Analysis

Gold Statue of Netanyahu Is Shining Example of Great Protest Art

The main people complaining about Itay Zalait’s statue are the arts establishment – which is why their museums are empty.

People taking photographs of Itay Zalait's statue of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, December 6, 2016.
Moti Milrod

A rare event happened in Israel last Tuesday: an artist stirred public interest in art. Itay Zalait, who placed a giant golden statue of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, triggered a huge media reaction and debate online and in the streets. He also shocked those gentle souls on both the right and left, as well as amusing those few people left with a sense of humor.

Pictures of Zalait’s statue were broadcast around the world and went viral on social media. Leading news outlets in Israel and abroad stopped everything to talk about his Israeli protest art.

But not everyone was so excited. Ruti Direktor, contemporary art curator at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, explained at length to Haaretz’s Naama Riba why all the fuss was of no interest.

Critiquing the work, she declared: “It’s simplistic, it’s obvious, it’s superficial,” adding that it was also “too lightweight.”

The media interest in the statute actually strengthened her own judgment, she said. She cited instead examples of art that were actually worthy of public discussion, such as the changing art installations on the “fourth plinth” in London’s Trafalgar Square.

“That is a project by invitation and with [public] funding, but [the artists there] are managing to burst the bubble of what monumentalism is, and to critique British imperialism because they are sophisticated artists.”

After reading her comments, you have to wonder what courage or ingenuity are really needed to critique British imperialism – especially as it collapsed 70 years ago.

Unintentionally, Direktor has shone a huge spotlight on everything that is rotten in the world of establishment art. Beyond the arrogance reflected in her comments, there’s something particularly sad about the effort to control the public discourse – instead of promoting or sparking it.

No other Israeli work of art has garnered so much attention in recent years. The exhibitions organized by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art – or any other museum, for that matter – wouldn’t spark even half as much interest.

It can be assumed that most Israelis were completely unaware of what was on display in the Israeli pavilion at the last Biennale in Venice, which is an example of the publicly funded art by establishment artists that Direktor eulogizes.

Unfortunately, on every occasion when art has managed to trigger public interest recently, it was as a result of the art having been either censored (when Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s face was covered with tape on a nude portrait of her by Yam Amrani); damaged (in the case of Gal Volinez’s work “Itbah al-Yahud” – “Slaughter the Jews” – at Sapir College); after Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev demanded explanations (as happened with Uri Katzenstein’s swastika chair, which was displayed – of course – at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art); or because the artist was questioned by the police (like Natali Cohen Vaxberg, who defecated on the Israeli flag in a video work).

This only proves just how much protest art, whether good or bad, is essential to Israeli society at this stage in its existence. It’s such a shame that the respected art institutions here don’t understand that.

As long as “public interest” is synonymous with simplicity for Israel’s museums, they can forget about the kinds of lines for tickets that grace comparable institutions around the world. But while esoteric, deep discussions are being held here in museums that are limited to the cognoscenti, the Israeli public will continue to discover new art on the street.