Within the framework of the freedom of expression still permitted to journalists, particularly those whose writing is not funded by the public under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, let’s imagine an imaginary yet plausible scenario: A repertoire theater, partly funded by the public, produces an original play with a plot that takes place in Israel. In it, one of the protagonists claims that Israel is no longer a democracy, since he or she was denied a stipend for claiming – in a drama staged at a supported repertoire theater – that Israel was no longer a democracy.
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If Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev succeeds in passing her “cultural loyalty” bill, which aims at giving her and her ministry the authority to fine (i.e. revoke the support of) a cultural institution for a host of reasons, including “the denial of Israel’s democratic nature,” she will be able to punish the creators and stagers of this play. Thus, apparently, she will prove to the world that Israel is a democratic country, since it is preventing a state-funded theater from staging a play that casts doubt on its democratic character.
Before we amuse ourselves with paradoxes provided by a reality which is becoming less amusing with each passing day, let’s get back to the basics. Anyone with some knowledge of art, culture and their history knows that the staging of plays, which requires a location, production resources, a cast of actors and a performance in front of an audience, comes with a price tag. One can obtain the monies for that price from ticket sales, but this makes the creators dependent on audience judgement and tastes. A lot of viewers can bring in a lot of cash, but this requires producers to yield to audience preferences and to a common denominator in public tastes.
Rulers and kings understood this a long time ago, leading them to support ensembles that entertained them and annoyed their rivals. Under these circumstances, artists were dependent on the taste of their ruler, who wielded the purse strings.
With the transition from tyrannical or monarchic regimes to democracies, democratic states, among which Israel considers itself (with its culture minister trying to uphold such an image), took over the role of supporting the arts using public funds. The understanding was that production costs were being defrayed by the public in order to allow artists not to kowtow the vox populi. In many countries, mechanism were set up to create an “arm’s-length” separation between the state and its cultural institutions, to ensure that through public funding artists will have complete artistic freedom to pursue their imagination.
The basis of such a relationship was the understanding that art deals in the imaginary and that events on stage do not necessarily reflect reality. They create an illusion of “what could have been.” No one really dies on stage, blood is only paint, a flag is a prop and the play is not an opinion – even if one character or another expresses an extreme view – but an experience with which viewers contend by proxy. The nature of art is that it examines the limits of what its audience will tolerate.
Cultural institutions need budgetary independence from the taste of their audience so that they can confront viewers with extreme situations, trying thereby to prevent these from materializing. Only someone who doesn’t understand this simple fact can speak of the need for artistic works to concord with the state’s laws.
Ruling circles, whether totalitarian or democratic, have always tended to limit artists through censorship, bans and prohibitions, or by controlling the allocation of budgets. There have always been attempts to limit what was staged in Israel’s theaters. Up to the mid-1990s there was a 1928 law governing public performances, according to which everything was prohibited except plays that were approved by a committee at the Interior Ministry.
Ever since the rescinding of that law, a legacy of the British Mandate, the allocation of budgets by the Culture Ministry has been through an egalitarian and transparent set of criteria, with no interference in content. This way, the state is not a “cash machine,” as claimed by Minister Regev, but a dispenser of the small budget it allocates to supporting culture (less than a thousandth of the state budget, with the target, as in the rest of the world, of striving for one percent) according to criteria that only a well-versed accountant could figure out.
Minister Regev, as well as Naftali Bennett at the Education Ministry, is tirelessly striving to take over the means of production, using them to bend creative freedom to the dictates of the rulers. These are formulated by intimidation and by drumming demagogic cries for compensation and revenge of the Mizrahi periphery on Ashkenazi elites, which purportedly wronged the former. If in the past there was systemic injustice in the cultural sphere, perpetrated by one sector toward another – and this is a loaded, complex subject – its restoration cannot be achieved by revenge, by “doing to them what was done to us,” but by a slow and cautious process of rebalancing.
Regev speaks of “cultural justice” without truly understanding what justice, democracy or culture mean. The new bill proposed by the culture minister is in itself a blatant denial of Israel’s democratic character.