The University of Washington, in Seattle, has reportedly just taken down an art exhibition planned in conjunction with a conference on “War and Global Health.” The exhibition, “Global to Local: Narratives of War, Resilience and Peace,” was curated by a UW graduate, a Palestinian-American artist and public health worker named Amineh Ayyad. According to a press release, it was to include “photos about the Gaza war and blockade by award-winning Palestinian photojournalists; encaustic paintings from local refugee children of different countries and Jewish & Palestinian artists; a photo-essay about medical relief and peace building efforts in Palestine; and a sculpture created by an Iraqi-American artist.”
Ayyad was quoted as saying, “I wanted to curate an art exhibit as a way to display qualitative and quantitative data about war, siege and displacement and their impact on health. I believe this is an effective method to communicate such information to the university community, especially to the thousands of undergraduate students who visit the library daily.” That kind of statement is bound to raise red flags.
No matter how often it happens, the collision of art and politics always seems to surprise people, as if art existed on a separate plane detached from the imperfections of reality, like pure mathematics. Art also draws it power from its resonance with lived human experience, however, and that includes politics. There are aesthetic standards for judging a work of art – the composition, the choice of materials, the technical skill of its execution, and so forth. But a viewer’s response will also be conditioned by his or her own experience and sympathies, which is why art can be controversial.
When art arouses passion these days, especially if politics are involved, the controversy is usually over competing narratives rather than the work itself. In a case like the closed exhibition at the University of Washington, one side will inevitably claim censorship and assert the right to be heard. But museums are not havens for free expression. Even if they are publicly funded, their job is to decide what to exhibit and what not to exhibit.
Another battle cry is “balance,” as if every issue has two equally valid sides. The reality is that “fairness” is a function of public opinion. Most of the world considers slavery to be unconscionable, so there is no expectation of balance when slavery is treated in art or anywhere else. A discussion seems out of balance when it moves too far away from the prevailing consensus.
That’s the underlying issue when Israeli/Palestinian issues come up. If public opinion in Seattle is generally sympathetic with the Palestinian cause, the idea of presenting “photos about the Gaza war and blockade by award-winning Palestinian photojournalists” will seem reasonable. If the consensus is that Israel is often unfairly demonized, this exhibition will appear to be another example of that demonization. In other words, what’s at mostly stake is neither aesthetics nor “balance” nor “censorship,” but rather the legitimacy of the artistic statement in the eyes of the community.
University officials have the responsibility for deciding whether an exhibition is appropriate, and the State of Washington and its voters ultimately can decide whether those officials are doing a good job. Arguments about fairness or censorship – or anti-Semitism, or the proper uses of public funding, or the rights of artists – are a way of exerting power in that decision-making process; they’re not about principle. The outcome will tell us less about the role of art than about the realities of politics.
Bob Goldfarb is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. He is also a book critic for Jewish Book World and a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.com.
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