Why Ariel Zilber Should Have Been Awarded the Prize

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Ariel Zilber should have gotten a lifetime achievement award in music, because music was his life’s work. But he didn’t get the Acum award, because singer Achinoam Nini, and subsequently the leadership of the organization handing out the prize, turned the phrase “lifetime achievement” into something whose purpose is to make art an especially attractive captive of Israel’s culture war.

Nini objected to giving the prize to Zilber, who has performed at rallies protesting settlement evacuation and is closely affiliated with right-wing causes, because the award “helps define the nation’s cultural heroes,” and cultural heroes “receive admiration and public legitimacy.” In short, Nini is imposing filters on music, and on art in general. Essentially, she wants the cultural canon to include only art that meets certain social and political criteria. It’s hard to imagine a more anti-artistic act.

Mordechai Naor, chairman of the audit committee of Acum, the Israeli group that represents the rights of music artists and administers the prize,explained “giving Zilber the lifetime achievement was problematic, because he has extremist views in many fields ... for instance, about the gay community.” In doing so, he revealed exactly the same view: The prize can only be given to someone who hasn’t offended particular groups, to a “representative” figure — as if music, or art, were supposed to represent different groups, as if it required approval, as if it weren’t sufficient in and of itself.

The representational baggage that Nini and Naor loaded on this award exemplifies the problem, not the solution. The problem is that the culture war, which is supposed to be played on a fluid, multidimensional field that lets people take on an infinite number of identities, has in recent years become a two-dimensional poster, almost a parody. Millions of people who enjoyed a degree of freedom until a few years ago are now suddenly compelled to identify themselves in a narrow, restrictive manner: They must choose one of two giant boxes — right or left, Ashkenazi or Mizrahi, religious or secular, periphery or center — and swear allegiance to it.

The ranks have closed so hermetically that everything, even artistic performances or sporting events, has become a political text. Politicians and cultural commissars then analyze these texts and use them to determine whether an artist is entitled entry into the canon.

Clearly, the obsessive need to identify everything as belonging to one side or the other eliminates the spontaneity and freedom that is art’s existential purpose. In a sense, the main victim of this culture war is culture itself, which, like any other object that is subject to strict sociopolitical scrutiny, is doomed to degenerate.

But music is music. Whenever you try to catch it and stuff it in a box, it eludes you. For music is precisely that which can’t be caught or defined or tamed. Music isn’t bound by ramifications or criteria, and true artists are those who make themselves vehicles for something that seeks to emerge from darkness into the light of day. And Ariel Zilber — lunatic, primitive, weird, racist, other; he’s all that — should have gotten a lifetime achievement award in music. Because he simply made music.

Ariel Zilber. Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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