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THE JERUSALEM REPORT - FEBRUARY 25TH 2002

 

WHO OWNS THE SHOW?
By Yigal Schleifer

 

 

The controversy 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 Holocaust'?

''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.

'Contemporary 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."

This all 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."

Many 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 Sensation."

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. "

 

 
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