Opinion

In Israel or Elsewhere, There's a Price to Funding Art

The relationship between art and the state in Europe and Israel is totally different from the American model, so don’t call Culture Minister Miri Regev ‘Israel’s very own McCarthy’

Miri Regev at the Haifa film festival in 2015.
Rami Shllush

After the addition to the cinema budget that Culture Minister Miri Regev managed to reap on voting day for the new cinema bill – which pulled the rug out from under the media’s attack – all the energy is going to a major assault on the so-called cultural-loyalty bill. Writers, artists and politicians competed last week in labeling the bill a sign of fascism that will send Israeli democracy into the heart of darkness.

It began with a description of the bill – by Maya Asheri in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition – as “a harsh blow against the world of culture in particular, and against all Israelis.” This went on to actor Oded Kotler’s description of Regev’s efforts as “indecent acts,” and ended with actress Gila Almagor’s “fooya” (“that’s disgusting”).

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But the truth is somewhat less dramatic. Since the dimming of the splendor of absolute monarchy, the traditional patron of the arts, there have been two main models of the relationship between art and the state, each favoring a different level of support, supervision and monitoring.

In the United States, one of the world’s great democracies, the government in principle does not support art, save for a few exceptions. The principle of a free market also applies to the art world: Art is paid for by its consumers. That’s exactly why columnist Uzi Baram’s headline in Haaretz last month, “Israel’s very own McCarthy,” mixes apples and oranges; the piece points out the presumed similarity between Regev and Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

Back then the House Un-American Activities Committee, inspired by McCarthy and supported by the Red Scare, investigated private citizens, most of them without any connection to the entertainment industry and Hollywood, and accused them of being communists. The committee had no control over Hollywood, which had even invented its own ethics code.

For the same reasons, it’s surprising to see Nirit Anderman’s example (in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition) of art ostensibly free from censorship: Bart Simpson, who inadvertently exposes his backside to the American flag. The producer of “The Simpsons” doesn’t owe anything to the government, because he isn't funded by it. He only owes the show’s viewers, who vote for or against via the remote control.

For the same reasons, American cinema really is free to create “films that ‘degraded’ the American flag during the Vietnam War and the heyday of the civil rights movement,” as Baram writes.

But the model of the relationship between art and the state in Europe and Israel is totally different from the American model. In Europe the government nationalized art and turned it into a national asset. Under this model, the government transfers money to artists and art through institutions, and expects them to conform to the nation’s values and symbols.

For precisely that reason, France’s disgraceful colonialist war against Algeria was barely mentioned by French cinema, in total contradiction to American cinema’s obsessive preoccupation with the Vietnam War. This also explains why it would be unthinkable for the main character of a French prime time series to expose his backside to the Tricolore.

But it’s not so simple, because in the party-based system practiced in Europe and Israel in which prime ministers and ruling parties change frequently, there is often a lack of correspondence between the political and artistic space. The rhythms in the artistic space are slower. For example, producing a play, from the writing to the performance, may take several years, and that’s certainly the case with films.

Art, therefore, is incapable of demonstrating loyalty to a specific political leader or party, and all that’s left is to conform to the most stable foundation of the nation – the ruling oligarchy, the elites. Problems arise, therefore, in cases where there is no ideological coordination between the elites and the ruling party, which is exactly what’s happening now to Israeli culture and art.

Even after nearly 30 years in power, Likud hasn’t managed to replace the left-wing elites with a cultural oligarchy ideologically loyal to it. There are many reasons for this, but only one result – a lack of correspondence between the government’s expectations of an ideological embrace from the art world, and the artistic products created in the national space that weren’t designed to please the government but appeal to the veteran left-wing elites.

This conflict is at the basis of the debate on the “cultural-loyalty bill,” which should perhaps be dubbed “the bill to switch loyalty in culture.” Via the cinema bill and the cultural-loyalty bill, Miri Regev tries to create a closer ideological correspondence between art and the government. She also tries to create new cultural-artistic elites, an oligarchy with a different ideological fabric that will better reflect the government’s views.

There is undoubtedly a need to point this out, but any value-based labeling of these activities is suspected of subjectivity, because per se they’re neither good nor bad. Those are the rules of the game in this model of the relationship between the state and art. That’s how government works, any government.

Rami Kimchi teaches at Ariel University’s School of Communication.