“On the spectrum between the poetic and the political”– so wrote music critic Avi Pitchon on Laurie Anderson’s performance at the Israel Festival [May 29]. Indeed, Anderson began her first conversation with us, her Israeli audience, with THE political topic, the US Presidential elections. She described Yoko Ono’s response to Trump’s victory on social media – a one minute scream “which is not conceptual art but simply a scream out of hell.”
And then, at around the sixth minute of her performance, Anderson clarified the political-poetic spectrum on which she was leading us: She asked the audience to think of the worst things happening in the world – Donald Trump, North Korea, the melting icebergs, US school shootings, any shooting on any border, as well as the messed-up things in our own lives – and scream together, for ten seconds.
That was it. The words “any shooting on any border”, an inkling of a hint and a hint of a nod – that was the performance giant’s sole site-specific reference.
I sat there hoping she would somehow use this stage, somewhere on the sea of her charismatic anecdotes, inside the thicket of verbal-musical-kinetic virtuosity. I hoped she would really talk to us. Alas, this did not happen.
Anderson is an intelligent and nuanced artist and performer. Her career is full of works that tackle questions of power, gender and change. That night she asked again and again throughout her performance how and to what extent should art be political. She praised disobedience, the disruption of order via art, and at times she almost called for a revolution. But at the same time, Anderson exemplified this disobedience with insinuations which did not – heaven forbid – upset anyone. She merely made everyone in her imagined community feel warm and fuzzy. The political art manifested in Anderson’s words was an art which may label itself as ‘liberal’ or even ‘leftist’, but does not imbue this label with real substance. Anderson’s performance lamented reality, and glorified itself, without taking risks and without demanding a change.
And we, “the secular audience who flocked to Jerusalem”, in Pitchon’s words, received her compliments with rounds of applause. Not a single person disrupted the order and stood up to ask “What about Gaza? What about the wall at the heart of this city? What about the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of Israel”?
It’s not that I think Laurie Anderson has anything new to tell us about these things. It’s not that I think she could have brought about a change in a flash visit of an hour and a half, within the long history of this space. But this is precisely the automatic response by every political artist who is willing to play in Israel, against the call for a cultural boycott.
“If not hearing my voice is stronger than hearing it, this says something unfortunate about my art”, South African artist William Kentridge once told me at a Q&A session in a Berlin museum, when I asked him why he had agreed to exhibit his works in Israel. And now, just weeks after Israeli snipers killed more than 60 men, women and youths who protested against the transfer of the embassy of Laurie Anderson’s country to the city in which she was performing – as part of the “70 Years of Israel” festival – the scream which Laurie Anderson created with us seems like the most silent scream one could imagine.
This piece first appeared in Haaretz, in Hebrew. It was translated by Ofer Neiman and appears here with the permission of the author and Haaretz.