The Great Agent of Western Colonialism
By Noam Avidan-Sela is an art critic | 05/11/2009
Israeli protest-art, even if responding to the immediate environment in which it was created, looks only towards Western art, and not towards dialogue with the public in which it operates. It does not converse with the place where it was created, and is an arch-enemy of the local national-social interests, whether Arab-Palestinian, or Jewish.
In his eulogy for the twin towers, Jean Baudrillard, a French sociologist who writes, inter alia, on consumerism and mass communication, described them as an absolute expression of the apathetic capitalistic order: two selfish eruptions, creating a perfect equilibrium on the horizon. The Slovenian philosopher the Slavoj Žižek, who made a connection between Marxism and Hollywood cinema on his way to international glory in the skies of philosophy of the age of the millennium, explained why the collapse of the towers resembled a disaster movie, and not the reverse; and the avant-garde, canonical songwriter, Karlheinz Stockhausen, who as early as the 1950s turned magnetic recording tapes into musical instruments, claimed with scandalous simplicity that the suicide attack on the World Trade Center was "a perfect work of art." Western, European art cannot be understood outside of its political context, since at the same time, radical modern European politics cannot be understood without the artistic sentiment pulsating beneath it; it cannot be understood without its desire for the spectacular, for the kingdom of heaven in this world. If the world cannot become perfection, let us at least view its perfect destruction. "The world will remember me as a great artist," said Hitler, to which Paul Celan answered, "Death is a master from Germany."
One indisputable fact is that when Nachum Gutman or Aryeh Arokh became the founders of Israeli art through their works depicting local landscapes, they were essentially creating European paintings. It is important to emphasize two additional points: First, these painters were European immigrants; secondly, one cannot speak of 'Oriental art' or 'Mediterranean art' in the context of the central place that art occupies in modern culture, because such art simply did not exist. Three topics, then, present themselves for discussion: modernity / modernism, as a European-Western phenomenon; the geographical-cultural space in which Israeli art occurs; and the place and importance of art in the spiritual mechanisms of modernity. And if the three emanate from the two, and the two from the one, from where does the one emanate? Probably from nothing: 'There is none but Me," (Is. 45:6) said the God to his prophet, and in joining these two words, created the unbridgeable gap between East and West.
The suicide attacks on the World Trade Center in New York caught me in Berlin, where I was working on an exhibition of Israeli artists who were third-generation Holocaust survivors. That morning arrived after days of annoying discussions with the German staff: my narcissistic plans to entrench myself around a system of entirely personal desires, fears, delusions, dreams and fantasies based on what happened in Germany between 1933 and 1945, a result of the third-generation victim mentality, met with stubborn opposition on the part of the Germans, who demanded that the exhibition be cast as a political critique of Holocaust-memory-appropriation in official-national Israeli discourse. Art, Shoah, Berlin, Israel, politics, paranoia – and then the towers fell on the television. Suddenly, my vision cleared.
Around the same time, members of the Israeli team received an offer from a different Berlin gallery to curate another exhibition, also of young Israeli artists, this time with an explicit focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Local utopia – global war" was our proposed title, while their ideational platforms were: a. it is the specific war in the Middle East, or more precisely, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that is preventing peace, and, as a result, normalization; b. normalization means complete devotion to the consumerist-capitalist utopia, and therefore, devotion to the western colonialist-cultural occupation; c. therefore, the eternal war in the area, which apparently, at this stage is being waged against the particular occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, is in effect preventing a broader and more thorough takeover by western capitalist interest; d. If this is so, then the Israeli left – the one that Gadi Taub talks about, which aspires to an end of the war that will herald normalization, is an agent of western interests in the Middle East; e. therefore, the Israeli left is the arch-enemy of the local national-cultural interests, whether they be Arab-Palestinian or Jewish interests.
Israeli art, we added, and in particular, progressive, political art, is doubtless included in this last category of the Israeli left – a clear sign of European, Western, cultural colonialism.
In recent years, Israeli art has enjoyed an unprecedented flowering. Israeli artists from age 30 to 50, such as Sigalit Landau, Michal Rovner, Roy Rozen, Boaz Arad, Natalie Zwillinger, and others, have come into high demand outside of Israel. Gallery owners circle like vultures around graduates of Bezalel and the 'Midrasha,' even before they have completed their last year of study, with hopes of locating the next, upcoming star. New galleries open every year in Tel Aviv, Raanana, Pardes-Hana and Beersheva. In Holon, an active and fruitful center for digital art has been up and running for five years. Settings for unique artistic creations, such as the Performance Art Platform – PAP ('Miklat 209') and the International Biennale for Video Art at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, carry on with impressive persistence. Artist cooperatives such as Sala Manca in Jerusalem, and the group that coalesced around the Tel-Aviv poetry journal, 'Maayan,' produce art, poetry, and multimedia evening programs for thirsty audiences numbering in the hundreds. Ambitious journals such as 'Block,' for media and architecture, renew the selection that until now comprised only the veteran 'Studio' magazine, and in the realm of theory and critique, the young Resling Press has done the impossible and, for all intents and purposes, turned Lacan into a consumer product. The annual revenues for trade in Israeli art, if it interests the reader, is some sixty million shekels.
No less important is the continuous development of the highly original and resourceful underground urban art scene, mainly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which includes alternative exhibit spaces, street art such as graffiti, activist street displays aimed at a creative takeover of the public space (bubble-bursting party, mass pillow fight), underground cinema and music groups, and volunteer and extra-institutional cultural-community activity in underprivileged neighborhoods. The activity is extensive and passionate, guided by a stated ideology of direct action, pacifism, anarchism, opposition to and independence from the mechanisms of capital, and promotion of the ecological issue.
It is an ironic fact that the flowering of underground art also perks up at the revolution in mass communication: the appearance of commercial television channels, cable TV, Internet, and the deluge of accessible information. In general, the transition to a market economy perhaps disintegrates the social fabric, but as far as can be seen, in terms of the flowering culture and art scene, its effect is only positive, whether because of the increased demand for art that is the outgrowth of a society of corporate consumption, or because of the creation of job opportunities in the creative professions. The very definition of "artistic flowering" using concepts borrowed from the realm of economics, testifies more than anything to another aspect of the essence of the flowering, and it can even be presented in contrast to the ethos of non-market-based creative, aesthetic, ethical, etc artistic flowering, which is, in fact, hypocritical: with the exception of a few cases, art has always flowered where there was money.
Despite this, if we attempt to sketch out an organic narrative of the internal Israeli developments in art that led to the present flowering, we are forced to confess that such a narrative does not exist. The schematic paintings of Gil Shani are more indebted to British neo-conceptualism than to Michal Neeman's conceptualism. In Moran Shuv's radical video works, there is more Guy Debord than Gadi Taub, and Clone's graffiti dialogues in English with the alleyways of the Bronx more than with the historical "I married Michal" scrawled on the coastal road near Netanya. A passing glimpse at the history of Israeli art discovers that this is only the continuation of the dynamic that has characterized Israeli art since its inception at the beginning of last century. Tzivi Geva's 1990s oppositional paintings of kafias skillfully translate American neo-realism into Israeli reality, precisely as the blinding "Israeli light" was a suitable local starting point for the abstract European style of Josef Zaritzki in the 1940s. Even the single episode of the Canaanite movement bears an echo of the utopian art movement of the 1920s, and Rafi Lavi rightfully earned his central status as an artist who, from the 1960s onwards, sparked a fascinating conversion of avant-garde practicality into the Israeli space.
The ongoing dialogue with the outside characterizes artistic enterprise everywhere in the world, and there is not reason for this not to be the case in Israel. Israel is a province like any other: the gaze is always facing outwards, to the centers of culture. Common to all of the above examples is the stubborn and somewhat forced attempt to turn to this artificial conversion of every artistic movement that arrives from outside, from the West, into an undefined 'Israeliness' of one sort or another. Therefore, one may speak of recurring effects or motifs in Israeli art, but not of an independent development in art emanating directly from the place where it was generated.
In other words, Israeli art is devoid of a traditional infrastructure. There are teachers and students, mentors and listeners, but every generation must rediscover itself, as if it, too, left Europe to create an art scene in Palestine. The Israeli weak-memory syndrome can be discerned here as well. A stable and deep-rooted tradition is a necessary platform for any independent cultural growth, while our young province was founded from an optimistic ideology devoted to the new, which sought to intentionally shred to pieces any entreaty to the past. The unequivocal importance of tradition is that it is a means that enables dialogue between the artistic act and its direct environment. When the tradition is essentially external, Western, our participation in the artistic dialogue takes expression mainly through listening, and not through declarations.
Recently, the periphery has enjoyed a revival: international attention, in its incessant pursuit of new content, is discovering an abundantly vital and fresh art scene in Mexico City, Moscow, Bombay, Istanbul, Tokyo and other cities. There is a good reason that even Israel is beginning to attract tremendous attention: war.
In Sa‘id Abu-Shaqra's modern art gallery in Um-el-Fahm, there is an exhibition of modern and political art, alongside which a workshop in traditional ceramics is taking place. Arab art in Israel, which is developing slowly, has doggedly stuck to modernist painting: the modernist schools blend in to the traditional art form, and this is the tradition with which Arab art in Israel insists, at the present, on conducting a dialogue. The flighty whims of the contemporary art world will please wait patiently. Modernism, which arrived here following Zionism and the 1948 war, is also the occupier that violently decimated the traditional way of life. The adherence to modernism is the adherence of the hand that was amputated from the body, longingly caressing the scalpel that cut it, as a single testament to the memory of the body that was lost.
These days, Abu-Shawra and the architect Sanan ‘Abd-al-Qadr are working on fundraising for their historical project: to establish a modern art museum in the city, the first in the Arab sector. The Israeli left is excited, and has even enlisted itself to assist in fundraising: art is a powerful agent, very powerful, in erasing the mental borders along the road to the longed-for coexistence. After all, modernism is the herald of humanism, freedom, and universalism. But aren't the Israeli Arabs the first ones who should look askance at the agitated declarations of modernist ideology? At its basis, in its practical dynamics, the knife of modernism will not rest until it brings all of the unique (non-Western) identities in search of their pasts to extinction. A conflict of principles flares up between the ethic of modernist art and ceramic pitchers in a workshop, namely, the idea of progress. Will they succeed in Um-el-Fahem in adopting this bulldozing ethic, and yet still preserve a hardy symbiosis?
The most depressing element in the fate of the oppressed is the necessity of adopting the oppressor's oppressive practices – his clothing, his behavior, and his language, and above all, his gaze – in order to free oneself. The planned museum building is among the most impressive seen in Israel: the entire museum will be constructed as a bridge over a wadi separating the city's neighborhoods. The style: dull and precise modernism of cast concrete and Zionist cement. ‘Abd-al-Qadr emphasizes that he intentionally avoided a vernacular building style so as not to suggest primitiveness, or an overdone post-modern style, so as to not cheapen the tradition. Modernism, which clearly characterizes the Zionist-European oppressor, therefore remains the only alternative. And so it transpires that the act of self-definition is eternally determined by the outside gaze of the oppressor.
Art – the material-spiritual essence that earned such a central status in Western culture – was born the moment that the spirit of man replaced the spirit of God as the end-all of existence. The Byzantine paintings of the saints that predated this moment are like an empty presentation of the exalted: as for themselves, they are nothing.
With the Italian Renaissance in the 15th and 16th century, began the definitive paradigmatic change that accompanied Western culture for the entire modern age for which art is the most prominent representative. If paintings of saints can be perceived as idolatry for all intents and purposes, with the appearance of the new art we discover an entirely different dimension: art itself, the material devised for the photographer is not the exalted – the wonder of the human spirit. The phenomenal event of the hand of man, which creates the work of art, replaces the revelation of God's creation. And no less important, art comes into the world with the birth of history: the perception of existence as a linear axis moving forward in time. Art in its new incarnation is a tool for organizing history, an extension of the infinite expansion of human knowledge, of the mechanisms of human control over nature. Stated otherwise, art is like a reflection and like the highest expression of progress; art is like development, like a continuing rebirth of the future, of modernity.
A never-ending paradigm-change of values – in this sense, art is always political, progressive, reformative: the upper spiritual layer, exalted, transcending words, beyond but also enveloping reality and not vulnerable to its contradictions; it is a supreme light and a guide for the way, the tip of progress's spear, avant-garde.
The history of art measures the intensity of paradigmatic change and compares: it is the most influential factor in any exhibit or work of art. This has political ramifications, since the history of art is Western history. Not just Western history, but Western history of the modern period – of the present civilization and its values, and history and art bound up together in a knot since the beginning of the Italian Renaissance period through the present period of globalization, that cannot be disentangled. The essence of this knot is the idea of progress, or, more precisely, progress as the gradual release of the West from the religious example; and if we wish to be even more precise, from the Christian example; and in summary, the idea of progress taking control of the entire world. This essence of the relationship between the political history of the West and art history is instrumental. Politics, armies, science and technology will determine progress de-facto, while art will become its God, image, guide, and mirror. Politics and technology will supply art with the material resources, and art will supply politics and technocracy with their spiritual needs. History will be the judge of all of these efforts, and it is therefore of paramount importance to politicians, but even more so to artists: history can crown the politician of progress as king, and the turn the artist of progress into a god.
The beholder's point of reference is what separates modernity from modernism: one who sees modernity from within modernity will indeed speak of modernity; the beholder of modernity from without will speak of modernism, that is, of the ideology, or at least of the general mood, as opposed to an unequivocal, universal fact. During the 19th century, modernist ideology reached its peak and crisis. The gradual dissociation from the religious example has now been completed, and it turns out that while religion provided an over-arching system for human existence, a kind of conversion of the principle of divine uniqueness to this world, the secular systems that replaced it – art, history, science, etc. – dismantle existence into its components, ad infinitum. And in fact, one could look at the entire history of modernity as a series of attempts to provide an alternative spiritual-ideational infrastructure to religion that would preserve its overall quality – until the most desperate attempt: the catastrophe of World War II. From this period, indeed a change has taken place in the modern-modernist mood, which we today call post-modernism, and it is the loss of faith in the ability of modernity to provide such a spiritual infrastructure. But this does not mean that post-modernism exists outside of the axis of modern time, since at a practical level, it maintains its complete dependence on modernist mechanisms: art, science, etc. Historical introspection has not been neglected. Post-modernism lost faith in the means of modernity, but on the practical level, the idea of progress was never abandoned.
New technologies, such as photography and film, brought art to a crisis that reflected the modernist crisis. The activity of artistic representation fell apart. Art began to head towards abstract representation of the spirit itself, in order to maintain its exalted status. From the other direction was the aspiration to return to an earthly reality, but this was presented as located in a deep, underground, hole. Protest became an artistic value in itself: political art, and even art that tied itself in an unmediated way to the utopian ideologies, appeared directly. The more sober art was satisfied with the violent grounding of the lofty artistic value itself. At the intellectual level, the institution of critique became the main component of progressive activity. Its parallel appears at the level of id: self-hatred as a suitable substitute for the supreme light, as an extension of the complete end of artistic loftiness, which seeks to even reach human beings. The last paradigmatic change is going to be disgust, without movement, forever frozen, and it will take history with it. The seeds of this art were planted during World War I; the Second World War rendered it a definitive component in all artistic undertaking. In an absurd manner, avant-garde has become a tradition.
In the shelter of real technological acceleration, the doors to the world have been thrown wide open. The idea of progress – modernity's takeover of the world – is stronger than ever, through the process of globalization. This concept relates to what was once called colonialism. Colonialism is a European phenomenon; globalization – American. Colonialism became an ideology; globalization – a technological fact. Colonialism was based on military occupation, while globalization – on economic, technological and cultural conquest. The colonialist army killed people; the global economy erases cultures. Globalization is cultural colonialism.
The Zionist movement was born in Europe, it was rooted in modern European ideology, and its ideas were implemented by European immigrants to Palestine. Based on the events as they appear after the ideological smokescreen has cleared, one might say that Zionism became a part of the phenomenon of European colonialization. In recent decades, the Zionist State of Israel is undergoing a process (which is also the legacy of Europe itself) of dissociating from the European ideologies of which it is an outgrowth, and converting them to the principle of market-economy pragmatism, identified with the process of American globalization. As such, the State of Israel serve as an agent of globalization in the Middle East.
The Islamic countries in the Middle East were the last to be occupied by the European colonialist powers, and the first to break free of the yoke of direct occupation. In different ways, as it turns out, they are also the bitterest enemies of the present process of globalization. A flowering art scene.
It is understood that the war that is presently spreading along the boulevards of the Gaza Strip, at the northern border, and in the refugee camps of the West Bank, or the war being waged here for forty or sixty or one hundred years – is not the war. The war has been carrying on here for some two hundred, or perhaps one thousand, or 1,400 years – it depends when you start counting, and perhaps the count should start from precisely 2,497 years ago, the moment of the first meeting of the Persians and the Greets, when Darius attempted to conquer Athens. Art has something to teach us about this war: the flowering of modern art, and in contrast, the enormous Buddha statues that the Taliban erased with dynamite in 2001. It teaches us that this is a war over the spiritual approach to running a human society. This is a religious war, or, in effect, a war of the civilizations: the very strong Western-secular-capitalist civilization positions itself against the weaker Arab-Muslim civilization (the relationship of net-zero Judaism to this story – and this is the eternal irony –is negligible in the best case scenario, and instrumental in the worse, but in any case, we will be the ones to 'get it' in the end.) This is a colonialist war, and there is no confusing between the aggressive spiritual teaching, which for over 500 years has been trying, through various means, to manage human society based on the superiority of capital, development of technology, and individualist philosophy, and the spiritual teaching that is at present in a defensive position, attempting to preserve religious and traditional values, which arose in a society that existed for centuries and includes, among other things, an emphasis on family loyalty and social solidarity.
Sometime between 1989 and 1945, the history of the idea of progress collapses into a uniform interpretation – that of liberal capitalism, which takes care to disperse it across the globe along its way to the ultimate takeover. But like every good dinosaur, the idea of progress is also beginning to die since it is becoming too big. This is the stage in which the forces weaker than it inflict damage that exceeds any effort that it can bring to bear on them. The greater the force with which it attacks its enemies, the greater the retaliation; the fateful blow against the enemies of progress is subversive to progress itself.
During the first week of the war that took place in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, nearly identical illustrations appeared on the front page of two competing newspapers in the Tel Aviv: a map of a bombed and burned-out Israel north of the Yarkon, and south of the Yarkon, a sleepy bourgeois routine, with the caption "God forbid!." The first week after the war was over, a very similar illustration again appeared on the front pages of both papers: both dealt with the Second Lebanon War, the periphery's war against Tel Aviv. I marched in the scorned demonstrations against the war; my house was not in danger of being hit by missile fire.
During the war, an exhibition of underground art was held in protest of the war. Noise music bands played on the roofs of an abandoned building, and a young woman lay without movement among broken bricks for more than three hours. For a moment it looked like the "real thing." For a moment. The artistic pretension of relating in any way to the "real thing" creates a unique dilution of the a wartime of anger and apathy – a mere narcissistic aesthetic rendering that misses the point.
In recent years, Israeli art has pulled itself up to international – that is, Western – standards. This is apparent in the wealth of original and diverse expression in the exhibition of Bezalel graduates, in the level of control and quality of execution in countless techniques and media that stand out during a simple gallery tour, or in the growth of a daring, active and tightly-knit underground scene. Israeli artists from the young generation have stopped searching for ways to create Israeli motifs and effects, while importing artistic fashions from the West. They don't have "the Eretz Israeli light" or "meager materials." Perhaps because art has abandoned dealing with identity and collective life in favor of a different focus, one that looks inward. It is more likely to assume that they simply do not view themselves as Israelis, or at least do not view Israeliness as an important component of their identity, or something urgent to deal with in the context of their art. What is certain is that their interest in the art blowing in from the West is no less than that taken by previous generations – and it is probably growing – and they, as stated, are doing very good art that is challenging and exciting.
This stated, protest art is not free to not be concrete and tied to the place and circumstances in which it is created. Not by chance, never by chance, we are sitting precisely in the center of the war of civilizations, ostensibly the winning side in this war, but the truth is that our fate is determined by elusive international political forces and interests, which overlap with ours only randomly, if at all. What can be said is that Israeli protest art, even if it responds to the immediate environment of its inception, conducts a dialogue with Western art traditions, and not with the community to which it is directed. And it's not as if it has a choice: as long as art is produced as "art," that is, as a tool with such a central status in the organization of society and history, a unique status in Western culture, it will not succeed in ceasing to be a bold sign, of the deepest sort, of the colonialism against which it is taking a stand. Perhaps in Um-el-Fahm they will somehow succeed in creating a magical, wondrous symbiosis between art and that same spiritual factor that seeks to blow up ancient statues of the Buddha and fights through all of its agents and representatives. A paradigmatic, ethical change is not here yet.
Noam Avidan-Sela is an art critic