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On Art as Resistance

Liya Rechtman
June 14, 2017


by Liya Rechtman

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to protest when no one is listening? Or when our act of protest is portrayed as running counter to the “will of the people”?

As I sit in Jerusalem watching the age of Trump unfold, it can feel like the walls are closing in. Here in Israel, we are reminded abundantly of how a previously potent left has seen its power crumble. Leftists are despised here because they are seen as diametrically opposed to the best interests of the country, as harbingers of existential crisis and decay.

In the United States, President Donald Trump leads us further down a slippery slope with each illiberal, repressive, chaotic move of his regime. It’s still unclear what we’re at the beginning of in these first months of his presidency; we don’t yet know how impactful traditional modes of protest will be in our U.S. context. At moments like this, and under authoritarian systems with populist leadership, art represents a vital means of resistance.

I am a poet and an op-ed writer, engaging in two genres of writing that are both deeply anchored in the confessional form. As a confessional poet and writer, my mandate is to describe what I see, to invite strangers to step into my shoes. The confessional form, and art more broadly, defies censorship because it showcases the lived, real experience of the artist. Art can speak in a post-truth world because art does not claim, “I am fact,” but rather “this is what I saw; this is what I felt.” You cannot, therefore, deny the art of an immigrant body, an incarcerated body, or an occupied body.

I BELIEVE that the first step to resistance lies in art. When our governments are oppressive and we begin to lose our capacity to speak freely, art allows us to break the shackles of self-censorship. In the age of U.S. President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, art can help us move to a new politics.

Under Netanyahu and Trump, we see on display authoritarianism’s tri-part tactics: oppression, government censorship, and ultimately self-censorship. The rightwing parties have led the charge in preventing boycott-divestment-sanctions supporters from entering Israel and are targeting leftwing NGOs. This is the first level: oppression. Israeli government censorship of the left can be observed in two forms. There is soft censorship, reflected in the shifting tide of opinion as to what is acceptable to say and where criticism of the state is allowed. It is political death, for instance, to criticize the lenient sentencing of Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier who shot a disarmed Palestinian in Hebron. So most leftwing politicians just won’t go there.

But there are also examples of more direct censorship. Culture Minister Miri Regev has begun to wage a war against leftwing political expression through state funding for art. In 2016, Regev’s Ministry of Culture issued a new application for performing artists to receive state funding. The form asked if an artist or troupe had performed in two periphery areas, the Negev or the Galilee, and in the Jewish settlements in “Judea and Samaria” – i.e., in the occupied territories. If an artist has performed in none of those areas, they are subject to a fine that cuts their funding by 33 percent. If they have performed in the occupied territories, they receive 10 percent bonus funding.

The High Court has issued a ruling that this constitutes an infringement on freedom of expression. In other words, it is a financial mechanism for implementing government censorship. The Ministry of Culture’s new form, drafted in response to the ruling, is worse than before, according to Israeli human rights groups. Ministry representatives have stated that responses to the funding form will be used only as preliminary information, and will not lead to clearly articulated cuts or bonuses. The implications of the new form for future allocations remain to be seen.

The final component of authoritarianism is self-censorship, that is, the refusal or inability to even express views that could be censored. An authoritarian government wins when the citizens don’t need to be censored because they censor themselves and act at all times as if they were being watched. As Regev continues to incentivize art that is palatable to settlers, there will be less access to funding for artists critical of the settlement project. As a result, fewer Israeli artists will be willing to take risks by dealing with issues of occupation in their work. In other words, not only is certain artistic work being denied support from the state (state censorship); eventually it won’t even be proposed or conceived of to begin with (self-censorship). Self-censorship, then, is a moratorium on private thought and personal expression.

It’s no accident that Miri Regev is bent on regulating art. Art does what argument never can. Through artistic expression, the artist brings the viewer closer to their own perception of the world. Art produces personal narrative that can express unspeakable experiences. What we experience when we look at Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” a wailing, open mouth with the world twisting around it in agony, gives us more visceral experience than simply being told, “he was screaming.”

The same can be said for spoken word and written art. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts says more than just, “it is difficult to undergo transitions.” We read of Nelson’s domestic disputes and professional struggles as deeply connected to the works of critical theory and her questions about human experience. We don’t just read when we read art. Instead, we feel with the author. Through art, we are able partially to overcome the strict limits on our own reality in order to empathize with the lived reality of the painting, performance, or text.

ARTISTIC EXPRESSION has the power to bring about a new politics that is able to stand up to and rebuke authoritarianism.

In East Jerusalem, the impact of Israeli government censorship is evident. It is illegal to own a Palestinian flag there or publicly display the word “Palestine.” When Israel occupied East Jerusalem, The Palestinian Educational Bookshop was forced to change its name, to remove “Palestinian” and become simply “The Educational Bookshop.”

When censorship transitions into self-censorship, oppressed people do not even engage in expressing their personal identity or their national aspirations. But self-censorship can be defeated by the use of art, and the Separation Barrier running through the West Bank exemplifies how: The drawings and writings on the Barrier’s wall sections (pictured at right) create space for personal expression, for saying “we are here and we are real people.” The creation of this art rebukes authoritarianism on all three levels. First, an individual expressing themself rids themself of self-censorship. Second, using the word “Palestine” and images of Palestinian flags violates the dictates of direct state censorship. Third, art on the separation barrier is a reclamation of occupied space. “You may own this wall,” it says, “but we will master it and imprint it with our personal and political expression.” Palestinian art on the wall becomes both a mechanism of resistance and a resistant object itself. The act of creating art rids Palestinian individuals of self-censorship and simultaneously fights the wall’s demarcation of Israeli control.

The moment the individual stops self-censoring and starts expressing personal lived reality, a society can begin to fight the deepest level of government oppression. When we stop self-censorship, we can stop government censorship as well. From there, we can build momentum and transmit our message of resistance to others. When we institutionalize and reinstate the right to be uncensored, democracy is born.

I have no American illusion of impending normalcy. I do not aim for a return to old work, existing institutions or ideas. This political moment is one of departure from what until now has been politically normal. What if we imagined art as the basis of politics, the cornerstone of democracy? The confessional form is, after all, intended to be liberatory, to say: This is me, in-my-body, grotesque and alive, political and partisan, listen, speak.

This is a call to action for American artists: We have our work cut out for us.

Liya Rechtman has just finished a year in Jerusalem as a Dorot Fellow, working as a researcher on U.S.-Israel relations. She is a candidate for a Master’s of Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School as a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar.