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Monday, February 9, 2015

Art as Representation of Society and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Art celebrates the aesthetic achievements of Civilization.

I have visited the Israel Museum every time I came to Israel, at least since the 1980’s.

My mother was always perplexed by the joy I experienced visiting yet another museum.  But I always regarded the Israel museum as an old friend; familiar and comforting, like a close relative to whom I could identify with pride. But not anymore (I will explain why).

My high school education did not include art.  I can barely reproduce a stick man (or woman) and my photographic efforts are inevitably blurred. If art is universal, it is also accessible to all who seek it out without need for an art degree or an art critic to tell us why something is worth viewing.  Art courses may enhance art appreciation but are not a necessity.  I will add one caveat to my previous statement by the following illustration:

I am an active person and I do not need a public gym to keep fit. That said, when I was introduced to the treadmill, at my peak of physical fitness I managed to achieve the giddying speed of five or even six miles per hour (mph). It is because of that experience of running nowhere that I can appreciate both the effort and the sheer will of those athletes who run a four minute mile (15 mph) or a marathon, which they complete by running at nearly 13 mph or 22 kph for two hours.  Now that compares favorably to my unsustainable and paltry effort!

So while one does not need to be an athlete to appreciate athletic achievement, I can understand how some things enhance our appreciation of a subject. Nevertheless, art is universal and should not require extensive notes to explain it.

That view may well be simplistic but I suspect one of, if not the main issue afflicting contemporary society, is confusion.  We have laws that apply (but not universally), we are educated to believe in equality which is only selectively applied.  We are bombarded with messages to fuel our aspirations. Those same aspirations drive the never-ending commercialization of our culture and our dreams.  Dreaming drives progress but it is also exploited by the unscrupulous, to create misery. 

If art has a purpose it is three-fold:  to inform, to agitate or calm our emotions and to create a functional space.

The problem I have with the renovated Israel Museum is that it has ceased to be an institution with a coherent identity.  The museum has fine art, it has applied art and it has everything else.  The mundane has been elevated to a position it does not deserve to occupy. The museum has Rembrandt's and rocks, Picasso's and pillows, Van Gogh’s and videos.  It has modern art, photography and film; typewriters, chairs, butterflies and books.  It does not make sense.  The museums “three year expansion and renewal project was designed to enhance visitor experience of the Museum’s art, architecture, and surrounding landscape.”  (Israel museum website) The museums $100-million renovation project increased the museum’s architectural footprint by approximately 15%. It included a major reconfiguration of the three main collection wings.

An unintended consequence of the reorganization was that it created a muddled archaeological envelope that betrays the strength of the overall collection, a diminution of the available hanging space for fine art and a confusion of compartmentalized artistic styles that jars the nerves instead of harmoniously flowing into adjacent areas.   The entire upper floor contains a desolation of space that instead of adding to the architectural integrity of the whole creates a meaningless, misshapen void filled in with temporary exhibits which only contribute to spatial anarchy and artistic discord.

At this point, let me explain my understanding of ‘art.’ I published “Art and The Decline of Society” on this website on the 13th of June 2012.

I wrote:  “Art and poetry co-exists magically through the enunciation of light and color, shade and silhouettes through the interpretation of images,” and “what defines a great work of Art is inspiration, technical ability and skill.”

Part of the problem is that we have confused democracy with meritocracy and a classless society with no class at all.  Art is interesting.  It conveys a message, not just spatial awareness. The creative process enhances the viewers’ experience because he or she interacts emotionally even on a subliminal level. The result is visual as well as emotional.  If ‘high’ art is elitist it is only so because it costs us to view it (but if that is true, sport and theater are even more 'inaccessible' than art).  I can never own a Renoir or a Rodin but I can view them both at a good museum. Art inspires us.  I may not agree that Rothko was great and I may or may not appreciate his theory of color induction but to see a group of his canvases hanging on a wall, on their own, is still sublime even if I cannot define the  reason or use big words  to describe  my emotional response  to  his artistic creations.

Art is reflexive and high art does not need me to possess a second or third degree (or even a first in art appreciation) in order to be moved by it.

The previous incarnation of the Israel Museum was allegedly an unfocused and sequential mishmash (nonsense).  The intent of the renewal project was to create an aesthetic journey that was logical and unhurried. In this it failed. 

I recall that when, at the end of July 2010 the museum reopened after three and a half years of disruption and closures, the hoard from Nahal Mishmar (Cave of the Treasure) was no longer on show. In its place was a selection of mace heads, scepters and crowns. Instead of celebrating a unique, world class collection we got a few beautiful bits and pieces of copper. The move was clearly criticized because the museum put out a general statement that its policy was not to display the breadth of its collections but a selection only.

And herein lies the problem. The Israel Museum has no more than an average sized living room area dedicated to its excellent collection of Japanese art (and an electronic searchable database that is broken).  The Israel Museum has a wonderful collection of maps; a large collection of prints by both Picasso and Escher but there are no rooms dedicated to any works of art from these collections.  Jacques Lipchitz’s maquettes are no longer displayed.  In fact few sculptures are viewed internally and the Billy Rose Art (Sculpture) Garden is a tired, scattered and somewhat limp display which now seems to attract, in the main, modernist installations.  Few are creatively inspiring.  An upside down tree denuded of its leaves cannot be compared favorably to a Bourdelle, Calder or a Maillol.

If art expresses our ordinariness what does that say about the aspirations we share in society? Much of the contemporary art market is a pastiche of incomprehensible mediocrity produced by artists who are devoid of talent or precision of purpose.  Are we supposed to draw our individual and collective inspiration from this? To aspire to be great we must strive to produce great art and while great art may share the stage with mediocrity it is to our extinction that it beckons.

James S. Snyder is only the second director of the Israel Museum (founded in 1965).   From 1986 to 1996 James Snyder served as deputy director of The Museum of Modern Art, New York and from 1996 he has been the Israel Museum director.   His natural passion is modern art.

Israel needs a separate museum of modern art.  The Tel Aviv Museum of Art has a geographically distinct gallery for displaying radical interpretations of what could loosely be described as ‘art.’ The last exhibition I saw there was of larger than life photos of naked men with particular visual focus on their penises.  Hopefully that exhibition would have been even too radical for Israel’s national museum but a 50 cm by 70 cm Gelatin silver print with the word “LIFE” centered across the display area “in a sober sans-serif typeface” also approaches my idea of what constitutes vulgarity.  A table, four meters long with a boulder underneath it may tax the technical talents of museum staff (to prevent said stone from crashing through the floor and crushing unsuspecting visitors on the floor below), it may even count as what is loosely defined as installation art but it is not art that by classic definition can aspire to stand the test of time.

A national museum should express both pride and confidence in the future.  I should leave satiated, not frustrated. While collecting is an act of ego, a donation to the nation is an act of affirmation and national self-confidence. What a sad indictment of Israel is the current museum campus. The Israel Museum should stop trying to be world class; mediocrity of ambition accompanies a mediocre vision.


  1. Maurice Solovitz Shalom

    I agree with some of your observations but not all.

    Israel Museum has some of the finest exhibits in the world concerning our part of the globe.

    Modern art, if you can call it art, is not my piece of cake either and I agree that it has no place in a museum such as the Israel Museum.

    What are your suggestions to improve the overall concept of this museum?



  2. A museum can also express the aspirations of the society. I read recently that a museum in the USA celebrating its 75th anniversary received 75 quality pieces of art as a gift. That expresses confidence in the future. It is part of what is missing from the Israel Museum. The Israel Museum needs a big building program to accommodate the true breadth of its quality collections. And it needs a new director to give it a vision that spells out "the" future, not "a" future.

    * Revisit the hanging policy and don't be afraid to celebrate its collection (show it, don't stash it away).
    * Incorporate the top floor into the main collection. Turning it over to permanent displays or even thematic displays that are permanent or semi-permanent.
    * the bamboo installation was fantastic.; We loved it. But it did not belong in a museum that celebrates national collections. Rethink the Art Garden and either get rid of it or look at other art gardens around the world (for instance the open-air museums of Hakone and Utsukushi-Ga-Hara in Japan) - there lots more to emulate.

    Art collection is not about reticence. If you have it, flaunt it.