When Art Imitates Life

There are a few good political artists in Israel - and lots of politics surrounding them.

The main event of the political art season will be experienced by a very limited audience. Last week, 85 pieces of artwork on A4 paper were brought into Military Prison No. 6, to the cells of two conscientious objectors. Bringing the artwork into the prison was another stage in a kind of ongoing march of political art, organized by Jerusalem artist Rafram Haddad and Tel Aviv artist Roi Tziki Arad. Haddad himself was expecting to be incarcerated in Prison 6 on January 14 for refusing to report for reserve duty in the territories. As the date approached, he and Arad began sending e-mails to Israeli artists, asking them to prepare work on paper that would be hung in Haddad's cell. The response was very enthusiastic and television crews from Israel and abroad were all prepared to film the event, but then - perhaps as a consequence of the publicity - Haddad was informed that his call-up notice for reserve duty had been canceled.

"I already had 150 works of art by then," says Haddad. "And though I myself didn't go to jail, I got a lot of the pieces into the cells of the refuseniks who are there. On Wednesday, I'm bringing the rest in and next Wednesday, I'm opening an exhibit opposite the walls of the prison. Three days later, we'll hold a big party in Tel Aviv."

This undertaking is blatantly political, not only in terms of the works' contents, but primarily because of where they are displayed. Speaking earlier this week, Haddad, 27, noted that from the outset, he wasn't interested in arranging an exhibit of political art outside the prison walls.

"Art in Israel should be in prison," he says, "because we're in a situation of occupation and art cannot continue to act as if it's business as usual. The way the works are presented is the political statement and not the works in and of themselves, even though most contain messages against the occupation. Art cannot continue to act as if everything is fine in Israel. I'm opposed to artists thinking that their role is just to be dragged along, to sign petitions and march in demonstrations and make do with that. We're about to establish an organization called Artists without Borders, out of the feeling that artists also have to take action, like this one, for example."

Haddad is breaking down an open door. There is hardly an artist in Israel who hasn't created a political work at some point. Political art has always been part of the life's breath of local art, to the point where today it could even become fashionable and lucrative. The last comme il faut catalog, from the women's fashion house that specializes in elitist sales promotions featured a photograph by Ephrat Beloosesky of a mother and baby in the style of a Renaissance painting. The mother, dressed in very expensive clothes from comme il faut also holds a sign saying, "End the Occupation."

Uniformity of views

As one can see from both Rafram Haddad's initiative and Beloosesky's commercial protest, the main problem for political art is that it basically involves preaching to the converted. Blunt, angry reactions, such as that of Ambassador Zvi Mazel to the installation by locally born artist Dror Feiler in Stockholm, are very rare when works of political art are displayed in Israel, if only due to the uniformity of views that frequently prevails between the artists and the consumers of art.

Such uniformity exists well as between artists and the arts establishment, says cultural critic Sara Hinski. "The governmental establishment is always `rightist' - it always seeks national culture, with the difference between left and right being that the right wing wants national-Jewish exclusivity, while the left wing wants cultural-Jewish exclusivity. Meanwhile, the artistic-cultural establishment, which includes artists, reviewers, curators and consumers, and which is nourished by the governmental establishment, is an establishment that is composed almost entirely of leftists."

The tacit agreement between the parties, she says, is manifested in the fact that the funding for anti- establishment art originates primarily in political sources: "The two big urban museums - the Tel Aviv Museum and the Israel Museum - are funded by the government." The "rightist" establishment finds itself funding leftist art, "because there is a kind of historic agreement that the monopoly on formulating the Israeli identity, which is essentially a Jewish-Israeli identity and not a Palestinian-Israeli identity, has been entrusted to Israeli art, which is comprised of leftists. From this perspective, political art is |national art - it serves the nation."

From the outset this closed circle - in which the role of artists is to create works that protest against the occupation, the role of the critics is to intensify the protest, the role of the public is to come to the museum and sigh with regret, and the role of the government with the now-clean conscience is to continue occupying - dispels any excitement surrounding political art. In such circumstances, an artist can only dream of inspiring reactions like that of Mazel. For the most part, such an artist will have to wait until he or she's awarded a prestigious prize by the state in order to express his harsh criticism against it - in a protest that spotlights the artist and their personality more than it does their work.

Therefore the question of context is perhaps the key question in relation to political art. Like Haddad, there are several major political artists who believe the Jewish public in general and the leftist public in particular cannot be the target audience for art that aspires to be political per se; in other words, the politicization of art is an action that goes beyond the art itself and is also measured by the extent of its impact. Others see political art as a display of personal opinion that is expressed totally in the artwork itself regardless of the circumstances of its presentation.

"There are artists who identify political art with a kind of leftist political statement, artists like Miki Kratsman, Michal Heiman and David Reeb," says curator Tal Ben-Zvi. Ben-Zvi, who is currently writing a doctoral thesis on Palestinian art, established the Hagar Gallery in Jaffa several years ago, a nonprofit gallery that primarily displayed Palestinian art (and closed in September due to lack of funding). As someone who founded a gallery and focused on artists and works whose subjects are political, she belongs to a second category: to "those who, unlike the former, think that art must be a type of protest, that the artistic act must be political - artists such as Haddad and Arad or Ro'i Rosen and Haim Lusky, who mounted an exhibition in Umm al-Fahm marking 35 years of the occupation and contributed all the proceeds from the sales to Physicians for Human Rights."

Lusky feels so strongly that political art should be much more connected to its circumstances that he refuses to exhibit in museums and galleries. "I differentiate between artists who use politics to make a painting or a photograph, such as David Reeb or Michal Heiman, whom I do not consider political artists, because political art is not just the content, it's also the means - and artists who take real action that has political significance and also innovation in terms of the field in which they work. In my view, so-called political art is exactly the kind of art that mustn't be shown in galleries. Anyone who deals with art displayed in galleries and museums is essentially dealing in political trade and not political art."

Tzivi Geva takes an entirely different attitude. He isn't interested in questions such as who his audience is and whom his art influences. He says he doesn't know anything about political art, he just creates it. "I also don't deal with questions like what other artists should do," he says, adding that he feels very few artists create political art.

Then there's David Tartakover, one of the most veteran political artists still active and winner of the 2002 Israel Prize.

"I speak to everyone," he says. "My work is basically a seismograph of all that has happened here in the past 30 years. The problem is getting people who aren't in my camp to react. I express an opinion, depict a situation, interpret a situation - the problem is how to have an effect. The question is how far to stretch the limits of freedom of expression. I can't really have a serious influence, because to do that, with my means, I'd need a giant budget. But I believe in what Avigdor Hameiri, who wrote in the intellectual journal Mahar ["Tomorrow"] in the 1920s: `Freedom of speech is not a privilege but a duty.'"

`Gates of Victory'

The fact that Tartakover, 60, who also does commercial graphics and design, did not confine himself to an audience of art aficionados and took his work to the broader public contributed to his weight as a political artist. Twice he aroused the wrath of former attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein. The first time, with no connection to his art, an argument arose between the two over whether it ought to be noted on the memorial to Yitzhak Rabin that his assassin, Yigal Amir, was a "skullcap-wearer." The second time, on Independence Day two years ago, Rubinstein felt compelled to comment on a work by Tartakover that appeared on the cover of the Ha'ir weekly. "The Gates of Victory" was the title Tartakover gave his work, depicting Israel Defense Forces soldiers walking on the ruins of a house, with the gate through which they passed decorated with the symbols of the various IDF corps, with skulls lying beside them and pictures of Ariel Sharon, Yigal Amir and Effi Eitam hanging above them. Two days after Rubinstein - in the wake of a complaint that a reader filed with the police - warned that Tartakover was venturing too close to lines that can't be crossed and called the drawing "outrageous and repugnant," Tartakover received the Israel Prize for his work as a teacher, designer and documenter of the history of design culture in Israel.

In his works, politics is frequently not only the message, but also the material. In several early works, for example, he uses the famous photograph of Mordechai Vanunu's hand with the message about his abduction. "Vanunu's hand is my motto and, in my opinion, the motto of political art," says Tartakover. "Vanunu did not sit and think about which fonts to use and which paper to choose or which medium to express himself in. He had a message to get across and he used what he had - his hand and a pen. That's my motto, too. I have three spheres of work - I make a living from providing visual media services and designing catalogs, books, logos and posters. The second sphere is research and teaching and collecting and preserving the history of visual culture in Israel, and the third is the sphere of political work. For the purpose of this work, like Vanunu, I use what I have - photographs, objects, Xerox and printing."

He is currently working on a series entitled, "I Am Here": "I went to someone who makes these orange vests like the Zaka people and [other emergency] rescue services wear and I asked him to make me a vest with `artist' printed on it. I'm planting photos of me wearing this vest in all kinds of press photographs. The reenactment of the Rabin murder, checkpoints, terror attacks. The idea is to show that I, as an artist, am also here within these events."

Another recent series is called "Stain," featuring photographed portraits of various people - from Tartakover himself to former attorney general Rubinstein - covered with a red stain in the shape of the Land of Israel beyond the Green Line. "I'm doing this not only to bad people, but to good people, too. We all have this stain of the occupation on us."

The difference between Tartakover and Geva just goes to show how much politics there is in "political art." Geva feels uncomfortable even with the term "political artist." "The political content is one of my dimensions," he says, noting that he can't recall "anything causing such a fuss that it ended up the subject of a Knesset hearing or anything like that."

The last big show Geva did that was defined as political was the show "Tokhnit Av" ("Master Plan") at the Haifa Museum a year ago. He subsequently published a book by the same name. The exhibition featured a video work that he made together with Miki Kratsman and Boaz Arad, which was filmed at his previous show, "Svakha" ("Bars") at the Hagar Gallery.

"That exhibition was political also in the sense of where and how it was presented," he explains. "The choice of the Hagar Gallery is political to begin with, and also the fact that I used the balcony there, so people passing by on the street of the mixed city could see it, and that gave it a special effect."

The exhibition in Haifa, he says, "was political like everything else that I do, only in terms of the content. It was composed of three elements - an installation of bars with a large hall entirely surrounded by bars that I designed; and an installation of tires that covered the walls of another hall and the hallway; and a hall with a very large painting of tiles."

Who is the audience for your art?

Geva: "I've liberated myself from these questions. I deal in art. I don't plan for what effect it will have on the reality. I'm aware that my works are mostly seen by an art audience. Do I expect someone to buy them? As for my works in my last exhibits, I had no illusion that someone would buy them, though a museum could have. But I also do works that people buy."

Even though he evades a talking about the politics of his creations, Geva, 53, has learned over the years to tell when his works are more overtly political and when they are more subtly political: The former don't sell.

"People relate to art for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they don't get the political message and sometimes they buy despite the political message. But people are clearly put off by sharper political content. I have works from the `80s that no one will buy, works that have inscriptions like `Biladi, Biladi' [`My Country, My Country,' the Palestinian anthem] or `Umm al-Fahm' and so on. They're buried in my storeroom."

Do you think an artist has a political role?

"I can only speak for myself, I don't want to assign roles to others. I only know to what I'm committed and what kind of choices I make in my artistic work. I don't think I should have to worry about the question of what others are doing and whom it influences."

Bestiality and censorship

The art of Miki Kratsman, who is also the photographer for the "Twilight Zone" column in this magazine, is political art also in terms of its artistic impulse. "My art is a byproduct of my work as a press photographer, and from the start, my motivation to work as a press photographer was political," he says. "I thought it would be my way to express an opinion. The fact that the establishment subsequently decided to embrace me is very nice, but that wasn't my intention. Even today, when I do video art, my works have a political dimension. I can't do other things because artists deal with what's burning for them and what's burning to me is the political situation. Maybe in a few years, I'll feel a greater urgency to deal with subjects such as disappointed loves, for example."

A few months ago, Kratsman, 44, had a joint exhibition with David Reeb called "Control" at the Israel Museum. "They agreed to go ahead with the exhibit and they knew exactly what was in it and who we are, which means that in terms of the content, they were taking a risk from the start. But then they apparently got scared," he says, "meaning the work was exhibited, but they made every effort to hide it."

Information about the exhibit did not appear in the museum's publications, says Kratsman, and it was not mentioned on the museum's telephone information line. And it was taken down a month earlier than originally planned. (In response, a museum spokesman says, "The exhibit came down exactly on time. There were also several ads in which the exhibit was publicized and a seminar was also held on it").

Despite the experience with the Israel Museum, Kratsman feels the situation for artistic freedom of speech in Israel is reasonable. "You can't say that I'm less accepted in Israel than I am abroad. With all the criticism I have for this place in which I live, and it's a shitty place and we're behaving like beasts, as far as censorship goes, we're in a good shape. That's why I find it hard to believe that there is so little political art in Israel. I'm not talking about artists who don't share my views, but about artists who do share my views and are just afraid for their asses. The only time that artists really undertook political activity is when they gathered at the finance minister's office to protest the cuts in the cultural budgets. Is that the only burning political problem in this country? Is that what brings artists out to the street?"

Painter David Reeb, 51, who has produced political art consistently since the 1980s, says he has found over the years, surprisingly, that the difficulty of making political art, does not lie in politics. "I think there's a contradiction in the idea of political art that is sold to collectors who hang it on the wall. Properly speaking, a work of political art should not be economically negotiable; its sole purpose should be to have an impact in the political field, so aesthetic considerations should be negligible. My works are not like that and by the very act of creating a painting, there's already a contradiction to the idea of political art."

Reeb also has made a good number of works that curators have refused to exhibit. "At the Tel Aviv Museum, they didn't want to exhibit a work of mine depicting a soldier aiming his weapon at a child, and another time, they didn't want to display a work that said on it, `Arik eats children.' In 1983, I presented a work with blue and white stripes, and also green and red and black stripes - the colors of the Israeli flag and the Palestinian flag, and this exhibit was taken down not because of what was in it, but because of what I said in an interview - that I wanted to do an homage to Palestinian artists."

Is censorship in Israel too extreme?

Reeb: "There has been a lot of political art in the U.S. and Europe in recent years. On the other hand, in half the world, it's completely forbidden to be critical of the government. Here in Israel if you're a Palestinian, you don't have any rights, if you're an Israeli Arab, your situation is difficult and if you're an artist who expresses criticism against the government's policy, your situation is not bad, so overall, we're somewhere in the middle between places like America and regimes where you're not allowed to say anything."

Two levels of blood

An exhibition by Michal Heiman entitled "Photo Rape" closed last week at the Artists' House in Tel Aviv. The show dealt in different ways with the evils of the occupation. One of the works in the show included a bunk bed and beside it a double-decker chair, for a Jew and an Arab. The pattern on the sheets on the bed looked like bloodstains - on one level was the blood of two Palestinian children who had been killed, and on the second the blood of two Jewish children who had been killed. The pillowcases were striped like prisoners' uniforms, in a pattern reminiscent of concentration-camp garb, but Heiman says it was actually the print of Palestinian prisoner uniforms.

Another piece was about backgrounds. On screens that look like that the screen backdrops used in photography studios, two articles published in Haaretz were printed in large type. One showed a Palestinian family, without men, sitting around a table in what was left of their house that had been demolished in an IDF operation. The photograph from the second article showed a woman looking through a hole in the wall at what was apparently once her house.

"One of the things that gave me the inspiration for this work was Danny Siton's film `Shaheedim' [`Martyrs']. There are all these segments where the prospective shaheeds go into the photo studio. You don't see the photographer, but you hear him asking the shaheed to choose a background for the photo that will be published right after he carries out a suicide bombing. Once they used to ask a condemned man what he wanted for his last meal. Now they ask the shaheed what background he wants for his last picture. I have a collection of all the photos of the shaheeds and I started examining what background they chose. And then I started to ask myself what background I would choose - not as someone condemned to death, but as someone condemned to think, and I chose to turn the articles from Haaretz into a background."

Heiman, 49, says she has been involved in political art since the beginning of her studies, "but in the layered, not the simplistic sense. The political dimension is always there in my works, but they have other layers that never erase the political layer." But she does not want the sharp message to be diluted. "Political art can have an impact through the commitment and responsibility that I, as an artist, take upon myself for what I do, through the way that I act and express myself. In this country, I think artists have a dilemma whether to create political art or to concentrate on their inner world. For me, the political reality is part of my inner world."

So what makes someone a political artist?

Heiman: "Artists are too easily labeled as `political artists.' I think that an artist justifies that label only if he makes political art for an extended period of time and only if what he says is very precise, in the sense that it is very clear to him where he stands on things and what he wants to say, even if the different layers of the work allow for all kinds of interpretations. The artist himself has to come from a place that is not passive-aggressive or ambivalent. It doesn't matter how people interpret the work, it has to be a work that makes it clear that the artist knew what he wanted to say."

Her exhibition was also seen by a curator from The Hague, who decided to take some of the works to display there, at a time when the court in that city will be holding hearings on the separation fence.

"I called the Foreign Ministry and informed them," says Heiman. "I asked for their assistance. It was important for me to do this through the Foreign Ministry because I'm an artist who works here and relates to what's happening here, from here, and was about to send an exhibit abroad that is very political. I'm happy to say that the people at the Foreign Ministry were very open and decided to help me."

As noted, Heiman's message, precise as it may be, did not make a very big impression on Lusky. The 52-year-old artist and critic says there's no political art without concomitant political activity. "To me, political art is just art that takes a side and is actively and physically involved in things and in the political process," he says.

How is that to be done, especially without the assistance of galleries and museums?

Lusky: "Three years ago, Ariela Azulai and I published a catalog in memory of Hilmi Shosha, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who was killed by settler Nahum Kurman (in October 1996). In a state that publishes victory albums and mourning albums of Jews, publishing an album like this is a political act. Along with the book, we also organized an exhibit on this subject - an exhibit dedicated to a Palestinian boy."

Such activism also characterized the exhibit that he organized together with Ro'i Rosen in Umm al-Fahm a year ago. Entitled, "Believe me, the day will come," it marked 35 years of the occupation. "What made the exhibit political was that it was organized in the place it was presented, Umm al-Fahm, and also the fact that all the money collected from the sales was donated to Physicians for Human Rights."

Rosen, 40, is less adamant about the idea that political art has to exist outside of galleries. "There are artists who assume from the start that their audience is the people who go to museums, and on the other end of the spectrum, there are artists like Tartakover who seek to address an audience outside the galleries. I'm at a place that is not so comfortable for me, someplace in the middle. It's true that we're living in a situation in which I don't have the privilege to declare myself as being nonpolitical, but on the other hand, I also cannot define myself as a political artist engaged in persistent and significant political activity, but as an artist who is always touching on the political."

What's the difference between a political artist par excellence, and an artist who touches on the political? In 1997, Rosen had an installation at the Israel Museum entitled "To Live and Die as Eva Braun." The text invited the viewer to get into the skin of Hitler's lover. "It caused a certain scandal. The mayor of Jerusalem threatened to cut off funding to the museum and he was joined by the whole National Religious Party and by [Yosef] Tommy Lapid. The political aspect of the work was related to the monopoly on the right to hate and the question of who here has the right to talk about the Holocaust," he explains.

In 2000, he, artist Tamar Getter and Lusky mounted an exhibition entitled "The 33rd Year" which was presented in Umm al-Fahm. "For this exhibition, I did a work based on the slogan, `Only Sharon Will Bring Peace.' But in my work, everyone was in coffins." His last big project, exhibited at the Herzliya Museum in 2000, was called "Justine Frank" and was based on an imaginary character - an artist whose works blend Judaism and eroticism.

"The political [element] here was related to the definition of the Jewish identity and to the politics of sexual identity," he explains. The same two subjects were at the center of the book, "Ze'ah Metuka" ("Sweet Perspiration" - Babel Press), which was ostensibly the lost pornographic novel penned by Frank.

"I move between works such as `Only Sharon Will Bring Peace,' which try to address the concrete political situation, to works in which the political is expressed indirectly," says Rosen. "Out of this desire to aim also for an audience that isn't necessarily an art-loving audience, I published Justine Frank's book and, of course, this was the same motivation for staging the exhibitions in Umm al-Fahm."

Authentic representatives

Part of the difficulty with Israeli political art has to do with the fact that local artists are protesting against the wrongs of the occupation and the ongoing suffering that Israel is causing the Palestinians, but they are doing so from their point of view - the Jewish Israeli point of view. Thus Israeli Arab artists and Palestinian artists become superfluous and Israeli history is represented by one side only - the strong side. To what extent does this situation affect perceptions. Lusky found out: When the organizers of "Believe me, the day will come," commissioned a work by Ahlam Shibli, the Bedouin photographer declined to participate in the exhibition marking 35 years of occupation. As she saw it, the occupation has been going on much longer than that, since 1948.

"A Palestinian or Israeli Palestinian painter has become a very rare and coveted commodity," says Haddad. "We're always looking for Palestinian or Israeli Arab artists for an exhibition."

Does the fact that these artists are as rare a commodity on the Israeli art scene as are right-wing artists cry out for explanation? Art critic Hinski thinks so. "The leftist-cultural elite that dominates the culture doesn't want to give up the monopoly that the state has given it to represent the Israeli identity," she says. "It's not interested in sharing this privilege with anyone. The right to give meaning to culture is solely in the hands of the elite Jewish left. But the truth is that the only one who can present the suffering of `the other' is the other himself. To speak on his behalf, as do the artists who call themselves political, is a problem that exposes their whole patronizing position - with all the extra privileges that this position grants people, who allow themselves to appropriate the suffering of others for the sake of their own reputation as artists. At the same time, they could also be taking social action to ameliorate the suffering of `the other' if they would only recognize the possibility of allowing him to speak. That could be a very good beginning."