Nazi salute puts German artist Jonathan Meese in court

German artist Jonathan Meese gives a Nazi salute while performing 'Generaltanz den Erzschiller' on stage at the National Theatre in Mannheim, western Germany, on 26 June, 2013
Image caption German artist Jonathan Meese claims he has the right to artistic freedom

Performance art is all very well - but Jonathan Meese may have taken it too far.

When the artist and theatre director appeared in court in Kassel in Germany, accused of making Nazi salutes, he treated the court as a stage.

He was dressed completely in black, including dark glasses and long dark hair and beard.

He told the magistrate: "You just don't understand the 'discourse of art'. You need to read up if you want to evaluate if something is art."

He has held exhibitions of his paintings and sculpture on both sides of the Atlantic, to some acclaim.

He also directs stage performances and has been hired by the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth to produce Parsifal there in 2016.

It promises to be - or threatens to be, depending on your point of view - highly controversial.

Poking fun

In Mannheim earlier in the year, members of the audience walked out of a performance he produced - an "experimental drama", as it was termed - where he simulated oral sex on an alien which was daubed with a swastika. During the performance, he made the Hitler salute.

According to some reports, the whole audience left.

One member of the public was reported as saying afterwards: "He didn't get the audience on his side when he referred to them as 'human clones of flesh' and 'slaves to democracy'."

Under the German constitution, there is both freedom of speech and a ban on Nazi speech. Article 5, Paragraph 3 says: "Art and science, research and teaching shall be free", but Section 86a of the Criminal Code forbids "the use of symbols of unconstitutional organisations" - and the Hitler salute comes at the top of that list.

The caveat is that works of art are exempt. After all, Brecht depicts Hitler and those depictions are often performed to acclaim in Berlin theatres.

In 2009, the artist Ottmar Hoerl caused a stir when he produced garden gnomes with their arms raised in the Nazi salute.

Image caption Ottmar Hoerl's work 'Dance of/with the Devil' offended some people

A gallery tried to ban one, but he responded by making 1,250 of them and standing them in a square of a Bavarian town near Munich.

His defence was that his work was satirical - the gnomes were poking fun at the Nazis. It was a defence that worked in court - though there was then a big rise in demand for his creations.

The difficulty for the court considering Jonathan Meese's case is that he is accused of making the salute twice at an arts event.

In June, he appeared in Kassel - where his trial is now taking place - at an event called "Megalomania in the Art World".

He had, said the organisers, been invited as an expert on both aspects of the title.

They asked him there knowing he was provocative, and he did not disappoint.

His defence of making the salutes is that it was all art. As he told Der Spiegel magazine: "Of course I am innocent. What I do on stage and in the name of art is protected by the artistic freedom clause in the German constitution."

Enfant terrible

But that is no defence in the eyes of his critics. They say that if making the Hitler salute becomes too acceptable on stage, then it will become more acceptable off stage.

As one Jewish magazine put it: "Loaded words lose their punch once they become commonly used".

Meanwhile, there may be some thinking to be done in Bayreuth. It has hired Mr Meese to direct Parsifal in the festival of Wagner operas there in the Summer of 2016.

Wagner and Nazi symbolism are difficult territory, held at the opera house the composer himself designed for his works, because of Hitler's frequent visits and the adoration of him by Wagner's descendants during the war.

Image caption Certain performances of Richard Wagner's works have caused upset in Germany

Last year, one star singer withdrew when it was learnt that he had had a swastika tattooed on his chest when he was a youth, playing in a Russian heavy metal band. It had been tattooed over in adulthood, but the damage remained.

So Mr Meese's production has already got the antennae twitching.

One of the current directors of the Bayreuth Festival is Katharina Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter. Over the years, she has tried to distance Bayreuth from its unfortunate past, and nobody identifies her with the poisonous views of previous generations of her family.

But she does now have a difficult managing act with Mr Meese, the current enfant terrible, on his way.

She described him as "one of the greatest German artists" in the newspaper Die Welt.

In the interview she was asked: "Should one play with swastikas?" She replied: "No. And I don't think Jonathan Meese plays in a bad way with such symbols." She thought he used them ironically, to say things about German history and identity.

She was asked whether there was a clause in his contract prohibiting him from using Nazi symbols.

"Naturally not," she said. "There is still no contract, but a verbal assurance that we made public with his permission."

The public is sensitive to these matters. Earlier this year, a production of Wagner's Tannhauser closed to a chorus of boos shortly after opening in Duesseldorf. Its violent depictions of a Nazi concentration camp were too much for the audience.

So Jonathan Meese's production in Bayreuth will be interesting. So will the remainder of the court case in which he stars in Kassel.

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