Introduction: An Escapist Artist Who Tried to Kill Art

Escapology is the practice of escaping from restraints and traps. An escapologist, then, is someone who tries to escape, by a particular tactic, from handcuffs, straitjackets, cages, coffins, steel boxes, barrels, bags, burning buildings, fish-tanks or other perils. For a long time, performers have practised the art of escaping for its challenge or its cathartic effect, or even as a mere means of survival. Originally, it did not feature as an overt act in itself but was instead used secretly to create illusions, such as a disappearance act or a transmutation. The operation of escape always includes the danger of failure. Escape artists create scenes where they flee from difficult situations that seemingly annul their freedom and threaten their lives. Using magic and illusion, they manage to break free from the obstacles and traps in which they are imprisoned, leaving their audience amazed and confused (Dawes 193-201).

I shall use the practice of escape artists like Houdini as a metaphor for the artistic strategy of escapism. For me, Houdini is a source of inspiration due to his ability to triumph over all threatening dangers through illusions, tricks and metamorphoses. Houdini created staged emergency situations, from which he had to escape and survive. In other contexts, these elements could have been deemed: they could have been interpreted as perverse exhibitionism, bondage, mutilation, entrapment, suffocation, criminality, insanity or flirtation with death (Kasson 77-156). For me, these artful managements resemble closely those that appear in my own artistic practice. By addressing these manoeuvres, I shall develop the idea of Disabled Art.

In this research I shall explore, through the visual outcome and the case studies of my artistic practice, how my working techniques encounter reality through prevention, failure and escapism. Here, the character Escapist Artist (ME) symbolises the inability of art to reflect, process or contain reality. On the basis of my experience as an artist working and living in Israel, I shall consider the true ability of art to touch upon topics such as the Holocaust, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as the feelings of instability and sense of belonging in a post-traumatic reality. The research focuses on issues that emerge from my artistic practice: authenticity, performativity, lack of hierarchy, anti-heroism, apathy, repetition and vulgarity. Developing these issues, I shall consider following kind of questions: What happens when art is not prepared or able to take actively part in reflecting on political and social contents? What is the role of the artist when art fails in its efforts to reflect and to be actively involved? How does art look like when the artist is simply tired? What is the role of such “disabled” art-making in the contemporary society?

The aim of this research is to create a body of knowledge based on my personal experience as a visual artist over the last 10 years, during which I have been inspired by the idea of the Escapist Artist and following patterns of behaviour appropriate to it.

Mechanism of Escapism, understood as a basic artistic approach for creating modes of reflection and response, is explored in this research as an ideological, political and social default position. It indicates ways in which an artist relates to and is affected by the historical, political and social issues of the present. ME is a fictitious character writing letters. Like in my previous art works, ME is an imaginary character seeking for communication. In this research ME is corresponding with another fictitious figure, namely, his research.

The research addresses artistic inability by studying acts of erasure, disappearance, denial, reluctance, disintegration, absent-mindedness etc. in art. It analyses the artistic escapist approach as a method of expression, as an artistic starting point that allows for creative acts out of weakness, avoidance and basic survival instinct. The analysis involves the construction of the artist's identity in relation to the role of art today.

As an Israeli artist, I experience an internal conflict. On the one hand, there is the urge to be politically involved and to take part in the historical development of one's own society. On the other hand, there is the inability to confront Israeli culture and reality by artistic means. Over time I have found that my artistic practice explores the particular idea I call Disabled Art. It designates my condition of existence as an artist, one in which I am unable to respond to the political and social situation. Why unable? I have found that such a state of affairs is particularly acute in the case of Israeli artists like myself. As I travel around the world I am expected, as an artist, to reflect and consider in my art works the reality in which I live, and to relate my work critically and affectively to the complex political surroundings. However, through my artistic work I have realized that I achieve just the opposite of these expectations as I am unable to respond to the socio-political situation and to create art works relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the occupation. Consequently, it is my contention that art cannot really engage in such issues. Therefore, I have chosen the Escapist Strategy as a means to deal with such situations. The Escapist Strategy incorporates methods of artistic self-effacement such as hiding, dressing up and pretending, deleting and blurring lines of identity and losing one's sense of belonging to a land, nation or city, that is, a place that can called “home”. The result of such a strategy is ME, a fictitious character without a clear identity, one that acts like a ghost, hiding itself, pretending and constantly changing.

My artistic research is motivated by the following questions:

1. What does an escapist artwork look like?

2. How is an escapist artwork carried out?

3. How can escapist art be taught?

4. Is the notion of escapist art a legitimate approach to art?

5. What happens when the artist tries to kill art?

The writing method

The research is carried out in the form of fictitious correspondence. The researcher (ME) writes letters to an addressee (Mr. Research). In these letters, the writer considers artistic escapism with regard to its visual expressions and its relations to reality. The research attempts to explore, by means of personal letter writing, how and in what way the visual nature of certain elements of collective memory dictate and influence artistic behaviour. Producing a body of knowledge in letter form, the research reveals evidential traces of thoughts, fears, opinions, questions, etc.

The method of letter-writing is planned to enable an informal and uncensored mode of communication, one that offers the required freedom for the writer to reveal his thoughts and doubts regarding the creative process. Together, the letters construct a time-line, offering a glimpse into the private world of ME.

The chosen method allows a reactive-reflective response of the artist to his environment and enables him to question the legitimacy and responsibility of art-making today.

The research is presented in the form of letters written by ME – an artist born and working in Israel. Through the letters, the writer produces a first person singular relation to his topics, revealing so the communication system of an author waiting for answers. In the absence of answers, the writer tries to create a self-reflective dialogue, based on intuition, expectation and experience. The lack of response from the recipient allows ME to continue asking questions with a sense of anticipation. Through the letters, ME, the author of this research, aims to discuss, dismantle and investigate the elements of particular concepts and visible phenomena, and reactions to them, engaging with questions of local identity, insofar as it is visually expressed in terms of place, time, a sense of belonging and escapism. Just as the artistic escapist behaviour first gains shape through the letters, so is also the recipient (Mr. Research) constructed as a fictional and absent character through the chosen mode of writing. His absence in the correspondence is essential in that he does not belong to any specific place and is devoid of identity. Writing to such an irrational figure allows for reflective writing independent from place and time. It enables an inquiry into the identity of the writer and the addressee. By reporting and asking questions on the artistic process of the author, the series of letters exposes an exploratory process that investigates the Mechanism of Escapism and outlines the figure of “disabled artist”.

The letter-format

The letter-format is designed to be thematically consistent: each letter discusses a single topic or idea, to be further divided into sub-chapters. The letters consist of notes, quotes, drafts and other relevant research material, on the basis of which the research is ultimately realized in the correspondence. Written in different locations at different times, the letters do not bear a clear indication of belonging to one place or another. The letter-writing produces knowledge in linear fashion (each letter being sustained by previous ones) so as to create a feeling of contextual time-line. The issues and discourses are thematically developed from one letter to the next. However, the letters do not indicate "good communication" as there are often breaks and crises and no "happy endings".

The approach aims at consistency insofar as each letter deals with a core concept and raises certain issues and questions connected to it. The letter-format presents a one-way communication: the writer continues to send letters, even though there is no response from the recipient. The lack of response is a significant condition of the writing process: it allows the writer to keep asking more questions. The act of writing is an integral part of my general creative process as an artist. However, there is a distance between the act of writing and the research through the art works. This aspect of the process produces a critical space accompanying my working process. The style of writing tries to maintain a balance between fiction and realism as well as between the public and private spheres.

The blurred boundary between the real and the imaginary provides a space for interpretation and speculation regarding the authenticity of the biographical details. The research incorporates a phenomenological approach, involving a systematic process of reflection that relates to the essential properties and structures of experience. The sense of duality, of simultaneous belonging and escaping, is inspired by the idea of belonging immediately to the world while also considering its limitations. The desire to belong serves as an impetus to write, while the desire to escape creates an inherent obscurity. The boundaries between the internal and external worlds of experience, between the personal and public, are not always clear; they are sometimes blurred or obscured. Thus, the private biography of the writer, of ME, remains obscure.

The letters are written in a personal style which produces a “safe zone”. It creates the chance to address someone, in this case a figure that doesn't exist. Therefore, writing may become more reflective and unrestrained, not worried about criticism or censorship. As mentioned above, the letters are all written in the first person singular, enabling expressivity and freedom that may serve wider-scale discussions about issues of public interest. The chosen mode of writing allows for the documentation of an ongoing escapist process – the developing time line, envisioned as a journey to an unknown place.

* It is important to note that the bricolage-like writing style of the letters is intentional. Since the whole setting of the correspondence makes use of fictitious elements, this might be interpreted as an authentication strategy, not unlike the blurriness or graininess added to a photograph in order to enhance its authentic feel.

* Translation of citations from Hebrew to English are my own.

Significant correspondences

The choice of the writing method of this study was partly inspired by letters written and published by artists and philosophers (summarised below). I have drawn ideas of these correspondences with respect to their structure, framework and style. In my letters to Mr. Research I have traced and re-enacted some of their stylistic features, contexts and structures and studied different techniques of letter writing.

Kafka's letters to Milena – The correspondence between Milena Jesenská and Kafka lasted from 1920 to 1923. Milena's letters were destroyed, so that the reader encounters Kafka's letters against the background of her absence. The emphatic absence of her words creates an effect of anticipation and loneliness that points out Kafka's necessity to write in order to survive. In my own texts the void is a crucial element which allows me to speculate and to involve the reader as a correspondent. "Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts and by no means just with the ghost of the addressee but also with one's own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing or even in a whole series of letters, where one letter corroborates another and can refer to it as witness" (Kafka 223). Kafka kept on writing, so he claims, in order to fulfil a personal need and to maintain for himself a sense of significance. This is an example from which one may draw an outline for the writing method of this research: writing toward emptiness, creating a sense of anticipation.

Flaubert’s letters – Throughout his lifetime, Flaubert corresponded with his close friends in a bold style, dealing with sexual contents and showing a particularly brutal or unpleasant approach. In those letters he exposes his writing process in a personal way, offers ideas, complaints and descriptions of sexual scenes, erotic dreams and perversions. At the same time, he discovers philosophical insights through them and cites the writings of Aristotle and other philosophers who influenced him. Flaubert's writing is fluent and associative, sometimes automatic, impulsive or irresponsible, testifying to a rich and controversial creation process. It exposes an inner world of thoughts and images with many references to classic literature, mixed with daily life experiences. Flaubert's letters offer us abundantly evidence of his life-long research process (Cf. Flaubert). I find this combination of theory and daily life an appropriate approach to the question I work with in my own writing: how is artistic work assimilated into my daily life.

Letters from Vincent to Theo Van Gogh – The letters portray a dynamic relationship based on dependence, concern and familial care between Theo, the responsible brother and Vincent, the artist unable to cope with daily life, trapped in his own world of creation. The letters, bringing up daily routine without dramatic peaks or tragedies, consider issues both practical and spiritual. Vincent documents his ideas through attached images, sketches and drawings, using visual elements to convey his intentions (Cf. Van Gogh). Regarding my own writing in this study, I find that such a familiar and non-monumental approach is very important. It serves as a basis for a good writing flow, devoid of the need to prove or to impress, while retaining the low-key character of a research document.

Hannah Arendt & Gershom Scholem correspondence – The correspondence reflects the close friendship of the two intellectuals. The letters, which go back to the period of the great disaster for the European Jews, offer an important document of intellectual contemplation on their cultural tradition. This compilation of letters includes intellectual investigations which could be considered as qualitative research.

The relationship of Scholem and Arendt was a stormy one and developed from admiration and friendship to overt hostility. The critically minded Arendt was suspicious of any collective ideological labelling and so prone to undermine the foundations of the Zionist Jewish outlook. Scholem, in contrast, may be considered as a “true Zionist”: he insisted upon the realization of the Jewish cultural and political renaissance in Palestine (Cf. Arendt and Scholem) Regarding this research, I find that the heated discussion between the two correspondents raises similar questions than the ones that concern me as an artist.

The principles of the research

Despite the reflective background motivations of my writing, the subjective and expressive appearance of the letters asks for explication of some general principles of the research.

1. The letters are written in digital environments (emails, smart-phones, chats, blogs, Google drive, Facebook, twitter etc.).

2. The style of writing: The Janus-faced author (ME and me) does not copy other writers, even if the letters may be influenced by their style and mode of approach. As noted above, at stake is re-enactment and mimicry.

3. The study follows ethical guidelines: it does not intentionally insult anybody, does not contain objectionable material and does not violate any copyright. This applies also the passages where textual collage techniques are used.

4. Each letter comprises a temporally and spatially limited body of knowledge. This means that the interpretations and analyses are changing during the course of the correspondence, in accordance with situational variables. The mode of approach of the study can be considered as that of classic constructivism, according to which humans generate knowledge and meaning from the interactions between their experiences and their ideas.

5. Although the writing is presented as personal, the study aims to maintain appropriate analytical distance to its subject in order to develop a critical research discourse.

Research aims

The present study investigates the artistic approach of escapism. The approach is connected to the mechanisms constitutive of memory and local identity. Escapism is investigated, through its visual and conceptual expressions, as a performative artistic practice. It is articulated in terms of artistic reactions and social mechanisms of memory (collective and personal) and the concept of local identity, which in this case is my Israeli identity. Investigating escapism as an artistic strategy, the research considers issues which are significant for nationalism: memory, locality and the sense of belonging. As noted above, the letter-writing method offers an optimal platform for this kind of research: it allows for flexible movements, with regard to each subject, between the private and the public spheres.

Methodically, the research is based on the principles of qualitative research which asks, concerning human decisions, Why? and How? instead of asking merely What? Where? or When? In the present study, the act of writing is a creative process requiring similar creative decisions as any work of art. In the letters, I aim to reflect and analyse my artistic working process as a particular behavioural phenomenon, as an escapist one, and try to investigate and understand the implications of its nature. The framework within which I attempt to grasp the complexity and significance of escapism as an artistic approach is based on the “engaged theory”. It functions as a framework that moves from the empirical analysis of phenomena of human and social behaviour towards abstract theories which reflect on social and political order (James 44-46). As part of the research process, I try to combine the biography of the artists with artistic motives and products. I try to make of biography a means of investigation. Here, I deliberately focus on examples of failure and disruption. Through these cases – my own included – I try to question the motivation to engage in art making and to questions the power and significance of art under conditions of failure, avoidance, disability or dysfunction.

Regarding the analysis of conceptual issues considered in the letters, my approach is informed by Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutics. For Gadamer, understanding and language are at the core of human existence (Langdridge 50-51). Gadamer transformed hermeneutics into an art of interpretation and translation of reality. Based on the central role of language in Gadamer's hermeneutics, I think that man's existence is verbal in essence and human nature is universally experienced through the word.

In this study, the letters function as documentary evidence outlining the transformation of the artist leading into the state of escapism. Each letter marks a particular point of the process which allows for a different approach to the idea of Disabled Art.

In the letters, I emphasize theories of memory (public and private) as factors having a direct impact on my practical decisions. I relate myself to Paul Ricœur's theories on memory, history and forgetting. “In what way […] are the vicissitudes of the exercise of memory likely to affect memory's ambition to be truthful? In a word, the exercise of memory is its use […]” (Ricoeur 57).

Although the letters form a kind of diary, they are not intended to serve as auto-ethnography, even if the style of writing might give this impression.

In the present study, the writer remains a transparent figure who does not belong to any specific place, although he is Israeli and does live in the present. The presented reflections are not auto-biographical; they are strategic and engage with broader issues regarding the personal experiences of the writer. The style of writing is designed to make possible a monitoring overview of the phenomenon of disability and therefore of escapism in art. With regard to this aim, the truth of the described events is irrelevant.

The notion Disabled Art is a complex one, affected by many real factors and raising many important questions about the future and relevance of contemporary art making. The notion originates in my experience of dealing with the reality in which artists work in Israel. In this study, I want to examine the nature, impact and consequences of that reality on art and its relation to the society. I intend to provide a rich body of knowledge about artistic "escapism" by studying it thematically in relation to my own practical experience of it as an artist. The introduction, the letters and my artistic practice (documented in the appendix), of which this doctoral thesis consists, aim as a whole at presenting a work in artistic research investigating the idea of Disabled Art and The Escapist Artist.