To come to this country,
my body must assemble itself
into photographs and signatures.
Among them they will search for me.
I must leave behind all uncertainties.
I cannot myself be a question.
—Gabeba Baderoon, “I Cannot Myself”
South African and American poet and scholar Gabeba Baderoon refuses to anticipate or fear the inhospitality of others. This is not just a leap of faith in another person. In her poem “I Cannot Myself,” Baderoon issues a new challenge regarding what it means to be welcomed, an urgent demand for hospitality on behalf of those who have been framed as “a question.” In its sparse lines, the poem also reveals the cost to one’s inner sense of peace when the question of one’s belonging to a community is constantly externally probed, leaving a lifetime burden of proving oneself with “photographs” and “signatures.”1 The state apparatus uses legal language to translate communal inhospitality into bureaucratic application forms and unending paperwork, making it easy for citizens of the state to fail to see the personal role they play in supporting this inhospitality.
This experience of being existentially unwelcomed can lead to an injured sense of self. In her book Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely, Lysa TerKeurst describes how she carried a sense of being uninvited from childhood into her adult life: If “someone doesn’t invite me to her event, my thoughts recount all the faults and frailties I’ve voiced about myself recently. Suddenly, I assign my thoughts to that person. I hear her saying these same hurtful things. I feel labeled and judged and, yes, rejected.”2 TerKeurst identifies her family of origin as a source of her feeling of being uninvited in this world, with the initial cause being her father’s rejection of their family. She shares her personal healing journey, offering readers insights into how they can overcome this type of rejection. But what happens if a person forms an injured sense of self as a result of having been uninvited by society, community, history? When entire groups of people are harmed by their systematic exclusion from the hospitality of those who are in power and in the majority, “living loved” requires challenging the foundations of communal inhospitality.
Community is an abstract notion until a welcoming gesture and labor of hospitality take place. The new forms of hospitality presented by the artists discussed in this book are not new just in terms of the artists’ looking into the future and helping their audiences imagine hospitality differently. They are also new in relation to the old habits of arrested welcome that discriminate between the “good face” and the “bad face,” as described in chapter 6, and the practice of offering unconditional hospitality only to some groups—those privileged by class, gender, race, national belonging, and other markers of social status—at the expense of others. The new forms of hospitality discussed in this book take not only imagination but also courage and a leap of faith, because exclusions from and denials of welcome have long been part of how the promise of unconditional hospitality is conditioned in practice by divisions between “us” and “them.” Extending an invitation to (or accepting one from) “them” might mean standing up to the inhospitalities perpetrated by one’s own community. A community wields communal disciplinary power, and it might act against its own members to enforce a communal vision of (in)hospitality. The consequences of becoming unwelcome within one’s own community range from relatively mild, albeit potentially significant and consequential, forms of discipline, such as stern warnings and threats, to harsh physical punishment and exclusion. Historically, there have been many instances when defiant hospitality has been punished by death. That is why new forms of hospitality require not only a new vision of community but also solidarity and support among those who are committed and courageous enough to enact this new vision.
Early in 2016, contemporary American artist Ken Aptekar asked me to translate several sentences from English to Russian for his Nachbarn/Neighbours exhibition at the St. Annen-Museum in Lübeck, Germany. The exhibition, which ran from February 7 to May 29, 2016, was designed to address the topic of neighbor-to-neighbor relations, past and present, among ethnic Germans, German Jews, and recent Turkish and Russian immigrants and their descendants (for this reason, the exhibition materials were presented in German, Turkish, English, and Russian). Most of the original German Jewish residents of Lübeck had been murdered or had fled during the Holocaust, so the present-day Jewish community consisted primarily of Eastern European immigrants, many of whom spoke Russian. My translations were for this audience.
I had visited Aptekar’s studio a year before. We talked about my interest in hospitality, and I saw the paintings he planned to use for Nachbarn/Neighbours. The exhibition installation also included a video and objects. As I was translating into Russian several passages about one family’s fate, I was struck particularly by the story of one key object, a towel:
1941. Food rations for the Simson Carlebach family are reduced. Jews are not permitted to buy meat, milk, cigarettes, or white bread, and can shop only between the hours of 4PM and 5PM.
After nightfall, neighbors provide the family with food that they secretly leave inside their garden gate, a crime severely punished by the Nazis.
When the Carlebachs find out the Nazis are coming to pick them up, they tie a monogrammed kitchen towel to the garden gate, a final thank you and farewell.
1984. Nearly five decades after the Nazis murdered most of the Lübeck Jews in the Bikerniecki forest in Riga, the Hanseatic City welcomes Simson Carlebach’s son Felix. He managed to escape to England in 1939.
In the town hall near the synagogue, where Salomon Carlebach was Rabbi from 1870 to 1919, Felix Carlebach and his family are honored by the people of Lübeck.
A woman approaches the guest of honor. “Our parents were neighbors. I brought you something that belongs to you,” she says, and hands him the monogrammed kitchen towel.3
For the exhibition, Aptekar presented this family story in six paintings with German text accompanied by English translations (see Plate 10). The paintings were based on motifs found on Renaissance altarpieces that were part of the St. Annen-Museum collection. Through the paintings, Aptekar wanted to raise the question, “What can Christian paintings from long ago, some with anti-Semitic imagery, possibly have to say to Jews, and Muslims, not to mention Christians, today?”4 By strategically selecting centuries-old scenes and overlaying portraits with the family’s Holocaust-period story, Aptekar compressed time in the paintings, making neighbors of many centuries coexist in the same space at the same time—making them contemporaries.
This kind of connection to community takes time. Aptekar took the time (he spent ten years preparing the exhibition) to ensure that his work would enable his audience to “see” neighbors in this intimate light, throughout centuries, as contemporaries of one another. Aptekar spent years with German Christian, Jewish, and Muslim residents of Lübeck of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. He immersed himself in the city’s Jewish diaspora and learned many stories before focusing on one element, that of the neighborly defiant welcome. Aptekar was hosted by residents of Lübeck throughout a decade, which is why the story of neighbors was so precious to him. This exhibition proposed a new form of welcome that Aptekar envisioned for Lübeck; it was a platform not only for recovering the past but also for returning the welcome he received.5
Aptekar sent me the names of his hosts in Lübeck:
- Heidemarie Kugler-Weimann, head researcher for the Stolpersteine project in the city6
- Albrecht Schreiber, former newspaper editor and author of several books about the history of the Jewish community in Lübeck
- Rolf Verleger, professor of neuropsychology at the University of Lübeck and former president of the city’s synagogue
- Murat Kayman, legal counsel for the Muslim Community in Germany, based in Cologne
- Alla Prien and her son, Tim Prien, Lübeck residents
The Priens were new, post-Holocaust, Jewish residents of the city who provided the artist with Russian-language expressions, the sorts of things that neighbors would say to each other, which Aptekar incorporated into his paintings. Many of the citizens of the city who had hosted Aptekar attended the opening of the exhibition.
I list the people who supported Aptekar’s work here to make a point. A work of art about hospitality such as this one, developed with community members who have given their time and resources, imagines a new form of equitable neighborliness, with a hope of releasing welcome from its previously arrested states. The artist did not just fly in for the exhibition. For Aptekar, it was not just a “gallery” show; rather, it was an act of immersing himself in the community with a desire to ask questions about the future of hospitality in a specific location, responding to the presence of specific people, with their varied histories, identities, and traditions of arrested welcome. The result of this exhibition is the possibility of a new community, in Lübeck and beyond, right here and now. Aptekar, like Ana Prvački, is not naive about hospitality as a solution to all problems, but he does want his audience to be confronted with the possibility of a new solidarity, enabling new forms of welcome.
Aptekar’s exhibition confronted the viewer with personal implications in a political reality, where individual choices could lead to outcomes of historical magnitude. The distinction between “us” and “them,” which is often to blame for historical violence, is not fixed and thus depends on such individual choices. The Carlebach family members who were taken by the Nazis were murdered without much protest from those whom they used to call neighbors. Were they ever real neighbors who could rely on each other in times of need? Neighbors are defined by their proximity in space (living near to one another) and time (being together in the same moment). Community is defined through shared territory, language, and customs. Even if the members of the Carlebach family considered themselves to be part of Lübeck’s community because they lived in the same space and time as ethnic Germans, the question posed by this exhibition concerned what they meant for each other as neighbors. After all, Jewish families had been living under the precarious rules and regulations of European anti-Semitism for centuries, including in ways depicted on the altar paintings in St. Annen-Museum. For Aptekar, such history did not mean that his audience should resign themselves to a future of the same violence that was experienced in the past; rather, he challenged his viewers to wonder about contemporary “Lübeckers’ attitudes toward Muslims—and the Russian Jews now living in Lübeck.”7
Here, in the spirit of this specific exhibition, Aptekar chose the story of a towel, rather than larger legal, structural issues, as his focus. The story speaks to the power of art in considering the question of communal hospitality.
The Carlebachs’ Towel
In this exhibition, the key object that represented both the hope of welcome and the violence of its failures was the towel. There was nothing extraordinary about the towel itself, or about the glass cabinet that housed it. A visitor had to take the time to read the story and imagine neighbors risking their own lives and the lives of their loved ones to bring baskets of food to the starving Carlebach family. Placed in this exhibition as an art object, the towel represented the will of the Carlebachs, who, after having been tipped off that Nazis were coming for them, wanted their neighbors to see the towel on the threshold of their home—at the gate—and understand . . . so many things, I imagine. That they had been taken, that food was no longer needed, and leaving a basket would jeopardize their own safety. They did not expect to return and wanted at least one personal possession to remain behind, a sign of their presence in this world. This one possession, a towel, was left for someone who had been courageous enough to feed them. Although the food was helpful, it was not enough to save them. They needed much more than food. They were also in need of shelter, refuge, and escape, things the neighbors did not offer.
This kitchen towel had the initials of Felix Carlebach’s mother, Raisi Graupe, embroidered on it. Such embroidered kitchen towels are passed from one generation to the next as wedding gifts across many regions in Europe. This towel was similar to the one that the artist Ana Prvački received from her grandmother (chapter 1), who had inspired Prvački’s own memory of her grandmother’s hospitality practices, leading her to Kassel, Germany, where she trained employees of the documenta 13 exhibition in etiquette and courtesy with strangers. The quality of an embroidered kitchen towel speaks to the care of the material choices. Families do not use these towels just for wiping their hands. The labor involved in hand embroidery, along with the fabric’s crispness and coolness to the touch as well as the quality of the weaving, speaks to the care and respect offered to guests. Therefore, such towels are reserved for use by guests on occasions of hospitality, their embellishments showing the pride of the house and attention to the aesthetics of welcome.
There is more to the story of how this towel came to appear in the exhibition. The anonymous woman who eventually gave the towel to Felix Carlebach in 1984 had kept the towel in her family, waiting forty years for the opportunity to return it. I suspect she knew the story of the Carlebachs’ towel from the whispers of her own family members before they passed away. One can only imagine what Felix Carlebach felt when he heard the story about the last neighborly gesture of his perished father and other family members, and held his grandmother’s welcoming kitchen towel in his hands more than four decades later. All we know for certain is that he kept it.
By the time of the exhibition in 2016, Felix Carlebach had passed away, and the towel was now in the possession of his daughter, Sula. When Aptekar learned about the existence of this towel during his long visits to Lübeck, he wanted to find it for potential display in his exhibition. He asked a friend, art scholar Janet Wolff, who wrote an essay for the exhibition’s catalog, to facilitate his inquiry. Wolff lived in Manchester, England, as had Felix Carlebach, and she happened to know Sula. Wolff asked Sula Carlebach to take a picture of the towel and then requested her permission to include the towel itself in the exhibition. Sula obliged and sent the towel to Lübeck by mail from Manchester. After the exhibition, it was returned to her by mail. Thus, many people had to know each other and be connected in their communities, and give time and effort, so that this modest-looking object could take its place in the exhibition.
The significance of the towel was that it offered evidence, in this case, of both crime and defiant welcome. As an old object made of soft white cloth, touched by many hands, the towel enabled Aptekar’s message of the need for more courageous hospitality today. Moreover, for Wolff, as for Aptekar, the modest-looking towel represented hope, despite its history of bearing witness to collective violence between neighbors. In the exhibition catalog Wolff describes the process of obtaining the towel and what that “ordinary” object meant for her:
I checked with Felix Carlebach’s daughter, Sula, who sent me by return of email a photo of the thing itself. Of course it turns out to look rather different from Ken Aptekar’s imagined version. It is embroidered with the initials of Felix Carlebach’s mother, Raisi Graupe. In one way a very ordinary piece of cloth, it appears imbued with melancholy and with the knowledge of its history and of the fate of its owners. It also retains the ineradicable presence of hope—the memory of the generosity and constancy of neighbours.8
But just as one hopes for a better future, the emotions around this towel pulled the subject of welcome in opposite directions, speaking to the ambivalence of Aptekar’s key question in this exhibition: “Can people recognize and respect their profound differences and together build a vibrant community?”9 The towel for him represented the possibility of an affirmative answer, provided that difficult histories could be acknowledged and openly considered. Aptekar’s new forms of hospitality were woven from the threads of this towel, as he hoped for new solidarities among Jewish, Muslim, and Christian neighbors, such that they would not only tolerate each other but also build a vibrant, welcoming community, together. Vibrant communities are usually characterized by strong and neighborly relations, with events such as block parties and invitations among community members to participate in one another’s family celebrations. Vibrant communities provide food and refuge to any of their members in times of need, rather than divide members into groups of “us” and “them.” Aptekar’s artwork also shows that divisions are not as stable as one might imagine, whether in law or in everyday life. Some of those who are treated as part of “us” today may become “them” tomorrow.
The Problem with Gratitude
The woman who gave Carlebach the towel preferred to remain anonymous. The two did not become friends or keep in touch. Why did she not want her name revealed? Was she modest? For the artist, her anonymity was a positive sign, because it signified that she did not want anything in return: “What impressed me most,” Aptekar has stated, “is that the woman then just disappeared. She didn’t want anything. She wanted to give and receive nothing back, not recognition, atonement, nothing.”10 But she could also have felt ashamed that more was not done to save the Carlebachs—her family’s neighbors—a possibility that makes the mention of gratitude suspect. These past events, after all, are still living on in new generations, in people such as Sula Carlebach, who was not present in person at the exhibition. I am not aware of whether the woman who passed the towel to Carlebach is still alive, and I do not know if she visited Aptekar’s exhibition. Could it be that she was still scared of “outing” herself and her family as defying their own community in what would ordinarily be a relatively small gesture of hospitality—leaving a dish at the door? Was she still embarrassed and ashamed that her ancestors did not do more? Fear and shame arising from issues of arrested hospitality run deep, leaving scars, but for Aptekar, they also provide the basis for hope.
The woman’s decision to remain unnamed is open to various interpretations. Several reviewers of the exhibition followed Aptekar’s hopeful reading, describing the towel as “a sign of gratitude” from the Carlebach family to their anonymous German neighbors.11 This explanation for the towel’s presence was conveyed to the exhibition audience through the text in one of the paintings, as quoted above: “They tie a monogrammed kitchen towel to the garden gate, a final thank you and farewell.” Building on the tension of the historical context, however, I am also interested in other, less generous readings of the towel and what it represents for the subject of arrested welcome. My reading centers on the question of gratitude.
I have written very little about gratitude in this book, and that has been intentional. Feelings of gratitude tend to follow “unexpected” hospitality, when someone does not anticipate or feel that they are entitled to being welcomed. Pippa Bacca assumed unconditional hospitality from the world. To those who consider that assumption to be naive or the result of a sense of entitlement on the part of a privileged white European woman, I ask: Should Bacca have felt “grateful” to any man who did not rape and kill her? Should women feel grateful to others for not harming them? Should the Muslims in Lübeck be grateful today? Or the Jews who survived? Even if I agree with Aptekar’s reading of the towel as a gesture of thanks, I am not sure if gratitude is what I find helpful now. Furthermore, against the common reading, I can also imagine that the Carlebachs left the towel out of desperation, to indicate that they had been taken (and to protect neighbors from leaving more food and getting into trouble with the Nazi authorities).
The towel is precious because nothing else is left. The object itself, apart from the rest of the exhibition, including the paintings, is meaningless. Gratitude in such cases, even if it exists, is bittersweet, and likely mixed with anger. Instead of neighborly courage, the towel could represent for survivors how little was done by neighbors who perhaps could and should have done more. The towel represents all the lost meals together, all the welcomes that never happened. There is no gratitude to speak of here. In such a reading of the towel, even the topic of gratitude itself is offensive. And who am I to write about all of this?
When I translated Aptekar’s text for the exhibition into Russian, I imagined how Russian-speaking visitors would feel about the story the exhibition was telling. In the post-Soviet period several authors have written about Russian anti-Semitism. One of them is Lev Rubinstein, a poet, writer, and public intellectual. In one instance, Rubinstein has written about his Jewish grandmother, “a very kind person” who was terrified of Russians as an entire ethnic group. As a child, he could not understand why she would fear his schoolmates, who were habitually welcomed at their apartment to play. Later he learned she feared them because Russians had been the ones who, over the same several decades of the twentieth century covered by Aptekar’s exhibition, had entered her house uninvited “on at least four occasions,” taken whatever they wanted (“furniture, chairs”), and, upon leaving, suggested “you should be grateful” for being left alive.12
For Rubinstein, Russians were his school friends. For his granny, who could not be convinced otherwise, Russians were people to be feared, not trusted or shown gratitude. She had her own experiences to support her fears. What happened to her is summed up by the Russian word pogrom, which has entered multiple languages in its original Russian transliteration. In fact, the meaning of the word in Russian entails breaking furniture in someone else’s house, just as Rubinstein’s grandmother experienced. Pogrom also means to break a building itself, a violent gesture of destroying things to destroy lives. The word was initially applied to the destruction of Jewish neighborhoods and livelihoods in imperial Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century, and its usage later expanded to include any mass violent destruction directed at areas where minorities live. Pogrom is just one step removed from genocide. That was the warning in the Russians’ words to Rubinstein’s grandmother: be grateful to us that you are being allowed to live.
The artists discussed in this book have shown how hospitality premised on hierarchies, exclusions, and inequalities of welcoming expects groups excluded from unconditional welcome to express gratitude for any minimal gestures of tolerance, even those conditioned on proof of worthiness, of belonging, of blending. According to this logic, Lev Rubinstein’s grandmother should feel grateful to the Russians for not being killed, and the Carlebach family should feel grateful for not being starved to death before they were taken by the Nazis.
If the hospitality of the artworks discussed in this book has seemed extraordinary or unusual, it is because the artists challenged their audiences to consider personally and collectively what is enough, what is normal, what is too much. However, their interrogation of hospitality as it has been transcends individual artworks. The renewed discussions around expectations of gratitude from immigrants and refugees that fill television screens and dinner conversations point to the wider context of the current search for a different welcome. In the countries where the artworks I have discussed have been situated, renewed debates about the treatment of newcomers, immigrants, minorities, and women have made people take sides. For some, the absence of a pogrom or physical violence is “good enough” welcome. Others want to live in a society with a welcome that goes beyond tolerance, and are ready to offer and redistribute resources toward that goal. More citizens are asking, Should I be grateful to my community for letting me exercise my hospitality without fear of punishment or arrest? In this context, a gallery or museum becomes an incubator, a testing ground for new forms of hospitality, with artworks transgressing into the public sphere.
Ken Aptekar’s exhibition Nachbarn/Neighbours challenged this demand for “gratitude” because it affirmed respect for profound differences among neighbors as a normal part of being in a community. Dina Nayeri, author of the novel Refuge and a former refugee herself, challenges the demand for gratitude forcefully and clearly when she refuses to be grateful:
It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks. It is your duty to answer us, even if we don’t give you sugary success stories. Even if we remain a bunch of ordinary Iranians, sometimes bitter or confused. Even if the country gets overcrowded and you have to give up your luxuries, and we set up ugly little lives around the corner, marring your view. If we need a lot of help and local services, if your taxes rise and your street begins to look and feel strange and everything smells like turmeric and tamarind paste, and your favourite shop is replaced by a halal butcher, your schoolyard chatter becoming ching-chongese and phlegmy “kh”s and “gh”s, and even if, after all that, we don’t spend the rest of our days in grateful ecstasy, atoning for our need.13
Nayeri feels gratitude fatigue. Simple things like neighbors sharing food or furniture with others in need and strangers welcoming each other with a smile and a warm gesture now seem to demand visible and eternal gratitude, she implies. According to such problematic logic of gratitude, women are supposed to be grateful every time they are not raped and murdered when hitchhiking, refugees should be grateful when they are not arrested and detained (or taken advantage of in other ways)—and the list goes on. Gestures that are supposed to be everyday accumulative steps of hospitality, such as the microcourtesies described in chapter 1 or the hosting described in chapter 3, should not be treated as extraordinary.
The demand for gratitude, however, is also hierarchical, as this book has shown. Some are supposed to feel grateful all the time, just for being able to be part of a community without being harmed, while others expect to be welcomed as most precious guests, at home or abroad, in public and private. Here hospitality connects to other lines of power distribution: class, gender, national origin, race, and other social identity markers. When Faith Wilding’s persona refused to wait for those who assumed that they could freely consume her labor of love and welcome (marriage, motherhood), she created a new form of “waiting-with,” without expressing gratitude for being able to choose when, how, and for whom to wait (chapter 2). Nayeri points out that inequality of gratitude expectations and their double standard reveal in turn the inequalities built into hospitality and the need to recognize different modes of being together today.
Challenges to Arrested Hospitality
I started this book with a story of a homeless man in New York City, Jimmy Mirikitani, whose life changed dramatically on 9/11 when filmmaker Linda Hattendorf invited him to her apartment to escape the ashes of the destruction of the World Trade Center. His soul had been injured by the lack of welcome he had experienced previously. I remembered Hattendorf’s welcome and her subsequent friendship with Mirikitani when I was standing in a museum in Athens in 2017, looking at a painting by Albanian artist Edi Hila titled Hospitality, which was included in the Greek outpost of the large German documenta 14 exhibition. That year, for the first time, the exhibition was held in two countries, Germany and Greece, because documenta’s history was tied to considering the role of art in society and the question of the German past in relation to World War II (this history is discussed in more detail in chapter 1).
The 2017 exhibition took place during difficult times in the relations between the two countries. Tensions between Germany and Greece had escalated because of the economic crisis, and because of the perception that Germans, who live in a wealthier country, wanted Greeks to suffer more economic consequences rather than increase their national debt before receiving any further funding from the European Union. Germany did not want to help Greece any longer—at least, that was the perception in Greece, as expressed by some members of the creative community. Art is always created within specific cultural and political contexts, and that was especially clear during this exhibition. On the campus of the major Greek art college the walls were covered with graffiti reading in English “Fuck documenta.” In addition to serving as hosts of the German exhibition, the members of the Greek art community were divided by questions of power, funding, and inequality of opportunity.
That is why I found Hila’s painting especially ambivalent that day. Gray skies fill the top of the image, above an island in the distance and a house on a beach in the foreground; at the end of some low stairs in front of the house is a deep-blue carpet stretching toward the sea (see Plate 11). I noticed the painting was made in the same year, 2001, when Hattendorf invited Mirikitani into her New York apartment. The painting depicts a scene of waiting: a few steps of the house going into the sea. A hopeful reading could imagine that the blue carpet left at the doorsteps is an indication that any arrival will be welcomed. This indication would be especially politically charged now, when the Mediterranean Sea has become a battleground with respect to immigration in Europe. A less hopeful reading would imagine that the carpet, eternally waiting since ancient times, might not be for everyone. Then who is this carpet for? There is no one around to be seen. This could, therefore, also be a painting of welcomes that have been arrested and never realized, leaving the carpet just for one’s own family. Or of hospitality gone violent, failing the trust of the hosts. It is impossible to know or predict. There are many possibilities, as the artworks described in this book have shown.14
Belonging does not just happen. Especially among strangers, belonging takes time and effort. And hospitality is a big part of this process. A carpet, an open door, a garden full of flowers—all of these signify the art of welcome, with its openness and care. Hospitality is embodied in the labor it takes to prepare, arrange, and serve food; in the courage and trust required to leave one’s own community to be welcomed by strangers; in the smile, the welcoming of another with open hands and body language that says, “We are waiting for you!”; in the readiness to offer shelter without knowing how the scene of hospitality will proceed or how it will end. Many people engage in such ordinary acts of hospitality every day, without fanfare or acknowledgment.
Hospitality is not easy. Its aesthetic labor is directed at senses, perceptions, and the body, because the politics of hospitality—the power involved in the host–guest relation—is enacted through taste (food), touch (a handshake or hug, a rest in a chair or a bed), smell (aromas and flowers), sight (the prepared space, the smile), and hearing (a greeting). Therefore, the welcoming gesture of food baskets from the Carlebachs’ anonymous neighbors should not be dismissed lightly. It is easy for me in hindsight as I consider the subsequent murders of the Carlebachs to think of their neighbors’ food as “not enough” hospitality. But would I risk my own and my family’s lives for my neighbors by just offering them some food? Who is the “I” in this question—from which language, which community? One answer is my own: I am a white, middle-class Russian American professor who has not faced that kind of dilemma, of choosing between my loved ones’ lives and those of my neighbors, but still has fears about what the future will bring, based on the history of pogroms, totalitarianism, and hostility. When Nayeri says, “It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks,” her voice joins those of other artists who, like Hattendorf, seem to say that such gestures of hospitality appear extraordinary only because so many of us, their audiences and readers, arrest our welcome.
As the artists discussed in this book show, there is no need for us to stop our own seemingly “small” gestures of hospitality just because they seem modest or even futile, because they are not capable of solving “big” problems. As a part of our daily activities, these gestures not only mend inhospitalities but also make for a more beautiful, enjoyable life. For some, an artwork that enacts hospitality as part of a beautiful and enjoyable life might seem inappropriate at a time when a great many people are suffering. For others, an artwork that seeks to democratize a beautiful and enjoyable life through hospitality could seem like a form of resistance to the same forces that divide people into those who are worthy of welcome and those who are unworthy.
I am not a champion of hospitality as a “cure-all” for economic, racial, and gender inequalities around the world; addressing such inequalities requires multipronged approaches. But does the complexity of these issues mean that art has nothing to contribute to our imagination about the power of hospitality? I do not think so. One should not mistake artistic gestures of hospitality—or any artistic gestures, for that matter—for individual efforts that do not have wider audiences and impacts. At least, that is one thing I learned from the works discussed here and my conversations with their participants and audiences: such artistic gestures are impactful, memorable, and influential. This book is an attempt, therefore, to expand the audiences of these challenging works of contemporary art, most of which are no longer in existence, given their temporal nature—a characteristic true to hospitality itself.
Some scholars and art critics assume that calls for structural changes (such as changes in laws, institutions, or economic policy) are more “valuable” for progressive causes than more qualitative, personal, and cultural practices such as hospitality. According to this logic, artists are just individuals who cannot change anything unless their artworks contribute directly or symbolically toward structural change. It is problematic, however, to conclude that because the context within which an artist explores the subject of hospitality is individual, the focus of the work and the results the artist hopes to achieve have no impact beyond the individual level. Such strict division between the individual and the collective is not helpful—indeed, it is actually problematic, as I have shown throughout this book.
Even more problematically, those who dismiss the individual aspect of artistic gestures tend to fetishize the collective and present it as a faceless and generalized list of categories. After all, “structures” and “institutions” are also abstract categories, and as useful as they are, their missions are carried out by human representatives. Hospitality itself, as a practice, defies neat categorizations between the one and the many, the institutional and the personal. It operates on a collective level of relationships between communities carried out mostly on a personal, sensory level. In hospitality, the personal continues to be political.
The artists whose works are discussed here are not naive about or blind to the existing inequities in and problems with hospitality; after all, I chose them for this book because they challenge, stretch, and transform hospitality as we have known it. Thinking about hospitality with these artists is important, especially today, as we navigate the urgent problems and dilemmas of individual and collective welcome. In one’s everyday life, a smile does not seem like a radical welcoming gesture, unlike hospitality decisions in life-or-death situations, as was the case for the Carlebach family’s neighbors. Ken Aptekar’s exhibition Nachbarn/Neighbours told a story about the successes and failures of communal hospitality with a vision into a more hopeful present that does not deny or forget the painful, violent past, but rather offers models of courage. Such courage should not be punished. Rather, models of defiant hospitality, of welcome as resistance, should be celebrated and given communal, legal, social, and cultural support, as I have shown in this book.
It would be a mistake to dismiss a smile as insignificant. The writer and scholar bell hooks, whose thoughts about civility inspired my arguments about reclaiming it in chapter 1, tells us that small decisions about smiles and invitations signify our recognition of other persons’ presence and their unconditional equality in our shared humanity. Equality in welcome is not a given, she says, waiting on her porch for a neighborly return of her welcoming smile. Rather, it is an ongoing project. Is it as important as the legal protections achieved by the civil rights movement? Perhaps not. But is it insignificant and to be dismissed as too minor in the grand scheme of things? No, because a sense of belonging does not come only from the ability to physically inhabit a place and to have the same legal rights and financial means as others. It also comes from feeling welcomed in that place as an equal human being. No law can dictate gestures and feelings of welcome. And we probably do not want to force each other to smile, as Ana Prvački has implied in her work. The art projects discussed in this book have sought to subvert many strict divisions prevalent in previous discussions of hospitality: personal/political, individual/communal, within family/among strangers, safe/dangerous, feminine/masculine, human/animal, conditional/unconditional, entitled/unexpected.
In defying fears, prohibitions, and entitlements, expecting or providing hospitality in its various forms becomes a political choice as much as an aesthetic or ethical one. In those cases, hospitality is more than just an individual trait or ethical predisposition within a certain cultural framework of what is normal and acceptable. It becomes a radical welcome, which is desperately needed, especially today, when hosting seems to have narrowed down rather than widened, when invitations are extended only to members of one’s own group, community, or family.
The topic of hospitality is difficult to write about, as so much of the world today does not feel compatible with the notion of unreserved welcome. However, these times of loud animosity and hostility have also seen a renewed resolve to welcome now. This book has been sustained by that resolve.