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A word for unity and solidarity
On tackling the hard questions, showing solidarity and staying united by our editor Maria Kruglyak
You may have noticed some radio silence on our part in the past month – that’s because it feels silly to be speaking about digitalisation and the art world as we see the world plummeting further into polarisation and crisis. However, we do believe that we cannot stay silent seeing world events unfold the way they have in the past month with wide-ranging geopolitical implications. Several members of our editorial team (myself included) are vocal on- and offline in support of a free Palestine and an end to the ongoing genocide in Gaza. We know, however, that not everyone in the culturala community shares our views even though the sadness and grief over lost lives are hopefully shared by all.
Since culturala is all about interconnectivity and therefore unity, what we wanted to speak about instead is the polarisation this has brought in the art world and between states and peoples. We are also keen to share some resources that contextualise what is currently going on – many of you may already know, many may not and the extent of current propaganda warrants going into some of this. What could and to some level should be as simple as the need to stop the slaughter becomes obscured with equally necessary conversations about the reason Hamas did a surprise attack on October 7th that took 200 civilian hostages and 1,100 civilian lives as well as 300 Israeli conscripted and/or professional soldiers; the reason Hamas, as well as Gaza- and West Bank-based Palestinian liberation movements, have been in clashes with the Israeli army; and how we got to a situation where the Gaza Strip is getting bombed with people dying in the thousands (the current death toll has gone over 9,000) in a clear violation of international law and human rights – and while the whole world is watching.
Geopolitically, there are also questions about whose interests this actually serves (including the discovery of natural resources on Palestinian territories that are more accessible to the US & co if exploited by Israel), who funded the initial attack (Iran, Russia, …), why it is happening now (Saudi Arabia and the changing oil and gas prices, etc.), and how the Israeli state was created historically (partly in response to the West’s guilt for allowing the Holocaust to happen and perhaps primarily as a way for the UK to decolonise Palestine post-WWII while ensuring continuous instability in the Middle East). Nor is the situation helped by rising antisemitism and Islamophobia – both a hindrance to any kind of solution in Palestine and Israel and to a better world more generally.
The ongoing humanitarian crisis is enormous and international responses (including mass demonstrations, open letters, UN and states calling for a ceasefire, and social media outrage) are necessary for there to be any possibility of saving peoples’ lives – and for any kind of solution. Unfortunately, these public debates have revealed deep divisions between people; yet another added to the quickly expanding polarisation of the post-2008 era. And while it is more than understandable why someone may want to distance themself from those whose opinions or positions are a threat to their existence, in the long-term polarisation always plays into the hands of those who are in power and those who want to abuse power. Abuse of power is exactly what we have been seeing with the increased Israeli settlement of and apartheid in the West Bank, the lack of built bomb shelters in Gaza since Hamas took control and the current mass slaughter committed by the Israeli army.
In the art world, most shocking was Artforum – one of the biggest if not the biggest international art journals – firing the journal’s editor since 2017, David Velasco, for publishing an open letter calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza that was signed by thousands of artists. Velasco, who had signed the letter, was supposedly meant to have consulted senior members of the editorial team and published the letter as a news item “with the relevant context” rather than the way it was. This came amidst the publication of other open letters (including one in the London Review of Books) and a call to #BoycottArtforum while prominent galleries and collectors lobbied artists to take their signatures off. Some artists actually did.
Why is this important in the art world? Shouldn’t it be just a political issue? Well, art tends to get political. Artists tend to have a platform. Artists tend to have opinions – and those opinions tend to not be those of the establishment or the state. The same goes for writers, curators, and thinkers – perhaps writers and thinkers especially since we make our living with our opinions. So when “the art world” punishes those opinions and people lose their jobs over having an opinion, it becomes a serious problem as it shuts down the diverse voices we need to hear the most. After all, art is a pathway for healing – and when all of this is over, we’re going to need a lot of it. We already do.
In a time when most of what we see around us is anger, despair and fear, let us remember that there are other things we can do in the long term, other movements that can be built slowly, and other ways of being that we can find together. For this, we need what Krista Tippett, journalist and founder of the On Being podcast, calls “bridge people” – those who build unexpected healing bonds that can create other realities. She speaks to a lot of them in her conversations, a relevant one for now being “No More Taking Sides” with Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad from 2012. Tippett introduces the conversation as follows:
“The friendship between Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad is the kind of Israeli-Palestinian story that always becomes invisible when new episodes of violence erupt. But they embody the human capacity to transmute despair into hope. Robi’s beloved son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper. Ali’s beloved brother Yusef was killed by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint. These terrible losses led them to each other, and to a universe of others on both sides of that border. It’s a network called the Parents Circle — Bereaved Families Forum. This citizen-led movement breaks the narrative of Israeli-Palestinian violence.”
Tippett has two more critical conversations on the topic called “Two Narratives, Reflections on the Israeli-Palestinian Present” which you can read or listen to in part one and part two. Now may not be a good time to “not take sides”, in which case the Jewish Voices for Peace’s statement “The Root of Violence is Oppression” and JVP’s rabbinical council response may bring more clarity.
I’d also like to give two reading recommendations of anticolonial classics: Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961, transl. 1963) and Edward Said’s The Question of Palestine (1979). Fanon was an Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist and socio-therapist working in a hospital in Algeria at the time that the country was a French colony. Among his patients were French settlers who found themselves losing their humanity at home – they had nightmares, couldn’t control their anger, resorted to violence in their homes and so on – as a result of subjugating people that they didn’t see as people in their work as torturers, prison guards and so on. When the Algerian War of Independence began in 1954 (see more in the great + now very relevant Italian-Algerian film The Battle of Algiers (1966)), Fanon got involved in the decolonial struggle, after which he wrote the chapter “On Violence” (aka “Concerning Violence”) in The Wretched of the Earth that explains where violence comes from in anticolonial struggles and the inherent everyday violence of occupation.
Said is known as the scholar who wrote Orientalism (1978) – the go-to theory of “Otherness” which explains how states or particular (often economic) interests create a language that leads to the purposeful erasure of someone’s humanity by rendering them “Other”. This understanding is relevant in all of these discourses as dehumanisation is happening towards all inhabitants of the Palestinian and Israeli territories albeit driven by groups located elsewhere. In The Question of Palestine, Said speaks as a Palestinian who is horrified by the violence of both the colonisation and the suicide bombings, building his argument on that of Hannah Arendt, an anti-Zionist Jewish scholar. Both are, importantly, super influential in art and cultural theory. Here’s what Said quotes from Arendt:
“After the [Second World] war it turned out that the Jewish question, which was considered the only insoluble one, was indeed solved-namely, by means of a colonized and then conquered territory – but this solved neither the problem of minorities nor the stateless. On the contrary, like virtually all other events of our century, the solution of the Jewish question merely produced a new category of refugees, the Arabs, thereby increasing the number of the stateless by another 700,000 to 800,000 people.“
– Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, ed. 1973 [originally published 1951]), p. 290.
If you’d like to read a criticism of seeing this through a decolonial lens to balance these giants of knowledge, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “The Decolonization Narrative Is Dangerous and False” in The Atlantic (27 October 2023) is an excellent read. Whatever your stance is in public and in private, this piece will give you some context for the current public discourse.
With love, solidarity, and an imploration to stay unified even in the face of a catastrophe,
Maria (editor of culturala)