I have seen antisemitism growing in the politicised art world for years

One artist colleague of many years shared an infographic that said it was impossible to be antisemitic because Jews weren’t ‘Semites’

May 01, 2024 10:07

Ten years ago, I arrived to study Art at the University of Edinburgh. Growing up Jewish in Madrid, most of my peers had been of a Catholic background. This had led me to instinctively think of myself on the basis of everything I was not.

I was a product of my secular, liberal and completely Ashkenazi upbringing. But in the absence of a wider context in which to express this in a group – the minuscule community in Spain was mainly Sephardi and orthodox – I didn’t fully understand what this was. All I knew was that the visual arts would be an environment in which I would flourish, as has been the case for many Jews historically, from Pissarro to Chagall.

So it was, for a time. Fast forward to me at 21, at university in Edinburgh, an active participant of the art school’s political and cultural life. In my innocence, I believed that the secure society I had created for myself was what adulthood in Britain would look like.

Fast forward again to my life as a graduate in post-October 7th London, however, and that could not be further from the truth. The deeply anti-Jewish dialectic taking hold of public discourse in the arts feels dangerous and like a repetition of the past.

Just days after the atrocities, artists I knew began sharing troublingly anti-Jewish propaganda on their social media. One artist colleague of many years shared an infographic which explained why it was impossible to be antisemitic because Jews weren’t “semites”, in the wake of the attack.

Globally, artists are starting to hide their Jewishness for the first time in generations. One Israeli artist living in London told me recently that he wasn’t able to stand it any longer, adding that he felt safer in Israel. There are many such examples.

Looking back, my time as an art student had introduced me first-hand to the roots of this British brand of progressive antisemitism – although that was in the years before October 7, and I was too naïve to realise it at the time.

With a family history stooped in tragedy, from ethnic cleansing in central Europe, pogroms and the Shoah, to socialist populism in Latin America, I am typically Jewish, and so too is my art. I make images, whether with paint, film or the written word, which deal with absence and with the projection of desire. In my work, I attempt to bridge the gap between the truth and pure fiction.

Due to my background, I have developed a historically-informed perspective alongside a healthy dose of political scepticism, something which I had assumed made me immune to societal disappointment. At university, I downplayed the fact that we were being taught nothing, not even practical skills, convinced that, through social organising, we could make up for the failings of our institution.

I was grateful to be doing a double degree however – fine art and art history – as I loved the academic side of study. But I didn’t think to draw parallels between the failures of the art school and the fact that, when it came to postmodernist courses, some things didn’t make sense.

Was there anything left to do after presenting your unmade bed as artwork? Were we being taught that somewhere around 2004, culture had died? It was worse for students who did not also study history of art. Their practices were feebly supplemented with compulsory but scarcely taught elective on “context”.

I would like to believe that the intention behind these courses was good. But the truth is that they were not about art but ideology. They were expressions of an ultra-summarised, overly-simplified politicised overview of recent history, which students could optionally supplement by reading Foucault or gender studies scholar Judith Butler – both bound to cause confusion at the very least, if you aren’t taught the basics first.

This is not unique to art education. It’s symptomatic of a failing university system in the UK. But this, plus the hyper-commercialisation of the art market, which has transformed contemporary art into a section of an investment portfolio rather than a thing of cultural value, has left the art world and its inhabitants vulnerable to radicalising views.

Given this background, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the majority of artists I know signed open letters defending Claudine Gay – the Harvard academic who was unable to condemn calls for Jewish genocide without reaching for the “context” – and called for the exclusion of Israel from this year’s Venice Biennale contemporary art exhibition.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when I overheard artists in my studio regurgitate conspiracy theories about the “Jews… I mean Zionists” having too much power. Or when the protests happening worldwide, organised and attended by artists and art workers, call upon cultural institutions to divorce themselves from their Jewish patronage and history.

Or even when groups of artists have sprung up in Scotland in solidarity with Palestine, who openly refer to Hamas terrorists as “martyrs”, having hosted “parachute banner” making workshops for children.

Yes, I was naive. I wasn’t able to foresee the excruciating pain which has come from the world I knew caving in. I don’t want to think about what would happen if the Jewish presence from the arts were to be eliminated, but perhaps it is worth publicly asking: what can we do to make sure it never does?

Michelle Wolodarsky is an artist, writer and filmmaker based in London

May 01, 2024 10:07

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