Freedom of art matters a lot to most Germans – so much so that it is protected by law. But even in Germany’s democracy and with its liberal outlook, there are certain legal and moral limitations to artistic expression.
On May 10, 1933, students across Germany gathered to burn books published by renowned writers, philosophers and scientists. The events unfolded against the backdrop of the “initiative against the un-German spirit” following Hitler’s rise to power.
Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels took it upon himself to monitor every aspect of German culture and the arts. Under his supervision, the Nazis confiscated roughly 16,000 pieces of what they called “degenerate art”.
That night, bonfires across the country consumed many works published by Jewish authors – or simply by those that the regime deemed unfavorable.
Freedom of art – it’s the law
Almost to the day twelve years later, the war was over in Europe, leading to the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949.
From Germany’s new beginning, it was clear that no one wanted to see a repeat of the Nazis’ brutal crackdown on art. In article 5 of the country’s constitution, artistic freedom was set as a cornerstone of freedom of expression.
Intended to protect both creative expression and the distribution of works of art, the law employs an open-ended definition: if an artist regards his or her work as art, it’s art – whether others agree or not. This has resulted in many challenges to the law, including a number of high-profile law suits.
Innocent until proven guilty
After the deadly attacks on the French satire magazine “Charlie Hebdo” on January 7, 2015, many questioned the kind of protection the law can provide to artists and their freedom of expression. Others have challenged the very concept. suggesting that protection should be limited.
Legal expert and political activist Klaus Staeck believes that German jurisdiction does everything it can do to protect the freedom of art. The 77-year-old has had to face more than 40 lengthy law suits and won all of them.
“When in doubt, courts in Germany will decide in favor of freedom of expression. That shouldn’t be taken for granted,” Staeck told DW.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Staeck was involved in various left-wing movements protesting the political zeitgeist. A self-taught designer and artist, Staeck used poster art as his primary medium for satirical commentary on issues like poverty, the environment and nuclear proliferation.
Staeck made many enemies but gained wide recognition. In 2006, he was elected president of one of Europe’s oldest cultural institutions, the Academy of Arts in Berlin, funded by the government.
Beyond simply protecting freedom of expression, the law prescribes a state duty to promote the arts and artists. Germany is thus a world leader in arts funding; no other country subsidizes as many theaters, museums and film projects.
Promoting or undermining the arts?
Critics say, however, that government should not meddle in this sector. They fear that rather than promoting creative expression, it could result in undermining the arts. But Klaus Staeck stresses that, as head of the Academy of Arts in Berlin, he never had any such problem:
“I’ve warded off any and all attempts to limit the content we choose. And the government has always respected that in the end – despite the fact that we depend on public funding,” says Staeck, adding that rather than limiting artistic expression, government involvement helps artists to feel a sense of moral obligation and accountability.
“That’s why artists in Germany have so much solidarity with persecuted artists worldwide.”
Protecting the youth
Germans treasure their right to freedom of expression for many reasons. Nonetheless, legal restrictions exist as to what may and may not be expressed by artistic means. In this respect, Germany’s law differs widely from that of other Western democracies.
Although artistic freedom is legally protected, attacks on personal freedom can be prosecuted under criminal law in Germany, as can acts that glorify violence or the Nazis. The use of Nazi symbols is forbidden in Germany, whereas elsewhere – such as in the US – this is not an issue.
With regard to restrictions on artistic expression, protecting minors is a crucial issue in Germany. The Federal Review Board for Media Harmful to Minors (BPjM) examines all media in detail in search for content and imagery that might endanger young people.
Chairwoman Elke Monssen-Engberding says that when her organization deems a particular message in a movie, a magazine or a video game harmful to minors, strict limitations must be imposed.
“For example, we often have to pull music with racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic undertones, titles that are typically distributed by the far-right,” Monssen-Engberding told DW.
But the BPjM also fights other sources of extremism, including execution videos uploaded to the internet by the self-declared “Islamic State” (IS). Monssen-Engberding emphasizes that the focus is on the message, not on limits to the freedom of expression, explaining that the highly professional images in IS propaganda clips can have far-reaching consequences on young and impressionable people.
Censorship and self-censorship
In the United States, protections on minors with respect to media accessibility are looser. Despite this, says literary expert Susanne Scharnowski, even adults there are sometimes warned to stay clear of certain messages. Scharnowski explained to DW that some American universities have began to pay attention to content that could potentially lead to psychological damage and have censored some library books – a point of controversy.
“Some books, for example, deal with suicide. An example is ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Some universities in the States want to warn suicidal people to avoid such books. Here, that seems absurd,” Scharnowski explains.
She has observed a trend toward simplification of complex ideas, with intellectuals and artists around the world increasingly exerting self-censorship. Scharnowski cites the example of the German word “Neger,” a pejorative description of a person of color that is no longer in use. Considered potentially offensive, the word has disappeared from children’s books despite having been used in fairytales for centuries.
“I understand there’s a noble reason behind all this. People think the world will change if terms that stand for certain social problems are eradicated. But in fact, in doing so, we are only avoiding issues such as racism. That’s a real problem,” Scharnowski told DW.
Susanne Scharnowski says that since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris one year ago, this kind of self-censorship has only increased. She calls this a gradual “erosion of freedom of art.”
For his part, Klaus Staeck says he won’t take to editing his own work just because there are extremists in the world who would like to bully him into self-censorship.
“If you’re no longer willing as an artist to fight for the freedom of art, you should look for another job,” says Staeck.
“A free society will always depend on the freedom of expression.”