Gefen Bar-On Santor

It is Red — but is it art?

The painted-over hostage posters that I'm calling 'Red,' in Harvard Yard, on February 15, 2024. (via X, formerly Twitter)

What is art?  Does it have to be beautiful?  Does it have to be moral?  Does it have to demonstrate the artist’s well-developed skill or technique?  Does it have to evoke emotion?  Does it have to teach us something about the world?

We have been conditioned to look to academic experts for answers to big questions.  And on the morning of February 15, on the hallowed grounds of Harvard, an evocative and thought-provoking “piece” materialized.

The posters depicting Israeli hostages posted in the Harvard Yard were splashed overnight with a fresh coat of red paint so as to cover them in the blood-resembling substance.  In the picture shown in this blog, the face of Kfir Bibas, the youngest baby hostage, is the one most visible—only half covered in red paint—at the bottom left corner.

With barely a cloud visible in the cold blue February sky, the red stands out. It strikes us.

Artists have long used red to boldly command the eye of the viewer.  For example, in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Bruegel dresses the plowman in a red shirt that catches the eye and makes us less likely to spot the legs of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and is now drowning head first into the sea.

Pride comes before the fall—Also for Israel haters?

The Harvard “piece,” hereafter referred to as “Red,” “aesthetically” captures the spirit of our times.  The low level of skill required to produce Red speaks against it being art—but I nevertheless find myself relating to it as I would to art—with emotion and meaning.

Like a powerful work of art, Red resonates with what, deep inside, we already know.

When I first saw the video of Naama Levy abducted by Hamas, her pants stained in blood, I screamed without sound and could not watch the whole brief video.  We have been worried sick about Naama’s predicament and that of the other hostages in Gaza:

The malevolent Harvard “artist” has intuitively confirmed what we fear: the impulse to violate the boundaries of innocent people and to sadistically create red stains is irrepressible among some of our haters.

Art often gives us more than the artist has deliberately intended.

On an ideological level, Red corresponds across time with the Nazi ideology that Jewish human beings are not persons with legal rights. The mindset that apparently feels passion for putting red paint on the picture of baby Kfir Bibas and the other hostages might have too much in common with the mentality that, during the Holocaust, put Jewish babies on trains.

Some people have noted a correspondence, likely unintended by the “artist,” with Genesis 4:10: “What have you done?  Listen!  Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground”—thus says the Lord to Cain the murderer of his own brother Abel.

And thus says the human conscience to Hamas supporters on Western campuses: You abuse not only Jews—but also your own brothers and sisters in Gaza who are suffering because of the terrorist regime that Israel haters in the West have helped to embolden—to keep the pleasures and perceived emotional benefits of Israel hate alive.

When Shakespeare wishes to portray a guilty and corrupt conscience, he corresponds with Genesis 4:10 and brings red into his plays.

In Hamlet, Claudius, the murderer of his own brother, wonders, “What if this cursèd hand
were thicker than itself with brother’s blood? Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens to wash it white as snow? (3.3.47-50).

In Titus Andronicus, the Roman General Titus, weeping and stricken with grief for his sons who are about to be unjustly executed by a corrupt emperor, pleads with the earth to refuse to drink their blood so that it is eternally displayed as a mark of guilt:

Let my tears stanch the earth’s dry appetite.
My sons’ sweet blood will make it shame and blush.
O Earth, I will befriend thee more with rain
That shall distil from these two ancient ruins
Than youthful April shall with all his showers.

In summer’s drought I’ll drop upon thee still;
In winter with warm tears I’ll melt the snow
And keep eternal springtime on thy face,
So thou refuse to drink my dear sons’ blood.  (3.1.14-22)

May Red, the cruel “pseudo-art,” likewise stand as a reminder that the academia must “shame and blush” for what it is sometimes enabling in the name of “free speech.”  May Red stand as a silent, anguished cry about the devaluing of education when hate is permitted to become a “creative” force, as Yael Bar tur has helped to point out on X:

In Willa Cather’s My Antonia, Jim Burden reflects about his university days in Lincoln, Nebraska, at the end of the 19th century:

AT THE UNIVERSITY I had the good fortune to come immediately under the influence of a brilliant and inspiring young scholar. Gaston Cleric had arrived in Lincoln only a few weeks earlier than I, to begin his work as head of the Latin Department. He came West at the suggestion of his physicians, his health having been enfeebled by a long illness in Italy. When I took my entrance examinations, he was my examiner, and my course was arranged under his supervision. I did not go home for my first summer vacation, but stayed in Lincoln, working off a year’s Greek, which had been my only condition on entering the freshman class. Cleric’s doctor advised against his going back to New England, and, except for a few weeks in Colorado, he, too, was in Lincoln all that summer. We played tennis, read, and took long walks together. I shall always look back on that time of mental awakening as one of the happiest in my life. Gaston Cleric introduced me to the world of ideas; when one first enters that world everything else fades for a time, and all that went before is as if it had not been. Yet I found curious survivals; some of the figures of my old life seemed to be waiting for me in the new. In those days there were many serious young men among the students who had come up to the university from the farms and the little towns scattered over the thinly settled state. Some of those boys came straight from the cornfields with only a summer’s wages in their pockets, hung on through the four years, shabby and underfed, and completed the course by really heroic self-sacrifice. Our instructors were oddly assorted; wandering pioneer school-teachers, stranded ministers of the Gospel, a few enthusiastic young men just out of graduate schools. There was an atmosphere of endeavour, of expectancy and bright hopefulness about the young college that had lifted its head from the prairie only a few years before. . . . Before the first of June, Gaston Cleric was offered an instructorship at Harvard College, and accepted it. He suggested that I should follow him in the fall, and complete my course at Harvard.” (97, 108)

The world of ideas that Jim is immersed in is the canonical one:

I remember vividly another evening, when something led us to talk of Dante’s veneration for Virgil. Cleric went through canto after canto of the ‘Commedia,’ repeating the discourse between Dante and his ‘sweet teacher,’ while his cigarette burned itself out unheeded between his long fingers. I can hear him now, speaking the lines of the poet Statius, who spoke for Dante: ‘I was famous on earth with the name which endures longest and honours most. The seeds of my ardour were the sparks from that divine flame whereby more than a thousand have kindled; I speak of the “Aeneid,” mother to me and nurse to me in poetry.’ Although I admired scholarship so much in Cleric, I was not deceived about myself; I knew that I should never be a scholar. I could never lose myself for long among impersonal things. Mental excitement was apt to send me with a rush back to my own naked land and the figures scattered upon it. While I was in the very act of yearning toward the new forms that Cleric brought up before me, my mind plunged away from me, and I suddenly found myself thinking of the places and people of my own infinitesimal past. They stood out strengthened and simplified now, like the image of the plough against the sun. They were all I had for an answer to the new appeal.” (p. 98)

Jim is being modest, for the richness of ideas stays with him throughout his life.  But the image of real, concrete humans standing as a sturdy plough against more abstract ideas is an arresting one.

If the academia continues to do what Hamas wants, and if it allows its “world of ideas” to become too detached from empirical truths — the “real world” and the decency of ordinary people will come to stand in even starker contrast against “prestigious universities.”

This is a point that can be contemplated upon by comparing Red, the “pseudo-art” made in Harvard by splashing paint on the photos of innocent and tormented hostages, to the following video in which a decent neighbour, Mr. Tony, uses paint to clean away Jew hate:

Something tells me that Mr. Tony is not a recent Harvard graduate.

Hitler tried to become an artist before he became a dictator.  His paintings have been described as “cold” and unimaginative (Wikipedia, “Paintings by Adolf Hitler).  Perhaps Hitler should have taken some lessons from today’s Harvard instead of trying in vain to get accepted into the Juden-run art school in Vienna of his own days.

Or perhaps the academia should wake up to the fact that it is sometimes enabling a fantasy that allows some members of the academic community to act as if they are in 1930s Germany — at the expense of the vast majority of students who want to work, learn and enrich their lives peacefully.

Shakespeare quotes are from the Shakespeare Folger Library:

The quotes from My Antonia are from Cather, Willa. My Antonia: The Original 1918 Edition. Global Publishers. Kindle Edition.

About the Author
Gefen Bar-On Santor teaches English at the University of Ottawa, as well as adult-education literature courses at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa, Canada. She is an enthusiastic believer in life-long learning and in the relevance of fiction to our lives. She also writes at
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