The Removal of a ‘Peeping Toms’ Mural in Israel Challenges the Role of Public Art
Artwork at Tel Aviv beach was painted over after outrage over an assault on a teenage girl, sparking discussion about popular culture, politics, art, and gender.
On August 23, 2020, the Tel-Aviv municipal authorities removed an 18-year-old “peeping toms” mural painted by the Israeli artist Rami Meiri. It showed two young men peeking in the window of a ladies’ changing room at the beach.
The mural refers to the Tel-Aviv beach, unofficially known as Metzitzim (Hebrew for “peeping toms”). Metzitzim is also the title of a cult 1972 film about two friends who don’t want to age; one of them is a lifeguard fighting peepers on the Tel-Aviv beach.
Painted on an actual ladies’ changing room of a family-friendly beach on the Mediterranean, the mural was frequently seen as offensive by women’s rights groups, who called for its removal and vandalized it in the past. Following a case of a suspected gang-rape of a 16-year-old girl, the Israeli public took its rage over violence against women to the streets in nationwide protests and a mass walkout from workplaces. The mural was targeted again. This time social justice advocates blamed it for encouraging illegal activity and voyeurism.
The Mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, tweeted from his personal Twitter account that the City Council had decided to paint over the mural. This move was clearly in response to recent criticism of the mural and the acts it seems to condone. In a nod to the cult film, the Mayor added that covering the mural does not erase the past but conveys a clear message to future generations.
Clashing art, aesthetics, culture, gender, and politics
Painting over the mural sparked vigorous public debate. Interestingly, this debate comes just as the Black Lives Matter movement has reignited disputes over the presence and significance of Confederate cultural symbols and monuments in the US and statues of slave traders in public spheres. Removing contentious paintings, statues, and symbols public spaces raises questions about the public presence of art, power dynamics, and control over the public sphere.
The opponents of Tel-Aviv municipality’s action called the mural’s erasure censorship of art. Art, they argued, does not inspire criminal acts. Instead, it depicts reality in its full complexity, good and bad, merciful, and cruel. Art cannot be erased because it transcends everyday politics and the contemporary cultural status quo.
From this perspective, culture is seen as an ideal, “as a process of human perfection, in terms of certain absolute or universal values,” as the famous scholar Raymond Williams wrote. Art, according to this view, is universal and timeless. It overcomes the current zeitgeist and practical social judgments in an endless pursuit of perfection. Thus, even offensive murals should be seen because they belong to humankind’s mental and spiritual processes of perfection and history.
The mural’s painter, Rami Meiri, tried to convince the Tel-Aviv municipality to leave his work intact and respect its nostalgic reflection of a naïve culture. His art could, he suggested, empower survivors of sexual assault to reclaim their story, teaching viewers what not to do.
Meanwhile, many women’s rights advocates praised the municipality’s decision and argued it had upheld its obligation to protect the public by removing offensive art. Unlike Meiri and the municipality’s opponents, they argued that public works of art must respect all groups who use the space in which they are displayed. After all, these works do not exist as isolated artifacts, disconnected from offensive meaning and location.
This view sees culture as a social sphere that expresses the community’s meanings and values. Williams saw this as an anthropological view of culture: “a description of a particular way of life.” For this position, art is part of the culture as experienced by people in their day-to-day lives. Also, it doesn’t see art as timeless. Instead, it considers art as existing in a particular moment in time. Accordingly, the mural is lived and shared by the audience. Its meaning stems from the audience’s cultural perception and understanding, and not from the universal and timeless virtue of art.
What is art’s public role?
A mural is public art. It interacts with its audience in public. This context matters.
When people view works of art in museums, they deliberately and actively seek it out for its artistic value. Encountering a mural on a beach is a very different experience. It is not necessarily seen by choice; it is presented for the public to view anyone who happens to stroll by. As in real estate, the location is what matters.
This context determines the mural’s cultural interpretation. A mural painted on the women’s changing room belongs to the women first and only afterward to the public and the arts. It’s the women’s interpretation of the mural that prevails. A public mural that shows an offensive act belongs primarily to the public’s social understanding, before its historical, artistic, or nostalgic context.
Did this mural have to be painted over?
The mural was causing offense, and the Tel-Aviv municipality was right to remove it. However, painting over the mural was not the only option available. The municipality could have removed the mural and placed it in a museum.
Moving the mural would protect its nostalgic and historical importance. It would place the mural in a setting suited to objective examination and appreciation and remove the offensive scene from the public sphere.
As it played out, the current story of the mural is one of offense and deletion — of power dynamics in the public sphere. The mural’s nostalgic essence had lost power because the movie that inspired it is almost fifty-years-old. The new generation that has emerged in that time felt no nostalgia for the mural. They offered new interpretations and called for its removal. The public sphere has changed.
To respect the role of culture as an ideal pursuit of perfection and the role of culture in the community’s way of life, the Tel-Aviv municipality should tell a new story. The city should commission a new mural, painted by women artists, to express the public’s contemporary culture and values.
Culture continually evolves from clashes between conflicting interests. A new mural would be an optimistic end to this conflict and a beginning for the next. This is the beauty of culture: it can reflect existing moral values and encourage people’s pursuit of perfection at the same time.