Image credit: Bar Mitzvah by Édouard Brandon/Wikimedia Commons
“Art and politics each define a form of dissensus,” the French philosopher Jacques Rancière has claimed, producing a “re-configuration of the common experience of the sensible. If there is such a thing as an “aesthetics of politics” it lies in a re-configuration of the distribution of the common through political processes of subjectivation. Correspondingly, if there is a politics of aesthetics, it lies in the practices and modes of visibility of art that reconfigure the fabric of sensory experience.”
Like most Americans, I have witnessed daily reports of political atrocities during the renewed outbreak of war in Palestine, following the condemnable Hamas attacks against Israeli civilians on October 7. As I observe the premeditated perpetration of human slaughter enacted in the name of statehood and ethnic identity, I am overwhelmed by a sense of incommensurability—I do not know what is to be done. I do not fully understand.
But I also feel that the fabric of my own sensory experience has been transformed by an encounter with a work of art meant to inspire a political conversation: Questions to Ask Before Your Bat Mitzvah (Wendy’s Subway, 2023), a book published to accompany the artist and performer Morgan Bassichis’s traveling solo exhibition More Little Ditties, which is on view through January 7, 2024, at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University (after spending the summer at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts).
The book, which incorporates cartoon illustrations by artist Nicole Eisenman and a foreword by veteran activist Angela Y. Davis, consists of short texts edited by Bassichis, Jay Saper, and Rachel Valinsky, all keyed to the traditional coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish kids turning 12 and 13. The editors adapt the traditional Jewish practice of Middah Shoayl U’Mayshiv (“asking and answering”) into a series of 36 questions with responses from various artists, activists, and scholars. The texts guide readers from meditations about the complexities of approaching adulthood as Jewish-identifying persons in today’s world toward vindications of contemporary anti-Zionist activism in service of Palestinian liberation.
A cheeky YA-self-help-book-cum-manifesto wrapped in the rarified vestments of a small-run art publication, this ingenious, complicated object could as easily be likened to an onion as a Trojan horse.
Besides being an artist who has performed at the Whitney Biennial, the Kitchen, and the New Museum in New York, as well as the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., Morgan Bassichis is a leader (along with Jay Saper) of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the largest Jewish anti-Zionist organization in the world. The avowed mission of JVP is to separate contemporary Judaism from Zionism, which it regards as an indefensible ethno-nationalist project that has turned Israel into an “apartheid” state in which much of the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank is forced to subsist in what amounts to an open air prison. Founded in 1996, JVP has long called for a global boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, taking as its model the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. In recent days, it has organized a series of confrontational but nonviolent demonstrations and protests demanding a ceasefire in Gaza.
Questions to Ask Before Your Bat Mitzvah is nominally addressed to Jewish teens in the United States who are preparing for their B’nai Mitzvahs (a gender-neutral rendering of Bat or Bar Mitzvah). It was published in an edition of 3,000 by Wendy’s Subway, an independent Brooklyn publisher, with support from Harvard University and VCU, which places the book squarely within an art-world context. What, if anything, can this politically-oriented book accomplish in an art context that direct activism in organizations like JVP cannot?
In their introduction to the book, Bassichis explains that “the B’nai Mitzvah is a rite of passage our ancestors carved out for us to redefine what it means to come of age as a Jewish person in today’s world. Every community has rites of passage—some they choose, some they don’t. By the time they turn 13, most Palestinian kids have witnessed someone they know, if not themselves, get arrested, harassed, or killed by the Israeli military. How come Jewish kids and Palestinian kids turn 13 in such different realities, both in the U.S. and in Israel and Palestine?”
Bassichis and their co-editors, Saper and Valinsky, obviously know that many readers of their text will be adults, not teenagers. The book’s third essay, written by Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, raises the question “I’m queer / nonbinary / secular / old / not even Jewish—are Bat Mitzvahs for me?” Their answer is unambiguous: “How could they not be? Just as we claim our multiple identities—for me, Black, white, queer, artist, nonbinary, abolitionist, secular Jew, atheist, disabled—we must also claim the many ways we arrive to ritual, markers of time, tradition, and yes, our Bat Mitzvahs! We are reinventors of time: constantly arriving and shaping our futures.” This formulation positions the B’nai Mitzvah as a ritualistic opportunity for political awakening—a celebratory welcome into a supportive community, or coalition of like-minded peers.
If the preparation for a B’nai Mitzvah occurs within a distinctly marked period of time wherein the subject questions their beliefs and ways of being in the world, the ceremony itself represents a covenant between the subject and their community writ large, in which responsibilities towards others are ritualistically affirmed. In this context, the book may be understood as an effort to educate readers of all ages and orientations about the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. It stops short of explicitly enjoining readers to get involved in the global movement of anti-Zionists that includes Jewish Voice for Peace, although this invitation is implied.
The political and aesthetic possibilities of Questions to Ask Before Your Bat Mitzvah can be probed by applying Rancière’s concept of “dissensus,” as formulated in the essay “The Paradoxes of Political Art,” which appeared in English translation in 2010. According to Rancière, artistic and political action both occur outside of the subjective experience of socio-cultural hegemony, a “normitivizing” space in which individuals are absorbed into state-mediated, legally legible “consensus” categories like “citizen” or “worker,” as opposed to anonymous, de-subjectivizing categories like “refugee” or “unemployed.” Both aesthetics and politics call attention to the arbitrary nature of this taxonomy—within these aporias wherein we become estranged from that which we believe to be “real,” alternative arrangements of power and tolerance become, fleetingly, graspable. This is the state of “dissensus.” Per Rancière’s conception:
There is no “real world.” Instead, there are definite configurations of what is given as our real, as the object of our perceptions and the field of our interventions. The real is always a matter of “fiction” … Politics and artistic fictions introduce dissensus by hollowing out that “real” and multiplying it in a polemical way … [Dissensus] is a practice that invents new trajectories between what can be seen, what can be said and what can be done.
We must be careful not to assume that artistic interventions directly result in political action. Rancière seems to be identifying politics and aesthetics as the twinned canvases upon which the slogan “it could be otherwise” might be most promisingly emblazoned.
The mechanism of liberatory ideation in Questions to Ask Before Your Bat Mitzvah is nothing if not conjectural, provisional, and even aesthetic—realized in the imagination before the material world.
I repeat: as I bear witness to atrocity, as I observe the premeditated perpetration of human slaughter enacted in the name of ethnic identity, I confess—I do not know what is to be done. I do not fully understand.
And I wager that you, dear reader, may harbor these same equivocations. I must therefore conclude this review, this endorsement of Morgan Bassichis, Jay Saper, and Rachel Valinsky’s project, with an invitation to, occasionally, assume the position of the naïf: Whereof one cannot (yet) speak, thereof one must ask questions.
Abby Merrick is an MA candidate in Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research.