Art and Freedom in Palestine



by Justin E. H. Smith

Over the past few years I have become more involved in what is called the ‘art world’: promoting and participating in the creation of objects that are, when completed, deemed to belong to that special, narrow class of physical entities at least some people agree to call ‘artworks’. I have at the same time been growing ever more convinced that this world and the objects that it produces are a scam, a joke, a frivolity. At least this is what they are if we take them in the ordinary terms in which we are instructed to take them, as being of the same species or at least genus as, say, the Sistine Chapel or Paradise Lost. But far from feeling pressured by this contradiction, between my opinion of current art and my implication in its production, in fact I am perfectly at ease with it. The reason for this becomes clear with a small amount of effort to translate the terms in which artists are in the habit of presenting what they do into terms that are more continuous with what I have myself been trying to do.

Like many people who came up through a training in academic philosophy and who fell, faute de mieux, into an academic career, I have been searching in various ways for opportunities for ‘outreach’– that is, using what I know about philosophy, and about how to teach it, for the benefit of people outside of the traditional venues in which philosophy is taught.

Simultaneously, I have been growing interested, at a practical and theoretical level, in the way in which philosophy as an organized undertaking remains almost exclusively an activity of the geopolitical and economic centers of the world. In this respect, it is very different, for reasons that ought to inspire reflection, from art and literature, and also to some extent from natural science, which thrive in the geopolitical peripheries. This difference can perhaps best be illustrated by a consideration of the completely provincial (or at least regional) scope of interest of the philosophers who come together in hotel conference rooms for the annual conference of the American Philosophical Association. I have trouble thinking of myself as part of the community that organization represents, and not only because I live and work in Europe, but also because its members seem fundamentally incapable of understanding what it is to be a philosopher as something more than being able to rattle off the same list of American (and sometimes British, Canadian, and Australian) names, departments, and annual events, or being able to formulate an opinion on Brian Leiter. How different American philosophers are, in this regard, from writers or artists, or, in a somewhat different way, natural scientists, who are all ready and eager to recognize an Albanian or Iranian, say, as one of their own, so long as that person is a self-identified practitioner of the same ancient craft! Why is there no philosophical equivalent of PEN, that would rally behind a persecuted Iranian philosopher? Why are the annual APA meetings treated as being of such tremendous cosmic significance, while the various modest attempts at global philosophical encounter, such as the World Philosophical Congress, are scoffed at by American philosophers as if they were John Bolton barking at the United Nations? In the end, I think, it’s because the people who attend the World Philosophical Congress wear cheap suits and have big moustaches and seem, by American parochial standards, to be generally ‘out of it’. But again, in the case of, say, literature or art, there is an underlying shared something that the American and the Albanian practitioners of the ancient craft love, and that they recognize as shared. This shared something takes them beyond the differences of costume and idiom. Is there a comparable something that American philosophers love? I have my doubts.

In short, there are not very many opportunities for philosophical outreach when one travels to the geopolitical peripheries: the discipline of philosophy is just not global enough in its self-conception to make this sort of work feasible. How different the situation is in the art world! And it is not just that art is global in scope and is being produced everywhere. It is also, I have come to think, precisely in the apparent frivolity and fraudulence of contemporary artistic creation that people, particularly young people, throughout the world are attempting to engage with philosophical problems of freedom, identity, the relationship between self and other, between self and world, and so on. As ‘art’, the work is generally ‘bad’. But this judgment is misplaced. We should not be looking at the work. We should be looking at the activity, and the ambitions and energies out of which the work sprays like the wake of a fast-moving vessel.

We need to learn to think about the discipline of philosophy in geopolitical context, but we also need to think about the way in which the ersatz philosophy involved in artistic creation responds to the pressures of ‘real-world’ politics, the pressures that come down through state coercion and other forms of violence and that loom as an ineradicable image of all that is not-art. This situation became particularly clear to me during a recent visit to the Art Academy of Palestine in Ramallah. The trip was semi-secret at the time, and even now the purpose of the trip will have to wait for another occasion to be told. Suffice it to say that the nature of the project was entirely apolitical. It speaks volumes about the current situation that simply having human and creative contact with Palestinians at all, simply being hosted by Palestinians, comes across to many as some sort of radical stance. It certainly didn’t feel radical. Nor, for that matter, do I think there’s any radicalism in acknowledging the grotesque, inhuman, and degrading character of the Israeli occupation.

I met delightful people –people with whom you too would want to be friends, eminently cultured people if that helps to win you over–, whose 14-year-old sons are currently on trial, and threatened with years of prison, effectively for the crime of having strayed outdoors during the demonstrations in the West Bank against the siege of Gaza some months ago.

Some of my ‘Western’ collaborators  preferred to arrive on buses via Jordan. I was far more, well, flexible: I flew to Tel Aviv, and I continue to maintain connections both personal and professional within Israel. My reasoning about this has been complicated, but, I hope, not tortured or self-deceiving. My own grandparents moved westward across the US to California in the late 1930s, thus about a decade after the last battles in Nevada and Utah of the so-called ‘Indian Wars’ that had begun some centuries earlier in Virginia, and that had resulted in the near-total genocide of the continent. Unlike many of my Israeli friends, my own ancestors were not themselves fleeing genocide in Europe, but, at worst, poverty. So I’m not prepared, as a European-American, to isolate my Israeli friends.

To invoke the parallel experience of the appropriation of the American frontier, moreover, is not to reach back into some dark prehistory, where what’s done is done: in fact the idea that all that is by now ‘just history’ is precisely what enables us Americans to go about our lives without, for the most part, any serious moral reckoning. But if I can’t isolate Israel as exceptional in its displacement of Palestinians, coming to Palestine, for me, does instill a sharp sense of a need for moral reckoning all around, and –more usefully– a sense of duty to publicly oppose the oppression and disenfranchisement of the Palestinians by Israel. One thing that is very striking, and that one can only see by traveling on both sides of the pre-1967 border, is the way in which Israel, with vastly superior resources, is effectively building a new political reality directly into the infrastructure of the whole region: there is now a multi-lane highway that goes straight to the Ariel settlement in the West Bank, for example. How could Ariel fail to be part of Israel proper, if it is connected by a multi-lane highway to Tel Aviv? These construction projects go on unslowed no matter what the Israeli politicians are saying to the worried but easily distracted members of the international community. The construction of tram lines in Jerusalem functions in much the same way. Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem do not have to include the word ‘Israel’ in their official mailing addresses, but they do have to live with IDF forces patrolling the streets outside. And the eventual aim is clear enough to the outside visitor: it is to push out or minimize these institutions, to make them ‘just history’ in a way that occludes from view the urgency of moral reckoning, just like the malls and interstates of California, which seemed so rock-solid and legitimate in my childhood, occluded from view the genocide that had made them possible.

While I am ambivalent about the prospect of a boycott of Israel –there are simply too many Israelis with genuinely progressive political sensibilities to make their isolation sensible– what I am not ambivalent about is the crucial importance of supporting Palestinian institutions, particularly those that help to advance artists and writers and others who can testify, in ways that outsiders cannot easily shut out, to the share these people have in universal human experience. It is important to not let anyone insinuate, as often happens, that any Palestinian institution must be backed up, ultimately, by dark illiberal forces, and that to get involved with them is to invite taint. Israel wins the propaganda war for the hearts and minds of Americans (at least), in large part by conveying an image of itself as made up of liberal, free individuals, who have gay-pride parades and night clubs, and philosophy departments at their universities, in contrast with the undifferentiated masses of rock-throwers and others in such a degraded state that the liberal spirit, whose presence is an outward sign of kindredness for us Westerners, is not able to flourish. But this is a lie. My Palestinian friends like philosophy and all that good stuff too, but it doesn’t help them much to keep their kids out of Israeli jails.

It is telling –the more telling the more I think about it– that while exchange in my capacity as a philosopher is easy to arrange with Israeli institutions, by far the easier way to make contact with Palestinian institutions is as an ambassador of art: philosophy for the country that built itself on the model of European culture and values, and that gets colored as ‘center’ on any world-systems-theory map of the centers and peripheries; art, by contrast, for the colonized people who were pushed to the periphery in the creation of this new European state.

So art it has to be, if one is serious about outreach. One crosses that horrible wall, with the barbed wire and the signs that tell you you are going into ‘Area A’ of the Palestinian Authority, that it is illegal and dangerous for Israeli citizens to do so. And one travels to Ramallah in a taxi with Hebrew words on its doors, one winces and waits for the stones to hit. But they do not, and so one arrives, and goes into the academy, and encounters there a species of young people immediately recognizable from so many other spots in the world. They are refined, gracile, welcoming; a copy of Finnegan’s Wake sits on a desk. They wear those silly Andean knit hats with the flaps that hang down over the ears, and have double-pierced noses. They speak in a stream-of-consciousness way about their artistic ambitions and visions. This way of being, the way of being of the artist, is a sort of cultivation of freedom, possible even under severely limiting circumstances of war, and terror, of checkpoints and visa restrictions. It is a miracle that such freedom is possible, but when you meet young artists in Ramallah, you know with certainty that it is. You also see, in a way that is less evident among the trust-funded MFA students of Cooper Union, that right here may well be that supremely philosophical purpose of art anticipated by Friedrich Schiller: the realization of freedom in artistic creation.

This purpose is not as frivolous as some of the external signs of its presence, and indeed sometimes makes itself known in the realm of non-art, in the realm of visa processing and border controls. At the National Gallery of Kosovo in October I saw an exhibition by a young Kosovar artist that ‘explored’ the strange phenomenon of applying for a special ‘artist status’ visa in order to travel to Western Europe. The work was not terribly interesting, but it no doubt served the intended purpose: to help the artist get an artist visa. People become artists not so much by creating works of art, but by wearing Andean earflap hats and otherwise conducting themselves as artists. And this opens up worlds to them, and frees them, to some extent, from the shitty world created and maintained by the forces of non-art. There is the further question of where this leaves all those people who are too poor or exploited or otherwise perhipheralized to procure for themselves an artist’s hat and to master the artist’s habitus. But still, it’s a beautiful thing: a tiny rupture in an otherwise dreary and necessitarian system. This is as much as Schiller dared hope for.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website.