Topic: Museum Controversy
Zugzwang. Rudolf Herz, 1995.
All museums are social arenas and Jewish museums in particular engage a broad set of social, historical, and political issues. How might a close reading of controversial museum exhibitions illuminate contemporary Jewish culture?
Museum controversies are great starting points for analyzing the intersection of Jews, media and religion. In the absence of contestation, museum events appear to be contained by the walls of the gallery and the building. Crises of contestation bring the museum's media and religious significances into relief.
Within Jewish Studies, many scholars and teachers begin with the premise that museums symbolize the "death" of Jewish religious practice, based on the premise that objects once used in synagogue or domestic rituals are no longer "alive" when exhibited in sterile museum cases. While interesting as one view of museums and Judaism, this view of museums as the "death" of Judaism is not flexible and open-ended enough to use as a starting point for understanding the broad nexus of Judaism, culture and media framed by multiple levels of museum practice. And yet, it can be difficult to move past this initial critique of Jewish museums.
Thinking of a museum controversy as a social frame for analyzing Judaism, religion and media is just one of many flexible approaches to analysis.
When an exhibition elicits strong critique, for example, that critique often voices ideas about what Judaism should be from various perspectives. The critique or protest also casts light on how Judaism as a religion shapes and is shaped by media in the public sphere.
Site: Holocaust Art Controversy
Hitler's Cabinet, Mischa Kuball, 1990.
What: Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art
Where: The Jewish Museum, New York
When: March 17-June 30, 2002
Who: Norman Kleeblatt (Lead Curator)
Key Resource: Exhibition Catalogue
Here is the description of the exhibition that was circulated in the the project brochure:
"From March 17 through June 30, 2002, The Jewish Museum will present Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art, an exhibition accompanied by extensive educational programs, forums for discussion and a major publication. At the core of this initiative is a selection of recent works by thirteen internationally recognized artists, all of whom are one or two generations removed from the Holocaust and who make new and daring use of imagery taken from the Nazi era. Departing from earlier art relating to the Holocaust, which has tended to focus on the victims, these works confront us with the Nazis' faces, their apparatus of power, their notoriously effective propoganda. The artists employ the cerebral language of conceptual art to bring this highly charged imagery out of the past and into the present, prompting us to re-examine our understanding of the forces that produced the Holocaust. Drawing unnerving connections between the imagery of the Third Reich and today's consumer culture, the artists sharpen our awareness of present-day techniques of persuasion and symbols of oppression, and lead us to question how images shape our perception of evil."
Enfants Gâtés (Spoiled Children). Alain Séchas, 1997.
In anticipation of the controversy, the Jewish Museum conceived of the exhibiton as one part of a larger project that also included a catalogue of critical and exploratory essays, and a series of lectures at cultural institutions throughout New York City.
Still, the exhibition brought strong reactions from the community, including ridicule from such well-known cultural figures as Art Spiegelman, and from Holocaust survivors, who protested by standing in front of the Jewish Museum, pulling up their sleeves, and showing the public the numbers tatooed on their arms. With such complexity in both the content, program, and reaction to Mirroring Evil, teaching it requires asking more than just, "Was it right or wrong for The Jewish Museum to do it?"
Instead, we can ask more interesting questions about the relationship between the Holocaust and art, the role of Jewish museum exhibitions in contemporary American society, and the status of Holocaust memory. We can challenge students to think about whether or not there should be rules as to what can and cannot be represented in the public sphere, and to consider what role Jewish culture should play in formulating or controlling these moral limits for society at large.
Ways to teach Mirroring Evil
Here are a few suggestions for how to use the exhibition to launch a discussion of core issues in Jewish religion, culture and society.
Take 1: Halakhah of Holocaust Representation
One of the key issues in Judaism today is the centrality of the Holocaust not just as an historical tragedy, but as a set of religious practices. Unfolding at the intersection of civil religion, media and consumer culture, the public commemoration of the Holocaust can be a highly ritualized event. Mirroring Evil can be a good way to engage students in a discussion of the "rules and rites" of representing and commemorating the Holocaust.
Consider these three artistic representations of Nazi concentration camps that were exhibited in Mirroring Evil:
Fig. 1: LEGO Concentration Camp, Zbigniew Libera, 1997.
Fig. 2: Prada Deathcamp, Tom Sachs, 1998.
Fig. 3: The Real Thing--Self-Portrait in Buchenwald, Alan Schechner, 1993.
In each case, the tension between Holocaust representation and consumer culture is paramount. But to what end?
- Is it wrong to create artworks of this nature?
- Should these pieces be put on display in a museum?
- Who owns the images and representations of the Holocaust?
- Has living in a world of logos and billboards fundamentally changed the way we interact with even the most horrific representations of the Holocaust?
- What aspects of religioius practice are violated or exemplified by these objects?
Directions to take this topic
General Observations on Museums and Jewish Studies