You may be familiar with the depressing series of events surrounding the Museum of Ramat Gan last month. The municipality, after having gone to great lengths to raise the necessary funds, had managed to renovate a magnificent and historic Bauhaus building and turned it into a world-class museum tasked with the mission of exhibiting contemporary Israeli art.
The birth of such a large, beautiful museum was a source of joy and pride for artists and the public: At last, there would be a fitting stage for Israel’s vibrant contemporary art scene.
But it was not be.
Somehow, someone managed to convince the museum’s board of directors that a painting that was not even part of the inaugural exhibition, but stored in a visitable archive, was offensive and "anti-Israel." It had to be removed – and removed it was. Promptly the artists whose works hung in the inaugural exhibition came to the museum and as a mark of protest, veiled all their works with black shrouds.
A court ruled that it was not its problem, and called for the museum’s directors and the artists’ representatives to enter negotiations. As expected, the negotiations failed, the museum staff permanently removed the painting in question and another predictable reaction unfolded: All the artists took their works off the walls in solidarity with the banned artist, David Reeb, and in defense of freedom of expression. The museum is now closed until further notice.
A museum born out of the joy of art and with exceptional expectations now lies empty, shuttered and facing a gloomy future: What artist will ever want their works to be shown in a museum which has now become a symbol of censorship?
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You might think that this sad chain of events is only another manifestation of the frequent and diverse forms of intolerance that have become normalized in Israel. After all, museums and exhibitions have been frequent targets of right-wingwitch-hunts over the years.
But it is in fact much bigger than that.
The fight between freedom of expression and the sensitivities of vocal minorities seeking to police, if not shut down, artistic freedom, is now a worldwide issue. A major retrospective of the American painter Philip Guston, born Goldstein, was scheduled to take place last year sequentially at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Washington National Gallery and the Tate Modern in London. It was cancelled for fear of hurting the sensitivities of a minority.
The whole controversy was in fact based on a perverse and incorrect reading of Guston’s work, which was a a profound acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of racism.
Thankfully, a backlash erupted: censorship would not be allowed to block a global retrospective of one of the artistic geniuses of the second part of the 20th century. The retrospective will now take place later this year and next in the three originally selected museums.
However, museum directors and curators the world over have taken notice of the power of the censors. The Ramat Gan Museum’s director, Svetlana Reingold, became the latest victim of the foul winds of censorship: she resigned.
Fear now reigns in the corridors of the museums of Israel and throughout the world. Inevitably, censorship leads to self-censorship. We all know full well where these winds are pushing us: The rise of officially sanctioned art. The historical precedents are painful: Stalinist and Nazi art. Both are impoverished, demagogic art, agitprop in the name of the defense of politically-based sensitivities.
There is only one way out of that quagmire: the absolute and relentless defense of freedom of speech. Not the defense of manipulated sensibilities, but the defense of freedom. Absolute and non-negotiable.
As these lines are being written, steps are being taken in Israel to formulate and promulgate a law that would protect museum directors and curators from the political whims of their board of directors. Those museum boards would only be consulted to hire or fire their directors, who would retain total freedom in their curatorial choices.
As the wonderful writer and social commentator Fran Leibovitz wrote: "If you don’t want your sensitivities to be hurt, stay at home, because life is only about hurt sensitivities." One may want to add that even at home, sensitivities can be hurt.
The function of an art museum is not to heal or cajole, it is to confront the public with the works of artists that stimulate, provoke and even shock us, because they deal with the enigmas of the experience of being. Artists should not be expected to create art that conforms, whether to political agendas, fashions or to half-baked, alienated versions of life and identity. And we, the viewers, must back them all the way.
The struggle for freedom of expression continues, because there is no alternative.
Dr Daniel Milman is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst and holds a doctorate in psychopathology from Paris VII University. Born in Paris, he lives in Tel Aviv and has collected art since the age of 16