Last month, the following letter was sent to artist Mel Chin by New York–based curator Manon Slome. In it she responds to the “Artists’ Letter for Palestine” that was launched in Venice in early August, when the city was hosting both the Venice Biennale and the Creative Time Summit.
Chin was among the first signatories of the letter, and both Chin and Slome agreed to allow Hyperallergic to publish the letter here in the interest of continuing the dialogue about BDS and its impact on the art world.
Slome asked that her letter be accompanied by images from artist Miki Kratsman’s Targeted Killing series, which examines the term “focused foiling,” coined by the Israeli military.
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New York, August 16, 2015
I write to make an alternative voice heard on the subject of the boycott of Israeli institutions and government-funded organizations. It is one of the better letters I have read, or speeches I have heard, on the subject. I believe it is written with good intentions for justice and that the signatories are honorable in their beliefs in the moral imperatives of art (many of them are friends). In addition, I do not support the current Israeli governmental policies toward settlements nor the lack of progress toward a two-state solution. I believe that with such policies Israel is doing more to self annihilate than even its many enemies could hope for.
But as a curator who has spent a great deal of time in Israel and embedded myself in its incredibly rich cultural production, I can say with great conviction that the artists, producers and academics you seek to boycott are in agreement with your cause. Like artists with a strong sense of political and social morality the world over, they protest against the current state of affairs in their work, in their presence at checkpoints and through demonstrations. Yet these are the very people your call for boycott hurts the most. You can answer that you are just calling for a boycott of Israeli funded institutions but in practice, however, this means that invitations to show internationally are withheld or withdrawn for Israeli artists because the global institutions do not want to find themselves in the predicament of being attacked by other artists in a show or by group outcries such as yours. In my last trip to Israel in June, this was indeed the fate of several highly political artists with whom I met. Calls for boycott are thus harming the very practitioners and academics whose views would most closely align with yours. Should we not be discussing ways of supporting this activist voice?
In addition, I believe Israel is an easy target to single out. You are clear and correct that anti-Semitism should not be collated with anti-Zionism. But why are not such similar calls for boycott extended to China where human rights violations and lack of freedom of expression are rampant? I did not hear calls to boycott Chinese institutions even when one of their most prominent critics, Ai Weiwei, was tortured and imprisoned. I don’t hear any call for our most prestigious galleries not to open branches there — because the value of the art market is way too high for that. I don’t hear calls to boycott artistic ties with Iran — a major sponsor of world terrorism. Have artists refused to have their work bought by Saudi or the many tycoons within tyrannical Arab regimes that have become great buyers of world art. With Israel the world has little to lose in terms of economic fallout from the boycott, but I can attest that by limiting the ability for Israeli artists to exhibit worldwide, we are robbing ourselves of seeing some of the best art being produced anywhere in the world today – hands down.
You place the boycott in the tradition of the lineage of previous art world activist groups including the “Guerrilla Girls, the Art Workers Coalition, and so many others who have refused to cooperate in the face of institutional racism, sexism, and labor exploitation.” Well, when the Guerrilla Girls were demonstrating against the paucity of women artists being shown in museums, did any male artists embrace their cause and refuse to show in the Museum of Modern Art, for example? Are they doing anything now as women are still so under-represented? Did any white male artist refuse to show because an institution showed little or no work by artists of color? Indeed, our greater multiculturalism in museums and galleries has been a result of the proliferation of international biennials and market forces looking for more fodder than an artistic impulse to embrace or include diversity. This is not to decry your current conviction — just to emphasize that the list of organizations you place yourselves amongst, has not always been supported by the art community and I thus find questionable the singling out of Israel for a collective boycott.
You end with promising words: “The difficult decision is made in the hopes of building peace. This letter intended to start a conversation.” It is in the spirit of this conversation that I write my response.