The abrupt cancellation of the Spertus Museum’s show, Imaginary Coordinates, raises some vital questions about what should be the role of a Jewish museum. Today’s Chicago Tribune notes the Museum has just opened a new $55 million building in the heart of downtown. As such it is reaching out beyond its traditional Jewish audience and trying to impact the city at large including the art world. But can it do so?
Can it be an art museum in the usual sense of the term? If it must pull its punches by cancelling an exhibit most viewers and artists found well within the consensus of political and artistic discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, hasn’t it lost the right to call itself an art museum? It is more a glorified synagogue gift shop displaying mezuzas, prayer books, tallises and other ritual paraphernalia. Such a “museum” isn’t interested in art, so much as expressing some sort of consensus view about Jewish creative expression and identity. Art that has to toe the line isn’t art. At least not art in the traditional free-wheeling sense of the term.
Here is a perfect example of the schizophrenic nature of this conflict as expressed by the chair of the Spertus board of trustees:
Spertus President Howard Sulkin expressed regret that the exhibition caused pain for its core constituents. But he said the concept behind it fit with the evolving mission of the museum.
“A willingness to experiment is incorporated right into our core principles, and we see one of our roles as being a place that inspires dialogue on the critical issues of our time,” Sulkin said Friday.
Yes, but you just betrayed that very mission by cancelling Imaginary Coordinates. So, in effect, you’re not what you think you are. You’re trying to be a real art museum, but constrained by the parochialism of the local Jewish community, which is a terrible shame.
Another Museum trustee further amplified the problematic nature of the conflict it faced:
Marc Wilcow, an institute trustee for 11 years, said the decision to close the exhibition was not based only on donors’ opinions.
“We like to encourage people to think about serious subject matters,” Wilcow said. “Judging from the response from the community we did cross that line unintentionally. . . .”
“When there is a perception that the state of Israel is not being depicted in a balanced way it creates controversy,” he said. “Spertus is not interested in going around and hurting people’s feelings.”
Right. Spertus wants to make people think. But not too hard. And if it does make them think too hard it will recoil from such a commitment. When push comes to shove, Spertus has to toe the line and abandon its artistic principles, if it has any.
What precisely was so threatening about the content of the show? Read below and try to understand how this gets interpreted as “anti-Israel:”
Among the displays was a collection of postcards portraying the ordinary lives of Palestinians working, playing and mourning—an attempt to personalize land disputes as battles for livelihood, not real estate.
A video installation showed a nude woman spinning a barbed-wire hula hoop around her waist against a peaceful backdrop of the Mediterranean near Tel Aviv.
Another video showed a woman driving around Jerusalem asking for directions to Ramallah, a Palestinian town in the West Bank. Everyone gives her different directions and describes Ramallah as far away, when it really is quite close by, illustrating how mental distance can affect the maps in our mind.
Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said pieces like those videos lacked context. While many pieces highlighted Palestinian humanity, he said others portrayed Israelis as unfeeling and guarded, without noting the dangers Israelis have faced for decades.
He said the exhibition also opened against a backdrop of anti-Israel sentiments in many intellectual circles worldwide.
“The last place the Jewish community should hear echoes of that is a Jewish museum,” Kotzin said. “This is kind of pulling the rug out.”
The rallying cry for all pro-Israel attacks on critical artistic or political expression about Israel is “it lacks context.” This is the same criticism Marshal Bouton used in justifying cancelling Walt-Mearsheimer’s talk to the Chicago Global Affairs Council. Do these people think their audience are children who cannot reason for themselves? Does the Israeli Palestinian conflict need to be chewed and pre-digested like the worms a mama bird feeds her young?
I strenuously object to Kotzin’s claim that because Israel is criticized in “intellectual circles worldwide” this means that you can’t have an art show in Chicago. This is nothing less than the closing of the American Jewish mind. I for one, won’t stand for it. If people like Kotzin want to bury their head in the sand that’s all well and good. But I don’t think any other Jews should stand for it. We can think for ourselves, thank you Mr. Kotzin. We don’t need to be protected from dangerous art, art that makes us think.
I think that Rhoda Rosen, the Spertus’ curator and creator of this show, has a lot of professional questions to consider. Unfortunately, she’s refusing to speak to the media about the closing. I know how important it is to get a paycheck and I respect the fact that she doesn’t want to jeopardize her job. But aren’t there bigger issues at play here? What about artistic freedom? Does she not feel some responsibility to defend her own artistic vision which, after all inspired the exhibit? What about her commitment to the artists she recruited for the show? Does it bother her that either she, or her superiors have, in effect deserted them?
Has anyone stopped to think about how strange it is that an Israeli artist can make art that questions the Israeli “narrative” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that this art can be viewed in the Israeli art world as well as in Jewish museums around the world including here in the U.S., yet the Chicago Jewish community feels too threatened to see it? What are Chicago Jews saying about the strength of their Jewish identity and commitment to Israel? Is Israel something so fragile that not even Israeli artists should be allowed to question it in Chicago? What a petty, impoverished Jewish world view this is.
In this blog, I’ve noted an important piece of sociological research by Rutgers professor Chaim Waxman about affiliation of Jewish youth with the organized community. One of the salient points Waxman raises to explain the decline of affiliation rates is the close-mindedness of the Jewish leadership. They are the “good old boys” of Jewish life. The rich, old men: the Jewish WASPs if you will. When a 20-something Chicago Jew reads about the Spertus’ decision and notes that it was forced on the institution by those Jewish fatcat donors, do you think that Jewish young person will be more or less inclined to affiliate with our community?
So when you hear Jewish leaders bemoan the loss of commitment by young Jews to the organized Jewish community–tell them they brought it on themselves. People like Steve Nasatir, the philistine Jewish federation president who called the exhibit “anti-Israel,” think they can force these decisions down the community’s throat without there being a price to pay. Well there is a price to pay. And the price is a loss of the next generation.
Hip young Jews look at such closed-mindedness and say: “What do I need this for?” I can become involved in the non-Jewish world and express myself much more fully without being afraid that I will have to censor myself. Young Jews aren’t interested in their father’s Oldsmobile. They are interested in the world at large, which include Judaism, Israel and other Jewish issues. But they no longer have to approach them from within the community especially if that community is so hostile to free inquiry and expression.
I’d like to give the last word to Chicago Jewish resident, Lisa Kosowski, who saw the exhibit and published this comment here yesterday:
I saw the exhibit and I was very moved by it. I am a Jewish Chicagoan and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. I grew up in the Reform Jewish movement, became a Bat Mitzvah, attended Jewish summer camp, been to Israel 5 times (so far), including a year in college, and I’m engaged to marry an American Israeli.
Just as I criticize the current American political leadership, I also openly criticize the policies of the Israeli government, but I would never consider myself “anti-Israel.” I can say with 100% confidence that there was NOTHING anti-Israel about that exhibit. It is shameful that certain members of the Jewish community use their money and power to suppress open dialogue about the conflict in Israel/Palestine.
Yitchak Rabin, Anwar Sadat, and countless, nameless others have given their lives for the mere hope of reconciliation and a just peace. Yet, apparently, the misguided self-proclaimed Jewish “leaders” can’t even look at an art exhibit that they find “painful.” Even worse, they use their money and power to suppress free speech, free expression, and open dialogue for the rest of us. They should be ashamed at the way they spit on the basic principles of democracy, and the traditions and laws of Judaism itself.
SHAME ON THEM!
Arik Elman says
The one thing Jewish museum is definitely not supposed to do is to proclaim Palestinian right of ownership over Land of Israel. And futhermore, what right do you, or Jews of Chicago, or this Lisa Kosowsky person have to criticize our government? Who the hell are you? Who gave you that right? Yes, you can come to Israel, become an Israeli citizen, vote and get elected – all because we are one people, however absurd this notion seems to me after visiting this blog. But no, you have no inborn right to stab us in the back from the comfortable distance – be you even twice a daughter of Holocaust survivor. You can’t support Israel – sit and be quiet.
Richard Silverstein says
@Arik Elman: Arik is a perfect example of the militant pro-Israel Know Nothing. Has he seen the exhibit? Has he read any serious reviews of it? Does he know what the exhibits were actually about? No on all counts. Guilty on all counts. He only knows that the right wing press or similar online sources tell him.
As for my rights to criticize Israel…as you said I am a Jew. One who takes seriously my obligations toward the Jewish people. I am not one of those myriad of young people who have turned their backs on Israel out of frustration that things will ever change. No, I’m someone who will stick with Israel until it finally gets it right–which it will…despite the braying of militants like you.
So yes, I am a Jew and that give me the right to make my voice heard whether you like it or not. And yes I have an “inborn right” (whatever that means) to criticize Israeli policy when it is wrong and to criticize the Chicago Jewish leadership for its callowness in the face of an exhibit which raised provocative questions about Israeli identity.
So no, I won’t take your advice to sit and be quiet. You’re not my father. You don’t get the right to tell me what to do no matter how much you’d like to.
The Golem says
It has always seemed to me that one of the greatest glories of Jewish culture, both religious and secular, is that it exists in constant critique of itself and of the world around it. Whether it is our father Avraham arguing with the G-d he perceives about what is just, or Jacques Derrida deconstructing Western ideas of philosophy and literature, Judaism and Jewish culture is at its best when it accepts the inherent contradictory nature of the world and the subversiveness of reality.
When it degenerates into Orthodoxy, by which I mean not pious and observant prayer, study and ritual, but Orthodoxy of thought, be it Religious, Zionist or even Marxist, then it is at its most gravely sick. Is my Torah incorrect or are we not forbidden to give different forms of justice to the rich and to the poor? And are we not forbidden to follow the majority to do wrong?
It would seem that those in power at Spertus have lost their vision and have no business calling themselves a Jewish University.
Aimee Kligman says
I am happy to find another Jew with a working mind. Here’s my take on this, as posted on my website today:
“Why can’t this art be seen by American Jews? It’s really a shame.”
“The Israelis come across as unfeeling,” said Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. “It was seen by some as part of a pattern of sympathetic treatment of Palestinians and a less sympathetic treatment of Israelis.”
Indeed, many Jewish viewers complained that the multimedia show —which was part of a larger citywide celebration of maps — expressed an anti-Israel bias.”
I was totally opposed to the closing of this art show. Art sometimes is about controversy; if we allow donors to control what is shown, and what is not, then how is that not censorship? How is that not like the protests by Muslims over the Danish cartoons? And people caving into the demands, and then some standing up to the “freedom of the press” paradigm. Yes, I understand that the Jewish folks who opposed the show did not burn flags or go on a shooting spree and issue fatwas. But they were successful in removing the artistic expression from the public, in what they deemed was offensive. Spertus is setting a dangerous precedent.