Shenkar's Censorship of Provocative Painting Is Worse Than Sexism in the Work Itself

The president of the art school was so fearful of legal problems that she performed a series of indecent acts. Instead, she should have supported the student who painted a problematic picture.

Yam Amrani's painting of Ayelet Shaked, after it was censored.
Arnon Ben Dor / TimeOut

The harm caused by the misogyny and the sexism in the painting of Ayelet Shaked is less than the harm caused by President Yuli Tamir to the art department in the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and art.

The argument that the painting, in which the face of the justice minister was stuck on the body of a nude woman, may be viewed as a sexist and insulting presentation was brought to the attention of Yam Amrani, the student who created it, and his teachers in mid-April. At least that’s what I told them when I was invited to Shenkar's art department as a guest critic.

The discussion at the time was about the student’s style — his deliberate use of media images, advertisements, and clichéd texts and images in the spirit of pop artist James Rosenquist. I claimed at the time that in addition to the simplistic nature of the painting, it crossed the fine line between a provocative artistic statement, such as “all politicians are prostitutes” — or even “all women are prostitutes” — and a statement that a specific woman is no more than raw material for sexual fantasies. It turns out that my comments were not persuasive enough. It happens.

Since the Shenkar affair refuses to die down, many people are justly protesting the censorship imposed by Tamir on displaying the painting. For this purpose they are enlisting examples from the history of art, each with the example that he feels best suits his case. Some are reinventing art history, which is full of pictures of unbridled nudity, sex and lust, while omitting from their descriptions the bitter battles, censorship, boycotts and attacks of moral panic that accompanied such displays.

Others are enlisting all their interpretive skills in order to praise and defend the insulting image. Doron Koren complained in Haaretz (in Hebrew) that “the art people” are sinking into “cryptic verbiage, which reduces the sensual space” of art, while he believes that this is “a really beautiful” painting, “the seductive and delicate female body with Shaked’s pretty face, on a colorful background.”

Journalist Nir Gontarz recalled Hans Christian Andersen and wondered whether the artist, like the child had in “The Emperor’s New Clothes," intended to imply that the minister is naked. Meanwhile, Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken claimed that although the eye sees the same historical nudity that as we know humiliates and objectifies women, this time it’s not a famous artist painting a submissive model, but a student painting an important woman to whom “men are subordinate.” He asserts that the painting is “deceptive — the nudity is the same nudity, but the roles and status have been turned upside down.”

But it is precisely because of Shaked’s political power that the student reduced her — not practically speaking, but by reducing her to the dimensions of a pin-up girl, one that the community of men chooses by pointing a member other than a finger. Just as in 1960s pop art, the image portrays a dual glorifying-humiliating attitude to the world of merchandise in general and to women as merchandise in particular. Anyone who rejects the infuriating misogynistic dimension of such a presentation, seeing Shaked’s nudity only in terms of freedom and nature in the style of nudism and naturalism, is playing dumb or denying the feminist context of the discussion regarding the cultural significance of images.

But the same thing is true of anyone who sees this objectification as the be-all and end-all, ignoring the broad context of attacks on freedom of expression in Israel, at the height of which the painting was censored. Tamir was right when she said that “freedom of expression, like any kind of freedom, should be weighed against other considerations, especially against a personal affront to human dignity.” But she was mistaken in her conclusions. Her disproportionate reaction is not equal to the need to condemn sexism. The assumed insult to Shaked’s dignity is not equal to the damage caused by Tamir to the Shenkar art department. The degree of violence that is indirectly implied by the image is not equal to the overt bullying with which she exercised her authority.

Tamir was so fearful of legal problems that she performed a series of indecent acts, starting from the demand to destroy the painting, to concealing the face on the painted image, and ending with surprising establishment of an ethics council. She is also afflicted by the same liberal blindness of which she accuses others: “I know very well what it feels like to be an attractive woman ... with the constant whispers behind her back that she must have used her sexuality to get where she is,” she wrote. Does she think that ugly women live in a parallel universe where their sexuality does not serve as an excuse to attack them?

Tamir acted as Shaked’s representative vis-a-vis Shenkar. Instead, she should have supported the student who painted a problematic picture, defended him as such and even risked a lawsuit because of him. Because if students can’t practice making provocative statements within the walls of an academic institution, airing coarse and loathsome fantasies, infuriating people and being controversial, where can they do so?

Art should receive a slightly larger living space than what it is given in the regime of political correctness. That’s the only way it will continue to be a refuge for the imagination, passions and urges, for deviating from what is customary and disrupting the existing order — rather than becoming only an aesthetic decoration, a visual echo of respectable bourgeois values. For that purpose one sometimes has to rub shoulders with the humiliating and the dark, to be ethically grating, to scorch good taste.

It’s easy for us to accept such an assumption when it comes to famous masterworks, but the task is to create the conditions in which such works can be imagined and implemented. The fact that Shenkar teachers are being interviewed on the subject anonymously should disturb Tamir’s peace of mind far more that the sexism in Amrani’s painting.