Berlin Was a Beacon of Artistic Freedom. Gaza Changed Everything.

When the musician Laurie Anderson was launching her career in the early 1970s, an avant-garde artist who wanted to work at scale had to go abroad — to one place in particular.

“I got my start in Germany, because of state-supported art,” recalled Anderson, who exhibited at its national museums and performed with its symphony orchestras when she was still an emerging talent. She lived for a time in West Berlin. She met Lou Reed, her future husband and a sometime Berliner himself, in Germany in 1992.

Fitting, then, that she would accept a prestigious guest professorship this year at a German art school. Then, in late January, a local blogger fulminated after finding her signature among 16,000 names on a two-year-old open letter that decried “apartheid” in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The university then called, seeking explanations. Rather than distill her thoughts about “this unbelievably tragic war” into the kind of public statement they seemed to want, she withdrew. “It did teach me that I didn’t really want to have that kind of sponsorship,” she concluded. “If I’d known they were going to ask things like that, I never would have accepted that job in the first place.”

She’s far from the only artist who finds herself unsure of her welcome here these days. The arts scene in Germany — and especially Berlin — has been turned upside down by Hamas’s attacks in Israel on Oct. 7, and the siege and bombardment of Gaza.

Prizes have been rescinded. Conferences called off. Plays taken off the boards. Government cultural officials have suggested tying funding to what artists and institutions say about the conflict, and media — both traditional and social — bubble with public denunciations of this writer, that artist, this D.J., that dancer. The disinvitations have brought counter-boycotts. And a climate of fear and recrimination has put Berlin’s status as an international cultural capital in greater hazard than at any time since 1989.

Marchers in central Berlin calling for solidarity with Gaza in November 2023.Credit…Clemens Bilan/EPA, via Shutterstock
Protesters supporting Israel marching on March 10.Credit…Annegret Hilse/Reuters
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