The Castra Center, Haifa
The Castra Center in Haifa contains a few galleries that can only be described as being contradictorily both kitsch and beautiful. Herein lies what is perhaps a paradox concerning art: Art is amenable to the eye, to what is a decorative and design element and yet also ought to appeal to the mind, to what Kant called the “play of kindred associations.”
The problem is a high degree of expertise in fulfilling the former function does not imply the fulfillment of the latter. Now this is a difficult hiatus. It implies that the artwork that serves the function of neat color coordination and the like and blending in with, say, the couch may have little to do with depth and meaning.
The further unfortunate consequence is that most people ignore the profundity and even the difficulty inherent in image-making, preferring easy art, familiar art and simple art. In this sense, one has to judge the work at Castra as simply accessible art that can sell, eschewing the task of questioning art itself and redefining its terrain. This then is decidedly a dedication to art that is far from cutting edge, miles from some of the modern galleries one might find in Tel Aviv and the like.
Having said that, the visitor will probably marvel at the skill of many of the painters whose work is on show, particularly at Reut Gallery. On closer inspection, however, one will find that many of the “good pieces” – particularly from well-known Israeli artists of the past such as Nahum Gutman, Reuven Rubin and Yossi Bergner – are merely prints. Furthermore, the beautiful collection of abstract work has often been completed by a team of Chinese artists that simply mass produce the same works on demand, thus flooding the market with pretty pictures that mean nothing.
More glaringly painful at a gallery next door is the work of an artist who simply copies “whatever.” If skill were simply the benchmark of art, then manufacturing a car or an airplane would be far greater art. Surely we expect from art a cognitive function, a rebellious action, a set of questions and philosophical meanings, rather than simply the traditional landscape, portrait and still-life that simply mimics reality in the guise of art. Historically, art is past such a simple structure of image-making. And yet, one will be captivated by some of the images. Yes, buying and selling must go on.
There were even some painters literally painting as if on show, skilfully rendering photographic copies as if art were reduced to the mimetic function of our age, namely mechanized reproduction. Perhaps this is a rather depressing assessment, and simply the joy of recording empirical reality in paint and line and color is an end in itself and a meaningful act. But I do not think one should be so appeased. Rather, venture out to those odd installations and new media interventions that challenge assumptions about reality in the first place as well as paintings that render reality from a new and often questioning perspective.
In this respect, Haifa Museum of Art is far more cutting edge and dynamic, and one should therefore cast a skeptical eye on “easy, familiar art,” whether initially beautiful or not. The would-be gallery-goer ought to be reminded of Dada of more than a century ago in order to be released of the seduction of the surface image. Only then can art maintain its critical edge.
Having said that, at least there is some kind of art at this mall, a scant reminder of the necessity to beautify the environment and look more closely at the intrinsic aesthetic dimension of life. In this respect, it may well be worth checking it out. There may even be some diamonds in the rough that run contrary to this generalized assessment.