The Year in Activism: Israel-Palestine Shatters Art World Consensus

On October 7, the militant organization Hamas attacked Israel, killing more than 1,200 Israelis and taking more than 200 hostages. In the days and weeks that have followed, Israel responded with airstrikes and a ground invasion of Gaza that has, as of publication, killed some 20,000 Palestinians, per the Gaza Ministry of Health.

In the United States and Europe, however, another battle has been waged since October 7, this one on social media, in the streets, in newspapers, and in the court of public opinion, to determine who and what causes are deserving of empathy and what kind of protest is acceptable or just. It is a battle that has brokered no neutrality and certainly no unity. Action and inaction and words spoken or not said have all become indictments of the soul, depending on the stance of the viewer.

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Nowhere has this battle been waged more vociferously than in the art industry, with its uneasy foundation of collectors and trustees and government-funded institutions and clutches of artists and curators with deeply-considered moral commitments and political ethoses. The Israel-Hamas conflict, as its become known outside the Middle East, has revealed vast chasms in the art world and, for the first time, left a trail of consequences that is still ongoing: critics fired, funding pulled, protests staged, exhibitions shuttered, and institutions ended. 

With the end of the war nowhere in sight, the Palestinian liberation movement reinvigorated amongst social justice circles, and an overheated political climate, it is likely we are seeing a reshaping of the art industry in real time.

Open Letters & Boycotts

On October 26, the New York Times reported that Artforum editor David Velasco had been fired following the publication of a letter that called for a ceasefire in Gaza and for Palestinian liberation. That letter—not the first, but the most explosive of its sort to circulate after October 7—was organized by the UK-based organization Artists for Palestine in the week after the attack and signed by thousands of well-known artists, as well as Velasco and several Artforum staffers. Despite its origins, it became near-ubiquitously known as the “the Artforum letter” given the institutional power of the publication. To many, because the letter initially ran with little context, it appeared to be a statement from the magazine.

The letter inspired outrage by some in the art world because it initially failed to note the October 7 Hamas attack. Days after Artforum published the letter, dealers Dominique Lévy, Brett Gorvy, and Amalia Dayan penned a short response published by the magazine in which they wrote that they “condemn the open letter for its one-sided view.” Not long after that, a new letter, titled “A United Call from the Art World: Advocating for Humanity,” appeared, signed by high-profile dealers, artists, and other cultural workers. It referred to “an uninformed letter signed by artists who do not represent the artistic community at large,” without naming Artforum. It referred at length to Hamas’s actions, but did not specifically mention the thousands of Gazans since killed by Israel, and called for all to “stand united in opposing acts of terrorism and instead advocate for humanity.” Within days, Velasco was fired; two senior editors quit in protest. It was public art industry in-fighting, with advertising, patronage, and character on the line. The stakes were—are—grim.

Artforum‘s publishers, for their part, said the way the original letter was run was “not consistent with Artforum’s editorial process” because the article “was shared on Artforum’s website and social platforms without our, or the requisite senior members of the editorial team’s, prior knowledge.” In a statement to Vanity Fair, a spokesperson for Penske Media Corporation, which owns Artforum and ARTnews, said that the letter “lacked necessary context … making it unclear it originated from outside of Artforum.”

Shortly after Velasco was fired, hundreds of Artforum contributors past and present signed an attestation letter saying they would no longer contribute to the magazine or to ARTnews and Art in America, which are also owned by PMC. The boycott continues.

A smiling man in a suit.
David Velasco. Getty Images for Fondazione Prada

Still, more letters arrived: In December, more than 1,300 visual artists, writers, and actors signed an open letter accusing Western cultural institutions of “silencing and stigmatizing” Palestinian voices and perspectives. The signatories wrote that this includes “targeting and threatening the livelihoods of artists and arts workers who express solidarity with Palestinians, as well as canceling performances, screenings, talks, exhibitions and book launches.”

The signatories cited, among other incidents, the Arnolfini, Bristol’s international center for contemporary arts, canceling two events that were part of the city’s Palestine Film Festival. In a statement, the institution said it withdrew from hosting the poetry reading and film screening because, as an arts charity, it was not allowed to host what could be “construed as political activity.”

The letter warned that many artists are refusing to work with institutions that fail to meet [these] basic obligations” to support freedom of expression and Palestinian artists. 

Accusations of Censorship Rock Museums

From New York to Berlin and Ontario, reports have surfaced of opportunities for artists and arts organizations rescinded due to their public support for Palestine. 

In October, Palestinian artist Emily Jacir reported that a talk she’d planned to give in Berlin had been canceled. That same month, a conference about antisemitism and racism that was co-organized by artist Candice Breitz was canceled, with an agency run by the German government saying that it was no longer possible to “lead and moderate this debate constructively.”

The following month, Lisson Gallery canceled plans to stage an Ai Weiwei show following a since-deleted tweet by the artist that was critical of US aid to Israel. The gallery said in a statement that, “There is no place for debate that can be characterized as anti-Semitic or Islamophobic.” The news was met with anger from Ai’s supporters, who took issue with the stance that criticisms of the Israeli government amounted to anti-Semitism. In a recent interview, Ai said the cancellation and the current moment “mirrors an authoritarian culture, reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution in China and the tragic events in Germany decades ago.”

The same week of the Ai Weiwei cancellation, the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, closed a portion of a planned group show in response to the curator Anaïs Duplan’s sharing and commenting on several Pro-Palestine posts on Instagram. Museum director Peter Gorschlüter wrote in an email shared by Duplan on Instagram that Duplan’s social media activity put the museum “in a situation that the museum might be considered to support antisemitic tendencies and voices that question the very right of existence of the state Israel.” Elsewhere in Germany, the Saarland Museum canceled a solo exhibition of Breitz planned for 2024 after the artist called for a permanent ceasefire while also condemning Hamas. Breitz, who was born in South Africa and is now based in Berlin, is Jewish. 

In a statement to ARTnews, Breitz called the development “deeply antisemitic,” and said it casts Germans in a position of judgment over what Jewish people may say and/or think, without allowance for due process, let alone civil conversation.” In perhaps the most extreme case, the Berlin-based alternative space Oyoun was forced to close after its funding was pulled in response to it hosting an event for Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish-led organization critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Several German art spaces have maintained support of Palestinian artists. The Kunstverein München in Munich faced pressure to cancel a show by the Palestinian artist Noor Abuarafeh after some raised concerns regarding posts about the Hamas attack that she posted to her private Instagram account, according to Monopol. The museum, however, will not shutter the exhibition, and said in a statement that it did not view the show’s “closure to be an appropriate response to this conflict.”

Documenta, the closely-watched exhibition in Germany who last edition was marked by antisemitism allegations, is in shambles after its entire selection committee resigned.

Artists speaking out in support of Israel have not recieved the same backlash. In mid-October, days after a survey of Judy Chicago’s work opened at the New Museum, the artist lamented on Instagram those “blaming Israel/Jews for the response to Hamas’ fifty years of denying our right to exist,” seemingly referring to criticism of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. Hamas, meanwhile, was founded in 1987—a fact which many pointed out in a series of negative comments calling for Chicago to apologize. Chicago did not end up changing her post or commenting any further on it.

Similarly, Israeli and Jewish artists making work in response to October 7 and the ensuring war have not been admonished by institutional figures for not acknowledging or depicting Palestinian loss of life, as Palestinian artists have often been in regards to the attack. For example, earlier this month, the Jewish Museum in New York installed 12 mixed-media works on paper from Israeli artist Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi’s “7 October 2023” series, depicting the October 7 attack in haunting figures on black backgrounds.

Protests Across New York and elsewhere

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 17: Pro-Palestinian activists protest outside the New York Public Library for a cease-fire in Gaza, on November 17, 2023 in New York City. Demonstrators have called for a cease-fire in fighting between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza which has now left an estimated 11,500 Gazans dead following the October 7th Hamas terrorist attack on Israel. (Photo by Eduardo MunozAlvarez/VIEWpress)
Pro-Palestinian activists protest outside the New York Public Library for a cease-fire in Gaza, on November 17, 2023 in New York City. Corbis via Getty Images

Amidst this political polarization, demonstrations visited, and in some cases, targeted, prominent cultural institutions in New York City. 

In Early November, some 500 protestors affiliated withJVP, including artists Nan Goldin and Molly Crabapple, gathered at the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor to demand a permanent ceasefire. Goldin, who also spearheaded an influential campaign against the Sackler philanthropy, was awarded the top spot on ArtReview‘s Power 100 list for 2023. In its citation, the magazine said this year’s list is “dominated by artists who are using their platforms not just to discuss freedom but to practice it too, intervening through deeds as well as words (and images) in the pressing and social political issues of the current moment.” 

On November 22, the main entrance of the Whitney was splashed with fake blood as protestors with Within Our Lifetime (WOL), a Palestinian-led community organization, chanted, among other slogans, “Ken Griffin is a terrorist,” in reference to former Whitney board member and Citadel CEO who was critical of pro-Palestine student actions at his alma mater, Harvard University.  The demonstration at the Whitney coincided with a ceasefire march in Manhattan, during which protestors traveled along the west side of the island but were stopped by police from entering The High Line, the suspended public park that passes by the museum.

On November 23, Thanksgiving Day for Americans, a protest that started at the New York Public Library in Manhattan resulted in as much as $75,000 in graffiti damage to the historic structure, per Gothamist. Pro-Palestine activists reportedly defaced the marble fountain and part of the facade engraved with the name of Stephen A. Schwarzman, CEO of the investment management firm Blackstone. Schwarzman donated $100 million to the library in 2008 for renovations and pledged $7 million in aid to Israel in October.  

In the last demonstration of that weekend, on November 25, hundreds of pro-Palestine demonstrators gathered at Columbus Circle and marched north to the American Museum of Natural History. Protesters who attempted to enter the museum were barred by police.

In the weeks since, protests have continued across New York, and the major cities all over the world. The war in Gaza too has continued apace.

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