Artists v. Art?

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Original Photo by Nicolò Paternoster — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Should artists silence art?

As part of the Olympic festivities, England is hosting Globe to Globe, a festival that presents all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in 37 different languages. Companies from all over the world are appearing at The Globe with their vision of Shakespeare. Brilliant idea, yes? A true bridge to mutual exchange, right? A genuine opportunity for international understanding and learning, agreed?

Not so for many significant British artists including Caryl Churchill, Mike Leigh, Jonathan Miller, Mark Rylance (founding artistic director of the Globe), and Emma Thompson. They called for the theatre to cancel its invitation to the Habima Theatre of Israel and when the Globe didn’t, for audiences to boycott Habima’s production of Merchant of Venice (ironically enough).

The artists published in The Guardian their rationale:

The Globe says it wants to “include” the Hebrew language in its festival – we have no problem with that. “Inclusiveness” is a core value of arts policy in Britain, and we support it. But by inviting Habima, the Globe is associating itself with policies of exclusion practised by the Israeli state and endorsed by its national theatre company. We ask the Globe to withdraw the invitation so that the festival is not complicit with human rights violations and the illegal colonisation of occupied land.

The Habima is, without question, one of the world’s great theatres. Founded in Moscow in 1913, the theatre was home to some of Russia’s most cutting edge artists, including being led for a time by Yevgeny Vkahtongov. The theatre moved to Tel Aviv in the 1920’s. Each year, the Habima presents about 1,500 performances. Last year, five performances were in the Ariel settlement in the West Bank. Habima artists who did not want to perform there were not required to do so. As with most European theatres, including the theatres and industries where these British artists work, the Habima receives substantial funding from their government.

On opening night, Dominic Dromgoole, Globe artistic director, gave a pre-show speech to let the audience know that the Globe staff anticipated some protest during the performance; “You’re not watching politicians or policy-makers. You are watching artists who are here to tell a story.” (In fact there were a couple of incidents of banner waving and shouts, but to their credit, the protestors made their point and were escorted out of the theatre without any real harm to the audience, artists or the production.)

The political issue is, of course, complex. However, isn’t it simple to let artists speak for themselves?

The festival also included performances by artists from other countries whose governments suppress freedom of expression and human rights. No one questioned the appearance of these artists in a world-wide festival, supported by their governments. The festival also presented a performance by Palestinian company based in Ramallah, Ahstar Theatre.

Ilan Ronen, artistic director of Habima, explained:

It is important to emphasize, we express our political views in many of our projects. But like other theatre companies and dance companies in Israel, we are state-financed, and financially supported to perform all over the country. This is the law… We are supported by the state, but not representing it. We are completely independent, artistically and politically.

The point that Ronen was trying to make is not a small one. The Israeli government does not censor, interfere, or determine the company’s choice of performances or personnel. Moreover, historically the festival spirit thrived when companies from the former Eastern block, many of which were under the control of their repressive governments, were able to perform at festivals in the west. At that time, most artists, including some of the ones who wanted the Globe to boycott Habima, welcomed the opportunity to host these companies and their work. This kind of artist to artist, audience to art contact is surely one of the most direct ways of understanding another point of view.

Not all of the leading British artists are against the Globe hosting an Israeli company. Steven Berkoff, Simon Callow, Maureen Lipman, Arnold Wesker were among those who welcomed the Habima’s place in the festival. Perhaps, the British novelist, Howard Jacobson, best articulated the reasons to open the borders, not close them:

If there is one justification for art… it is that it proceeds from, and addresses, our unaligned humanity. Whoever would go to art with a mind made up on any subject misses the point of what art is for… So to censor it in the name of political or religious conviction… is to tear out its very heart. For artists themselves to do such a thing to art is not only treasonable, it is an act of self-harm… One could almost laugh about it, so Kafkaesque is the reasoning: The Merchant of Venice, acted in Hebrew, a troubling work of great moral complexity (and therefore one that we should welcome every new interpretation of), to be banned not by virtue of itself, but because of where the theatre company performing it had also performed. But the laughter dies in our throats.

Shouldn’t protests be directed against governments and not artists? After all, aren’t the best artists the ones who enlighten and inform the politicians and us?

- Bill Reichblum

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3 Responses to “Artists v. Art?”

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