When does political art advance a political agenda, and when does recognizing the political as art strip it of political power? Does inclusion of political art into elite art institutions enhance or reduce its potential to produce political change?
Green Line with Green Eyes, 1987
Acrylic on canvas
Political art is often meant to test the boundaries of acceptability, both in terms of what is acceptable as art as well as what is acceptable political expression. David Reeb’s 40-60-300 Works and Video Works exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art does both. The essence of Reeb’s art is the act of witnessing, of paying tribute to resistance and repression that have become the everyday realities of Palestinians and Israelis. Yet my recent encounter with the exhibit leads me to ask whether this witnessing has political power once it is institutionalized inside the space of the museum. Does the inclusion of this political art in the space of the museum enable the political message to reach an otherwise untouched audience, or does the institutionalization of political art strip it of its political role?
I visited the Tel Aviv Museum of Art last week, in part for a brief relief from the humid heat of the city, but mostly for relief from the emotionally draining experience of witnessing the effects of Israel's occupation of Palestine and from the intensifying political situation in the West Bank. My visit to the museum came at the tail end of a trip to Israel-Palestine to meet with anti-occupation activists as part of a delegation with the organization Interfaith Peace Builders. After two-weeks of meeting with Palestinian and Israeli activists facing a range of challenges in their struggle against the Occupation, I was surprised and emotionally unprepared to see David Reeb's temporary exhibit, which addresses resistance to the Israeli occupation, in the State-owned art museum.
The exhibit highlights the ongoing popular resistance demonstrations against the construction of the separation wall in several villages of the West Bank. Reeb’s work ranges from the abstract to documentary paintings from photographs and film stills from the video footage also on view in the exhibit. It was this documentary footage that most jarred me during my visit and left me questioning the impact of its presence in the space of the art museum. Reeb, who has been attending these regular protests since they began in 2005, documents the demonstrations through film and photography. The footage in the exhibit shows selected moments in the years of weekly protests, including the 2009 killing of Bassem Abu Rahmah. Bassem, known as “el-Phil,” was a beloved leader in the popular resistance of the village of Bil’in, made famous by the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary Five Broken Cameras. The presence of this very personal moment of tragedy both moved and disturbed me.
In the week before my visit to the art museum, I had spent time in Bil’in with Bassem’s family members and attended the weekly Friday protest in solidarity with the village. Thus it was particularly surprising to encounter this ongoing resistance presented as art in a major Israeli museum. It startled me to see videos of activists, including my new friends in Bil’in, protesting their daily realities of life under occupation displayed as art in a museum run by the very State that perpetuates their oppression.
The exhibit is accompanied by helpful text from Israeli art critic Itamar Levy, who raises the question of the viewer’s passivity and impotence in the face of the hard truths presented by the work. He writes, “All the participants in the films, both Israeli and Palestinian, are up to their necks in reality. This activity is the focus of their consciousness. The viewer, on the other hand, is free to observe and contemplate. Is this what we expect to see in a museum? Is this art? Art aside? Where does this film situate me as an Israeli? As a human being?” Does Reeb’s art, or political art more broadly, demand a response from the viewer? Is the viewer implicated in the suffering presented? If so, what is the ethical responsibility of the viewer?
Having just returned from a trip to witness the effects of the Occupation and the resistance against its violence, I am forced to ask myself: What is the political role of the witness? What are the responsibilities of the witness? Reeb’s activism as a witness to the resistance in villages like Bil’in, Ni’ilin and Nabi Saleh is translated by his art into representations of resistance and presented in forums such as this
Acrylic on canvas
Let's Have Another War #1, 1997
Acrylic on canvas
exhibit. Like Reeb, as a witness, I have a responsibility to recount, to share, and to represent what I have seen. To witness, then, is a two-way street. As witnesses, we receive knowledge, images and experiences, and have a responsibility to communicate their message to a wider network. Yet I’m left wondering, is witnessing a sufficient act of solidarity? What if the message isn’t received as we intend it? What next steps should be taken by those of us who strive to work in solidarity?
The audience viewing this work is for the most part Israeli or international, presumably middle class and relatively elite. A certain amount of privilege is required to be able to visit the museum: free time, the cost of entrance, and likely a higher relative level of education, not to mention holding the ‘right’ kind of identification card. I was torn between feeling that it is good for this struggle for human rights and freedom to reach that audience, and feeling a bit disturbed by the depoliticization of the resistance in the context of the art museum. I wondered how the exhibit had been received, both by Palestinians and by an Israeli audience. Iyad Burnat, the leader of the popular resistance committee that organizes the demonstrations in Bil’in, reminded me that of course the Occupation prevents him from visiting the exhibit that depicts his struggle. Residents of the West Bank are required to have special permits to cross into 1948 Israel, permits that are nearly impossible to obtain. However, Iyad was confident that it is important for the other side to see what their life is like under the occupation and repression they face from the Israeli forces. Anything helps to publicize their struggle and to show people that the Occupation must end.
The hope is that this political art succeeds in raising the profile of their political struggle, yet in some ways it seems to me that its presentation in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is a normalization of the violence of the occupation. Normalization is a dirty word in Palestine solidarity activism, used to indicate practices that make violence, occupation, apartheid and colonialism seem normal and status quo. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel refers to normalization as “‘colonization of the mind,’ whereby the oppressed subject comes to believe that the oppressor’s reality is the only ‘normal’ reality that must be subscribed to, and that the oppression is a fact of life that must be coped with.” Does institutionalizing representations of resistance as art ‘normalize’ the Occupation?
The text by Itamar Levy that accompanies the exhibit also touches on the problematic issue of the ‘normal,’ yet his focus is on the Israeli experience
Acrylic on canvas
of trauma and violence, without mention of the Palestinian experience. He writes:
“The pill is bitter, as the films expose, week in week out, the ongoing trauma of the occupation, the ongoing trauma of Israeli consciousness, the trauma as the routine of our being who and what we are. Reeb’s videos are possibly the crudest, most acerbic, unendurable body of work in the history of Israeli art. They defy all the laws of aesthetics. Once again we have to ask: Is this art? and the answer is: Yes, this is art, an extension of the notion of art or a protest against it. Concurrently, it is also a counter-argument inquiring: How can one create any other kind of art here in this place? How can ‘normal’ art be created in this country, as if we were just another normal place where artists make art? The videos are the ‘refusal front’: the refusal of a normalizing routine, of normal art, of a consciousness that feels at home in Tel Aviv, with watermelon in hand, watching the news on television.”
Reeb’s work struggles to counter this normalization, yet its presentation in this Israeli institution of art risks normalizing the resistance to occupation as something to be consumed as art. We hope for political art like this to challenge, to shock and to spark outrage, yet what are the consequences if it does not? What are the ethics of reproducing struggle or violence if their representation fails to have political impact? Can, and should, political art demand an active response? Can the reproduction of political art and its institutionalization backfire by normalizing and depoliticizing the struggle represented?
Itamar Levy’s accompanying words to the exhibit stress the routine ordinariness of the resistance and life under the occupation. And indeed, the weekly protest in Bil’in at first struck me as dishearteningly choreographed. The movements are predictable. The Palestinian villagers and their Israeli and international allies approach the apartheid wall separating them from their land and the encroaching settlement to be met by the IDF soldiers. A volleyball game of sorts ensues. Slogans and sometimes rocks are thrown over the wall, and a barrage of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets are shot back by the soldiers to disperse the crowd, which tries to regroup and approach the wall again.
While the choreography of the demonstrations has become routine, it is the ongoing resilience (what Palestinian activists refer to as sumud, or steadfastness) of the activists that strikes me as powerful and inspiring. Especially now, with the escalation of violence and collective punishment currently being meted out against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories following the death of three Israeli settlers, it is particularly important for us to recognize the remarkable sumud and ongoing struggle for human rights undertaken by both Palestinian and Israeli activists. However and wherever their resistance work is expressed and represented, it is all part of a broader struggle for justice whose time has come.
Naomi Dann is graduated as a Peace and Justice Studies major at Vassar College. She is interested in representations of violence and conflict, nonviolent approaches to addressing injustices, and interrogating normative modes of understanding identities, conflicts and the possibilities of political activism.