On October 19, an “Open Letter from the Arts Community to Cultural Organizations” was published in Artforum magazine, a major publication in the contemporary art world.
The letter, signed by about 8,000 people from the arts community, called out Israel’s barbaric siege and massive bombardment of Gaza. It described this as “grave human rights violations and war crimes,” and “the unfolding of a genocide in which the already precarious lives of Palestinians are deemed unworthy of aid, let alone human rights and justice.” It pointed to the open declaration of Israel’s defense minister that the people of Gaza were “human animals.”
It asked that arts organizations “call on our governments to demand an immediate ceasefire and the opening of Gaza’s crossings to allow humanitarian aid to enter unhindered.”
And although the letter would soon be attacked for ignoring the deaths of Israelis, it quite plainly stated that “We, the undersigned, reject violence against all civilians, regardless of their identity, and we call for ending the root cause of violence: oppression, and the occupation” [Boldface in the original; italics added by revcom.us.]
Within hours, this righteous and courageous statement came under heavy attack from wealthy institutions and individuals that wield tremendous power over the careers and livelihoods of artists, including major gallery owners and art collectors. According to the New York Times, “A sudden campaign of letters denounced” the artists that had signed the letter. Gallerists urged people to remove their names from the letter, and several collectors pressured an Ohio State University museum to cancel an exhibition by a Palestinian artist who had signed the letter. (The museum rejected this demand.)
According to artists interviewed by the The Intercept (many of whom asked to remain anonymous because they feared for their careers), prominent signatories were especially targeted. One high-profile collector “contacted at least four artists whose work he owns to convey his displeasure at seeing their names on the letter.”
Artforum (which is owned by a major capitalist corporation, Penske Media Corporation) quickly caved. First, they put out a statement from the publishers claiming that the publication of the letter violated policy and that it “was widely misinterpreted as a statement from the magazine about highly sensitive and complex geopolitical circumstances.” This was both cowardly and absurd, especially since right under the headline of the letter it says: “By the undersigned.”
Then on October 26, the CEO of Penske media met with Artforum Editor in Chief David Velasco, and shortly after that, Velasco was fired. Velasco had worked at Artforum for 18 years and had been editor for six years.
A Chilling Impact… and Courageous Resistance
Not only are the demands and sentiments of the letter completely justified and needed, but, as we have stressed before, it is outrageous and ominous that people’s careers and livelihoods are being seriously attacked for signing a letter!
Nan Goldin, a renowned photographer and longtime activist who signed the letter said that “I have never lived through a more chilling period. People are being blacklisted. People are losing their jobs.”
Another artist, writer and activist, Hannah Black, spoke to the real-world impact this is having: “I know that a majority of people in the art world are devastated by the genocide in Gaza but many are scared to speak out or even join the call for a ceasefire. … [The pro-Israel forces] are willing to destroy careers, destroy the value of artworks, to maintain their unofficial ban on free speech about Palestine.”
More than a dozen artists told the New York Times that threats of reprisal from collectors made it difficult to publicly defend their decision to sign the open letter, And some people have, shamefully, given in to this intimidation. In addition to the publishers of Artforum, The Intercept reports that 36 names were withdrawn from the online letter (32 new people have signed since initial publication).
But there is also courageous resistance to this clampdown. Goldin and Nicole Eisenman responded promptly to the firing of Velasco by publicly severing their relationships with Artforum. At least one associate editor quit in protest, and a new letter signed by about 50 people has been posted condemning the firing.
In fact, the shameless efforts to shut down support for Palestine is an indication of the fear the authorities have, not just that people will learn the truth, but that they will act on it with the urgency and determination that this crisis demands.
A Whole New Dimension of Freedom and Rights of the People
The role of government institutions established with this new socialist Constitution, including the police and military, will no longer be to contain, control, repress, brutalize, murder and slaughter people, here and all over the world. Instead, these radically new institutions will safeguard the rights of the people and give backing to the masses of people in moving to abolish all forms of discrimination and inequality, all relations of oppression and exploitation. They will defend the new, emancipating society against attempts to sabotage, attack and destroy it, and will support people throughout the world fighting for the goal of emancipation.
As set forth in this Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, the people in this new society will not only be allowed but encouraged and enabled to fully speak their minds politically, to express themselves freely through artistic and other means, to dissent and protest with constitutional and institutionalized protection of their right to do so. They will be provided with the means for doing this, because this is an important part of creating an atmosphere where people can “breathe” and feel at ease, and where they will be inspired to join with others in grappling with what will, and what will not, contribute to the emancipating transformation of society and the world as a whole.