In the Jewish Museum’s Closet: Photos of Gay Men at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial
The museum removed photos of gay men at Berlin’s Holocaust memorial from an exhibit on sex and identity
Shortly after Adelman’s work was taken down on the afternoon of May 7—a small note, informing the public that the work had been “temporarily” removed, was posted on the wall—another work from the permanent collection, Israeli artist Nir Hod’s I Swear (1997), a work that engages with many of the central themes of “Composed,” was hung on the wall in its place, and any mention of Adelman’s work was removed. (Ironically, Hod’s own recent controversial exhibition of paintings is based on the appropriation of an iconic Holocaust image.) I Swear is a large color photograph of a cross-dressing Israeli soldier (the artist), wearing shiny red lipstick, long black locks of hair, a uniform and tie, holding one leather-gloved hand to her chest while the other clutches a gold necklace, a blingy Jewish star dangling above a Tanach, or Hebrew Bible (on which the soldier “swears”), and a gun. Red wax candles adorn the table. I Swear has been in the museum’s permanent collection for some time and had been passed over when the checklist for “Composed” was finalized.
The Jewish Museum has a venerable history of tackling difficult ideas by mounting ambitious, bold, and experimental exhibitions, best exemplified by the vision of legendary chief curator Norman Kleeblatt, whose conversation-changing exhibitions, from the landmark “The Dreyfus Affair” (1987) to “Action/Abstraction” (2008) were among the best shows curated by anyone, anywhere, in those years. Kleeblatt has also curated some of the Jewish Museum’s most provocative and challenging shows, including “Too Jewish?” (1996) and “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art” (2002), a brave and challenging exhibition that was quickly enveloped in a maelstrom of controversy. According to Carole Zawatsky, then-director of education at the Jewish Museum and now CEO of the JCC in Washington, D.C., the museum did a tremendous amount of due diligence in anticipation of some of the reactions to the show, and a conversation space was developed as an integral part of the exhibition that included controversial (and often maligned) artist Tom Sachs’ Prada Death Camp, a model of Auschwitz constructed from a Prada hatbox, which drew upon the artist’s association of fashion to fascism. At the time, the Jewish Museum stood by its decision to exhibit the controversial work and never removed it, nor any of the other contested works—even as protesters, including a group of survivors, positioned themselves outside the museum’s doors.
Whatever the lawyers might have to say about it, the notion that pictures posted on a free and open Internet website such as GayRomeo will always remain private seems absurd as a matter of common sense. Within seconds of entering the site, I was able to view tens of thousands of men’s profiles and pictures and did not need to register nor pay a membership fee to do so. If one wishes to post a profile, the process asks for basic information to be provided: fetish preferences, publicly listing one’s penis size, willingness to participate in various sexual acts and the manner in which one prefers to do so, fluency in various languages, if one’s penis is circumcised, and (perhaps the most intimate and consequential disclosure of all) whether safe sex is a priority. This basic introductory information pops up alongside numerous profile pictures, many of which are extremely graphic. Rooks’ profile picture, and those of 149 other men, including that of the artist himself, are, by comparison, among the tamest things that one might find on GayRomeo.
Given the public nature of these very personal declarations, it’s hard to imagine how a fully clothed portrait of a man standing in front of a deconstructivist memorial sculpture in Berlin, posted on a site that requires no membership fee and has tens or hundreds of thousands of visitors at any given moment, was somehow an invasion of his privacy. At what point, one might ask, does one relinquish the reasonable expectation of privacy? Practically speaking, this is a question ultimately for lawyers. But it is also a prime opportunity missed by the Jewish Museum—regardless of whether they ultimately decided to remove the work. The intersection of photography, the Internet, and appropriation of other people’s likeness raises complicated legal and ethical questions. What, for example, are reasonable expectations of privacy on the Internet? What is the artist’s role in creating art within an ever-shifting legal landscape and expanding online bank of images, and what are the limits of a museum’s obligations to protect and defend the artwork and artist? Ironically, Adelman’s work, which astutely grapples with questions concerning the conflated spheres of public and private life that are at the heart of the objections raised by Rooks, could have provided a springboard for addressing these very current issues.
The removal of work sets a dangerous precedent. If the decision was based on a fear of legal action, then the Jewish Museum should have worked with their counsel to find a way to keep the artwork in place. If it had to be removed, then a public conversation should have followed. This is the role of the museum: to protect and defend the artist and the artwork and to provide a space for open discussion about sometimes conflicting and overlapping contemporary concerns. Few things are more relevant to contemporary culture than the evolving role of the Internet, and concurrent shifting notions of public space, as they relate to contemporary artistic practice. With less than two weeks remaining before “Composed” closes, I can only hope that the Jewish Museum will reinstall Adelman’s Stelen (Columns), so that a public discussion can be had about the important questions that were raised by its removal.
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