The art bubble

Can Eli Petel, the new head of Fine Arts at the Bezalel Academy, create the conditions necessary for students of art to flourish?

Study for negative portrait (2002)521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Study for negative portrait (2002)521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Since he began exhibiting nearly a decade ago, contemporary artist Eli Petel has dealt in his work with issues of tradition in a fresh and genuine way – often with a dose of restrained humor.
His treatment of generational questions is uncharacteristic for an artist of his years – and comes in part from his own interest in reconsidering and reevaluating these questions without ever dismissing them.
“Our perspective on tradition changes more than tradition itself,” he says. “I’m constantly asking myself: How do we renew this perspective, describe it anew?” For Petel, questions of tradition and generation take on a new aspect as he prepares to take the helm at the art institution from which he emerged – as the new head of the Department of Fine Arts at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Petel studied at Bezalel from 1996 until 2000, and since then has exhibited drawings, paintings, sculptures and photographs at galleries and museums both locally and abroad. He began teaching at the department in 2002 and was appointed head of the Jerusalem BFA program in a competition that included nearly 20 candidates.
“Bezalel is a place that’s special,” he reflects, “from the point of view that it has specific conditions: It’s in Jerusalem, it’s isolated, it’s a kind of beit midrash [Jewish study-house], it’s full of discomfort. And despite being imperfect, it’s still a good place.”
According to Petel, the idea of an art school today is that of a place where art happens in the highest, most consistent, natural way. It’s a place where people constantly deal with the formulation of art – hoping that it exists and that there’s something to do with it.
This includes issues of style, viewpoint, display, what we like, what we don’t like, how we represent those things. It also means questioning what is important to speak about, and what is not.
Everyone who enters the doors of the Department of Art is in what Petel calls a “double stance”: the instructors as artist-teachers and their pupils as artist-students. For him, specific issues in art practice relate to the larger notion of “styling identity” – which includes students and teachers exploring what they speak about well. This exploration, he says, comes out of the conversations between the artistteachers and artist-students. A tension develops between students’ deference to their teachers and their sense of individuality or rebellion – a useful if challenging dynamic that is promoted by the teachers’ desire always to try and think of the students as artists. “When I started teaching,” he says, “I related to it as something lucky which allowed me to work on what I wanted to do while staying in an interesting environment.”
He believed it was something temporary – that soon he would start to sell so many artworks that he wouldn’t need to teach anymore – but that moment never came.
“This model no longer exists,” he says. At the same time, “teaching no longer seems to be in conflict with an artist’s own work in today’s environment.” Though it is a commonly held conception that teaching can get in the way of one’s personal artwork, he notices that the artists with whom he works do not subscribe to this opinion. “The good artists in Israel teach – in all the institutions – and they turn those institutions into stronger places.”
THE DYNAMIC between student and teacher is one of the cornerstones of Bezalel’s Department of Art, and it’s a relationship that often originates before the student is even accepted.
“Entrance exams and interviews are always hard,” admits Petel. “You’re torn between what you see – the visual work presented by aspiring students – and their personal qualities. On the one hand, you feel you want to adopt them, and on the other you want to set them free.”
Sometimes there are well-informed candidates who know what’s going on in the art world, but this can also lead to inflexibility. This is less good, he contends, than someone who knows less but exhibits a potential to grow.
“In practice,” he says, “the most important thing is to ask whether you’d want to learn something from the student. To flip the situation and put the responsibility on the candidate.”
Admissions committees are often made up of instructors and pupils of the school, who consider and discuss each candidate together. Petel describes these committees as a great time for both teachers and students – a time when they wonder who’s going to join them. “The bubble of art is opened up for a moment,” he says, “a little cleaned of its habitus.”
Returning to the generational question, he muses that it also makes him think about the make-up of the country’s populace at a given moment.
“What’s the relation between a thirtysomething like myself and someone who’s 20? Or someone who’s 20 and someone who’s 50? What kinds of people within the society want to join Bezalel?” His aim as department head is to make the population heterogenous – with people from all over the spectrum of politics, high and low socioeconomic backgrounds, Western and Oriental cultural traditions, as well as all kinds of combinations of these qualities.
For him, the main idea, from a wider perspective, is to think about how the department can encourage works of art to come out of its students. His curiosity is related to artistic expression, which is personal and executed on a high level, while at the same time relating to those sociocultural influences and references that are part of those students’ formation: “to create something meaningful that can give back to its origin, to encourage the individuality to return to its community.”
This often requires, however, a process of tzimtzum – the kabbalistic notion of contraction or self-reduction – which itself necessitates the right conditions for personal growth and understanding. The aim is not to provide the students with infinite enrichment, but to create a discussion that’s important. Such conditions are part of what he believes Bezalel can provide for an art student.
PETEL BELIEVES that art is a place to which people come to see anew, not a place that has some specific use for them – hence, for him, art is not an ideological tool, but one with a subtle and perhaps even mysterious purpose.
People often complain that they do not “understand” contemporary art – which puts art in an alienated or estranged realm – but the department head contends that art is not about understanding, it’s about seeing.
Partly for this reason, he rejects notions of genre or thinking in generic categories like painting, drawing, sculpture, or even video. “Genre is nostalgic, and nostalgia is connected to ideology. I want to think of art as something provisional, surprising, spontaneous. It’s fragile and vulnerable to forces from outside.”
Right alongside art, he says, is thought. “Artists are never just artists.
They’re philosophers, technicians, salespeople, celebrities. Artists are professionals whose profession is themselves.” He adds that he identifies good artwork as art that’s important to someone – even if only to the artist.
And though being the head of an art department is not something he had previously considered as part of being an artist, he says he wants to approach the position as the artist that he is. “It won’t be just for the sake of it.” Though at the moment, it involves more questions than answers: What can he do? What qualities are required? Does he have them? “I’m a person who on the one hand is social and believes in solidarity, but on the other critical and full of doubt,” he reflects. “What I’ve learned about management, and even in my own thoughts, is that there is no single or ultimate solution. Nothing is ever finished, once and for all, a closed circle. It’s a kind of partiality that’s connected to continuity.”

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