds. Yet, embracing the role of cultural steward is a profound responsibility, given culture’s dual capacity to enrich understanding or propagate animosity and bias.

In the German context, the conflict in West Asia has starkly divided public opinion, inciting fervent debate over cultural funding and expressive freedoms. Germany, carrying the historical onus of the Holocaust, is duty-bound to oppose any manifestations of anti-Semitism. Yet, discourses are embroiled in controversies concerning the precise delineation of anti-Semitism and where proverbial lines must be drawn. Current trends appear to restrict conversational spaces preemptively, resorting to boycotts, event cancellations, and funding threats in the wake of anticipated anti-Semitic expressions, occasionally before exchanges fully materialize.

The parameters for these red lines are not universally consistent, making vigorous debate indispensable. Nonetheless, it remains critically important that expressions of intolerance, repression, and hate-fueled rhetoric are not defended under the guise of expressive freedom. For cultural institutions, this means constantly striving for a delicate equilibrium; finding ways to construct inclusive narratives that mirror a tapestry of experiences becomes a daily negotiation.

From my background as an anthropologist, I have gleaned that too stringent control suffocates the very spirit of art and culture, which thrive upon the oxygen of curiosity and the ability to pose earnest, pertinent questions. As cultural mediators during these unrivaled times, our charge is to erect bridges of solidarity that surpass geopolitical barriers, nurturing constructive dialogues.

Since stepping into the role of President at the Goethe-Institut in November 2020, I have observed the transformative impact of digitization in bringing marginalized voices into cultural discourse and improving the infrastructure for both listening and sharing. Although digital platforms occasionally exclude those lacking in technological resources, they have nonetheless been pivotal in promoting inclusivity. For instance, the Goethe-Institut has unveiled ‘Goethe-Institut im Exil,’ a sanctuary both in a physical space in Berlin and through a digital network, for artists whose creative pursuits are hindered by censorship or conflict in their homelands.

As nations with colonial pasts labor to forge historical narratives and practices of remembrance conducive to independence and unity, it is pivotal to recognize that recollection is not a static retelling of bygone times, but a process responsive to the contemporary milieu and agendas. Thus, memories are prone to continuous amendment and realignment, to fit the present’s demands. Invariably, all acts of commemoration carry the imprint of selection and omission. Conversely, the promotion of a broader spectrum of historical experiences may unlock a shared cognizance of intertwined histories extending from the local to the global.

Today’s cultural institutions stand as bastions against singular historical portrayals. Witnessing the ongoing transcontinental exhibition of ‘Ancient Sculptures: India Egypt Assyria Greece Rome’ in Mumbai underscores the power of cultural endeavors to broaden perspectives on the annals of humanity. Similarly, the vitality of an array of artistic expressions observed in New Delhi’s ‘Critical Zones: In Search of a Common Ground’ exhibition, alongside the choreographic displays at Chennai’s March Dance 2024 festival, testifies to the dynamic exchanges and collaborative possibilities that diverse cultural landscapes offer.

The Goethe-Institut remains steadfast in its commitment to nurturing relevant, impactful cultural projects through meaningful engagement with local communities and trusted partners. Emphasizing creativity, community, and innovation from the ground up, we aspire to forge a hopeful and resilient future for all societies.

As the 2020-appointed President of the Goethe-Institut and an esteemed anthropologist, my experiences bear witness to the enduring vitality and transformative potential of culture in addressing some of the most pressing challenges of our time.