Artist Hito Steyerl, who is known for her essayistic videos pondering power structures and new technologies, said on Wednesday that she would not accept Germany’s Federal Cross of Merit honorific. In a letter published in the German publication Die Zeit, Steyerl said she was declining the award because of the way German politicians had led the country during the pandemic.
The equivalent to being knighted in the United Kingdom or receiving France’s Legion of Honor, the Federal Cross of Merit is considered one of the most esteemed civilian awards in Germany. Among those who have received the Federal Cross of Merit are art historian Paul Dujardin and artists Neo Rauch and Wolfgang Tillmans.
Calling Germany’s partial lockdown “half-baked and endless,” Steyerl said she found herself confused by what was restricted and what was not, and was perplexed that the cultural and educational sectors had been de-prioritized. But she cautioned that she was “not a lockdown opponent.”
“As a university teacher, I couldn’t meet any students for almost three semesters,” Steyerl said. “However, it would have been no problem for me as a director to shoot commercials or reality TV elimination competitions almost all the time. How is system relevance defined here? Not to mention culture?”
She went on to cite a possible desire to award more nonwhite Germans the Federal Cross of Merit, and said that if the country’s politicians wishes to diversify the honorees, they also must address a surge in anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric. She said the choice to give her the award “seems more like the diversity-washing of systemic grievances.”
In the past, Steyerl has spoken critically of institutions where she has shown her art. In 2019, for example, when she showed at the Serpentine Galleries, in a venue that at the time bore the Sackler name, she compared the situation to being “married to a serial killer.”