There is an uncomfortable moment in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich when the actors pause. The play, ostensibly about the Hindu deity travelling to Germany to reclaim the swastika, an ancient Sanskrit symbol, from the Nazis, comes to a halt as they remove their costumes—an elephant head and a SS armband—turn to face the audience, and ask: “Do we have the right to perform this?” None of the actors are Hindu or Jewish. Many have physical and mental disabilities but act the roles of Hitler and Josef Mengele, who tried to exterminate those similarly handicapped. Later, an actor drops out of character again, to accuse the crowd: “You’ve come to see some freak porn.
The questions raised—who has the right, as an artist or performer, to depict experiences they have no experience of; just who has the right to say what about whom—are apposite to today. They touch on a burgeoning assumption threatening the arts: Only particular people can tell the story of particular experiences.
The travelling Exhibit B, by the white South African artist Brett Bailey, is a recreation of a human zoo from the 19th century that features 12-14 African performers from the host city and a choir of Namibian singers exhibited as artifacts. It’s meant to provoke a conversation about slavery, colonization, and present-day racism, but many protesters accuse it of being racist itself.
In London in September, the Barbican pulled the entire run of Exhibit B after a petition calling on the arts center “not to display” the work achieved 22,988 signatories and criticized Exhibit B as “simply an exercise in white racial privilege.” In November, the premiere at the Théâtre Gerard Philipe was cancelled after activists breached the barricades and smashed the glass doors of the lobby; over two-hundred police were needed to ensure that the show went on the rest of the week. And most recently there have been ugly scenes outside Le Centquatre in northern Paris, where Exhibit B is programmed to run until the middle of December. Riot police are on standby, as audience members defy hundreds of angry protesters holding placards that read, “Annulex Exhibit B.”
Protesters gather at the Vaults Gallery. Photograph: Thabo Jaiyesimi/Demotix/Corbis
This is no isolated case. In New York, we saw something similar with the response to the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, a work that has been consistently dogged by protests which claim it is anti-Jewish. Indeed, over the past year there have been a number of similar protests against artworks, in Paris, Edinburgh, and much of Europe, which suggests that the culture wars have arrived in Old World. In Spain, this autumn, Christians demanded the removal of the artwork Cajita de fósforos—a matchbox with the quote, “The only Church that illuminates is the one that burns”—from the show Really Useful Knowledge.