Artists should go where politicians fear to tread

The idea of acclaimed Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim conducting a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Tehran sounds like fantasy. But that is exactly what was mooted two weeks ago, as an accompaniment to the first official visit to Iran later this year by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A form of ‘cultural diplomacy’ that might have had a big impact.

But would Iran’s rulers allow Barenboim the Israeli citizen in, given their rejection of Israel’s right to exist? The answer came over the weekend: No! This was despite his long support for the Palestinian cause, his involvement in Israeli-Palestinian co-operation through music, and the fact that he is also an Argentinian citizen and an ‘honorary’ Palestinian citizen. The Iranian culture ministry said: “Iran does not recognise the Zionist regime and will not co-operate with artists of this regime.”

On the Israeli side too, not everyone sees the concert idea as positive. Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev, for example, acting clearly as a politician despite her ‘cultural’ portfolio, has urged that it not go ahead. She says it will undermine Israel’s efforts to block the Iranian nuclear deal, which Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu sees as a serious threat to Israel.

This story comes hot on the heels of another art-versus-politics incident, when Jewish singer Matisyahu performed the song ‘Jerusalem’ at the Rototom Sunsplash reggae festival in Spain recently. The festival had initially cancelled his appearance under BDS pressure, then re-invited him and apologised. Matisyahu – who is American, not Israeli – was targeted by BDS as the only Jewish performer on the roster. The festival had cancelled his slot after he refused to declare support for Palestinian statehood, igniting an uproar from Jewish organisations and the Spanish government. Some pro-Palestinian audience members protested when he took the stage, but other people applauded. He said before his closing song: “Whoever you are and wherever you come from, raise a flag and wave it in the air. Let music be your flag.”

In South Africa we have had our own examples of the tension between art and politics, such as the infamous incident in 2013 when Israeli-born classical pianist Yossi Reshef’s concert at Wits University was disrupted by BDS-motivated students in the middle of a Beethoven piece. The pianist was escorted out of the Wits Great Hall by security guards for his safety. Reshef actually lives in Berlin, yet his Israeli origins were enough to provoke the students into sabotaging his performance. How contrary that was to the South African ideal of dialogue!

Can politics and art be separated? A local South African example gives a partial clue to this tricky question, through the works of landscape painter JH Pierneef, whose paintings have become an integral part of South Africa’s heritage. An exhibition of some of his best works which is currently on at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg had to install special security arrangements, because the artist – who died in 1957 – was a seminal member of the Broederbond, a bastion of racist white South Africa during apartheid which is reviled by many South Africans. There were fears his paintings would be defaced. Yet he is today considered one of the best of the old South African masters, with the quality of his art prevailing over his racially based political views.

The Iranian state which has refused Barenboim entry, has been controlled by the ayatollahs since the 1979 Islamic revolution. They are virulent enemies of Israel – they won’t even call it by its name, only the “Zionist regime”.

But could there be another, hidden side to the Iranian people – “Persians” – who are known for their richness in culture and art, notwithstanding their government. Could it be that the beautiful music made by the Berlin Philharmonic and the skill of its Israeli conductor might have opened avenues for further encounters, and softened the stony hatred between the nations? For sure, the hall would have been packed to capacity by Iranians wanting to hear the performance. Maybe that’s exactly what the ayatollahs fear.

Artists can sometimes go where politicians fear to tread, and create opportunities for human engagement when politicians see only obstacles. Is it too much to hope that one day the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra might perform in Tehran to packed houses? Sadly, a lot will have to change before that happens.

(This first appeared in SA Jewish Report, September 4, 2015)

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