Smashing the idol of art

There is a more insidious contempt for the Israeli public than the bigoted rantings of arrogant artists: these guardians of art are indoctrinating future art teachers of Israel’s children.

By MEL ALEXENBERG
June 22, 2015 21:02
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev

Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev. (photo credit: REUTERS)

There is a more insidious contempt for the Israeli public than the bigoted rantings of arrogant artists: these same self-appointed guardians of art are indoctrinating future art teachers of Israel’s children in their narrow-minded, obsolete and alien view of art.

Yair Garbuz’s depiction of the majority of the voting public as “kissers of amulets, idol worshipers and people who bow down and prostrate themselves on the graves of saints” is an apt description of himself. He and his cheering crowd of artists are the real idol worshipers. They bow down to outdated American art forms of the last century that emerged from America’s cultural dominance after World War II.

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Instead of creating new art forms emerging from dialogue with a vibrant, multifaceted Israeli society in a networked world, Garbuz and his ilk make shallow imitations of the art of a society that is not theirs and that they do not understand.

Reviewing Garbuz’s 2007 exhibition at the Open Museum, Naomi Siman describes his work as a link in the real or fictitious chain of Israeli modernism that interacts with the abstract, with American pop art in its early version, and with the conceptual art of the 1970s. He contributes to the “widening rift between Israeli artists and the society in which they create,” as Gideon Ofrat writes in his seminal book on the history of art in Israel.

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I should disclose here that I know and appreciate the development of American art as an insider. I was born and educated in New York, was art professor at Columbia University, head of the art department at Pratt Institute and Research Fellow at the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies.

I currently live in Ra’anana. I have been an observer of Israeli art, culture and society since I first came to Israel in 1969 when Dan Hoffner, head of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, invited me to advise him in developing a proposal for the Council for Higher Education for Bezalel to offer its first academic degree.

Garbuz’s Wikipedia biography reveals that he taught at Hamidrasha Art Teachers College for 30 years and from 1997- 2009 was head of the college. How many art teachers has he attempted to indoctrinate? How many Israeli children have been the unsuspecting victims of a cult of idol worshipers who prostrate themselves before the saints of a foreign art world? More shocking than Garbuz’s outburst and Oded Kotler likening the entire Israeli aggregate to “a herd of behemoths who lick up straw and dung” is the appointment of Garbuz’s successor upon his retirement. Doron Rabina, the current head of Hamidrasha, was Garbuz’s student and disciple. He explains the aesthetic- ethical framework for understanding his guru’s artwork in his article, “Rustles of Suspicion and Matters of Guilt.”

It appears in the hardcover book titled Garbuz that served as the catalog for the Open Museum exhibition. Rabina uses a medical metaphor, explaining Garbuz’s art as a homeopathic cure for ailing Israeli society.

On Rabina’s Facebook page his avatar is a map of Israel (including Gaza, Judea and Samaria) in blood red, with a black Star of David in a white circle. This allusion to the Nazi flag is too amateurish for a serious artist.

His June 11, 2015 Facebook post contains a photo of the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s sculpture Ave Maria. It depicts three arms clad in business-suit sleeves extending from a wall in what is known as the Roman salute, which was used by Italian fascists after World War I.

It is the origin of the Nazi salute. Below are photos of Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev. Each is speaking behind a lectern, gesturing with one arm raised.

The Bennett and Regev acknowledge the right of freedom of expression in a democratic Jewish state. It is the ultimate chutzpah for a self-appointed artistic elite to demand that the lowly Israeli commoner foot the bill for vile propaganda masquerading as art. These individuals have raised art to a holy realm beyond the reach of lowly mortals, who they view as being culturally impaired.

It is time to smash the idol of art.

Subverting idolatry with a twist of irony has been the mission of the Jews from their very beginning. As a prelude to the biblical story of Abraham beginning his journey away from his father’s world to the Land of Israel, the Midrash tells that Abraham was minding his father’s idol shop when he took a stick and smashed the merchandise to bits.

He left only the largest idol untouched, placing the stick in its hand. When his father returned, his shock at seeing the scene of devastation grew into fury as he demanded an explanation from his son.

Abraham explained how the largest idol had broken all the other idols.

An idol smashing idols gives us clues for creating art to debunk art, art that aims to undermine undue reverence for art, art that challenges the established canon of Western art. Artists in touch with the pulse of the people of Israel will be interested in creating art to knock art off its pedestal by displaying a creative skepticism not just towards art’s subjects but also toward its purposes.

The author is editor of Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersections of Art, Science, Technology and Culture and author of The Future of Art in a Postdigtial Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (both published by Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press).


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