Dozens of artists demanded on Saturday that a museum in Ramat Gan remove their artworks — thereby almost emptying the entire museum of exhibits — if the museum does not reinstate an exhibit that was deemed defamatory against the ultra-Orthodox, in a growing spat over freedom of expression in art.
The Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art, near Tel Aviv, set off a firestorm in the art world last week when it took down a painting by artist David Reeb at the request of the city’s mayor, Carmel Shama-Hacohen.
Reeb’s painting shows two images of an ultra-Orthodox man praying at the Western Wall. The words “Jerusalem of gold,” a common phrase referring to the capital, are written in Hebrew next to one of the images, and next to the other are the words “Jerusalem of shit.”
After the museum opened an exhibition that included the painting, Shama-Hacohen posted a photo of the artwork on Facebook, asking the public whether to remove it or keep it on display. The painting was later removed by the museum at Shama-Hacohen’s request.
In protest, around 40 artists with works on display at the museum covered their artwork in black cloths. Shama-Hacohen then instructed museum staff to remove the cloths, which they did, setting off angry disputes with the artists.
A Tel Aviv court rejected a request from Reeb and the Association of Civil Rights in Israel to put the painting back on display.
Shama-Hacohen said the decision showed that preserving “human dignity” overrides the “utopian idea of complete and limitless freedom of expression.”
“The court ruled that our decision to remove the abusive and racist artwork was completely legal and rejected the petition of the artist and the Civil Rights Association,” he said.
יש צדק ושופטים גם בתל אביב! היצירה המבזה לא תוצג בר"ג.✍️בית המשפט פסק שההחלטה שלנו להסיר את היצירה הפוגענית והגזענית…
The judge, however, urged the museum to reach a compromise that would enable the artwork to be displayed in a secluded space, with a warning that its content could be considered offensive. There was no immediate indication the museum was considering such a move.
In Saturday’s letter, 43 of the 50 artists whose work was currently being displayed at the museum demanded the removal of their art, meaning the museum would be left mostly empty.
The artists wrote that several days after a new exhibition was inaugurated, “we were shocked to discover that outside and unprofessional considerations have made their way into the museum. Freedom of expression has been severely damaged, the exhibition has become fundamentally flawed, and our work environment as artists has become unsafe and threatened.”
“We, alongside a long list of artists, museums, galleries and institutions, regret that political intervention has damaged the renewed museum and its professional status in Israel and abroad,” they wrote. “In the name of freedom of expression and our professional integrity, we demand the immediate removal of our works from the exhibition.”
“We would welcome an agreed-upon compromise that would enable the return of David Reeb’s painting and our artworks.”
Roy Barzilai, the chairman of the Museum of Israeli Art, responded by asking the artists “not to take unilateral action.”
“The persecution of the art world is causing big concerns among the museum’s staff and among artists,” he said. “I am personally making big efforts to persuade the artists not to hand the victory to the conservative elements. I suggest that they continue displaying their works alongside the protest, the anger and the attempt to affect public opinion, but not boycott. That wouldn’t help us or the art world.”