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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

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Images from Stelen (Columns), series of 150 found images. (Marc Adelman)

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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stannadel says:

Is this the Jewish Museum in Berlin or someplace else?

stannadel says:

Is this the Jewish Museum in Berlin or someplace else?

The first line of the piece has been amended to clarify.

stannadel says:

Thanks, I had a feeling it was NY but wasn’t sure.

rocky2345 says:

The photos are all in bad taste and the Berlin Jewish museum should have had no part of it. It is a desecration of the dead.

gaisavoir says:

I think that this is an important work and a tribute to the effectiveness of the Stelen, in their open and free marking of the city compared with the dreadful, Authoritarian and monolithically Zionist contro; freakery of the Libeskind building. I had the luck to discuss this piece with the artist and deeply understand the cleverness and importance of what he has done in an act of showing us something important in the socail world in an aesthetically complex seriality…

One of the best thought out and written articles I have seen on Tablet.

Hershl says:

Learn English before you choose to publicly make a fool of yourself.

diane kaston says:

This should have been, as Maya Benton correctly indicated, a discussion about privacy, the internet, and what does ownership of an image mean in today’s world. Facebook/Pinterest et al are all struggling with this same issue from a commercial copyright perspective. We all could have learned from a thoughtful dialogue, simply removing the art is a disgrace for such an esteemed museum, especially one that focuses on the “Jewish” experience with it’s inherent nature of otherness through out history. Sadly this has devolved into simple censorship.We need to do better.

The photos are neither here nor there. None of them is in the least offensive. But it’s clear what the artist intended, and you don’t have to be gay to see it. Here is a stark memorial to 6 million dead Jews. Far fewer gays died at the hands of the Nazis, but those who did suffered exactly as did the Jews: persecuted and slaughtered for something over which they had no control: their identity. Persecuting people for what they believe is unforgivable, but singling some out for being gay or Jewish is a denial of humanity. Jews were not killed for their beliefs, but because Nazi law defined them as wholly Jewish, half Jewish, one quarter Jewish and so on. Gays were defined over something none of us can control: their sexuality. For you to find the photos in ‘bad taste’ says a lot of disturbing things about you. Think about the Nazi response to modern art or jazz. They too considered them in ‘bad taste’. I don’t mean there is no such thing as bad taste, just that you have chosen your subjects for rebuke very badly.

rocky2345 says:

The photo shoot should not have taken place in the middle of a memorial to the dead. To gain some sort of commercial advantage
through shock value is in poor taste. The purpose of the photo shoot was
not to remember gays who died during the war at the hands of the Nazis
but to advance the interests of a gay dating service, for Pete’s sake.
You should watch the documentary “Paragraph 175″. Gays were sent to
labor camps if they were caught committing sodomy. But there was no effort to round up every last gay German and to
exterminate them. During the Third Reich, about 100,000 gays were
arrested for Paragraph 175 violations out of a likely gay population of
about 4 million (5% of the 1939 Reich population of 80 million) and were
sent to camps such as Dachau. Only 4,000 survived the brutal conditions
of the camps. But as far as I know, there were no special gay
deportations to Auschwitz, Sobribor, Treblinka or Belzec.

I agree that this is very insightful and well-informed! Its greatest success is opening up this minor incident in order to elucidate how museums and artists maneuver some of the possible complications of making and showing conceptually-driven work. This is a satisfyingly detailed account.

matjones says:

“…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…”

And this is the role of the artist as a conscientious human being: to be respectful towards the anonymous people’s rights who they’ve decided to appropriate when they take their images without consent to create their “artwork” which they then profit from monetarily. Go provide a discussion about that.

Pier-Paule Sansoucy says:

An exhibit of photos of fully clothed men posted on a gay dating site. Photos taken at the Berlin memorial for the Jews murdered during the Holocaust. 2,711 concrete slabs or “stelae” coated with an anti-graffiti substance, Protectosil, manufactured by Degussa – whose subsidiary, Degesh, manufactured the Zyklon B gas used in the gas chambers. Remind me. What again is the scandal here?


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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

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