A Model Artist, Here and Now

It's back to the studio for Yair Garbuz. At the end of this academic year he will leave the art school at the Beit Berl Teachers Training College ("Hamidrasha"), which he has directed for 12 years. Before serving as director, he had taught there for many years; today he admits, in fact, that he does not like to teach.

"This is a position of power that doesn't interest me," the artist says. "I'm glad when someone shows me his work, I'm glad to give my opinion, but not in a power relationship of student-teacher, which is artificial, in my opinion. There have been moments that I enjoyed very much, but my firm opinion is that a teacher who doesn't like to teach - is a good teacher."

Nevertheless, Garbuz adds: "Over the years I've found a certain similarity between making art and teaching art: Both of them contain the element of a desire to influence."

Garbuz, 64, a student and later a colleague of the late Rafi Lavie, is a pillar of the Israeli art world - especially in the realm of modernism, which has been influenced by abstract art, American pop art and the conceptual art of the 1970s. He is also a media person, a gifted writer of satire and the author of a number of books. In 2004 he was awarded the Emet Prize, which is given under the auspices of the Prime Minister's Office.

He started teaching at the college 36 years ago and is considered to be a charismatic teacher who has raised generations of artists. Many people consider the Beit Berl art school to be more than an institution that trains artists: It represents a kind of unique educational entity, of which Garbuz is one of the guiding lights. In 1999, under his directorship, the college was accredited to award an academic degree in art.

Garbuz's studio in Ramat Gan looks like the home of a dedicated archivist. In addition to some rooms used to store his innumerable works of the past 40 years, there is one where all the action takes place: Part of it is an active studio, with an easel, a canvas, a paint-spattered floor and a large table covered with papers, books and so on. The walls are plastered by works by many artists - "former students, now colleagues" - as Garbuz puts it, but none of his own works.

The other part of the room is like a living room: There are armchairs and a small table, and numerous CDs, ranging from classical through jazz to world music. This corner has a history of guest visits, long conversations and urgent talks with students, friends, colleagues and anyone who knocks on Garbuz's door.

Will you continue this tradition of hospitality after you retire?

Garbuz: "Until now I have been accessible to people who studied with me 20 years ago, people who come with stacks of Bristol paper and lay them out one by one. There are people who come from time to time needing help and advice regarding a certain issue and they get it. And there are those who become friends and then the painting becomes secondary and the wine becomes primary. There is no reason for this to change. Perhaps the opposite is the case. That's how it was with Rafi, too."

He explains that this phenomenon stems from the uniqueness of the college and of some of the teachers there. There is no such thing as finishing the college, he explains: "You've come into the world of art and there is no exit."

However, he says he had a hard time coming to terms with one thing: When he started teaching, he simply didn't believe it was necessary to get up every morning and go to work.

So how did you become the director?

"To this day what I've done in when assuming positions and responsibilities - including newspaper articles, and radio and television work - is that I've pulled the wool over my eyes, or someone else has pulled the wool over my eyes by mutual agreement. I think the only way to do things is to trap myself by means of a deadline ...

"When they offered me the management position, I was head of the art department, which is a position that I accepted when Lavie suggested that I replace him. I agreed to try and the director of the college - believe me, I'm not an idiot, but at that particular moment I was - told me that the only difference between my current position and that of director [of the art school] was that I would have to sign diplomas. At that moment I said I'd find time to sign diplomas. I was, of course, involved in 4,000 committees and meetings from the moment I started signing them. "

At Beit Berl, Garbuz established a process of learning and creativity that includes the use of tools of theory and criticism, alongside technical and applied work. He pushed students to take a stand, to learn, to keep up with what is happening in the country in the galleries and museums, and what is happening abroad through magazines, and to be opinionated, alert and above all curious.

The order priorities for students, according to Garbuz: "Most important and in first place is personal creative work at home. In second place, exhibitions the student goes to see; third, the college library; in fourth place, mingling in the cafeteria; and in fifth and last place, attending classes. In class the student is passive whereas in the cafeteria the future is going to happen. That's where you're going to get to know the people whom while you'll be phoning in the middle of the night to tell them: 'Come quickly, I have a new work and I need you to see it.' And this never ends, this need for someone to help you see if your work 'washes.'"

As for the requirement for studies in pedagogical subjects in addition to art, Garbuz says: "I think that especially at the college ... where artists are a bit scornful of the pedagogues, and rightly so, we know how to make a real and reasonable proposal regarding the state of the teacher in Israel. The college has developed the teacher-artist model. But this wasn't easy.

"We started out with being happy if they told us: 'You can teach only art and not education.' Then we said it is necessary to come to terms with the education part and finally we arrived at this 'banner' of ours."

In addition to this, Beit Berl has been operating a gallery for eight years now in the center of Tel Aviv, and also publishes a journal that serves as an arena for cultural, theoretical, social and political discourse.

What would you say your achievements at the college have been?

"I see the college as a pioneer in the understanding of the connection between the teaching of art and a broad cultural education. For example, in my opinion there is no such profession as painter or sculptor - there is a plastic artist. This is something that I would like to see grow stronger at the college. Another thing that began in my time is the broad emphasis on what is being done here and now. Here in the local sense - Israeli art. And now - in the sense of contemporary art. At all the academic institutions teach art history from the past to the present, but this turns out to be a false promise. They never get to the present. Moreover, there are those who say that there is nothing to teach about living artists. I say the opposite."

The spirit of the times is also of concern to Garbuz beyond the field of art. "At the entrance to the Ministry of Education in Jerusalem," he says, "there is an artistic mosaic by the man who was the inspector of art studies and also supervised me when I was young, Moshe Tamir. In front of a certain part of this mosaic stands the guards' safe, which conceals it. Sometimes there is broom leaning on it and sometimes they hang a flag on it. The minister of education walks past this and so do her subordinates; they don't sense that they are violating the creative rights of a person who worked with them and who didn't impose this work on them; without a doubt, they paid a lot of money for it. This is a crime. This is rape. If the Ministry of Education - which isn't interested in me and this, of course, is mutual - were to ask me what I want as a parting gift, I would say: Move that safe away from this picture."

The state and its education system, Garbuz charges, are scornful of art and art studies, and this is manifested in budget cuts and the attitude toward art institutions. The problem does not begin and end with budgets, he says: "This is a matter of a much broader and more dangerous process, the result of which is the ruin of higher education. Education in this country is the last of the government's priorities. The greatest difficulty from my perspective is explaining or justifying to students why we are making an effort and insisting on teaching a subject that no one out there wants."