...Wrecks Art Exhibit: Trickster Makes This World and the Role of Art in a Spiritual Life

2004 / 5091 words

Israeli envoy wrecks art exhibit:

Sweden’s foreign ministry wants an explanation from the Israeli ambassador after he vandalised an artwork depicting a Palestinian suicide bomber.

Zvi Mazel was expelled from Stockholm’s Museum of Antiquities on Friday after he threw a spotlight at the exhibit, called “Snow White”.

He denounced the work as “obscene” and a “monstrosity”, saying it insulted the victims’ families.

It depicted a woman bomber who killed herself and 19 Israelis in Haifa.

A photo of the smiling woman, 29-year-old trainee lawyer Hanadi Jaradat, appeared as the sail on a boat in a basin filled with red water.

She carried out her attack at the beachfront Maxim’s restaurant in October - one of the bloodiest in a series of suicide bombings by Palestinian militants.

The ambassador’s protest occurred at the opening on Friday of the “Making Differences” exhibition - part of a forthcoming international anti-genocide conference hosted by the Swedish Government and to which Israel has been invited.

“We will contact him on Monday to arrange a meeting,” said a Swedish foreign ministry spokeswoman, quoted by the AFP news agency.

“We want to give him a chance to explain himself. We feel that it is unacceptable for him to destroy art in this way.”

The ambassador was quoted as saying he found the exhibit “intolerable and an insult to the families of the victims”.

“As ambassador of Israel I could not remain indifferent to such an obscene misrepresentation of reality,” he said.

One of the two artists who created the work, Israeli-born Dror Feiler, said Ambassador Mazel had “tried to stop free speech and free artistic expression from being carried out in Sweden”.

“He said he was ashamed that I was a Jew,” Mr Feiler said, adding: “We see this as an offensive assault on our right to express our thoughts and feelings.”

2023 aside: I'm including the entire article here to retain context for this piece, but also commend the BBC for keeping a link alive for 19 years.

Here's another one from The Guardian, which I will not include here because it is the same content, but again will commend the Guardian for keeping alive for this long: Ambassador, you're really spoiling our party.

Here is the third major outlet that covered the event, the New York Times, now behind a paywal: Israel Diplomat Defends Attack On Bomber Art In Stockholm.

I have met many people in the last few years who seem to take offense at artists, artistic organizations, or art itself. I have always puzzled at these people, at art’s ability to draw out love from lovers but also hatred from haters. Somehow, because of the mysteriously spiritual nature of art, it cuts to the quick.

So what is the deal with art? Why does it elicit such strong opinion, particularly negative opinion? Why are so many people “offended” by so much art? Why are things that, when experienced in day to day life, are no big deal, but when highlighted in artistic expression become reason for violent reaction?

Recently reading Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art by Lewis Hyde has both informed this issue and helped me cope with the contingencies life itself has dealt me in the last year.

Cultures take their shape from distinctions such as “gift and theft”…“the clean and the dirty,” “the modest and the shameful,” “essence and accident.” These exactly are the joints of the cultural web and therefore the potential sites of trickster’s play.

Most people in society, particularly the “successful,” “established” and “powerful” and those who wish to become so (i.e. most people), have a vested interest in the maintenance of this binary. Without these structures, without these ideas of in and out, the power and privilege which rests on them will have no bearing. This is what good art does: it shows you that things are not really as they seem. There is another law at work in the universe that doesn’t fit into your political, economic, or psychological paradigms.

Hermes [the trickster]…is the mottled figure in the half-light, the amnigoge who simultaneously amazes and unmazes, whose wand both “bewitches the eyes of men to sleep and wakes the sleeping,” as Homer says in the Iliad. I sometimes wonder if all great creative minds do not participate in this double motion, humming a new and catchy theogony even as they demystify the gods their elders sang about.

…the cultural pattern collapses. It becomes senseless… Contradiction…reveals the material whose exclusion created the order in the first place, and its illusion of purity. Its dirt exposed, the code…no longer makes sense; it no longer “means” the way it used to. What seemed like noble truths…are discovered to be local and contingent fictions, if not outright lies.

When our psychological and economic well-being, our whole lives even, are built upon these “noble truths” that are “discovered to be lies” in the light of the artist’s work, our reaction must be to protect those “truths,” maintain the establishment within which we have toiled, throw as far away as possible the trickster chiseling at the foundations of the structure upon which our lives are formed.

But doesn’t most art, for most people, actually inspire?

Ideally the experience of such a story leaves the listener not so much freed from all constraints as freed from their tyranny and therefore more flexible and open to change. The teller of the tale offers…open-ended symbols into which any listener can pour her own drama of transgression and containment and explore its possible resolutions. The audience listening to any trickster tale undergoes a kind of inner artus-work, then, a loosening and breathing of the psychic boundaries…the listener’s psyche may have its functions related to one another (connected/not-connected, articulated without being divided) and thereby enlivened. It is not so much that trickster unifies the soul as that his polytropic commerce puts its powers in touch with one another across their necessary divides.

From my experience there are three general responses to the kind of authentic art that I am speaking of:

Authentic response from consumers who directly relate to the story of the artist. Commonly, the outcast, rejected, downtrodden.

The ones quite literally tricked. While nominally entrenched in the system (but more likely being taken advantage of by those at the top of the systemic hierarchies), they occasionally aspire to a “higher calling,” and this aspiration allows subtle stories to work their way into the psyche in the name of “entertainment.”

The offended. Sometimes those from the aforementioned nominally systemized group, sometimes those who take the advancement of their social, political, and economic success so seriously that they calculate their reactions to almost every situation. Art, it seems, is able to deftly maneuver around these schemes, and as such, immediately elicits offense responses. To others in the establishment, these responses seem justifiable. To those nominally systemized, odd. To true tricksters, hilarious.

…consider a line like the one with which Allen Ginsberg ended his early poem “America”: America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel. This voice does not oppose “America” and does not oppose “queer,” but settles directly in the joint. It is the utterance of a patriot/ex-patriot, an insider/outsider who doesn’t want to get caught at either pole. This balancing act was part of Ginsburg’s talent, appeal, and art. In politics he managed to be one of the few modern artists to unsettle Communists and capitalists alike. The FBI and the CIA kept large files on him, but police agents expelled him from Cuba and Czechoslovakia as well. In the United States, the Federal Buereau of Narcotics once framed an attack on Ginsberg by borrowing language from an attack printed in Czechoslovakia (both sides declared Ginsberg had “manners…which a normal man–sorry to say–spits upon”), a rare collaboration of cold-war enemies united in their fear of anomaly.

Wake up naked drinking coffee
Making plans to change the world
While the world is changing us
– Dave Matthews

So…ideas, thoughts, possibilities, theories about what art should be to consumers and creation to creatives.

African-American trickster stories, in one context, are about a particular oppressed people’s refusal to be marginalized; in another context, they are about the freedom of the awakened human mind, a freedom those in power have not necessarily acquired…This is a teaching story, then, meant to remind its audience that the symbolic world into which each of us is born and which, in one sense, has created us, is, in another sense, our own creation…human beings are created by their culture and yet that culture is also their creation. The way we live exists apart from us, but it does not exist unless we live it. We always inhabit a story that others have shaped, but we also always participate in the shaping. Great poets have come before us, but we can still be the poets of individual lives. The gods are above us, but they need us to protect them from hunger.

When we have forgotten the latter portion of these paradoxes, when the way we live closes in around us, feeling like a web woven by strangers, a deadening pattern and not an enlivening one, then if we are lucky, the Monkey of the Mind will begin his mischievous chatter to wake us from our torpor. For those who are particularly thickheaded he will…show them how taking the code too seriously leads them again and again into a kind of self-torture.

…When we have forgotten that we participate in the shaping of this world and become enslaved to shaping left us by the dead, then a cunning artus-worker may appear, sometimes erasing the old boundaries so fully that only no-way remains and creation must start as if from scratch, and sometimes just loosening up the old divisions, greasing the joints so they may shift in respect to one another, or opening them so commerce will spring up where “the rules” forbid it…The Monkey of the Mind knows that human beings had a hand in articulating the world they inhabit and so knows that human beings can remake it when they need to. To wake that Monkey is to wake the possibility of playing with the joints of creation, the possibility of art.

This passage leaves little to expand upon. My explanation of those offended by art, artists, or artistic organizations/ideals and its link to Hyde’s “torpor” and “thickheaded…self-torture” should be obvious.

Individuals who never sense the contradictions of their cultural inheritance run the risk of becoming little more than host bodies for stale gestures, metaphors, and received ideas, all the stereotypic likes and dislikes by which cultures perpetuate themselves. As Carl Andre once said, “Culture is something that is done to us. Art is something we do to culture.”

As an artist and as someone who associates largely with artists1, it is difficult, in the throes of what I have come to refer to as “the curse of thinking,” to imagine a life that resists the “Monkey of the Mind.” Far from “self-torture,” the mind resigned to the mechanisms of a mentally regulated world often seems to me to personify “ignorance is bliss.” The prayer of the thinking is, “God, can’t we just get a break? One year is all I ask. One year without thinking, to be like the rest…that’s all I ask.”

Pinocchio’s now a boy
Who wants to turn back into a toy
– Rufus Wainwright

As this prayer has yet to be answered, instead we explore others who have gone on before us, surviving in this spiritual world that disallows our attempts to ignore its contingencies and incongruencies.

Bruce Nauman said, “If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art. At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product.” Of his work, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign) (1967), he says, “The most difficult thing about the whole piece for me was the statement. It was a kind of test—like when you say something out loud to see if you believe it. Once written down, I could see that the statement…was on the one hand a totally silly idea and yet, on the other hand, I believed it. It’s true and not true at the same time. It depends on how you interpret it and how seriously you take yourself. For me it’s still a very strong thought.” The PBS commentary on the piece continues by saying, “Difficult to prove or disprove, it takes a leap of faith from the outset to believe that one person can help the world or that ‘mystical truths’ even exist. Rather than write the statement in a journal and debate what it means in private, Nauman makes his uncertainty a public affair…the young artist was questioning what it means to be an artist (a maker of non-utilitarian objects)…”

I experienced some of Nauman’s art firsthand at the Tate. In a space so occupied with this artistic trickery, Nauman’s seemed to be intent on ripping me out of any comfortable paradigms I held in my negotiations with the work held within…the extreme fetish section in a porn superstore. His focus on dissonance, the bizzare, juxtaposition and contradiction makes a walk through the room in which his work is installed a very uncomfortable proposition. No-one likes to be faced with the reality that is our humanity, particularly in a way that is making a way around our normal psychological defences.

Art is a means of acquiring an investigative attitude.
– Bruce Nauman

It seems that the struggle to consume or produce “art” in meaningful ways is not an either-or proposition, but one-in-the-same. And in that struggle are the market dynamics of production/consumption, the backward-economics of making “non-utilitarian objects.”

It seems that the struggle to journey along a path that “thinks” and “sees” is not just linked or similar to a “spiritual” path, or the Gospels, or wisdom literature, or historical struggles for justice, freedom, and equality, it is as one with them as lovers locked in the sweaty, smelly bonds of intercourse.

I am interested in dialogue with people who definitely think art can’t save the world. I have had interesting conversations with such people, and have found out people very close to me share this view. In particular, most of these conversations come from the objection that my organization would seek public funds for use by artists. Generally, peoples’ paradigms about how art should practically come about are along the lines of, “My money shall only be used for art that I find aesthetically pleasing.”

My main interest are the paradigms that inform such opinions, how they have come about, and what they do to art in general, to art forms. Some observations:

Even though the public funding of artistic work offends their sensibilities, they are consumers of art, even of art that has only come about via such financing.

The main concern of this group seems to be, “It’s ok if other people are interested in this work, but I should not be forced to support this work. If any of the funding for this work comes from the public, as part of the public I am contributing to art which I am not interested in or possibly even offended by.”

“Artists do not contribute to the furthering of society the way those in more traditionally economically producing fields do,” i.e. stock brokers, doctors, salespeople, lawyers, bureaucrats…the list goes on, and please ignore any sarcasm I might have inserted into that list.

“Art is a commodity just like any other. Supply and demand and the other principles of a free market dictate it just like they dictate any other goods or services. Create art that people want, they will consume it, and your practical rewards will follow.”

I need to address these not-in-order:

Art as commodity: My paradigm is that art and culture does not, should not, and can not operate under the same economic value system as, say, hard commodities, or even abstract commodities such as stocks or professional services. Culture has a spiritual element to it that at once connects deeply with the practical roots of our society (like economy) and releases it from those very bonds. From Trickster:

…in spite of their disruptive behavior, tricksters are regularly honored as the creators of culture. They are imagined not only to have stolen certain essential goods from heaven and given them to the race but to have gone on and helped shape this world so as to make it a hospitable place for human life.

…his seemingly asocial actions continue to keep our world lively and give it the flexibility to endure…the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on…social life can depend on treating antisocial characters as part of the sacred.

The fact is that there are many examples of art-as-commodity, and because every other thing in the world is sold to us, and there is art that is sold to us the same way—in fact, because of the way the economic system works, most art is sold to us the same way—it is difficult to see anything, including culture, in any sacred context, apart from the practical workings of our day-to-day. Media and advertising sell us art every day, and the industries that produce, market and distribute culture depend on, and do their best to induce, the consumer habits of our society.

There needs to be a clear distinction made at this point between the art itself and the method by which that art is presented to the masses. To say that the Backstreet Boys were created to make money, a fact, does not invalidate the quality of their music or performances, in fact that quality is technically excellent, and that excellence is part of the equation. The point is that the cultural equation started out with money on the right side of the equals sign.

The question is one of intention—what started out on the right side of that equation? If money, fame, “success” in the typical definitions of the word somehow resulted in the execution of the algebra, that is great. If that success was the point of the entire venture, however, then yes, art is nothing more than a commodity, and culture is thereby cheapened just like junk bonds, third-world assembled hard goods, and hurried health care.

Artists as non or under-contributors: Artists are, in general, seen as lazy, and there are some reasons for this. Being a full-time artist is, in fact, possibly one of the greatest positions in society. My old guitar teacher once told me, “It’s even better than white collar.” But the fact is a vast majority of working artists are not even close to being able to support themselves with their art. We see through the media the rich and famous and superimpose that perceived lifestyle on every artist we meet. We think artists mostly lay around all day waiting for inspiration to come. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Even those pampered, wealthy artists we see on the television work ungodly hours under horrible conditions and unreasonable demands. And they have it the easiest. Most of us face the objections of those who see our work as a “hobby” because it provides no revenue, and yet without the attention of a validated pursuit, it never will provide the income it needs to become approved of. Most artists are caught in this catch-22 and their art and their “success” suffers for it.

“Don’t use my hard-earned money to support art I can not or will not appreciate”: This leads us full circle, actually: If the alternative to art-as-commodity is public money is used to support culture, and that money is controlled by interests other than my own, than I will resort to art-as-commodity, where I have control over that market through my own pocketbook.

And this is where a third, more difficult paradigm emerges. It resides on the boundary, it is a gray area, it is a paradox. Art is a commodity, but it isn’t a commodity. Our approach to art should not be dictated by the same rules that dictate other pieces of our economy, but at the same time cultural responsibility should not be forced upon us the same way public road projects or, dare I say, national defense budgets are.

Ironically, so little of the money you contribute to the public good is used for art it is negligible. But that is a discussion for another day. The issue here is that our perceptions of how we arrive at our culture have been skewed by the very industries that have usurped responsibility for its creation.

But then, authentic culture has always had to fight against the tide of the masses, and is often never appreciated until later points in history. To hear people rate some historical artists as masters and then hear them discount contemporary artists on supply-and-demand basis often results in great comedy, as those masters never enjoyed the fruits of the demand for their art: it was never in demand during their lifetime.

We are all, no matter our paradigms regarding its creation and distribution, cultural consumers. People may point out that there are more noble causes in the world beyond art, for example the poor, widowed, and orphaned, and I would never argue that point. But what kind of world will they inherit if it is devoid of authentic, sacred culture?

And what are we, the rich, really doing for the outcast? Another last bit of irony is that it is often the artists, poor and outcast themselves, who not only point and motivate us towards action for justice, but participate in that action with more frequency and fervor than any.

I’ve spoken about the systems upon which we build our worlds, but where do these systems come from, and how do they become ingrained into the marrow of our essential paradigms? As an armchair/aspiring sociologist, these questions have always intrigued me. Perhaps trained early on to have astute self-perception in regards to my fundamental paradigms, perhaps just blessed/cursed with a Monkey of the Mind on my back, I take note when I see patterns or connections between different environmental data, and in this particular case I think the connections integrate into the current discussion with some curiosity.

One exhibit at the Tate was of Soviet-era propaganda posters. Propaganda always interesting me, and the particular style of design used on the posters appealing to my sensibilities, I took some time to explore the work.

The first piece to really catch my eye, did so for obvious reasons—it was about art! A poster, from 1948, depicts on the left a dejected musician, presumably in New York City or perhaps London, and on the right a musician performing in front of a great crowd, we can safely assume in Moscow. On the left it says:

In the countries of capitalism—this is the path of talent.

On the right it says:

In the country of socialism—all paths are open to talent.

While my first reactions was “That’s true!” I quickly realized that agreement or disagreement with its statements only indicated alignment with a core set of paradigms that stood strong regardless of a socialist or capitalist economic framework. Those paradigms revolved around ideas of success, desires for attention, comforts, social position, etc. You could have easily reversed the message of the poster and appealed to capitalists who believed their system to be more fair, open, or apt to bring out the best in everyone, because the premise of the message talks to human values more baseline than our preferred economic system.

I’m reminded of something I penned some time ago: “I’m not anti-capitalist. I’m anti-greed.” The greed/charity context transcends the socialist/capitalist. Governmental/economic systems all present their own common/unique advantages/disadvantages, and the way we choose to work towards sustainable existences within the context of an “artistic life” simply adapts to the structure we find ourselves in.

The second poster that caught my eye, from 1941, says:

Don’t Talk! Be alert. In days like these, the walls have ears. It is a small step from gossip to treason.

This one of course got my attention because of my recent experience of being condemned for telling the truth (the truth about myself, the truth about others). I thought for some time about why the truth was withheld, why blatant lies were held up as gospel, why I was made to feel inferior for telling the truth. I thought: was it a shame-based culture (also explained in Trickster)? Was it the professional risks that the truth created? Was it just plain and simple pride? Of course the real answer is a combination of all those, plus many factors I am not able to consider. But seeing this poster enlightened me as to another possible factor, a cultural one.

Is it possible to come out of one culture, into another (be a third culture kid, essentially), but adopt the worst parts of both cultures and not the best parts? Of course it is. Just as it is possible for two different groups to espouse the same core beliefs from seemingly disparate political viewpoints. There are more basic paradigms that guide our lives than just ideas about politics, economics or the value of art, or having religious doctrines vs. spiritual beliefs.

This culture of secrecy in Eastern Europe, that I experienced first hand, is so magnificently demonstrated in this poster, which was to be taken seriously at the time. Now it comically exposes the stupidities in both a culture and a political doctrine. I wonder if in a few decades time, the cultures of nations that provide a sustainable alternative to rampant consumerism will amuse themselves with advertisement posters on the walls of their museums, relics of a by-gone era when foolishness took itself so very seriously. “Pepsi–the choice of a new generation!”

Of course, the artists already make art out of those advertisements, the most brilliant ones make that art while the ad is still installed in public under its original purpose.


We are the new generation, and I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout no fuckin’ new market sensation.

Com’on, by yours truly, unpublished

To define is to kill. To suggest is to create.

– Stéphane Mallarmé

I’m fortunate - and unfortunate - enough to be surrounded by people that assume that an open mind is best. But I’m pretty sure none of us really give it much thought. So, I found this description:

So what is good about having an open mind? First, having an open mind does not mean that one never comes to any convictions in life. It is perfectly possible to have an open mind and live a very principled life, without holding one’s beliefs dogmatically. Having an open mind means being prepared to question even your most central beliefs if there is occasion to do so. It means being open, when the time comes, to having your mind changed by an argument better than one’s own. It means being able to think both sides of an issue, both the side you think is true and the side you think is false. It also means being able to suspend your beliefs, to play devil’s advocate, and to detach yourself somewhat from your own beliefs, actions and feelings. Only living with an open mind gives us a chance to grow and change, for change is inevitable, while growth, unfortunately, is not. – Jeff Mason

This mostly sounds good to me, but I think that the type of distance or detachment described is a bit off. It seems to me that in order to be able to change in the broadest sense - a central aspect of having an open mind - one must become quite intimate and involved. Raw, vulnerable and uncertain, if you will. And I don’t know many people who like to spend much time in that space. A wise friend once told me that we should never entirely rule out the possibility—but in order for the possibility to exist, we have to be open to it and engage it.

If you could engage any possibility right now, what would it be?

– Anne Galloway

  1. At this point it may be helpful to say what my definition of an “artist” is, and I think it is one that falls in line with Hyde and others (like Anderson and Ray in the Cultural Creatives). Creative is actually my preferred word, but I have learned that term often evokes as much confusion as the term artist. An artist is sometimes considered only those who work in paints and the visual arts, and certainly those fall into my categorization. Others include musicians, writers, et. al. into their definition of artists. I include anyone who creates something new—which includes everyone from entrepeneurs, scientists, and academics to regular folk who simply have a passion for allowing that “Monkey of the Mind” to do its work on their psyche and paradigms. It could simply be someone who is an astute observer of culture, society, or science, and perhaps only later in life articulates his inner-artus work verbally to his progeny; it could simply be the patriarch telling stories to his grandchildren, the gardener sharing his brilliant homemade wine late at night with his visiting son. There are also those who believe the term “artist” can only be applied to those who find their economic sustenance in the sale of their “artistic” products. This particular paradigm has nothing to do with my definition of artistry, and in fact many of those with great financial success in “art” are not performing artistry at all, but are just reproducing for sale the “stale gestures, metaphors, and received ideas, all the stereotypic likes and dislikes by which cultures perpetuate themselves.” (Hyde)