Arts and Society: A Talk with Eva Illouz

Arts & Books

Arts and Society: A Talk with Eva Illouz

Ruth Eglash

Professor Eva Illouz, who was born in Fez Morocco, raised and educated in France and later in Israel and the United States, is a professor of sociology. She took over as president of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design last October, replacing Professor Arnon Zuckerman.

In her previous role, Illouz served as a full professor in the Department of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research interests include sociology of culture, sociology of emotions, sociology of capitalism, and the effect of consumerism and mass media on emotional patterns.

She is the author of six books about diverse topics that include romantic love, Oprah Winfrey, culture, capitalism and the crystallization of the psychological culture during the 20th century. Her books have been translated into 15 languages. Illouz is currently working on two new books: Best-Sellers and Society: Explaining the 50 Shades of Grey Phenomenon and Emotions as Social Fiction.

Q. You recently took over as President of Bezalel—please outline some of you long and short-term goals or plans for the school in general.

A. I do not make a distinction between the short and the long term because it is the same overall vision that guides me. I have two opposite goals: organizationally, I want to make Bezalel more international, although it is by far the most international art and design school in the country.

Bezalel has an exceptional ‘patina,’ to use a term familiar to artists: it is the oldest cultural institution in Israel, it has consistently produced outstanding artists, but it has not yet become a fully recognized international institution. By this I mean that it does not view itself as a part of a global network of art and design schools. One goal is to reinforce that sense that we are a part of that global conversation and community.

However, I have the opposite ambition as well, to connect Bezalel more firmly to other Israeli institutions—like Hebrew University or The Israel Museum—and engage the faculty and students to think more deeply about their society, to understand the conditions of production of their art in Israeli society. What does it mean to create in a society in which the military and religion are so central? These kinds of questions do not exist in many Western European or United States academia, but must be raised in our school.

Q. What are your impressions of the school, its students and its work so far?

A. I know three institutions in Israel very well—Tel-Aviv University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and now Bezalel—so I feel confident in giving my opinion. This school has the best and is the best Israel can offer. Its faculty and students are both irreverent—as creative people must be—and deeply, in fact unusually, committed to the school, with what it stands for and represents. In Bezalel, you get the edginess of innovation and the discipline of any organization that must shape and train students.

Q. You are the first women to lead the school, why do you think it took so long for a woman to become president?

A. Allow me to become a sociologist here. Israel—like all societies—follows the logic of its most powerful institutions. Do not forget the importance of the Army, which plays a powerful role in Israeli public life. The Army creates powerful networks among men and many of the professions inside Bezalel have been highly guarded male terrains. In fact the ratio of men and women in the Academy is not one to be proud of. Therefore, it is all the more to their credit to have chosen a woman this time around. Let me remind you that with the exception of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, no academic institution in Israel has ever had a woman leader.

In my opinion, what is even more remarkable in choosing me is the fact that I was not born in Israel but I am a rather late immigrant from Morocco. You cannot find any other president of an Israeli academic institution who is of Sephardic origin. I think this says less about my talents but more about the kind of openness that characterizes Bezalel’s faculty members.

Q. Your background is in sociology and philosophy, how do you think this will play a role in shaping this historic institution for the future?

A. Sociology and artists have a great deal in common. Nicolas Bourriaud, who is the new director of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, wrote in his book Esthetique Relationelle that art favors forms of communication and exchange that are different from those that are normally imposed on us. In that sense, to be a good artist requires you to also be a good sociologist and to understand the enormous forces shaping human beings and their thoughts. I would say that sociologists too are trying to both think about these forces and to imagine alternative ways of speaking to each other. Increasingly, art, design, architecture require a deep understanding of society and of human bonds, and make sociological knowledge necessary to their practice.

Q. How have you managed to cross the bridge from academic sociology to the world of art and design?

A. I will tell you when I finish crossing the bridge! Right now I am on the bridge. But my research interests have always been with topics that interest the art world such as, the culturalization of economy or the process by which culture becomes a large sector of the economy, the transformation of art by capitalism, and consumption of objects.

I have been interested for a long time in how daily life becomes organized aesthetically by big industries and by how the emotional aspects of our lives are integrated in market. The art world today is very preoccupied with understanding the role of the economy in shaping our lives. In that sense, again, I see myself as being interested in those same topics that interest the art world. The unit called History and Theory, which is a central part of the curriculum of Bezalel students provides them with topics I have studied and taught, such history, sociology and anthropology of culture.

Q. Why do you think Bezalel students and alumni have become so respected around the world?

A. Alongside the experimental work and freedom of expression, we balance practical skills and craftsmanship. Within each field of practice the students are able to form and express their artistic identity during their time at Bezalel. Graduates working in the various fields have acquired their own unique artistic voice during their studies here, so we very much work at forming students that are highly aware of their uniqueness. Yet, we also provide craftsmanship in the full and noble sense of that term. Bezalel collaborates with the industry and this is why our students are in fact poised between the world of creation and that of practical concerns.

Q. What designs have you seen so far in the school that have impressed you and why?

A. One: An earthquake proof table that saves school kids by providing a secure school desk under which to seek refuge during an earthquake, as well as forming exit channels to escape through when there are many desks in one classroom. It’s currently in the development and patenting stages via Bezalel labs to become an actual product.

Two: General Motors collaborated with Industrial Design masters students and our visual communications department to transform car windows into interactive displays. The project’s focus was primarily on enriching the experience of backseat passengers. The Bezalel students produced full-scale functional prototypes of a rear passenger seat and side windows, using eye-click motion and optical sensor technology to transform the glass into an interactive surface on which they featured their game designs. The concepts are not planned for immediate production, but this technology may be used towards actual designs in the future.

Three: At the other end of the spectrum we have an annual seminar at the Dead Sea entitled “low tech at the lowest place on earth,” whereby students are limited to the most basic resources and learn to survive, create and design using minimal resources. The creations from the Dead Sea Seminar are no less impressive than the high-tech designs. 

Four: Our animated films are picking up prizes and being screened in festivals across the globe.

Q. Why do you think it is important for people outside of Israel to know and recognize the work that is being developed at your school?

A. It is important because we are a very good school by any professional international standard. Some very talented, internationally recognized artists and designers such as Adi Nes, Sigalit Landau Michal Rovner, Ezri Tarazi, Michel Kichka, Nir Hod, Yehudit Sasportas, Jan Tichy, Ron Gilad and Yael Bartana have received international acclaim. In that respect, we should be known for the same reasons that the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris or the Royal Academy of Arts should be known.

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