At a time when troubles attack us like a rising tsunami, the Haaretz editorial yesterday was devoted to a rant against Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art President Yuli Tamir, for moving to bar the inclusion of a nude painting of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked from a student exhibition.
The editorial maintains that Tamir’s position is “a badge of shame for the institution and its head.” Could it be that the paper’s desire to permit a nude painting of Shaked is a desire — at once pathetic and chauvinist — to shame and humiliate her, as a woman, in an unbridled political and cultural war?
The editorial argues that there is an ancient tradition of nude depictions of women, a female nude painting is an ancient tradition. Japanese drawings and walls in Pompei are evidence of this patriarchal tradition, but does the tradition’s age contravene its being chauvinist, sexist, cheap and degrading to women? Could the newspaper have forgotten basic insights of the age of enlightenment and modernity, which it purports to stand for, in the heat of berating Shaked?
Has the commitment to human dignity, which includes woman’s dignity, been lost in gloating over the fantasy of a political enemy’s fall? Is everything permitted? Is this really an all-out war that sanctifies all the means, or only when the enemies/victims are women?
According to the traditional values of patriarchy and honor, a public display of nudity is clearly an act of shaming. Peeling from a person the cover enveloping his body denies him control of his personal space and presents his helplessness before those who are proving their superior strength over him. This is why so many paintings show men dressed from head to toe, while the women are naked, like powerless sexual objects, constituting a source of pleasure to both the men on canvas and those observing the canvas. (See the analysis in John Berger’s classic book “Ways of Seeing.”)
But even in the world of humanist values, which is based on individual dignity, exposing a person without his consent and infringing on his privacy against his will violate his autonomy and undermine his human value. All the more so when that person is a woman. In this case, exposing her sexuality is seen by necessity in the context of ancient and new misogynic traditions of women’s objectification and dehumanization.
Who said art students have a right to show a nude portrait without that person’s consent? On what grounds does art students’ right to self-expression trump any other person’s right to privacy?
Israel’s Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law, which is grounded in the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, prohibits insulting or debasing references to a person in connection with his gender or sexuality. In the patriarchal world in which we live, the public display of female nudity or of a specific woman in the nude without her consent could be considered a debasing reference in connection with her gender or sexuality. It takes a large helping of cynical disingenuousness not to see this.
Ayelet Shaked is a cabinet member in a government that infringes on fundamental liberal values, including freedom of expression and human dignity. The appropriate response to all this is cultural, political, values-based opposition that staunchly defends these principles.
In an analogy to recent events in Turkey, we don’t need a failed partisan coup, but rather a civil struggle. To paraphrase Voltaire, we must defend to the death human dignity, even that of people in power we don’t agree with. Anything else would be to throw out the baby with the bathwater, to betray our core values and to lose our way and our right to exist.
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