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925 Silver Collection

A Dust-up in Fog City — and Elsewhere

by Mark Van Proyen


“Bay Area Now 9,” installation view, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2023/24. Courtesy of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

For three decades, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) has staged a triennial exhibition titled “Bay Area Now,” highlighting the work of emerging artists residing in or near the greater San Francisco Bay Area. The most recent of these was titled “Bay Area Now 9,” which opened last October 8th, slated to run through the late Spring of 2024. On February 13, eight of the thirty participating artists made alterations to their work in the Center’s galleries, adding pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist amendments. This led to the early closure of the exhibition on February 15.

After complaints about censorship became national news, the exhibition was reopened a month later, at which time YBCA interim Chief Executive Officer Sara Fenske Bahat resigned, allegedly because she felt unsafe or otherwise systematically harassed by a hostile workplace. This was because the Center’s lower echelon employees sided with the protesting artists and their fellow travelers, who staged a large anti-censorship protest at the Center soon after the closure of the exhibition. Some of the protests called for “the removal of Zionists from the Board and executive leadership of the YBCA,” while another part called for a boycott of Israeli artists from future YBCA programming. No doubt, civil litigation will be forthcoming, followed by an out-of-court settlement wrapped in a non-disclosure agreement. Soon after the March 20 reopening, the Center made admission to the exhibition free. Except for the part about impending civil litigation, so obvious that it almost goes without saying, the rest of this has been publicly reported without dispute.

Jeffrey Cheung alters his work included in “Bay Area 9,” covering with a cloth reading “Ceasefire Now!” Photo: Beth LaBerge, KQED, San Francisco.

Questions abound. One of these, how can any artist vandalize his or her own work? Revise, yes, but vandalize? Another asks why any artist would want to make major changes to their work after the opening of an exhibition. Was that the plan all along? Yet another asks, were any or all of 22 other artists who contributed work to the exhibition consulted by the self-revising protesters? One thing is certain: the whole episode did add a dimension of real Now-ness to an exhibition that was otherwise notably deficient in that very quality, belatedly making good on the promise of its title.

The YBCA demonstration was not an isolated event. Look back to October 19, when longtime Artforum editor David Velasco published an open letter protesting Israel’s bombing of Gaza, signed by thousands, including himself, many of whom were well known artists previously featured in the magazine. Advertisers expressed their displeasure over the letter, leading to Velasco’s abrupt firing. On this point, we should recall that Artforum as well as ArtNews and Art in America are owned by corporate conglomerate Penske Media. How much editorial independence each publication has is at best a matter of conjecture. But one thing is certain: in the end, it is always money that does the talking.

Pro-Palestinian student protest at Columbia University. Photo courtesy of Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty.

These events foreshadowed another event where money did the talking, twenty-six million dollars to be exact. I am referring to the March 28th fundraising event for President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. It was reported to be a “star studded affair,” with former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama sharing the stage in front of a well-heeled audience of 5,000 people. On the face of it, this is good news for Biden, because in an election year, early money is more valuable than later money as it can bankroll campaign infrastructure with enough time to make a difference six months down the road.

But just beyond the glare of the Radio City limelight, something else took place. On a cold street just outside of the hall, there was a sizable pro-Palestinian protest that went all but unreported in major media outlets. No estimate was given for the number of participants involved, but the brief glimpses that were aired on CNN did show about a dozen Palestinian flags, dispersed in an area that suggested several hundred protestors. I am old enough to remember the protests that took place outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Vice President Hubert Humphrey — a man aptly characterized by Hunter S. Thompson as looking as though he was “kept alive by artificial means” — was the controversial nominee for President (His close competitor, Robert F. Kennedy, had been assassinated just a few weeks before.)

Taysir Batniji, “Watchtowers,” 2008, 12 from a series of 26 photographs, black and white digital prints, each 15 3/4 x 19 3/4”. Courtesy of the artist.

Outside the convention, massive anti-Vietnam war protests erupted into violence, because Humphrey was certain to continue escalating the unpopular war. Cut to the chase, Richard Nixon was elected President three months later, in large part because the progressive anti-war left sat the election out. The Gaza situation could portend something similar to Biden’s re-election bid. He may not be able to win reelection without winning in Michigan, a delegate-rich swing state with a large percentage of Muslim voters. The political risk in 2024 is borne out by the more than 30 pro-Palestinian demonstrations on university campuses around the country that have erupted since April 15th.

I bring this up because the upcoming Democratic Convention will also take place in Chicago, maybe with similar results as the Radio City Music Hall protest. So far, Biden has addressed the Gaza situation with faint half steps designed to look as if he were being even-handed. To some, this might look like Clintonian triangulation, but to most of the world it looks more like election year shilly-shallying bordering on outright double-talk. Arms and U.S. taxpayer money still flow to Israel without much condition and in greater amounts than ever before.

I think Biden should make every effort to orchestrate the removal from office of the unpopular Benjamin Netanyahu, which would make Benny Gantz his likely successor in a snap election. Gantz is nearly as much a war hawk as Netanyahu, but he would form a parliamentary coalition that includes the Israeli left, while sidelining the ultra-right-wing religious and secular parties, without which Netanyahu’s governing coalition would collapse.

Khaled Jarrar, “One Thousand and One Tins” (detail), 2023, installation of 1001 printed tins; and “Boots and Berets,” 2018, still from HD video, 5’31”. Courtesy of the artist and Wilde Gallery, Geneva.

To make matters even worse, the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel is heating up to the point of opening a second front at the northern border near Syria and Lebanon. On April 1st, matters escalated when Israel allegedly attacked an Iranian consulate in Damascus, killing two senior Iranian Military leaders. This escalation prompted a response from Iran, which launched over 300 drones and missiles at Israel to almost no effect in the early morning hours of April 14th. A subsequent Israeli incursion had similarly (and perhaps deliberately) little effect.

This turn of a proxy war into what could still become a direct conflict benefits the unpopular Netanyahu in several ways. He has been proclaiming himself a “war time” prime minister in order to hold together his governing coalition, without which he will be forced to call early elections. The onset of a direct, if not so far all-out, conflict between Israel and Iran makes it politically impossible for the Biden administration to withhold military aid to Israel, which may have been one of Netanyahu’s calculations leading up to the April 1 attack.

Will cooler heads prevail? Not if you ask Congressman Tim Walberg (R-MI), who was reported by CNN to have said that nuclear weapons should be used in Gaza to “get it over quickly.” Walberg later walked back his comment, saying that he was “speaking metaphorically.” Some metaphor.

House Speaker Mike Johnson at the 2024 State of the Union Address applauding President Biden’s plea for aid to Israel. It was the only time he applauded; he did nod in seeming approval on other occasions. Photo courtesy of Shawn Thew/Pool/AP.

Meanwhile Donald Trump is selling sixty-dollar Bibles and his new Truth Social initial public offering (NASDAQ: DJT) is sinking so fast that it might bounce off the bottom of the global equities market. The postponed seizure of Trump assets may well come to pass, but even here, a warning is necessary. Many commentators foresee that DJT becoming an attractive instrument for foreign actors to put untraceable money into Trump’s coffers, a cynical effort to disregard the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution (Article I, Section 9, Clause 8).

Former President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, the recipient of a $2 billion transaction from Saudi Arabia, finally said the quiet part out loud by intimating how a future Trump administration would view Gaza. In a February 15th interview at the Harvard School of Business, he said that the Gaza strip should be viewed as “valuable waterfront property” that could be profitably developed. He also said that the Palestinian population should be removed to the far less valuable property of the Negev desert in southern Israel. Although Kushner has no role in the current administration, the public airing of this view should still be read as a trial balloon seeking a salute from factions advocating an annexation of the strip.

John Martin, “The Seventh Plague of Egypt,” 1823, oil on canvas, 56 3/4 x 84 1/4”. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston.

One such salute was given by House Speaker Mike Johnson at the State of the Union address on March 7th. Throughout the speech, Johnson made faces that tsk-tsked their way through the speech. Only once did he take to his feet to applaud President Biden — when the subject of an increase in aid for Israel came up. Johnson, a Christian nationalist, has famously said that he upholds “a Biblical world view,” meaning that he shares the common Evangelical hunger for an end-times scenario, if only to prove that the Book of Revelations is more than a fairy tale designed to frighten small children. The politics of this position should not be underestimated: only 2.8 percent of the electorate are Jewish, the majority concentrated in a handful of Democratic leaning states, and most are not supporters of the Netanyahu government. On the other hand, Evangelical voters are estimated to make up about 15 percent of the electorate, a number that is over-represented in the swing states that will decide the election.

For further reading on these frightening storm clouds, read up on the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025.

Mark Van Proyen has written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. In 2020, he retired from the faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute, where he taught Painting and Art History. From 2003 to 2018, he was a corresponding editor for Art in America . 
Photo credit: Mary Ijichi
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