Craig Dershowitz, executive director of Artists4Israel, turns this grey line into black and white.
The cultural boycott effort against Israel, wherein international artists are pressured to cancel their performances for their Israeli fans and Israeli artists routinely face discrimination based on their nationality, has created a dangerous threat to freedom of expression across the globe.
Artists are increasingly entering into the political discussion. Roger Waters, Mike Leigh and Emma Thompson have been vocal advocates of a boycott, while Jon Bon Jovi, Matisyahu, Mariah Carey and The Rolling Stones have championed freedom of expression. Internationally known “shock jock,” Howard Stern, recently added a splash of his usual color to the ongoing war of words taking place on the issue.
This interview kicks off a series of conversations with individuals working in the art world today, to explore their opinions on the issues and consequences evoked by the cultural Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
At stake is whether art can continue to serve as a vehicle for personal enrichment and societal change, or whether censorship will subjugate freedom of artistic expression to political agendas.
A recent incident in Dismaland, a popular street art exhibit in London spearheaded by the world-famous graffiti artist known as Bansky, sets the stage for this conversation which focuses on the grey line between protest art and propaganda.
When participating Palestinian artist Shadi Alzaqzouq discovered that the Dismaland exhibit included two Israeli artists, he protested their inclusion by covering up his two paintings with a sheet inscribed with the words “RIP Gaza” and laying down in front of it like a corpse. Initially, the event organizers appeared to object, but then decided to leave the sheet (to which he later added “boycott Israel”) in place.
I spoke with Craig Dershowitz, executive director of Artists4Israel, an artist rights and advocacy group that supports Israel and artistic freedom with a specific focus on contemporary, urban, and disruptive art, about how the recent events at Dismaland can help us understand the intersection between political and artistic expression in Western society today.
Alzaqzouq’s action was clearly a protest, but since he was covering up his own art, was it also a form of artistic expression?
“Artists4Israel has always resided at the intersection of art, protest, performance, and politics,” according to Dershowitz. “The thing which has always distinguished us from the likes of Shadi Alzaqzouq, is that while our work will oftentimes have a message or be viewed as protest art or political art, it is never propaganda. What Shadi and others do is propaganda.”
Street artists sometimes present socially relevant content infused with aesthetic value to attract attention to a cause or as a form of “art provocation.” So, what’s the distinction?
“The difference is in the singularity of the message, the authenticity, and honesty of the artist and the funding. Shadi is not working alone, he is part of a small but vocal movement [BDS] that has created a set of false beliefs and incorrect messages it wishes to propagate on the world. Many of these artists are heavily funded by PR firms and governments. There is very little truth in their art.
“Had Shadi’s work been authentic, he would have draped the sheet and laid beside the piece from the beginning. Then, although I would have disagreed with his political beliefs, I would not be questioning his morality and artistic truth.
“Instead, what he did was censor himself, hide his work because he could not get the event organizer’s to censor another artist.”
“There is NOTHING artistic,” Dershowitz continues, “be it protest, political, or arts and crafts, about attempting to sabotage or deny the work of others. That is censorship and it is unbearable, it is even worse when that censorship is self-inflicted, it is the worst when it is then covered in the shroud of ‘performance or protest’ art.”
Dershowitz contrasts this approach to the philosophy of Artists4Israel.
“Artists4Israel does not censor our artists and we work with those that represent the entire political spectrum. Unlike the anti-Israel movements, we do not demonstrate a hegemonic influence over those who work with us.”
Artists4Israel has initiated many innovative projects. Their Bomb Shelter Museum of Living History, a multimedia experience that simulates living through a rocket attack in the Israeli cities such as Sderot, Ashdod, and Ashkelon, has been featured on major media outlets such as CBS, CNN, and NPR.
So, I wondered – how does Dershowitz characterize the Bomb Shelter Museum? As protest art? Performance art? Both?
“It is impossible for me to then classify our Bomb Shelter Museum or our trips to Israel as falling squarely into any one category of the other. It would be a great sound bite for me to say the Bomb Shelter is art protesting against ignorance…so, yeah, go with that. But the truth is also that the Bomb Shelter Museum is just that, a museum housing not just the art of our time but ideas as well – after all, life is art. Living life under rocket attack is maybe the most creative form of art there is.”