Israeli Art Schools Should Teach Freedom of Expression, Not Censor Nudes of Cabinet Ministers

The president of Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art in Ramat Gan must admit her mistake in censoring a student's portrait of Ayelet Shaked, and resign.

Yam Amrani's painting of Ayelet Shaked, after it was censored.
Arnon Ben Dor / TimeOut

The decision by Yuli Tamir, president of the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art in Ramat Gan, to censor a work of art in an exhibition of final projects by graduates of the college’s Multidisciplinary Art School, is a badge of shame for the institution and its head.

Artististic freedom of expression is always in the forefront of the struggle to delineate the limits of democracy. For that reason, schools of art – which are responsible for educating the next generation of artists – have to practice additional tolerance in handling questions of what is and is not permissible.

The present case, in which a nude painting of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked was censored, has been interpreted as voluntary capitulation by Tamir – and of the institution she heads – to the government, without any legal basis and for reasons that sound strange and irrelevant.

The school’s initial explanation – that the work might be insulting to Shaked – sounds as if it was taken from a lesson on “How not to teach an art student to approach the canvas,” where the first commandment taught the student is: “Thou shalt not anger the government.”

Tamir’s subsequent argument that the work is insulting to women and chauvinistic, sexist, cheap and “degrades women” – is not convincing either. It’s not at all clear that the nude painting – an ancient tradition and a widespread practice in the plastic arts – was meant to insult Shaked, and certainly not women in general.

The painting can be interpreted in various ways: For example, it can be seen as a criticism of the conservatism that afflicts quite a number people on the political right in Israel, for which Shaked is, to a great extent, the representative image.

Tamir’s position demands that she serve as a barrier against some of the ills that these times are bringing with them. But, because the reasons given for the censorship are unconvincing, the question as to whether she was guided, consciously or subconsciously, by government-sponsored threats in the spirit of Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev’s freedom of funding, or by waves of belligerence from the right on social networks, is left hanging in the air.

It’s hard to guess at Tamir’s thoughts or intentions, just as it’s hard to guess at the intention of the artist who “dared” to imagine Ayelet Shaked naked and to paint her. But Tamir should be required to admit her mistake and to vacate her chair – as did the director of the Multidisciplinary Art School Larry Abramson, who is her subordinate.

Anyone who doesn’t understand the great importance for a democratic society of an artist’s freedom of expression, is not worthy of heading an institution where future artists study.