Art & Democracy: The Catharsis of Rebuilding

Art and Democracy: The Catharsis of Rebuilding, Credit: Bansky, 2005

Jon Catlin

Jon Catlin is a first-year at the University of Chicago studying great books and the humanities. He’s primarily interested in philosophy as it relates to happiness, Holocaust studies, religion, human rights, and other ethical questions. Jon spends his time exploring libraries, teaching young people philosophy, and taking long jogs on the Chicago lakeshore.

This article is based on a January 17 event at the University of Chicago, entitled “Turning point: how the invasion of Gaza backfired for Israel.” The event was sponsored by the student group University of Chicago Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and featured Palestinian activists on the issue of human rights violations incurred by Israel during the state’s controversial invasion of the Gaza Strip three years ago.

On December 27, 2008, Israel launched an attack code-named “Operation Cast Lead” on the Palestinian-held Gaza Strip despite the states having entered a ceasefire with the Palestinians brokered by Egypt only six months prior. Israel ordered the attack in response to the escalating number of unprovoked rocket attacks on Israeli cities by Palestine’s Hamas militant group, which had left 28 dead and several hundred wounded [1]. According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the attack is considered a human rights violation, having killed over 1,400 Palestinian civilians, 340 of whom were children, and displaced an estimated 20,000 more. In addition, bombs damaged or destroyed non-military targets including schools, two U.N. facilities, and over 200 mosques. The International Committee of the Red Cross called the attack “a full-blown humanitarian crisis,” but no other military forces intervened [2]. Israel called a ceasefire on January 18, 2009 after 22 days of fighting, and Palestine accepted it hours later.

Palestine got little support from within the United Nations in appealing for humanitarian aid and demanding reparations from Israel. This is ultimately because the Israeli attack was funded almost entirely by taxpayer dollars from the United States, a permanent member on the U.N. security council. What followed was a classic case of Western media bias, with most U.S. newspapers justifying the attack despite the atrocities it entailed. Western media also termed the invasion the “Gaza War” despite the drastically different death tolls of 1,400 Palestinians, nearly half civilian, and only 13 Israeli deaths, all of which were military. I have written elsewhere on the media bias and the censorship of Palestinian voices that has resulted from it in the United States, particularly on college campuses that claim to safeguard free speech [3]. As in the notable case of the “Irvine 11,” many non-violent student protestors, particularly Muslims, have been arrested for “contributing to a hostile environment of anti-Semitism,” which is prohibited by the 1964 Civil Rights Act [4].

Gaza Aftermath, Matthew Cassel

Palestinians were left devastated and both politically and militarily paralyzed after the attack. After it became clear that the rest of the world was ignoring or actively denying the injustice in their country, Palestinians were forced to move on with their lives. In Palestinian terms, the Israeli atrocities were “normalized” in time, and the world stopped caring. Years later, the wounds still haven’t healed. Palestine’s most recent bid for nationhood in September 2011 never gained traction due to a veto threat from the United States [5].

Out of frustration and a feeling of powerlessness, many Palestinians around the world turned to a system of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) that many activists supported at the campus event I attended. Unlike the general boycott of Apartheid South Africa decades ago, BDS supports a new kind of economic protest: cultural boycott. BDS calls upon musical artists and academics to cancel performance events in Israel, and so far major artists such as Bono, Carlos Santana, Elvis Costello, Klaxons, Gorillaz, Bjork, and The Pixies have spoken out against “normalization” of the Israeli atrocities with their deliberate silence. The cultural boycott also encompasses the work of Israeli academics such as books, articles, and journals, and has gained much support in Europe, including backing from the U.K.’s largest academic union [6].

But not all have been supportive of BDS efforts. Elton John, Paul McCartney and Madonna have resisted the ban and performed in Israel anyways, citing the freedom and unpolitical nature of music [7]. Legal scholar and philosopher Martha Nussbaum, a longtime supporter of free expression, has spoken out against the academic boycotts proposed by BDS in an article and series of responses with Sudanese academic Mohammed Abed. She argues that broad, symbolic gestures such as the Palestinian BDS boycott are useless tools that send a muddled message at the cost of violating the academic freedom of individuals who share nothing more than citizenship with the boycotted nation [8]. Furthermore, she argues that boycotting specific nations for political reasons misleadingly points the finger only at the other side. The United States, for example, has a track record of alleged human rights violations, yet BDS does not target American universities thus sending the mixed philosophical and political message of deploring some atrocities while normalizing others, such as Palestine’s own murder of Israeli civilians.

What’s a nation to do?

With other options of protest and expression exhausted, many supports of the Palestinian cause have taken to artistic representation of catastrophe as a means of national rebuilding and collective catharsis. Ironically, the notion of representation as catharsis originated in the wake of the Holocaust, as Jewish victims turned to various artistic outlets to construct a post-Shoah Jewish identity, especially in Israel [9]. Yet, many Holocaust scholars contest this idea of catharsis. One scholar writes, “a common characteristic of many of the artists is that the desire to create works about the Holocaust does not lessen but rather continues with time… which may account for the ongoing nature of Holocaust art” [10]. The moral complexities are never given fixed “solutions” in art, they are merely represented and reconstructed. This is well exemplified in the work of Larissa Sansour, a Palestinian-European artist whose 2012 work Nation Estate portrayed Palestine as a single skyscraper rebuilt from the rubble of the Gaza War.

From Sansour’s website:

The Nation Estate project is a sci-fi photo series conceived in the wake of the Palestinian bid for nationhood at the UN. Set within a grim piece of hi-tech architecture, this narrative photo series envisions ‘la joie de vivre’ of a Palestinian state rising from the ashes of the peace process.
In this dystopic vision, Palestinians have their state in the form of a single skyscraper: the Nation Estate. Surrounded by a concrete wall, this colossal hi-rise houses the entire Palestinian population – finally living the high life. Each city has its own floor: Jerusalem, third floor; Ramallah, fourth floor. Intercity trips previously marred by checkpoints are now made by elevator.
Aiming for a sense of belonging, the lobby of each floor reenacts iconic squares and landmarks – elevator doors on the Jerusalem floor opening onto a full-scale Dome of the Rock. Built ouside the actual city of Jerusalem, the building also has views of the original golden dome from the top floors [11].

Sansour The Nation Estate
Sansour The Nation Estate Jerusalem
Sansour The Nation Estate Growth
Sansour’s project was nominated for the prestigious €25,000 Lacoste Elysée Prize 2011, which is awarded yearly by the Swiss Musée de l’Elysée with sponsorship from French clothing retailer Lacoste. However, days after her nomination, Lacoste demanded that Sansour withdraw her project from the competition, citing it as “too pro-Palestinian.” In Sansour’s own words, “I am very sad and shocked by this development. This year Palestine was officially admitted to UNESCO [though not the U.N.] yet we are still being silenced. As a politically involved artist I am no stranger to opposition, but never before have I been censored by the very same people who nominated me in the first place. Lacoste’s prejudice and censorship puts a major dent in the idea of corporate involvement in the arts. It is deeply worrying” [12].

Sansour’s project and its eventual censorship illustrates the artistic arena as a battleground for politics and human rights more broadly. The boycott of artistic and intellectual goods strikes to the core issue of whether or not free expression should be defended if it dangerously normalizes atrocities. Given that artistic representation of the Holocaust is still thriving in Israel nearly sixty years after that time of collective trauma, it seems that the art of Palestinian national identity is just getting its feet off the ground through grassroots artistic movements such as graffiti on portions of the concrete barrier between Israel and Palestine [see header photo]. Equipped with art, Palestine is in the precarious throws of healing and on the way to forging a national identity, ironically following in the footsteps of its nemesis.


[1] Q&A Gaza Conflict, BBC News
[2] Gaza clashes spark ‘major crisis’, BBC News
[3] Israel bias on college campuses, activists claim, Chicago Maroon
[4] Protecting Jewish Rights on Campus
[5] UN veto club out to protect self-interest, Daily Nation
[6] The UK’s largest academic trade union backs BDS, The Palestine Monitor
[7] Palestinian Rights Group Urges Elton John To Cancel Israel Show, Huffington Post
[8] Against Academic Boycotts, Dissent
[9] Lessons and Legacies IV: Reflections on Religion, Justice, Sexuality, and Genocide
[10] A mission in art: recent Holocaust works in America
[11] Larissa Sansour
[12] Lacoste: No Room For Palestinian Artist, ArtLeaks

Cover Image: English graffiti-artist Banksy, 2005
Palestine Gaza Aftermath, Matthew Cassel
Larissa Sansour: The Nation Estate