Opinion |

Post Trauma Without Trauma

Visitor pass in front of controversial artwork at The Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art
Visitors pass in front of artwork deemed controversial at now closed Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art Credit: Hadas Parush

A well-known artist and curator whom I met this week in a social context told me about a lecture on curating that he recently gave at an Israeli art school. My friend, the lecturer, wanted to teach the art students about the impact of the manner in which works of art are displayed in an exhibition space. So he told the students about a one-man show that included a bust of the artist’s father along with another work hanging on the wall beside it – a belt.

This is a wonderful example of the power that arranging of works of art can have, in addition, of course, to the power of art in general. It can also spark a fascinating discussion about how little is needed to create a complete mental picture, for better or for worse. Take a look: dad, a belt, a whole story. It also immediately raises questions about the way our cultural associations “participate” in building the story, as well as endless discussions and lessons about art and the work of the curator.

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But there was one student who didn’t want to learn. She preferred to teach, or rather educate, the lecturer. He should have given them a trigger warning, she rebuked him.

In psychology, a trigger is something that reawakens feelings of trauma in people suffering from post-trauma. A trigger warning is the growing demand outside the realm of therapy that readers, listeners and viewers be warned in advance before they are exposed to harsh content. That’s in case they might be suffering from post-traumatic stress and might therefore experience anxiety or might even collapse.

Judging by the fact that a term from the field of therapy has spilled over into our daily lives, in addition to the growing use of trigger warnings, one might conclude that today, everything is considered trauma. Essentially, you don’t need a trauma to experience post-traumatic stress.

Was this student someone with post-traumatic stress who experienced a flashback about the trauma she experienced from these works of art? Did she suffer an anxiety attack during the lecture? Did she show any signs of distress? My friend’s impression was that she did not.

Instead, he said, it was clear that she was only seeking to make him toe the line and comply with the demands students currently make of art teachers. The lesson she sought to teach him was that he should have warned them in advance. Period.

She wasn’t speaking on her own behalf, but instead on behalf of a weak, silenced, imaginary group of people who seems to have suffered from post-traumatic stress since birth. She volunteered to speak out to protect them from what could happen to their psyches as a result of the mental picture created by their spontaneous exposure to the sculpture of the head and the belt.

The fact that this ridiculous demand was raised in an art class at all is reason for concern, and all the more so in this case, which contained nothing violent or sexual. The student wanted to be protected from the sight of violence that would occur, if at all, only in her imagination. Not that this makes any difference to the substantive argument, but it does show the seriousness of the situation.

My friend also told me that the people spearheading such demands in the art world are the first to scream “censorship!” and leap to defend artistic freedom against people such as Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen, who demanded the removal of a work of art that offended national and religious sensibilities; or, for example, the former “culture czar,” Culture Minister Miri Regev, the “commissar” who sponsored the so-called “cultural loyalty” bill.

The level of protection that this student is demandingof the world can never be satisfied. The only way to deal with such student demands is to place a trigger warning at the entrance to art schools. Anyone who can’t tolerate the possible effect of art on their psyches should protect themselves and study something else.

Similarly, a warning should be posted at the entrance to every museum. And I would consider posting a warning at the entrance to every hospital labor and delivery room.

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