Arts in support of protest culture
The decision of some galleries to pull out of White Night signals they may be ready to stand up for their artists' rights.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai seems to have decided to run the city as if it were a military base, an extension of the right-wing government, and to treat the city's residents the way the Israel Defense Forces dare to treat Palestinians, for example, expelling refugees instead of protecting them. Thus, many in the arts scene decided to show Huldai exactly what they think of his policies, and his current glitzy production. It's simple politics.
But beyond these events, a review of the recent relations between the municipality and those in the arts scene - including artists, museums and private commercial establishments - reveals a troubled history. It has, in fact, been clear for some time that more trouble was to come.
All one has to do is remember the mayor's pompous declarations during the city's 100-year anniversary about establishing a Tel Aviv Biennial for Contemporary Art and the way the idea was kicked over to Herzliya within less than a year, because it required a non-insulting budget, in order to understand that Huldai operates like an employer rather than a service-provider.
During last summer's protests, the arts scene failed in its attempts to engage city hall in dialogue. In September, the mayor, who also serves as the chairman of Tel Aviv Museum of Art's board of trustees, was handed a petition signed by hundreds of artists demanding that the museum make changes in its search committee for its new directors. Signatories charged that committee members had conflicts of interest and were not acting professionally.
Huldai was also asked to establish a code of ethics that would "set clear limits on the involvement of private funds in determining the museum's curatorial policies. Such a code would, for example, define the relationship between financial patrons and decision makers," the petition stated.
In addition, the petition referred to the salaries of museum employees and artists exhibiting there, and recommended that one day a week be set aside during which entrance to the museum would be free in the afternoon, as is customary in most large museums around the world. The petition ended with the following statement: "After more than ten years of alienation between the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the local arts community, this moment can be an opportunity to restore the museum to the professional community and to the city's residents, which the museum is meant to serve."
The Artists' Association also demanded of Huldai that he turn over museum documents to its members. Huldai met with the artists, but refused to disband the search committee or suspend its activities.
In November, the Global City administration, the successor to the Tel Aviv at 100 celebration administration, held a presentation entitled "2012: The Year of Art" for Tel Aviv gallery representatives. Director general Hila Oren spoke of the "creative class, the people of the young, creative generation" as an "economic engine." And she spoke of Tel Aviv as a brand, a way to market galleries internationally, and as a "conflict-avoiding tool" given the fact that "Israel is hard to market."
When asked why the "year" of art was, in fact, reduced to only a single weekend, and what city hall was actually doing on behalf of artists, galleries and the south of the city, Oren declared the meeting over and walked out.
Artists Moran Houb and Jack Faber wrote the following: "When the director general of the Global City says that 'Israel is hard to brand internationally because of the conflict with the Palestinians and the situation in general, but Tel Aviv is a separate, independent and very successful brand, and that's how we bypass the problem of the conflict,' quite apart from the explicit cynicism, one may infer the censorship that will be imposed on any art referring to the conflict, occupation or political situation."
And the disagreements between artists and the municipality went beyond partisan politics. Artists involved in the city's initiative, the Loving Art project, demanded that they be compensated for their participation in the project. There was also a call to update the stale criteria of property tax discounts given to artists' studios, to bring them into the twenty-first century.
An all-business approach
Let's not be naive. City Hall's support for culture and the arts has always been founded on a basis of commercial and public relations interests. The artists' workshops established in 1988 were meant to serve as the city's showcase of artistic activity in the city, and they do in fact subsidize studios and galleries. Artists' spaces in bomb shelters were established after the Gulf War in order to turn the shelters into civilian spaces, while also ensuring that they would be functional when needed. They allowed quite a few artists to operate out of them.
These municipality projects and initiatives served both the artists and the city. Tel Aviv's got positive publicity, but it provided them with something in return. The appearance of fairness was maintained.
But during Huldai's term in office, the hollow showpiece tourist extravaganzas have reached heights of cynicism that are hard to stomach. The approach toward galleries and art institutions is all business; the city markets the galleries, without even the awareness of the artists. Yet the artists are expected to fall in line with the galleries, after which they will be praised, compensated for their benevolence, lauded as cultural leaders at various launches and openings.
Artists have always played the role of fig leaf, glittering display case, and court jesters for moves made by the powerful, the real estate moguls, the moneyed class. This is nothing new. What is new is that lately, the artists have started to get it. What's changed - and this is an attempt to identify a sea change while it's still taking place - is the end of the split consciousness, the end of the disconnect between the civilian and artistic dimensions.
This disconnect was never random. It was the result of a long-standing and thorough institutional indoctrination that political discourse is out of bounds for artists, mere water-cooler gossip that doesn't belong to "the art itself." The artists were taught that they can express their politics through their medium, in their own unique language, but should not hold political discussions. Thus, artists were seen as citizens who enhanced freedom of expression, even if they were not quite given free reign to say what they wanted.
Don't they have the means of expression and array of tools to shape opinion, desires and world views? Yet, there are many who come to look and even buy, just as long as the artists' statement stays within the representative only, a metaphor for reality, and doesn't creep toward an actual political act.
Artists must remain within the boundaries of the imagined relations of production and not expose their real conditions, the limits of the discourse imposed on them.
So it's okay to depict refugees with sensitivity; it's great to wax lyrical about a black city; it's even desirable to choreograph endless dances "regardless of creed, race or nationality"; it's fine to produce TV series on the city's really cool neighborhoods; and it's certainly acceptable to film the gay pride parade.
But it is not okay to actually demand minimally humane conditions that would allow all of this artistic activity. For more than a year, artists have been trying to tell city hall that they are aware of what's going on, that they're aware of the city's attempts to co-opt the highly developed conscience of creative folks and their refined human sensibilities, while taking cynical advantage of them.
And city hall continues to ignore them while making hollow gestures toward them, not unlike the abusive husband who brings his wife a bouquet of flowers on Friday night. The municipality, not really knowing its own true nature, cannot grasp that artists are catching on, and so it continues to try to tempt them with stale candy, long since expired.
Every time artists have tried to move beyond their supposed function, and toward a fundamental discussion about the conditions in which their art happens, they've encountered a cold shoulder from this or that department within city hall. As if they were as if they were trying to wash their dirty laundry in public, as if they were totally beside the point.
The refusal to cooperate with the city's showy initiatives is also clear evidence that the city doesn't get that times have changed, that artists are no longer interested in exclusive extravaganzas when they have a hard time paying for their groceries; that they are sick of being the poor beautifying the lives of the rich; that they are aware of the hypocrisy of the municipality demanding that they separate their art from their politics and world view.
All that happened this week was that the mask of hypocrisy finally faded away. There are no culture games, only aggression and power. Perhaps this is the start of reorganization of the players and even of the rules of the game, an attempt at truly changing the power relations in a situation of mutual dependency, a kind of strike.
What's certain is that the local arts scene has never before seen such a move by gallery owners. The call to pull out of the White Night happening was conceived within, and multiplied among private businesses, the ones that don't need city hall but are actually needed by city hall. The municipality time and again tries to use them to boast of the city's artistic activity, but time and again offers them empty hands and empty PR: advertising in municipal brochures rather than discounts on property taxes. Most of them don't need the advertising, and participated in various programs simply because they didn't have a good enough reason not to participate.
This year's White Nights budget is NIS 2 million. A city hall spokesperson refused to provide a breakdown of how much of that budget was set aside for the plastic arts, but a cursory look at the events planned indicates that it's a tiny fraction of the whole.
In the past, the deal the municipality offered for those artists seemed to be: "do what you'd do in any case, but do it late into the night, and get free advertising for doing it."
Galleries, knowing full well that city hall isn't capable of or interested in attracting big name professionals and collectors from abroad, didn't find it particularly difficult to refuse that offer. This year, however, galleries preferred to show solidarity with their artists, especially the young ones, who stagger under the burden of rent, who suffer from lack of artists' workshops and from the conditions in the public bomb shelters, who live in south Tel Aviv alongside the refugees that the city ignores, who refuse the white rationale and its classifying, discriminatory architectural heritage, its historical exclusions. In other words, those who want to protest and not remain merely mute talent.