Hugo Ball Prize Halted as It Reckons With Dadaist’s Antisemitism

Hito Steyerl requested that the prize be replaced by a discussion of antisemitism and racism. (photo courtesy Andrew Kreps Gallery)

Every three years since 1990, the small German city of Pirmasens has awarded artists and writers the Hugo Ball Prize, named for the city’s native who was a leading figure of the early 20th-century German Dada movement. In December, Pirmasens announced artist and filmmaker Hito Steyerl and writer Olivia Wenzel as the 2023 recipients of the €10,000 (~$10,800) and €5,000 (~$5,400) awards, but instead of delivering the prize, the city will examine Ball’s antisemitic legacy.

Upon Steyerl’s request — and with the agreement of Wenzel, the city, and the prize nomination committee — the 2023 award will be replaced by an open discussion about historical and current antisemitism and racism. The panel is scheduled for January 23, and speakers include Ball scholars, antisemitism researchers, historians, and philosophers.

“I think it could be a productive occasion to jointly question Germany’s antisemitic and racist cultural heritage more closely,” Steyerl told Hyperallergic. “And unfortunately, both still persist today in the German cultural scene and beyond.” In July, Steyerl withdrew her work from the embroiled documenta contemporary art quinquennial, citing the organizers’ handling of antisemitism allegations.

Dada co-founder Hugo Ball (courtesy City of Pirmasens)

Ball was a poet, theorist, and philosopher who penned blatantly antisemitic passages in his writings. A notable example exists in his 1919 essay “On the Critique of German Intelligentsia,” in which Ball discusses a “German-Jewish plot to destroy morality.” For decades, the extent of the poet’s antisemitic views remained largely under-recognized.

The January 23 discussion will also interrogate the racist legacy of Ball and Dadaism. Throughout its course, Dadaism repeatedly appropriated and often belittled non-Western traditions, reinforcing European notions of non-White cultures as “primitive.”

In a January 6 statement, Pirmasens Mayor Markus Zwick said he was “very grateful” to Steyerl for using her prize nomination to initiate a discussion around antisemitism.

“Pirmasens and the Hugo Ball Prize take a clear position against antisemitism, racism and other forms of discrimination,” Zwick said. While the 2023 edition of the prize has been cancelled, the city plans to award the grant in future years.

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