Sunday, August 26, 2012

Art and Exploitation - Reflections on the cultural boycott of Israel

This is a very slightly revised version of an essay published by the website Cannons @ Muses ( in February 2011.

ART AND EXPLOITATION – Reflections on the Cultural Boycott of Israel.
By Raymond Deane

Against whom must one defend the cultural boycott of the state of Israel? Clearly those who believe in "Israel right or wrong" will reject all tactics opposing Israeli policies and actions, including all forms of boycott. Similarly those who criticise the Israeli state and believe that all tactics against it are justifiable except for boycotts, will make no exception for culture. The cultural boycott, therefore, must be defended against those who support boycotts but specifically exclude culture as an object of boycott.

In what follows, I shall omit discussion of the "legitimacy" or otherwise of the state of Israel, or of the boycott tactic in general. Furthermore, I shall take culture in this context as being synonymous with art, although in other contexts this equation is dubious.

Dismissal of the cultural boycott tends to take two forms: art is "above politics", and it "breaks down barriers and brings people together." Interestingly, opponents of the sporting boycott use the same arguments. Apparently culture and sport are both activities deemed to transcend political categories while uniting people of diverse backgrounds. Indeed it may be implied that the transcendence enables the unity.

The statement "art is above politics" seems to me - as an artist and activist – to be as incoherent as all statements beginning with the words "art is..." Perhaps the very essence of art is its absence of any definable essence, so that it "can be" many different things while remaining art. Attempts to pin down its definition are both misleading and exclusive. (Of course this also applies to other essences than aesthetic ones.)

Furthermore, all discussions of art are necessarily aspectual, concentrating on diverse ways in which the artistic object or process may be viewed. A work of art created without political intention may be analysed from a political perspective without (necessarily) being thereby distorted. It may equally be analysed from historical, structural, sociological, erotic, or any number of perspectives without losing its identity, which is multidimensional.

The idea that art is “above politics” seems to imply a concept of art as autonomous, an autonomy linked to its anti-utilitarianism, its lack of obvious practical usefulness. It further reads such autonomy as excluding any possible political perspective on aesthetics, although the philosopher Adorno, for example, famously thought the opposite. Thus for artists to engage in a cultural boycott supposedly violates the autonomy of art by enlisting it for a political cause.

My own involvement in the politics of cultural boycott culminated (so far) in August 2010 with the launch of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign's "cultural boycott pledge", whereby creative and performing artists undertake not to accept invitations to Israel (two years later, the pledge has some 233 signatories).

At the time, I wrote: "Whether or not art is 'above politics', its presentation and representation in the real world can all too easily be hijacked by oppressive states". In the initial letter that I sent artists, I cited Nissim Ben-Sheetrit of Israel's Foreign Ministry: “We see culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between propaganda and culture.” This was taken from About Face, an article by Yuval Ben-Ami that appeared in the Israeli paper Ha'aretz on 20 September 2005, concerning the Foreign Ministry's belated recognition of "the importance of culture as a public relations device."

While one surely cannot deny that this represents a serious “violation of the autonomy of art”, is it not
inconsistent for artists to respond with a violation of their own? Should artists not display a purer and more moral concern for their work than an amoral state? Phrased thus, the argument might remind us of the question whether it is acceptable to resist state violence with acts of violence (automatically dubbed “terrorism”)? A negative answer would appear to demand more moral behaviour from the oppressed than from the oppressor, a position that has a certain logic, since oppression is inherently immoral.

However, one of the most positive aspects of all boycott campaigns is precisely that they are non-violent. Furthermore, the autonomy of the artist and of the art-work, like all forms of autonomy, is never absolute. Artists who auction paintings to raise money for the homeless, composers who allow their music to be used as music therapy, are voluntarily surrendering a degree of their work's autonomy.

Or are they? Because whatever use is made of it, in a certain sense the work remains unscathed. The choral finale of Beethoven's 9th Symphony remains a revolutionary plea for universal brotherhood even though it was appropriated in turn by Bismarck, by the Nazis, by (most bizarrely!) Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War II, and most recently by the European Union. While Beethoven had no control over these posthumous perversions of his work, Bruce Springsteen could and did fight against the distortion by Ronald Reagan of his protest song Born in the USA into an anthem of right-wing patriotism. The artists who refuse to perform or be performed or exhibited in Israel are withholding their work from exploitation by a racist, colonial state. The work itself retains whatever autonomy an art-work possesses. Indeed one might even argue that it remains “above politics” without concluding that the artist should be similarly aloof in seeking to influence the conditions of its dissemination.

Furthermore, artists from states that are actively complicit in Israel's crimes – particularly the USA and the EU – are saying to their governments: You claim that you oppose all forms of boycott of the state of Israel – although most of you imposed sanctions on South Africa in the 1980s, thus hastening the fall of Apartheid – and we also dislike boycotts because we wish our work to achieve maximum dissemination. So if you wish to make our boycotts redundant, then avail of the means at your disposal to bring Israel's crimes to an end: insist on the total cessation of colonial settlement-building, an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories, a genuine process of negotiation leading to a just peace that recognises inalienable Palestinian rights including the Right of Return; in the meantime, stop funding the occupation and arming the Israeli rogue state, and stop conceding Israel trading privileges to which it has long since forfeited the right.

The other contention – that art “breaks down barriers and brings people together” – also implies an
essentialist definition of art's capabilities. Just as we may replace the formula “art is...” with “art can be...”, we may similarly rephrase the above assertion as follows: “art can break down barriers and can bring people together”. It can also do the opposite, when those who control its dissemination exploit it to such an end.

In the case of Israel, musicians (e.g.) who perform in Tel Aviv can take it for granted that their audiences are unlikely to include fans from the West Bank and certainly will exclude Gazans – not because such people don't wish to hear their music, but because they are prevented from travelling by the armed forces of the Israeli state. Should these musicians seek to “balance” their performance in Tel Aviv by playing Ramallah, Israelis will be prevented from attending – not by Palestinians, but by the same occupying forces. Should they seek to play Gaza, they will themselves be prevented – and not by Hamas. Given that any such performance in Tel Aviv will be exploited by Israeli propaganda as testimony to the “normality” of the Zionist state, it is difficult to see how our hypothetical musicians will have “broken down barriers and brought people together” – rather, they will have provided living proof that Israel is an apartheid state and will indeed have reinforced it by their presence, regardless of whether the content of their music extols love and peace.

But does the cultural boycott not hurt individual Israelis, many of whom may reject their government's
policies towards the Palestinians? The non-violent cultural boycott may well “hurt” individuals, but not in the way that (e.g.) US sanctions “hurt” (i.e. starved to death) hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children in Saddam's day. Strikes “hurt” ordinary people, yet if those people support the aims of the strikers they grit their teeth and endure the pain. Those Israelis who genuinely oppose government policy also support the boycott, as demonstrated by the steady growth of the internal boycott movement – including the cultural boycott – within Israel.

Boycott, as Mandela said, is a tactic, not a principle. Its ultimate aim is to help – however modestly – to remove the conditions that brought about its imposition. Culture exists in the real world, not somewhere above the clouds. For this reason it cannot lay claim to any exemption from the obligation laid upon all of us to strive for a more just world.
Raymond Deane is a composer and a member of the National Committee of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign.