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Jewish World Review
Jan. 27, 2004
/ 4 Shevat, 5764
When the battle over artistic freedom goes over the edge
Everyone talks about insufferably pretentious art, but no one does
anything about it. Until now.
Perhaps you read the story: Zvi Mazel, the Israeli ambassador to
Sweden, shows up at an art gallery and comes across an installation
called "Snow White and the Madness of Truth." Picture a rectangular
pool of blood-red water and a tiny boat bearing the picture of Hanadi
Jaradat, a woman who murdered 21 people in Haifa last October.
| Swedish artists Gunilla Skoeld Feiler, left, and Israeli born Dror Feiler
stand behind their restored art installation, 'Snow White and the
Madness of Truth', at the courtyard of the Museum of National
Antiquities in Stockholm|
The artist wanted a reaction? He got one. News reports made it sound
as if the ambassador rampaged through a gallery, knocking over waiters
and patrons, yelling for vengeance. Not really. Swedish TV covered the
event; the evening news showed the ambassador unplugged the lights
around the display without saying a word. Then he took one of the
spotlights and threw it into the red-colored water. Outraged, yes. But
"A pool of blood, of my brothers," the ambassador snapped, "and you
tell me to do nothing?" Next question.
As the ambassador left the hall, one of his associates asked, plaintively:
"Have you read it?" He meant the poem that accompanied the exhibit.
Like much modern art, "Snow White" needed a text to explain itself, or it
would just look like someone threw food dye in the wading pool. The
poem laid out the bomber's motivation: She killed "for the June 12
deaths of her brother, and her cousin," who were "killed in an encounter
with the Israeli security forces."
That's a kind way of saying her brother was at the house of her cousin
Salah Jaradat, who was head of the Islamic Jihad in Jenin. Until the IDF
showed up, anyway.
The artist, Dror Feiler, is an Israeli-born Jew now living in Sweden. He
insists he's against suicide bombing, which is nice to know. You can see
how someone might mistake a pool of blood with a picture of a smiling
terrorist as something less than total condemnation of the intifada.
Pictures of the victims? No. Pictures of the devastation? Of course not.
Too literal. What counts is the existential mystery, the acte gratuit, the
impenetrable constructs of oppression and religion that we can roll
around in our mouths all day because we don't have to worry that
someone will come into our coffeehouse and blow herself up. Yet.
How did the artist feel? Right after the ambassador's spontaneous
criticism, Feiler addressed the gallery patrons. "He sabotaged our art,"
Feiler said, "and he showed how the democratic thoughts of Israel are."
Mr. Feiler no doubt prefers the democratic thoughts of Arafat, Hamas
and the rest.
He was clutching a saxophone as he made his remarks, and for the
sake of the Swedes one can only hope he didn't use it. Here's what
Feiler wrote about his music: "As a new dimension and complement to
the orderly dialectics of classical Marxism it uses the theory of
complexity: a method of complications and implications as an antithesis
to the dialectic method of restricted sequence of cause and effect."
Translation: You can't dance to it, and it makes dogs leave the room. It
fits with "Snow White." Feiler is one of those modern artists who cannot
paint a simple picture, but spend all day in cafes smoking furiously and
cooking up grand proposals for installations that recontextualize the
gender messages inherent in postwar kitchen appliances.
Good art makes some people mad, of course. Can't please everyone.
But just because some outraged traditionalists protested "The Rite of
Spring" doesn't mean that you're Stravinsky if someone calls your work
offensive dreck. And "Snow White" was offensive dreck. It's pretentious
nonsense from a culture that's played out and lost, a culture that treats
unhinged killers as tragic heroines.
Feiler says he was struck by the paleness of Hanadi's face, and how it
contrasted with the color of blood. Red contrasts with white? Who knew?
What clever artists we have these days. Perhaps next time Feiler can
contrast, say, evil and innocence, and tell us where he stands on the
You can imagine him scoffing at that request: "What, do I have to draw
you a picture?"
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JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, James Lileks