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hairtrigger tempers, failed art, and addled thinking

Post #193 • January 18, 2004, 5:30 PM • 12 Comments

It is my wish that the problems in the Middle East end in peace, not fire and death. I also expect political artists to know what they're talking about. It therefore discourages me to hear today that an Israeli diplomat misinterpreted a bad piece of art by clueless artists in Stockholm and went apeshit over it.

Israel's ambassador to Sweden said Saturday that he had physically attacked an art exhibit at a Stockholm museum because it "glorified suicide bombers." The incident a day earlier has created a diplomatic flap between the countries.

The ambassador, Zvi Mazel, was among several hundred guests invited to the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm on Friday for an exhibit linked to a coming international conference on genocide sponsored by Sweden. Israel is one of the scheduled participants.

The piece that enraged the ambassador, "Snow White and the Madness of Truth," was in the museum's courtyard and featured a large basin filled with red fluid. A boat floated on top carrying a photo of a smiling Hanadi Jaradat, a woman who became a suicide bomber, killing 22 people in an Oct. 4 attack on a restaurant in Haifa. The work was created by Dror Feiler, an expatriate Israeli artist living in Sweden, and his Swedish wife, Gunilla Skold Feiler.

"When I saw it, I became a bit emotional," Mr. Mazel said in a telephone interview from Stockholm. "There was the terrorist, wearing her perfect makeup and floating on the blood of my people."

He said he had ripped out electrical wires lighting the exhibit and tossed a spotlight into the basin. ...

Mrs. Feiler told Expressen, a Swedish newspaper, that the work was not intended as "a glorification of the suicide bomber." Instead, she said, "I wanted to show how incomprehensible it is that a mother of two - who is a lawyer no less - can do such a thing," apparently conflating the Haifa bomber with an attack carried out on Wednesday by another Palestinian woman.

Man. I'm going down to the studio for a while.




January 19, 2004, 5:51 AM

Jasper Johns said in 1965: "Intention involves such a small fragment of our consciousness and of our mind and of our life. I think a painting should include more experience than simply intended statement. I personally would like to keep the painting in a state of shunning statement, so that one is left with the fact that one can experience individually as one pleases; that is, not to focus the attention in one way, but to leave the situation as a kind of actual thing, so that the experience of it is variable."

I take Johns to say it's to the artist's advantage to keep their work vague, and let the viewer invest their own experiences into their own personal interpretation. Pick a topic, demonstrate an issue, but then get out of the way. If you can demonstrate all points of view in a single work (pro, anti, and neutral), you've tripled your art's appeal.

As to the incident reported above, I'm sorry Mr Mazel got upset, but I'd imagine he's got a lot weighing on his mind, the work got under his skin, and he snapped. It happens. I can certainly sympathize with a person who reacts excitedly to art. Perhaps he made the mistake of giving the artist too much credit (intellectual or otherwise), and jumping to conclusions rather than taking control of the situation. He might have done better if he had conceived an interpretation of the work which aligned with his own worldviews, regardless of the artist's original intention, if any. No one said the artist is right, and no one said the artist gets the last word.

But most importantly, given his dramatic gesture, artistic in its own right, can I nominate him for the 2004 Turner Prize?



January 19, 2004, 7:41 AM

The ambassador's reaction was obviously far too sincere and spontaneous for a diplomat. The proper thing, of course, would have been to issue a very snide and sarcastic statement questioning Swedish judgment, common sense and taste (the French ambassador would have known just what to say). And no, Hovig, you can't nominate Mr. Mazel for the Turner Prize--there was no sexual content to his performance, so he doesn't qualify.



January 19, 2004, 8:46 AM

The incident was captured live, and broadcast on local news in the Netherlands. The segment begins just after the 11:00 mark (the entire broadcast is fourteen minutes).

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The ambassador's actions were relatively calm, but obviously quite dramatic for a diplomat, especially given the setting and the company. All three sides have my deepest sympathy, the artist, the ambassador, and the gallery organizers and guests. It's clearly a hurtful issue for everyone. But perhaps that's what art is best for.



January 19, 2004, 4:27 PM

The ambassador has my sympathies. His interpretation, while apparently mistaken, was at least a reasonable one (from what I can tell seeing the art in reproduction). I do not, however, support the dismantling of art by people who don't agree with it. I am concerned that an agent of peacemaking saw fit to do such a thing.

The artists do not have my sympathies. First, this work looks ridiculous. Second, they do not seem to be able to entertain the idea that the ambassador's reaction was vaild. Third, they characterize his actions as censorship. It's not censorship, it's anger. Censorship is never justifiable. But anger might be. They want to avoid the unintended consequences of their work, and work this malformed may have many unintended consequences. Fourth, they're mixing up their terrorists. If they want to make art about these wicked people, they had better get their facts straight.

I have only a little sympathy for the gallery owners and guests. Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas.



January 19, 2004, 6:29 PM

Politically speaking, Franklin, I agree with you without hesitation, but I hope you'll forgive me if I say I don't expect much by way of logical thought or rigorous intellectual scrutiny from a member of the artistic community. Perhaps my logical and mathematical nature, or my lengthy and arduous intellectual training as an electrical engineer and computer scientist makes me prejudiced, and I hope it's not too patronizing of me to say so, but I'm content to let artists ask the questions, and expect the answers (if any) from the rest of society, or from the simple passing of time. Those artists which can both grasp the depths of a consequential societal issue as well as they can express their feelings, are doubly blessed.



January 20, 2004, 1:25 AM

After re-reading my comment above, I should say I regret how insulting it sounds. I only wanted to say I think artists are in general more skillful in communication and expression than in dispassionate analysis and problem-solving, just as the reverse is true in general of scientists and engineers. Sorry if it came out wrong.



January 22, 2004, 5:31 PM

The artists are correct to say that the diplomats' actions are censorship. When a private citizen gets angry and says a work should be suppressed, it may be explainable as anger, but when an official of a government does the same thing, it is censorship (this is the primary definition of censorship). So whatever you think the quality of the art might be, the acts done against it are censorious, and the artists are right to object and call it for what it is.
Saying it's not censorship, and besides, the art is bad suggests that only art you like deserves protection.
Plus, historically speaking, anger is usually the cause of censorship. I have to wonder if you have had any real experience with censorship yourself, or have simply watched it from the sidelines as it were.



January 22, 2004, 8:44 PM

Art Student, I looked it up to make sure, and I still don't think we're talking about censorship. We're talking about vandalism, which is reprehensible in a different way. I'll say it again: I do not support the dismantling of art by people who don't agree with it. The ambassador says that he became emotional; I read that the nutjob who whacked the toe off of the Michelangelo David was in a similar state.

I think you're correct that when an official of a government attacks a work of art, it is censorship, but only when the attack is based on authoritarian policy. Remember, this guy's an ambassador - he's not part of the Swiss government, which, to its credit, escorted him from the premises and demanded that he answer for his actions. (Neither does he represent the Israeli government's policy of free artistic expression.) Calling it censorship is suspicious. The artists can make and show whatever they want under Swiss law and if anyone tries to break it, the authorities intervene.

Several years ago I had a show at the capitol building in Tallahassee and was told by the staff I could show anything as long as it wasn't political or naked. I make a lot of nudes, and I went back and forth on it for a long time - isn't this a public building, and don't we value freedom of expression in this state? In the end, I acquiesced. They're the ones that have to field the complaints from outraged citizens, and it's their building. It's not that the state forbids me to show my nudes anywhere - that would be censorship. But I wasn't totally relieved.



January 23, 2004, 6:01 PM

well, you had several options in your experience:

(1) do what they want (which you did)

(2) give them a painting with an innocuous title, and highly abstract subject matter in your style that while it did not look like a "nude," was one

(3) give them something obviously not a nude and call it "nude"

etc. options 2 and 3 both meet their criteria and point out the stupidity of the policy, all without causing trouble for anybody.

The decision to follow their limits is not censorshipi, it is what's called "the chilling effect." You self-censor as a result of living in a climate of censorship. That the policy exists at all is bad, that it gave you pause means that you felt the effects of cenbsorship without being censored.

As for the Israeli politician, I'm sure that his actions are not really that unusual for someone in his governmwent should an artist try to show a work like the one he attacked in Israel. Any justification for the desire to suppress art (or anything else) is just that, justification. That it comes from a politician is inexcusable, even if he expresses his opinion in another country than his own. Fortunately for these artists he really is powerless, and his actions may actually help their careers. Afterall they're famous now.



January 23, 2004, 8:07 PM

There's a gray area between what you're rightly calling the chilling effect and plain old appropriate behavior. You have to choose your battles wisely, and I opted out of this one. I knew I would show my nudes somewhere else, another day, in another place. I continued to make and show many of them, so the final effect was not self-censorship.

In the worldwide climate of increasing anitsemitism, people have gotten the idea that Israel is a police state. Israel is in fact a vibrant democracy with guarantees for free speech. The ambassador's behavior is an aberration, and would still be so if committed on Israeli soil. I agree that he was a boon to the artists' careers, which is one of the reasons I'm suspicious about their cry of censorship. If they call the ambassador a censor, it gives them the status of oppressed citizens worhty of international defense. If they call him a vandal, they can't do that.


Staffan V

February 5, 2004, 1:15 PM

If you checked up the story better you would have found out that the ambassador planned the attack before even seeing the artwork. There alse seems to be some political play going on behind the scenes.



February 5, 2004, 8:48 PM

You seem to be suggesting that when I posted this, shortly after it happened, there was already a Wikipedia entry full of unverifiable assertions and editorializing, which I would have mistaken for facts and included in my post if only I had done more research. I'm not in the mood for it today, Staffan.



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