Ruth Patir, Israel’s chosen artist at the 60th Art Biennale di Venezia

Pedro Wazzan

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The Jews of Venice

The eruption of ‘anti-Zionist’ rage among art workers at the Biennale was nothing new

by
David Jager
June 17, 2024
Ruth Patir, Israel’s chosen artist at the 60th Art Biennale di Venezia

Pedro Wazzan

I dislike moralizing in art. In truth, I bristle when anyone tells me how I should feel about anything. Blame it on my father’s childhood under Nazi occupation, or my post-punk childhood in suburban California. As Oscar Wilde declares in the preface to Dorian Gray, “No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an un-pardonable mannerism of style.”

Nevertheless, a month ago I found myself hurtling toward a global art event replete with ethical sympathies, The 60th Art Biennale di Venezia. Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa, celebrated for his innovative museum shows in South America, had gathered artists together under the banner "Stranieri Ovunque,” or “Strangers Everywhere.” Like many curators before him, Pedrosa stated his admirable intention to include neglected voices: voices from the global south, indigenous voices, queer and marginalized voices. So far, so good.

Yet even the NY Times couldn’t fail to notice the finger wagging: “The real problem is how it tokenizes, essentializes, minimizes and pigeonholes talented artists—and there are many here, among more than 300 participants—who have had their work sanded down to slogans and lessons so clear they could fit in a curator’s screenshot,” their critic wrote.

Those ethical sympathies do not extend to Israel, though. An artist’s organization calling itself “art not genocide alliance” (ANGA, get it?) released a protest letter demanding Israel be barred from the Biennale entirely. By early April, it had 14,000 signatories, including photographer Nan Goldin and last year’s Turner Prize winner, Jesse Darling. The letter declared: “Any official representation of Israel on the international cultural stage is an endorsement of its policies and of the genocide in Gaza. The Biennale is platforming a genocidal apartheid state. No death in Venice.”

Ruth Patir, Israel’s chosen artist, had wanted to present work that addressed her conflicted feelings surrounding the Oct. 7 attacks. In her videos, ancient regional fertility idols, many of them broken and fragmented, are brought to life through computer animation. They march through the streets, a surreal procession meant to signify grief, rage, and shattered motherhood. But her message was not welcome. According to ANGA, no Israeli artist can show art without being complicit in Israel’s military actions. “While Israel’s curatorial team plans their “Fertility Pavilion” reflecting on contemporary motherhood, Israel has murdered more than 12,000 children and destroyed access to reproductive care and medical facilities,” they fulminated.

Mira Lapidot, one of the curators behind Patir’s project, stated in an interview: “The art world [has in the past] pretended, or aspired, to present something more complex, ambiguous, which could contain internal contradictions—and suddenly in a single blow, the perception changed. You can either be on this side or on the other side. There is no longer a way to express empathy and a position that is more than for or against, and that fundamentally contradicts everything I understand about what art is.”

To his credit, Italian Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano flatly refused any action against the pavilion. Calling the letter “shameful,” he added, “My deepest solidarity and closeness goes to the state of Israel, its artists and all its citizens. The Venice Biennale will always be a space of freedom, meeting and dialogue and not a space of censorship and intolerance. Culture is a bridge between people and nations, not a dividing wall.” To which ANGA huffily replied: “Culture is not a ‘bridge between people and nations’ when one nation is involved in the elimination of another … Freedom of thought and creative expression are only threatened when artists turn away from reality.”

Blanket denouncements of Israel, Zionism, and the occupation are hardly new, especially in the art world. Even so, I was struck by the shoddy illogic beneath its samizdat veneer. Was Israel’s stated goal really the elimination of Palestine, the nonexistent “nation,” or the elimination of Hamas, the internationally recognized terrorist organization? What reality was, in fact, being turned away from?

The entire world was horrified by the ferocity of Hamas’ bloody rampage on Oct. 7, the worst since Israel’s founding. The horror then evaporated in less than a week, and the onus shifted immediately to Israel, even before it had responded to the attack. Anti-Israel rhetoric which ignored or excused or even denied the violence of the attack soon flooded social media.

Flyers near the Israeli pavilion at the Venice Biennale on April 17, 2024
Flyers near the Israeli pavilion at the Venice Biennale on April 17, 2024

Stefano Mazzola/Getty Images

These remarks struck a personal chord related in part to my family history. While under Nazi occupation in the north of Holland, my grandfather saved Jewish children from German death camps. Resistance nurses in Amsterdam diverted them to him, where he would be waiting at the train station. A genial man, ample of belly and bald as an egg, he was an organ and accordion salesman who was prone to mimicking regional accents and telling off-color jokes. He could play the cheerful bumpkin to perfection. Escorting his secret Jewish charges onto the train from Amsterdam, he chortled and kidded with the Gestapo. Once at his house in Groningen, the children would wait to be spirited away to other safe houses, and hopefully out of the country. Late-night SS house raids were common.

Another resistance family was caught harboring Jews, not far from my father’s house. They were all shot through the neck, including a 5-year-old child and a 2-year-old baby. The Germans left them in front of their house for several days as a warning. My father, just a boy of 10, remembered walking past their bodies.

My father was adamant about securing my grandfather’s place among the righteous, so we applied to Yad Vashem. After five years of intensive research, they granted that probably more than a hundred children had been saved through his efforts alone. He had also saved Grete, the sole surviving Jewish daughter of his business associates. He nabbed her as she was on her way back from school. Grete hid under the floorboards for four years, and after V-E day she was adopted into the family. Eventually she moved to California, where I grew up. There is a picture of her holding me as a toddler. She would die soon after of lung cancer.

I received the Medal of the Righteous from Yad Vashem on behalf of my grandparents in Montreal in 1996. Receiving that medal was the defining political moment of my life. Now I was watching as my ex-wife, who has ties in Israel, lost upward of 50 Facebook friends while patiently trying to explain her position as a Jew—a view informed by her own sharp critiques of Zionism, informed by her personal trips to the West Bank. Nonetheless her non-Jewish friends who had never been to Israel declared themselves the de facto authorities on all such things, enough to bar her from their lives. She had known some of them for decades.

Many of them deposited mini lectures on her feed, which I read with a growing sense of depression. They all listed similar talking points: Israel is an illegitimate apartheid state, a white supremacist colonial power, a murderous amalgam of the worst of settler colonialism, nationalism, and imperialism. Its very existence is a crime. To advocate for anything other than a cease-fire, or to suggest that Palestinians might be better off without Hamas, was to be a right-wing extremist complicit with genocide. “Enjoy your genocide” was in fact one of the comments.

My ex-wife, the Jewish mother of my Jewish daughter, and the granddaughter of Jews murdered in the Shoah, found all of this incomprehensible. Expressing the fear she felt as a Jew in light of the attacks, she was screamed at in all caps, ignored, pooh-poohed, and sometimes openly ridiculed. When she explained that Hamas’ founding charter was genocidal toward Israel, she was rebuffed or blocked. The protests in the streets grew uglier. Online and elsewhere, she noticed that “Zionist” was standing in more and more for “Jew.” What began with the tearing down of Israeli hostage posters grew into a massive wave of antisemitic threats, rallies, and violence. What was I supposed to make of it?

Chugging into the city on my Alilaguna, I was relieved to find that Venice was still Venice. An improbable ancient maze set in an Adriatic lagoon, palazzos dripping with finery, the cynosure between eastern and western Christendom, an improbable mash up of Byzantine, Moorish, and Roman Catholic. Impossible beauty was everywhere. St. Mark staring down solemnly in mosaic, fat putti and nymphs flitting across ceilings wreathed in gold and marble, Tiepolo churches with saints floating toward heaven, unmoored by religious ecstasy. The very vaporetto stops seemed to buck and heave suggestively.

Venice had invented the term “ghetto.” In 1516 Doge Leonardo Loredan declared that all Venetian Jews be formally segregated to the area of the city closest to the foundry, or ghetto, where war cannons were cast for the rest of Europe. By 1555, a thousand Jews lived in the “Ghetto Vecchio” or Old Ghetto, now known as Cannaregio.

In 1943 Venice fell under German occupation with the rest of northern Italy, and all 43,000 Italian jews were declared enemy aliens. Confinement, property seizure, deportation, and murder followed. After landing, the Gestapo asked a Venetian Jewish doctor, Giuseppe Jona, to produce a list of all 1,300 Jews then living in Venice. Jona burned all relevant records and committed suicide. Thanks to him, only 243 Venetian Jews were rounded up, taken to Fossoli concentration camp two hours away, and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Eight survived.

What had once been the home of Europe’s first ghetto had become an epicenter of the contemporary art world, where all focus was on the new “genocide.” Mention of the Israeli pavilion or Ruth Patir elicited squirming discomfort. “I wouldn’t write about that …,” one curator tsked, half in dismissiveness and half in concern, as we sipped spritz biancos outside a Giudecca bar. We were awash in the golden light of Venetian late afternoon, beyond us the stately gray green canal, vaporetto’s sputtering and bucking against the chop.

Would Ruth Patir open her doors, I wondered? Would she be shouted down and protested?

I had other questions, too. When did the arts community feel at ease pushing critiques of Zionism that edged into full-blown antisemitism? How did artists, arts and culture workers and academics—champions of LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, BIPOC rights, trans rights, radical inclusivity, and safe spaces—suddenly cheer on theocratic rapists and butchers? How did the people who needed puppies and crayons as a balm for the electoral trauma of 2016, feel comfortable shouting “Globalize the Intifada”?

A disquieting number of artists, curators, and academics have shifted their own hard leftism to include this pernicious strain of antisemitic anti-imperialism. You can see it hiding in plain sight in campus protests, at universities, and at the Venice Biennale.

“That’s Anish Kapoor!” the curator hissed excitedly as we passed him later, seated on the terrace of Harry’s Dolce, a Giudecca offshoot of the famous Harry’s Bar. This scene was repeated several times. Glasses of prosecco sparkling in sunlight, global art royalty 5 feet away, and supreme discomfort with any suggestion that Israel might have a right to defend itself. The facts had already been decided. Even bringing it up was to cross an invisible line. I could sense alarm if I offered a counternarrative or mentioned an omitted historical detail. To speak of the endless suffering of Palestinians under Israel was welcome. To speak of their suffering under Hamas was taboo. 

As a non-Jew who is strongly affiliated with Jews both by history and by choice, my positioning on Israel and Palestine has always been complex. I am repelled by much of the positioning of Netanyahu’s government. Yet nothing I have seen fits the “settler colonialist” “genocidal” narrative that I was now hearing everywhere. As the grandson of a man who risked his life to thwart an actual genocide directed against Jews here in Europe, I also felt deeply uncomfortable hearing the term being weaponized in the name of the arts against a state that was literally built by genocide survivors. There was nothing left for me to do but hold my tongue and walk through the different pavilions to see what I could see.

I hit the Giardini on the first day of previews, expecting sleek minimalist pavilions or retrofitted industrial buildings. Instead, it felt like a turn-of-the-last-century world fair. Separate buildings along broad pebbled walkways, built as far back as 1890, many sporting Romanesque columns and the names of host nations ostentatiously engraved. With all the talk of anti-colonialism and anti-nationalism, the ghost of Woodrow Wilson still hung heavily over the place.

Pedrosa nonetheless did everything in his power to decolonize the space. An indigenous mural covered the entire façade of the central pavilion, slathering it with mythology and bright ayahuasca visions. It was by the Brazilian Huni-Kuin Arts Collective, or MAKHU. I found it gorgeous, dauntingly so, and chalked it up as a triumph, even as the place of purely indigenous art in the contemporary art world remains a bit of a head-scratcher.

The mural’s theme was also intriguing. Kapewë Pukeni, a mythical “bridge-alligator,” was the centerpiece. Pukeni is the alligator of translation, signifying the transition between a single universal language into a plurality of languages. As a tribal chieftain once told Claude Levi Strauss, animals and humans once shared a common universal language, which was then tragically lost. Seen in that light, the mural was a paean to plurality and complexity.

Were Jews included here, by the alligator, I wondered. Weren’t the Jews one of the oldest indigenous peoples on the planet? Weren’t they always the wandering “other,” the ultimate stranieri? Didn’t the return of the Jews after 5,000 years of exile, in defiance of both Arab and British imperialism, show us what actual decolonization looks like?

I decided to make a detour to the dreaded Israel pavilion, a five-minute walk away from the central complex. Once again I was underwhelmed by the small white building that had caused such an uproar. It was no larger than a two-car garage, reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim museum. ANGA had already done a march past, scattering dark red leaflets that shouted “NO TO THE GENOCIDE PAVILLION.” Ruth Patir was nowhere in sight. That’s when I noticed a poster in the window.

“The artist and curators of the Israeli pavilion will open the exhibition when a cease-fire and hostage release agreement is reached.”

The Israel pavilion would not be opening. Patir had most likely known there was no way for her to do so, and had therefore done the only thing she could—bow out, while making a pointed statement.

“Clever” was my first reaction. A cease-fire could be declared tomorrow—as it had in fact been before Oct. 7—but release of the hostages could take years, meaning that the pavilion would never open. Patir was expressing the paradox of Israel’s situation. In the recesses of the dim building, on a lone video screen, the animated fertility idols continued their grim and mournful march.

Italian soldiers stand guard in front of Israel's pavilion during the pre-opening of the Venice Biennale art show, on April 16, 2024
Italian soldiers stand guard in front of Israel’s pavilion during the pre-opening of the Venice Biennale art show, on April 16, 2024

Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

I looked down at the flyers, feeling a bit forlorn. That’s when I noticed three fully armed Italian soldiers in battle fatigues. I hadn’t noticed soldiers at any other pavilion, so I went up to them.

“Are you the only soldiers assigned to a pavilion in this entire Biennale?” I asked them.

One of the soldiers gave me a sheepish smile.

“It is an unusual time” he said in heavily accented English.

ANGA didn’t like Patir’s gambit at all. Despite the Israel pavilion being shut, the Israeli artist had managed to still be present at the Bienale, albeit behind closed doors—a fact that maddened them. “ANGA does not applaud empty and opportunistic gestures timed for maximum press coverage,” they glowered, “… leaving video works on view to the public, while Palestinians are killed by Israel every hour and millions face imminent famine.” For ANGA, Patir’s marching fertility idols, meant to represent the tragedy of the Israel-Palestine situation, were somehow an endorsement of Israel’s military campaign. I wanted to speak to Patir for clarification, but reaching her would be difficult, if not impossible, given that she required security to appear in public.

The German pavilion also had work by an Israeli artist, Yael Bartana, who occupied a healthy chunk of the space. She had designed a futuristic starship shaped exactly like the kabbalistic tree of life. A full-scale model hung in a darkened room with dry ice smoke and dramatic club lighting. It was like 2001: A Space Odyssey for Jews.

In the next room a giant wall video featured dancers gathering in the mystical Jewish starship’s Eden-like interior. They performed a ritual dance of sorts in celebration of their departure for the stars. Another video featured Bartana beaming at the prospect of this fusion of kabbalistic mysticism and space messianism. She savored the idea that humanity could someday reach its interstellar destiny by fusing starship technology and ancient Judaic wisdom.

What was next, Magen David spaceships from Mel Brooks’ Jews in Space? Where were the protesters here? An Israeli pavilion devoted to grieving motherhood couldn’t open, because of “genocide,” but Jewish space mysticism was fine? Was it because Bartana was envisioning another exodus, with Jews leaving the planet for good?

The next day I trudged through the Arsenale, nearly 57 acres inside an industrial complex where Venice once built Europe’s finest warships. My first stop was a pre-opening event at the Navy Officer’s Club. Titled “When Solidarity Is Not a Metaphor,” it was described as “a counter-space to the reigning agendas of war, patriarchy, and colonialism, and their toxic impacts on human and non-human ecosystems.”

There, I came across an assembled group of people holding a struggle session on the Gaza conflict. The first thing I heard was:

“We are deploring the fact that we are currently in the process of witnessing a genocide.”

Delivered with calm gravity, the statement came from a blond woman with a black and white kaffiyeh draped over her leather jacket. Twenty or so participants murmured in assent. Another woman in a kaffiyeh spoke indignantly about how their viewpoint—the view that Israel was a genocidal state—was systemically being silenced by the ruling powers of the Biennale.

This did not prevent a bearded academic, his voice quavering, from making a vague counterstatement about the validity of listening with empathy and compassion to other viewpoints “even if it was difficult.” He was met with stony silence. Perhaps he had heard of Joanna Chen, an Israeli translator of Jewish and Arabic poetry whose conflicted piece on Gaza for the literary journal Guernica imploded when she committed the ultimate sin of attempting “to tread the line of empathy.” Recalling her experience as a Palestinian peace activist, a friend to Palestinians, and an Israeli Jew ambivalent about the war, she triggered a wave of indignant resignations from nearly 15 staff members who accused her of being a “colonizing racist” and a “settler who has settler genocidal friends and raised settler genocidal children.” Ishita Marwah, Guernica’s fiction editor, condemned the piece as “a rank piece of genocide apologia” which had transformed the once-august literary magazine into “a pillar of eugenicist white colonialism masquerading as goodness.” Guernica capitulated, retracted the piece, and offered an apology to its readers. So much for treading the line of empathy.

Pro-Palestinian sentiment simmered throughout the Arsenale’s mind-numbingly vast show. “Viva Viva Palestina” is in fact one of the first things one saw upon entering. A nod to Frida Kahlo’s “Viva la Vida” slogan, the slogan is sprayed in bright red on the upper right panel of Frieda Toranzo Jaeger’s enormous opening mural, “Rage Is a Machine in Times of Senselessness.” The mural also includes eight depictions of watermelons, a symbol of Palestinian resistance. Farther on, Daniel Ortiz’s 2022 wooden puppet show “The Brightness of Greedy Europe” features a small Palestinian flag in the corner of the screen that reads “boycott Israeli pavilion, Free Palestine!” Marco Scotini’s “Disobedience Archives” a collection of curated video devoted to art and political action, featured an excerpt of “Notes on Displacement,” a documentary by Palestinian filmmaker Khaled Jarrar.

I had started to see a pattern. There was a party line about Israel that was part old school Marxism, and part barely suppressed anti-colonial rage. It seemed less reasoned than reflexive. Everywhere, I overhead rhetoric worthy of Pizzagate conspiracists on a 4chan thread. Wanting to know more, I dug into ANGA’s Instagram to see how they explained themselves more formally:

“The global state structure, which dominated the 20th century, not only allows but actively enables genocide in Gaza and elsewhere in this world,” ANGA intoned. “Every genocide is perpetuated by a state. This machinery of destruction, guided by settler colonialism, fueled by capitalism, empowered by technological might, and covered by complicit media giants, must be dismantled. We ask: If this level of atrocity is now acceptable, then what is deemed unacceptable? We must reconsider what structures national identities have produced and restore our severed connection to the land as a source of our identity and political existence.”

Where to begin? Sure, some states have endorsed genocides, but genocide itself began much earlier. Not to excuse genocide, but it’s a very ancient, very tribal endeavor that goes back tens of thousands of years, and helped shape our DNA. The point being that genocide is hardly a recent phenomenon, or traceable to the European settler colonialism or imperialism of the 18th and 19th centuries (Europeans themselves being relative latecomers to the games of colonialism and imperialism, which themselves had been practiced for thousands of years by previously dominant human civilizations, most of them built by people with dark skin). You could dismantle technology and all the media giants, and ethnic hatred and genocide would both still exist. You could abolish Israel, and the atrocities in Yemen, Darfur, Syria, and Myanmar would still be ongoing. Is Israeli imperialism, however defined, really at fault for the millions of stateless Kurds, who have been haplessly massacred in the thousands by four different despotic Arab governments, or for the tragedies of the Uyghurs, or the rainforest tribes of the Amazon?

Parsing the actual meaning of these word-strings is in fact a waste of time. These are slogans, grounded in paint-by-numbers Marxism so vulgar that Slavoj Zizek would pause from tugging at his T-shirt and nose to throw up his hands. What’s actually important about the illogic of these slogans is that they allow the speaker to equate the Israeli state with capitalist imperialism, which in turn is a stand-in for every other leftist bugaboo: colonialism, sexism, racism, patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and all the rest of it. Palestinian resistance is thereby inextricably linked with every other cause in a much larger “struggle,” since all oppression is the same, and derives from the same causes or cause. The Palestinian cause therefore isn’t really the Palestinian cause at all. It’s just another pretext for a much larger agenda, the dismantling of the machinery of oppression—which is now uniquely symbolized by Israel, the Jew among states.

Footsore on the third day, I wondered if there were any other Jewish artists at the Biennale who had somehow escaped censure or boycotts. Indeed, there were. Frank Auerbach, master of the London School, opened quietly at the Palazzo da Mosto, a retrospective covering 50 years of his painting. Winner of the Golden Lion in 1986 and still painting at 93, Auerbach had recently expanded his practice to include large London cityscapes, reminiscent of his recently deceased friend, the great Leon Kossoff. Aside from sheer painterly genius, the venue was quiet.

The most explicitly Jewish exhibit of the Biennale had caused nary a ripple, though. It was by Ydessa Hendeles, an artist whose history as the only child of Holocaust survivors is central to her work. Her independent show, “Grand Hotel,” opened quietly at Spazio Berlendis. Walking in, you aren’t sure if you have entered an exhibit or the rummage sale of a dispossessed countess. Taking everyday items, many of them vintage, and placing them in different configurations, she creates unsettling narratives in the language of things. Diaspora, Shoa, and the vagaries of history are always implied. She has a knack for finding the uncanny resonances between mute objects. The silence between them fairly screams.

Ydessa Hendeles, 'Grand Hotel' (detail), 2022. 'Volkswagen Type 1, The Beetle,' 1953, in pearl finish and with a rear 'brezel' split window.
Ydessa Hendeles, ‘Grand Hotel’ (detail), 2022. ‘Volkswagen Type 1, The Beetle,’ 1953, in pearl finish and with a rear ‘brezel’ split window.

Robert Keziere. Courtesy the Artist © Ydessa Hendeles

One major item in her current show is luggage. Battered Louis Vuitton cases and trunks, stacked in piles in the show’s main space, as well as novelty picnic sets, toiletry cases, items full of luxurious promise left bereft and empty. The piles of trunks recall the same stacks on the arrival ramps at Auschwitz. A 1946 family photo of a picnic, so tiny you might miss it, was taken 15 months after her parents had been liberated from Bergen Belsen, about a month after Anne Frank was murdered there in March of 1945.

In her seventh decade, Ydessa still carries the aura of a melancholy schoolgirl: waist-length black hair, a pleated skirt and blouse with a beret askew on her head. “I’ve been called a documentarian, but really I’m more of a fantasist,” she says quietly. “Or rather I’m interested in the resonance between the two. I’m really interested in the tales that arise out of displacement, out of diaspora.” A large architectural model of a Gothic Edwardian hotel served as a centerpiece, spooky and empty. “I called the show “Grand Hotel” because, as Leon Pinsker said “Jews are everywhere as guests and nowhere at home.”

She walked me past a portrait of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, architect of many pogroms, and then a silver Volkswagen bug, vintage. Commissioned by Hitler and released to the German public, it arrived just before all German Jews were legally prohibited from driving.

I note that the one video she has included, a scene from a Hungarian ghetto that was wiped out, features the Yiddish song “Oyfen Pripitchik” or “On the Hearth.” In the video, black-clad Jews are seen hurrying home for Shabbat sometime in the 1930s. One man has a live goose under his arm.

“People forget that Yiddish was the common language of Jewish people” she says. “After the Shoah, there weren’t really enough survivors left to speak it. That’s why, after the founding of Israel, they had to intentionally revive Hebrew, which up to that point was a mostly dead language. Imagine! A people suddenly deciding to speak Latin again.”

I stood there next to the ghostly model hotel and piles of empty trunks, trying to comprehend how a common language could have been destroyed in a little over four years.

“I do think I’m brave for having this exhibit,” she said, finally.

In his landmark book The Captive Mind, Nobel literature laureate and dissident Czeslaw Milosz describes how the intellectuals of his generation, himself included, became Soviet communists. In the chapter of his book titled “The Pill of Murti Bing,” he summarizes a satirical novel titled Insatiability by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. In the novel, Witkiewicz describes a society that largely resembles our own: fraught, decadent, plagued by excess and anxiety. The arts are completely in disarray, dozens of different styles forever at odds, with artists squabbling over approaches, motivations and manifestoes.

Foreign invaders, however, present a pill to the troubled elites. Called Murti Bing, it soothes all anxiety by erasing independent thought. As more and more intellectuals and artists take the pill, their schisms and insecurities are smoothed away. Eventually the entire populace begins thinking in concert, after which the foreign invaders arrive, and state power is peacefully transferred to them. During the transfer ceremony the leading dissident intellectual presents himself to his new masters and allows himself to be executed.

According to Milosz, dialectical materialism became the magic Murti Bing pill that resolved all intellectual and artistic anxiety in the Eastern bloc. Quarrelling factions were supplanted with a single style, socialist realism, which served as a universal language like the mythical language between humans and animals—one that doesn’t require Kapewë Pukeni, the bridge alligator, as a translator. With socialist realism, it is only necessary to dialectically analyze the origins of injustice and then create art that addresses it. Once addressed, consciousness is raised. Art thereby regained a purpose in concert with a larger ideological aim.

Granting an ideological function to art also works hand in glove with another common trait of artists and writers: narcissism. Self-involvement can be just as much of a balm as jumping on an ideological bandwagon. Combining the two, in fact, allows you to be on the right side of history while at the same time being hopelessly self-involved. For artists—and probably everyone else—bottomless self-indulgence without ethical baggage is a pretty hard combination to beat.

The art critic Peter Schjeldahl saw it coming. In his essay “The Hydrogen Jukebox” he wrote: “The personality type of our time is the narcissist. Obsessively self-regarding, self-referential, self-consuming, the narcissistic personality finds authenticity only in the moment-to-moment convincingness of bodily sensations and mental events. The narcissistic artist or poet offers to a shadowy public evidence or dramatizations of these sensations, inviting that public to join in the self-contemplation. Anger, at world or self, alternates with a husky or antic seductiveness, a siren song of love and death or sexy fun, and with abject complaining, the cries of the abandoned baby within …

He goes on to say, “The exemplary contemporary social unit is the ‘support group.’ Hierarchical authority is out, the narcissist won’t stand for it. A support group, be it a therapy group or an ‘alternative’ gallery, comes together expressly to advance the individual interests of its members and to get for them what they want, be it health, fame, whatever. The contemporary art world is rife with the phenomenon. It sometimes calls to mind a nest crowded with open-mouthed little birds, all straining for whatever worms chance or machination may bring their way. To speak, in such a context, of the value or meaning or quality of work being done is an indiscretion.”

Schjeldahl’s description applies equally well to the Biennale and to the art world in general, as well as to the academy, the world of literary magazines, and other places where would-be artists gather to propagandize and have their work subjected to ideological litmus tests. In these places, infinitely fragile and self-involved creatives huddle into support groups where they recycle the drama of their aggrieved and oppressed subjectivities. A frothy, narcissistic and ideological rage becomes necessary to the production of art that nonetheless seems strangely generic. The same narrative arc repeats itself ad nauseam. “I was anxious and forlorn, I discovered I was oppressed, I empowered myself and accepted my marginalized subjectivity, I now liberate myself through expression. Witness my expression!”

When did the arts community feel at ease pushing critiques of Zionism that edged into full-blown antisemitism?

In the meantime, the floating elites and administrators are jet-setting, canoodling at private dinners, holding record-breaking auctions, and carefully hedging their words. The lower ranks can rage and spit however they want, cranking out the obligatory narratives. Their managers, the world’s dealers in Murti Bing pills, rely on carefully-crafted theory speak that says, much like former UPenn President Liz Magill, that “it all depends on the context.”

This explained the spectacle that greeted me when I returned from Venice. A cosplay intifada where Ivy League LARPers in matching Coleman tents massed together bouncing between manic rage and passive aggressive sullenness, repeating robotic chants with outright terroristic undertones, linking arms and restricting the movements of Jewish students with the question “Are you a Zionist?” Then pausing to whine at the press about the lack of humanitarian niceties, while their $80,000 a year dorm rooms were a hundred feet away.

So how did this all happen?

My humble theory is that at a certain point for the art world and the academy, privilege became inextricably linked to race. An insidious colorism was born, assuming different and measurable levels of privilege based solely on skin color. How oppressed you are is directly related to where you fall on the skin color hierarchy. Jews may not technically be classified as white, and may have endured the Holocaust—but they are whiter than many Arab Palestinians, at least if you ignore the Sephardim, Mizrahim, the Beta Israel, or the million or so Arab Jews driven from neighboring Arab countries. For the scoring based on skin color to hold, Jewish suffering cannot be commensurate with Palestinian suffering. Palestinians must replace Jews as the new front runners in the victimology Olympics. 

What did I carry away from my trip to Venice? I find myself settling into the profound discomfort of the dissident, watching people I know and admire as artists, curators, and culture workers blithely, if not aggressively, speaking in concert with unabashed terrorists, while proclaiming themselves to be guardians of the good. Milan Kundera spoke of this strange phenomenon in an interview. A poet he greatly admired, Paul Eluard, became an advocate of Stalinist terror. As he recalls, “After the war, Paul Eluard abandoned surrealism and became the greatest exponent of what I might call the ‘poesy of totalitarianism.’ He sang for brotherhood, peace, justice, better tomorrows, he sang for comradeship and against isolation, for joy and against gloom, for innocence and against cynicism. When in 1950 the rulers of paradise sentenced Eluard’s Prague friend, the surrealist Zalvis Kalandra, to death by hanging, Eluard suppressed his personal feelings of friendship for the sake of supra-personal ideals, and publicly declared his approval of his comrade’s execution. The hangman killed while the poet sang.”

This is the world of pseudo theological despotism, of socialist realism, or art that already knows what you need to believe. It’s an ideology that knows a priori that all the world’s grievances flow from one source: Capitalist imperialism. If we follow the thread of this reasoning back to the 1930s, we know that “capitalist imperialism”—especially to Palestinians and Arab nationalists—has always been a veiled reference to international Jewry.

A disquieting number of artists, curators, and academics have shifted their own hard leftism to include this pernicious strain of antisemitic anti-imperialism. You can see it hiding in plain sight in campus protests, at universities, and at the Venice Biennale. It silences nuanced voices and causes august arts and literary publications to self-immolate; it silences artists and produces bad art. The culture workers and protesters in these spaces assure us they are still on the side of social justice, human rights, and safe spaces. They are only attacking structural inequalities, they tell us, and after these problematic structures, starting with the State of Israel, are dismantled and rebuilt anew, there will be room for everyone—Jews included.

To judge whether the anti-Israel antics we see across the art world and academia are part of a noble quest for justice, or merely another resurgence of the world’s oldest hatred, I ask only a single question:

How safe do Jews feel now?

David Jager is an arts and culture writer based in Manhattan. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Toronto.

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