The war in Gaza is tearing the art world apart

Artists are protesting Israel’s offensive. The art and literary worlds are struggling to respond.

The 92NY building in New York City, shown from the street at an upward angle emphasizing the many stories and large banners reading 92NY.

In October, 92NY, one of New York’s best-known arts and culture spaces, drew fire after trying to postpone a visit from author Viet Thanh Nguyen. Nguyen had signed an open letter criticizing Israel’s actions in Gaza. Noam Galai/Getty Images Marin Cogan is a senior correspondent at Vox. She writes features on a wide range of subjects, including traffic safety, gun violence, and the legal system. Prior to Vox, she worked as a writer for New York magazine, GQ, ESPN the Magazine, and other publications.

Artists are pulling their work from the National Gallery of Art, which receives funding from Congress, in protest of the US providing military aid to Israel. Sponsors withdrew from the National Book Awards ceremony last month after learning that authors were planning to call for a ceasefire. Literary events are being postponed or canceled, museums are becoming sites of protest, and open letters and boycotts of organizations are proliferating.

The war between Israel and Hamas is roiling the arts and literary worlds. The death toll in Gaza, which has surpassed 15,500 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, has compelled thousands of artists and writers to speak out against Israel’s military actions and the institutions they think are failing to meet the moment. Many are accusing organizations of trying to suppress the speech of people critical of Israel and are demanding that institutions issue public statements about where they stand. The artists and writers, in turn, are facing backlash from organizations, donors, and other artists, who see a failure to appropriately acknowledge the victims of Hamas’s terrorist attack on October 7 and the rise in global antisemitism since the conflict began.

The conflict is forcing leaders to navigate larger existential questions about the power and limits of arts institutions at this moment, including whether museums should try to stay neutral or whether they should take an active role in responding to political and social issues. These questions aren’t entirely new, but they’ve taken on a new sense of urgency amid current politics and deepening polarization since 2016, experts say.

“Galleries, museums, curators, and the people who are in charge of art programs have become much more invested in the idea that institutions and artworks have a political or a social function,” says JJ Charlesworth, an art critic and editor at ArtReview magazine. “The idea of the art gallery as some kind of special or isolated separate space is, I think, very out of fashion. It’s causing friction now because, particularly in America, the interests that support cultural institutions don’t always share the same politics” as the artists.

How museums are navigating broader cultural changes

After Donald Trump was elected in 2016, a number of prominent artists called on museums to close in an act of protest. (Instead, some opened their doors and invited visitors to attend poetry readings or make protest signs.) Museums have also had to respond to Me Too scandals and calls to diversify their institutions following the 2020 killing of George Floyd, as well as political campaigns specific to their museums. In 2019, artists and demonstrators successfully forced the vice chair of the Whitney Museum board, Warren Kanders, to resign over his company’s sale of tear gas. That same year, the artist and activist Nan Goldin helped foment a movement that raised awareness about the Sackler family’s role in creating the opioid epidemic, which led museums to stop accepting money from the family.

Museums are, in some ways, responding to larger societal shifts, including the expectation that they more accurately reflect the diversity of the communities they are a part of. They also have to consider how to stay relevant in a world where there’s more media and culture competing for their visitors’ attention.

Balancing the need to be current, especially in the midst of major political moments, is tricky, says Mary Elizabeth Williams, a former museum professional who’s written about how museums should approach political activism and protest art. “As people become more divided in the United States, there’s voices calling for action, but museums need to balance that and find a way to engage in their communities but not alienate certain members of the population.” Cultural organizations risk losing funders and even their nonprofit status if they make the wrong move, she says.

Decisions about whether and when to show controversial work can also be difficult. The wrong move can reflect poorly on an institution, both in the moment and for decades to come. The Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, faced public backlash for decades over canceling a 1989 show by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who was gay, due to fear that anti-gay lawmakers would attack it for its themes and depictions of male sexuality. The decision by four major museums to delay a retrospective by the Jewish painter Philip Guston in 2020 because some of his paintings featured cartoonish, unglamorous depictions of white-hooded Klansmen, similarly invited widespread criticism.

The war in Gaza is tearing the art world apart1

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland tours “The Land Carries Our Ancestors: Contemporary Art by Native Americans” exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in September. The following month, two artists pulled their work from the long-awaited exhibit, citing US military aid to Israel as the reason. Getty Images

Why artists and writers are protesting over the war

Amid the Israel-Hamas war, museums are once again getting blowback for canceling events and not displaying artwork they fear will bring unwanted attention. Manhattan’s El Museo del Barrio was denounced by artists in late October for deciding not to show a piece prominently featuring the Palestinian flag. Leadership at the Frick Pittsburgh, an art museum in Pennsylvania, was called out after postponing an upcoming Islamic art exhibition. The museum director initially told the press that they realized the exhibition “for many people, especially in our community, would be traumatic.” After Muslim and Jewish groups criticized the decision, the Frick said in a separate statement that it postponed the show because it hadn’t prepared it with their “characteristic engagement with broad community partners, in this case the Pittsburgh Muslim community.”

This turmoil is not unique to the United States. In other countries, especially those that have laws against antisemitism and other forms of hate speech, debates over Israel and Palestine are exposing major divisions. In November, a committee meant to choose the next director of Documenta, an renowned Germany contemporary art exhibition, resigned en masse after one member was forced to step down because of his support for the BDS movement. The Lisson Gallery in London said last month that it was pulling a show of new work by Ai Weiwei, one of the world’s most famous contemporary artists, over his comments on social media about the Jewish community.

Laura Raicovich, author of Culture Strike: Arts and Museums in an Age of Protest and former director of the Queens Museum, says that museums have never been purely neutral spaces, but rather are always reflections of a society’s cultural values, norms, and power structures. It’s the divergence between the lived experiences of museum workers and artists, and the collectors, dealers, and institutions that support them — and who tend to be wealthier — that’s becoming more difficult to ignore.

“As the work within the museum has come under pressure to be more reflective of larger society, it gets further away from the lives of many of the people serving on the board, so there’s a widening of the gap,” Raicovich says. “The museum director ends up being the translator between the two, oftentimes the protector between one and the other. They’re supposed to negotiate the space. That is really impossible. It’s just too big of a gap.”

The literary world is grappling with similar debates. Organizers of the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany drew sharp rebuke in October for postponing an awards ceremony for the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli. In November, more than 2,000 poets and writers signed an open letter pledging to boycott the Poetry Foundation, a nonprofit that publishes Poetry magazine, after writer Joshua Gutterman Tranen said that a review he’d written had been “shelved” because of its anti-Zionist themes.

“Cultural institutions have long benefitted from the brilliant work of writers and artists who have put their hearts and lives on the line to tell their stories,” Noor Hindi, a Palestinian American poet who co-authored the letter, told Vox in a statement. “We are serving them, not the other way around … These institutions and publications make a mockery of our work, our names, and our histories when they refuse to take a stand as our governments endorse, arm, and fund the oppression of our people.”

A spokesperson for the Poetry Foundation disputed the idea that it tried to silence a writer for political reasons, calling it “misinformation.” The spokesperson told Vox, “This led to the current boycott, as well as something that foundation staff were hoping to avoid in the first place: pulling attention away from the people and organizations sharing news and resources about the crisis.”

For Jewish cultural institutions that have historically supported Israel, the conflict is making it difficult to continue operating. In October, 92NY, one of New York City’s premier art and cultural spaces, tried to postpone an event with Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer-Prize winning Vietnamese American author, over his public statements on the crisis, including signing a letter that cited an Israeli historian calling the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza “a textbook case of genocide.” “We are a Jewish institution that has always welcomed people with diverse viewpoints to our stage,” the organization said in a statement. “The brutal Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel … has absolutely devastated the community. Given the public comments by the invited author on Israel and this moment, we felt the responsible course of action was to postpone the event while we take some time to determine how best to use our platform and support the entire 92NY community.”

The event happened anyway, at a nearby bookstore, but the fallout was substantial. Employees of the 92NY’s poetry center resigned in protest, and other writers pulled out of upcoming events. The organization has since announced that its literary series is on hold while it considers its next steps.

Open letters of protest are everywhere — not without consequence

In addition to the open letter to the Poetry Foundation, and the one signed by Nguyen and Irish novelist Sally Rooney, a group of over 1,800 Jewish writers, including Naomi Klein and Tavi Gevinson, published a letter in early November disavowing the idea that criticism of Israel was inherently antisemitic. Another group, Writers Against The War On Gaza, have issued a statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people and in “opposition to the silencing of dissent and to racist and revisionist media cycles.” They are joined in open-letter writing by authors who have participated in the Palestine Festival of Literature, scholars who have studied Palestine and Israel, and members of the media critical of Israel’s killing of journalists and the way US-based news outlets have covered the conflict.

They go in the other direction, too: In October, a group of Israeli authors and academics penned a letter excoriating the left in the US and around the world for what they say is a failure to appropriately condemn the violence perpetrated against Israeli civilians by Hamas.

The letters are proving consequential, as prominent figures resign or are fired because of their association. David Velasco, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Artforum, was fired in late October for publishing an open letter on the magazine’s website signed by hundreds of members of the arts community, which called for an immediate ceasefire and said there was “ample evidence that we are witnessing the unfolding of a genocide.” Artforum’s publishers, in an update posted to the site, said that the letter, “was misinterpreted as being reflective of the magazine’s position [and] understandably led to significant dismay among our readers and community, which we deeply regret. It also put members of our team in the untenable position of being represented by a statement that was not uniformly theirs.” Velasco told the Times he had “no regrets,” and at least four staffers resigned in protest.

How the art and literary worlds will move forward after these major rifts is an open question. So many artists and writers have made it clear where they stand. Leadership of the cultural institutions they’re associated with, who have to weigh a different set of concerns, meanwhile, may not be willing, or even capable, of meeting them in this moment.

“It would be great if museums didn’t have to think about donors, or funding, or their status,” Williams says. “But that’s just the reality that we live in.”


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