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Busting Stereotypes and All That

In search of the ultimate in Jewish art

Robin Cembalest
June 29, 2006

A few weeks ago I participated in a conference at Arte BA, the Buenos Aires art fair. The subject was “the impact of Latin American art in the media,” with individual panels devoted to the mass media, English-language magazines, Spanish-language dailies, Spanish-language art magazines, and so on. Over several days several questions emerged: Does Latin American art even exist? How do you define it? Is it better to integrate or segregate? And, obsessively, which Latin American artists had made the cut in the newly reopened Museum of Modern Art? How did they get there? Is their work showcased properly?

On the third day, Rosa Olivares, an editor of Exit, a Madrid-based quarterly, took the podium. Spanish art, she commented, is more invisible than Latin American art, not just at MoMA, but in the art world in general. But she doesn’t “give a shit!” Why does everyone else? she asked. What’s with this obsession about the way others see and define them?

Some of this was sounding awfully familiar, probably since I had recently read the responses to my last column, about defining Jewish art. Still, I couldn’t remember reading anything about Jewish artists in the new MoMA—I guess because at this point, the presence of Jews in a survey of 20th-century modernism is, as we say in the journalism world, a case of dog bites man.

The Islamic story at MoMA started more recently: basically, with “Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking,” which just ended. The exhibition showcased artists in exile from Muslim countries whose work is “revising, subverting, and challenging” Islamic traditions, as curator Fereshteh Daftari put it. In this respect, at least, the show followed the template of Thelma Golden’s “Black Male” at the Whitney in 1994 and Norman Kleeblatt’s “Too Jewish” at the Jewish Museum, in 1996–busting stereotypes and all that. But times have changed since the heyday of multiculturalism. Hence the stern explanation on MoMA’s Web site: the “exhibition seeks to emphasize diversity by questioning the use of artists’ origins as the sole determining factor in the consideration of their art.” Not quite a disclaimer, but carefully worded fine print. It seems to indicate that these days, the very concept of an exhibition devoted to artists from a culturally specific group must itself be challenged, even if their work confounds expectations. The museum included work by two Americans, Bill Viola and Mike Kelley, in order to “prevent simplistic conclusions.”

The British Museum currently has a show called “Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East,” which includes Christian and Jewish artists. But it has a celebratory focus rather than the postmodern ambivalence of “Without Boundary.” To really emphasize diversity, as it were, perhaps the next exhibition in the Subvert Your Cultural Heritage genre should integrate, not segregate. Throw together artists like Lebanese-born Mona Hatoum, whose prayer mat made of pointed pins was in “Without Boundary,” and Helene Aylon, whose piece “The Liberation of God,” which highlighted sexism and misogyny in the Bible, was in “Too Jewish?” Now that could create an identity crisis.

I got to wondering about what “Without Boundary” would be if its curator applied that show’s premise to Jewish artists. Consider that in Jewish art, our long history of revising, subverting, and challenging goes back to the Golden Calf, which could be interpreted as Aaron’s artistic response to the proscription against representing divinity, which later became codified as the Second Commandment. Contemporary descendents of Aaron include Deborah Kass, who updates Warhol’s famous Jews, and the Russian art duo Komar and Melamid, ”the ultimate Jewish artists,” Anthony Julius argued in his book “Idolizing Pictures,” because their mock heroic images of Stalin subvert idolatry and thus fulfill the spirit of the Second Commandment.

But there is another strain of Jewish art that also goes back to Exodus. If you change the cubits to inches, the rules for the construction of the tabernacle sound uncannily like Sol Lewitt’s instructions for a wall drawing. This makes Bezalel, the man the Lord endowed with the divine spirit to get the job done, the first in a long line of Jewish Conceptual artists that runs through Lawrence Weiner and Sophie Calle, among others. Words matter a lot in this kind of art. It engages the brain as much as — if not more than — the eye. It is obsessively process-oriented, theatrically intellectual. In many cases it consists of instructions that can be performed by anyone, anywhere. Indeed, Weiner stressed in ARTnews back in 1968, it wasn’t even necessary for his instructions to be carried out.

This is an artist who stencils “us” and “them” on bathroom doors. That’s subversive, isn’t it? Clearly, most artists channel Aaron as well as Bezalel. After all, let us recall what became of Aaron’s controversial sculpture. In Exodus, right after Moses smashed his tablets in fury, “He took the calf that they had made and burned it: he grounded it to powder and strewed it upon the water and still made the Israelites drink it.” All the Israelites — not just the ones who worshiped it. (They were killed later in a plague.) That’s why, you might say, there’s a little bit of the Golden Calf in all of us.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor ofARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.

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