“McJesus,” the 2015 work by Finnish artist Jani Leinonen that portrays Ronald McDonald, the McDonald's fast food chain's clown mascot, being crucified on a wooden cross, is not a sensational work of art. Jesus as a consumer item is an old artistic cliché, and the religious worship of consumer culture, if we interpret the work in reverse, has already been considered once or twice in the past. Leinonen himself, an artist and political activist, has been using symbols of famous brands in his work for years to protest aggressive capitalism. He has had a long affair with McDonald’s in his work, which even included Ronald's execution by guillotine.
But those who are insulted by the crucifixion of Ronald McDonald don't care if it’s a banal, clichéd statement, nor do they care whether the work of art is “good” or “bad.” Those who are insulted have a right to their feelings, and even protest, within the limits of the law, is legitimate. Some will say that good art tends to be less insulting, because it’s more difficult to understand. It’s more complex. But that's condescending. And in any event, the issue is not high or low art, art that is sophisticated or simple, but about the freedom that museum curators have to display whatever they decide and to challenge the viewer with work that expresses criticism.
“McJesus” brought hundreds of angry demonstrators out into the streets in Haifa, protesting the offense to the religious feelings of Christian believers. Earlier someone threw a firebomb at the museum's exterior, and three policemen were injured in a confrontation with the protesters.
We may recall the case of a hamsa with the inscription “Idbah al-Yahud” (Slaughter the Jews) produced by Gal Volinez and displayed at Sapir Academic College, which aroused the anger of a student who destroyed it; or the portrait of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in the nude at an exhibition of students' work at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, which ended with the removal of the work and the resignation of the head of the art department, Larry Abramson; and the video clips by Natali Vaxberg, who defecated on the Israeli flag; and the white flag that Ariel Bronz rammed into his posterior at a Haaretz cultural conference. Provocation always works and always arouses one of the major questions that preoccupies us here: Is freedom of expression an absolute value or it is it relative?
Now we are again witnessing the permanent tension bubbling beneath the surface that is responsible for great drama in our lives, the question of whether Israel is a Western country with liberal values or something far from it.
Culture Minister Miri Regev was quick to contact the executive director of Haifa's municipal museums, Nissim Tal, demanding that he remove the work. She wrote that she had received “many complaints over the serious offense caused to the Christian community’s feelings” and that “contempt for symbols sacred to religions and many believers around the world as an act of artistic protest is illegitimate and cannot be displayed in a cultural institution supported by state funds.” She also added a threat that the Culture Ministry would withhold support from the Haifa Museum of Art.
Regev should at least be complemented for being consistent. She has declared that it is her role to be a censor, and she doesn’t miss a chance to function in that role. It’s true that her Likud party primaries are approaching, but it should be said in her favor that from the moment she took office as culture minister, every day has been a primary day. The incident in Haifa is an opportunity to understand how Regev thinks and who and what she represents, particularly because this time around, she is standing with Israel's Christian Arab minority.
Freedom of expression and the right to engage in self-criticism, as the minister understands it, are ideas that belong to liberal Western culture. They are not basic values in countries that are not democratic, nor are they in Israel, where democratic values do not have sufficiently deep roots. Yes, this is her stance despite the Likud primary. In that sense, even if she is a Jewish ultranationalist, her values are similar to those of anti-democratic conservatives who are members of other nationalities and religions.
“What is suitable for Europe and the Christian population of Finland is not suitable for our community and cannot be met with understanding,” said the head of the Catholic community in Haifa after the disturbances. It's exactly what Regev has been saying for almost four years. This is not Europe, but she is referring to something broader and deeper than a work of art.
At the end of the week, there was a flattering clip on social media from Regev’s staff filmed at the Leumiada, the large Likud convention in Eilat. She is seen hugging enthusiastic supporters, flashing the broad smile that is so closely identified with her. The lyrics of the song in the background: “Go tell everyone that you’re Miri Regev, and you don’t give a damn about anyone.”
The song goes on with a particularly strange line: “If culture is left-wing, the right, of course, is an 'am segula,'" meaning a people with a special purpose. Meaning special as the antithesis of culture.
So not only freedom of expression is a liberal, Western value and therefore unnecessary in Regev’s opinion, but culture as a whole becomes a dubious idea. Culture has become a dirty word that is identified with leftists, and it is the antithesis of the most basic and important characteristic of the Jewish people in its own view, which is to be a special people.
Her changes have been so tremendous at the culture ministry that even the next two of her successors in the job won't be able to reverse her accomplishments, she told Channel 10 on Friday. And in fact, she has managed to make it legitimate to question the importance of “culture,” to ask whom it is serving in its present form, and why it even has to be held so sacred. If culture is a Western value, and by necessity also includes a critical aspect, maybe it doesn’t have any place in Israeli society. The tribe that crowds into a cave and is always prepared for a war of survival against the mammoths outside cannot permit itself to indulge in self-criticism.
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