surrounding the Jewish Museum's upcoming Nazi imagery exhibit underlines
the larger question of a museum'sresponsibility to its patronsand
to art itself.
The Jewish Museum's next show, ''Mirroring Evil:Nazi Imagery/Recent
Art" is not scheduled
to open until March 17, but has already stirred up a hornets' nest.
The exhibit is clearly and painfully provocative. Among the pieces
to he displayed: a Lego kit for building a concentration camp, "designer" poison
gas canisters and -- in what seems to be the lightning rod for much
of the criticism a
digitally manipulated photo of the barracks in Buchenwald in which
the artist, Alan Seheehner, has placed himself among the inmates,
holding a can of Diet Coke. Sehechner is one of the 13 international
artists (four of them Jewish), who incorporate Nazi imagery into
their work presented in the show.
Detractors, like Menachem Rosensaft,founding
chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish l-Ioloeaust
Survivors and a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial
Council, say the show trivializes the Holocaust and is insensitive
to the feelings of survivors [see box]. Museum officials counter
that they are reporting on a significant trend in contemporary
art, and that it is unfair to judge the works out of context and
without the benefit of the educational materials that will be an
integral part of the show.
The exhibit and the controversy surrounding
it provide an insight into the dilemma facing Jewish museums: Are
they storehouses for traditional art or can they push ideas about
Jewish identity and culture forward through exhibits of contemporary
- and sometimes difficult - art, especially when the subject is the
''Jewish museums, like all museums, are
ideally in a constant wrestling match between offering the audiences
what they expect and are comfortable with, and offering them what
they don't expect, what they are uncomfortable with and what will
force them to expand their thinking," says curator On Z.
Soltes, former director of the B'nai B'rith Kluztnick National Jewish
Museum in Washington, D.C. Sores speaks from experience.
As the curator
of ''Jewish Artists: On the Edge," currently running
at New York's Yeshiva University Museum, Soltes initially struggled
over the inclusion of two Holocaust-related pieces. One is a large
oil painting by Geoff Laurence of a jackbooted Nazi officer standing
next to a skeleton wrapped in a tallit, a spotlight shining on them,
as if performing in some kind of macabre cabaret. The other is a
video installation by Julie Dermanksy and Georg Steinbock, with six
monitors showing footage of tourists eating at the cafeteria at the
Auschwitz visitors' center.
"You don't want to run so far ahead
of your audience that you lose them," Soltes says. "On
the other hand, if you keep things so predictable that you don't
lead your audiences anywhere, you are abdicating your responsibility
to make them think.'' Soltes and others have sought to avoid the "predictable" label
that has been attached to many Jewish museums over the years. They
may be fine places to see a Chagall show or Judaica exhibits, critics
suggest, but don't look for anything more challenging. "Jewish
museums have been criticized as being essentially boring repositories
of ancient history and artifacts.," says Richard Siegel, executive
director of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, which provides
grants and other support to Jewish artists and art institutions.
But, he notes, in recent years these museums have started "reflecting
on the Jewish community - questions that contemporary, creative artists
are raising about the nature of the Jew ish experience in the modem
world. That's a far more sophisticated, compelling role for these
institutions than just being the guardians of the historic culture
of the people."
NEW YORK'S JEWISH MUSEUM, in particular, has made contemporary
visual art an integral part of its mission and not without controversy.
For example, its successful 1996 exhibit "Too Jewish?" a
group show of young artists asking provocative questions about American
Jewish identity and assimilation - was described by the New York
Times's Frank Rich as ''exuberantly tasteless." Other critics
accused some of the pieces such as the menorah made out of lipstick
and a gold Chanel purse, by Cary Leibowitz and Rhonda Liebermair,
which riffed on the image of the Jewish American Princess of reinforcing
negative stereotypes while profaning sacred images.
art is harder to look at, it's harder to understand," says Joan
Rosenbaum, the museum's director since 1981 and the main force behind
its revitalized contemporary arts program. "And the reason
is that it deals with the challenges of life, the darker side of
existence, with politics. It's always tough." But despite the
difficulty these shows might present to audiences, Rosenbaum says
they are an important part of understanding how Jewish identity
and art are evolving. "We deal with Jewish issues that are in
the world today, that are on people's minds. And we provide the contemporary
interpretation of that history," she says. "We feel that
contemporary art helps sort out a complicated world."
becomes a little murkier when the subject is the Holocaust. If some
museum goers had a hard time accepting a Chanel menorah, confronting
them with a Lego concentration camp might only fur- ther complicate,
rather than sort out, their complicated world. "When
you are dealing with the Holocaust, how far is it legitimate, tasteful,
comfortable to go?" asks Soltes. Is a comic book about
the Holocaust appropriate? Is a film like Roberto Benigni's "Life
Is Beautiful" to
be celebrated as affirming life in the face of evil, as a vast number
of moviegoers seemed to say, or rejected as maudlin kitsch that mocks
the experience of survivors, as some argued? "There really isn't
a clear sense of what a good or appropriate Holocaust representation
should look like," says Barbie Zelizer, a communications
professor at the University of Pennsylvania and editor of "Visual
Culture and the Holocaust." "When you move away from what
is typically called 'high culture'... and toward popular culture,
it becomes much more problematic. What you've got is a popular cultural
form that doesn't fit the context."
of the critics of the "Mirroring Evil" show at the Jewish
Museum express almost a sense of betrayal, asking why it is a Jewish
institution that is putting on such a show? Reesa Greenberg, a Canadian
art historian and museum consultant who con- tributed an essay on
this issue to the show`s catalog, which has been available since
De- cember, argues that a Jewish institution is the best place.
“Visitors may feel deeply threatened, outraged or betrayed, but
it is safer to explore the implications ofthe con- tinuing fascination
with the Nazi era within the confines of a Jewish museum than outside
it," she writes in the catalog.
The Jewish Museum. of course. is
not the first arts institution to face the wrath of an indignant
public. Beyond the controversy over “Sensation," the provocative
1999 Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibit whose elephant dung-covered
image of the Virgin Mary triggered loud protests, the last decade
has seen a growing number of instances in which an aggrieved group
has sought to either stop or change what they saw as an offensive
exhibit. The Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, for example,
have both had to cancel or restructure exhibits under fire, on subjects
ranging from the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima to slave
life on Southem plantations.
°l think one of the reasons museums
got so hot is that there is a sense of public ownership and people
believe that once something goes up on a museum wall, it’s the
truth. lt's hard to rebut a museum wall," says sociologist Steven
Dubin, author of "Displays
of Power: Controversy in the American Museum from the Enola Gay to
But does the public really own the museums? And particularly
in the case of the Jewish Museum. what kind of a stake do members
of the Jewish community hold in an institution whose mission is
to docu- ment and reflect their group°s experience? ln the case
of its upcoming exhibit, the mu- seum says it had the show vetted
by a di- verse committee of historians. museum professionals, survivors
and children of survivors. But the public’s involvement can only
go so far, says Richard Siegel. "Museums are ultimately
about curatorship, and that requires an eye, a sen- sitivity, a taste,
and also independence."
The question critics of the Jewish Museum
show are asking is: Did the curators` eye fail them, and did their
independence lead to a lapse in sensitivity and taste? Supporters
of the show, meanwhile, say that the only way to truly judge that
is after seeing the show itself. “lf you described 'The Producers'
over the phone to someone, they would be horrified," says
Robin Cembalest, the executive editor of ARTnews and the daughter
of a Holocaust survivor. “Context is very important. "