Israel’s ugly culture war pits the spoiled brats of the Left versus the control freaks of the Right. Leftist artists demand government subsidies for their art, no matter how outrageous. They whine if their regular allowance is cut and cry “censorship” anytime anyone disagrees with them. Yet Israeli freedom of expression remains protected and robust. Moreover, many artists have mastered the art of silencing alternative voices in the academic and artistic institutions they control.
Meanwhile, right-wing extremists, forgetting Stalinism’s severity, ignoring patriotic kitsch’s aridity, want state-funded artists to defend the state. Because the world is round, extremists of both camps overlap in their intolerance for thoughts they hate, demonizing their rivals.
The latest skirmish occurred at the Haaretz Culture Conference, “Culture Requires Independence.”
This statement is true – yet stunningly hypocritical coming from today’s artists- on-the-dole, these hypocritical, juvenile, coddled parasites demanding state subsidies as a birthright from the state they love to loathe. If they believe in their art, they should be willing to starve if necessary. True independence doesn’t come with government handouts.
And true independence doesn’t come with the groupthink today’s art establishment imposes – perpetuating particular, judgmental, constrained versions of non-conformity.
An “anti-establishment” can be establishment too.
When I was a young academic, my first application for a government grant failed.
A senior colleague who had served on the committee suggested I make unnecessary, expensive additions to my application that reflected conventional academic understandings of what I was doing, not what I sought to achieve. I followed his generous yet stupid advice and won a huge research grant – my first and last foray into that racket.
Today’s race-and-gender-obsessed radicals can see some blinders, the male bias and the Ashkenazi dominance of Israel’s art mafia.
They refuse to see the paint-by-numbers, fillin- the-blank, anti-Zionism for anti-Zionism’s sake, nihilism for nihilism’s sake, the tedious outrageousness trying too hard to outrage.
This sophomoric posturing pretends to be brave but meekly echoes the art mafiosos’ demands, just as the calls for independence go only as far as independence from rightwing politics without real independence from suckling at the taxpayer’s teat.
As if secretly recruited to reinforce the government’s point about the absurdity of paying artists to denigrate the state, Ariel Bronz ended his performance at the Haaretz conference by showing his independence from any constraint, maturity, or dignity. He inserted an Israeli flag into his rear end. If this is what passes for sophisticated art or critique in Israel, we’re in trouble.
If artists want real independence, let them get real jobs, like Wallace Stegner, the American insurance executive and poet, or Israel’s own, 200-shekel-noteworthy Natan Alterman, the poet whose work often appeared first in his regular newspaper column. Alterman understood that you cannot expect your artistic freedom on a silver platter. Alternatively, let artists attract donors who wish to prop them up, rather than demanding that the state pay them for trying to knock Israel down.
At the same time, I don’t want a government minister proclaiming: “We will ensure loyalty to parts of the country and forbid boycotts.” Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev claimed “no one is trying to silence you,” then added: “But there is an enormous difference between harsh criticism and a call for a boycott or undermining the State of Israel.”
Unfortunately, talk of boycotting Israel is fashionable among radicals. As much as I abhor it, I would not ban boycott talk. That’s not what democracies do. Let everyone mock the absurdity of academics and artists calling for boycotts of the very institutions bankrolling them.
There is a way out of this mess. First, artists should be as edgy, angry and silly as they wish to be, freed from government restrictions and government goodies. Second, democratic leaders should be as tolerant as possible, not fearing dissent, even if obnoxious or self-destructive.
Third, our artistic arbiters should be genuinely open, encouraging a range of expressions rather than only being open to their particular brand of close-minded openness.
Government should stay out of culture as much as possible. Israel has enough wealthy and middle-class taxpayers to subsidize culture in a different way that doesn’t implicate the state in anti-state agit-prop. Currently, Israelis receive a far smaller tax break for charitable contributions than Americans or Canadians do. The government should support institutions, not particular artists or programs. The government should also offer very generous tax breaks for individual donations to cultural institutions and to artists.
Independent agencies could pool the newly freed funds, perhaps in three main areas: Art for Art’s Sake; The Art of Dissent; and the Art of Patriotism. Let donors decide what kind of art scene they want. And let artists compete in more of a free market, insulated, as much as possible, from political calculations, professional jealousies and coalition politics.
I love art at both extremes. I honor cutting- edge artists, thinking out of the box, challenging our assumptions, our niceties, our blind spots, our conventions. I also appreciate artists who celebrate our strengths, our achievements, our freedoms. But beware political fanaticism at both ends – note how the situation has deteriorated in America.
And beware religious fanaticism too – what’s the follow-up to that ridiculous law being contemplated banning Reform Jews from mikvehs? What’s next, a law limiting chulent and gefilte fish eating to fat Ashkenazim with high cholesterol? Besides, aren’t we all sinners needing purification? Let’s free the art world from the false choices government often impose; instead, let’s challenge our artists to find some support, either among consumers or from new, creative institutions, insulated, as much as possible, from the toxicity of partisan politics, the shadow of governmental approval or disapproval, and the debilitating effects of living off the government and at the whims of self-selected culture czars.
The author is professor of history at McGill University.
His most recent book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, is his eleventh book.
Follow on Twitter @GilTroy www.giltroy.com.