Future of Israeli Arts Funding Is in the Balance

New Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev says the state will not fund ‘extreme’ performances, but history shows that may be difficult to gauge.

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Miri Regev, right, with KishkashtaCredit: Oren Golan

The belligerent and misogynist reactions to the appointment of Miri Regev as culture and sports minister was apparently just the opening shot. Regev has proven in the past that she loves confrontations, and her rivals will not miss a chance to provoke the woman who has become a symbol of the “new Likud” under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If this dispute turns into a war of insults, it isn’t clear who exactly will benefit. If, however, men and women of culture are wise enough to bring the arguments back into the ideological arena, it will benefit everyone.

It’s dangerous and unfair to judge Regev by her statements to date. She deserves 100 days of grace, like any other new minister, to formulate a cohesive agenda and present it to the public – especially since she made it clear that this was not the ministry she was hoping for and, as such, is arriving with no advance plans.

At the same time, Regev’s pattern of behavior, and the (few) statements she’s made since her appointment, indicate the bar against which she plans to measure everything – political balance. In an interview on Channel 2 just before she was sworn in, she managed to promise close oversight of culture, to keep it from deviating to extremes. “If the Culture Ministry provides funding to performances of one type or another, they will have to be balanced,” she said. “They will not be extreme to the right or to the left. If I have to censor, I’ll censor.”

This statement makes one wonder which plays would have been disqualified by Regev if she had served as a censor in, say, the court of Louis XIV of France. If balance had been the criterion, one can assume she would have joined the censors who banned the staging of the playwright Molière’s “Tartuffe,” a biting satire against the hypocrisy of clergymen that was staged in 1664 at Versailles. The king himself actually liked the play, but was forced to keep it off French stages for several years under pressure from the Catholic Church. Then, as now, it would be hard to define “Tartuffe” as a “balanced” play, but that didn’t stop it from becoming a masterpiece.

That’s just one example of many that proves “balance” is no guarantee of good art.

No less political is the story of the world’s most famous sculpture, Michelangelo’s “David.” When the young sculptor fashioned the biblical king for the authorities of Florence, the work immediately became a symbol of the weak but fiercely independent city-state, which had exiled the rulers of the Medici family (Goliath). The marble statue, which in 1504 was placed at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of government, was viewed not just as an artistic statement but a political one.

Supporters of the Medicis who remained in Florence understood this: they were documented throwing stones at the statue on the first night of its transfer from the workshop to the city square. But when the Medici family returned to power in the city about a decade later, they didn’t dare lay a finger on the statue; the work was simply too renowned.

After a few years, they tried to “balance” it with a statue of Hercules and Cacus, which was placed on the other side of the entrance to the palace. But the poorly executed statue, by Baccio Bandinelli, immediately became subject to ridicule. The “balance” failed; the political statement survived.

Regev promised that with her appointment, “culture and sports will flourish,” and one assumes she intends to deliver. It’s important she remember that artificial balance and spiteful and distorted political statements are not the recipe for success.

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