Tel Aviv University campus.
(photo credit: PR)
Does an artist’s reprehensible politics disqualify his art? Does the display of art imply that those who facilitate it agree with the political views of the artist? Should we rely on the public to reach its own conclusions about these matters? When political standards are employed as a device for the analysis of art, the person who is mostly likely to come to mind, particularly in Israel, is Richard Wagner. Because of Hitler’s known love for Wagner’s music and Wagner’s own anti-Semitic views, Wagner’s music has been all but officially banned in Israel.
But Nazism and anti-Semitism are not the only political views that have the power – at least according to some – to disqualify art here in Israel. At Tel Aviv University there are those who believe that “settlers” are a category of individuals whose art must be boycotted or, at the very least, placed within its purportedly disparaging political context before it can be allowed to be displayed publicly.
The university’s central library decided to install in its lobby an exhibition called Seven Candelabra Branches: Hebron Hills Artists turned toward Tel Aviv, which features paintings and photography produced by seven Jews from communities in the Hebron area. The exhibition runs through the end of December.
Until last week, one could find information about the exhibit, about the Meitarim Artists Center – which organized the exhibit – and the goals of the exhibition (providing a platform for Hebron-area artists; connecting disparate groups within Israeli society through art) either on the library’s Internet site or in the entrance to the library.
Under pressure from academic staff and others, this information has since been removed from the library’s site, and no explanations of the art and its creators are provided to visitors. What one can find outside the entrance to the library are activists from Breaking the Silence – an NGO known for documenting testimonies of IDF soldiers – demonstrating.
According to reports in The Jerusalem Post’s sister paper Ma’ariv, members of the university’s academic staff – such as Prof. Ishay Rosen-Zvi, the head of the Talmud program in the department of Hebrew culture studies, and Prof. Menachem Lorberbaum, chairman of the department of Jewish philosophy, Talmud and Kabbala – have complained to the library’s management that featuring this art is a political act designed to sanitize settlements, particularly those in and around Hebron.
Certain assumptions have to be made to take on this sort of position. One must take as a given that art and politics are inseparable and that an artist’s political views taint beyond redemption his or her artistic works. At the very least, one must believe that simply facilitating display of this art is tantamount to legitimizing the political views of the artist or of those living in the place from which he or she comes.
One wonders if Breaking the Silence, Rosen-Zvi and Lorberbaum believe that the work of T.S. Eliot – a man who openly supported two political movements that identified Jews as the enemy of civilization – should be banned or put into the context of Eliot’s anti-Semitism wherever printed, or that those who facilitate dissemination should be implicated as supporters of anti-Semitism.
The same sort of question could be asked about the artwork of Edgar Degas, who not only was an anti-Semite but produced works – such as “At the Bourse” – that depict Jews in a grotesque fashion.
Clearly, this type of argument is preposterous. Even those who criticized composer Daniel Barenboim when he conducted the Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra’s version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Jerusalem in 2001 accused him of insensitivity to the feelings of Holocaust survivors – not support for anti-Semitism.
What is truly reprehensible about the behavior of Breaking the Silence, Rosen-Zvi and Lorberbaum is their attempt to equate settlers with an evilness so great it taints their artistic work. The reality is that many of the worst aspects of what is referred to as the “occupation” are the direct result of Palestinians’ decisions to resort to violence and terrorism instead of dialogue and compromise. It is a horrible distortion to portray all settlers and the IDF forces that protect them as rapacious conquerors motivated by racism.
At the very least, the complainers should have the intellectual honesty to admit neither side is completely to blame for the tension in the Hebron area.
We hope the management of Tel Aviv University’s central library has the decency to stand up to pressure from radicals attempting to stifle freedom of artistic expression. Hebron Hills artists, like all others, deserve an explanation of their art exhibit, both online and inside the library.