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The Guardian/UK

Artistic Censorship in Chicago

The cancellation of an exhibit deemed too critical of Israel sacrifices artistic integrity for conservative politics

Richard Silverstein

Chicago's Jewish leaders are testy about criticism of Israel. Jewish directors of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs apparently pressured its director to cancel a talk by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer last year. Now some of the same figures may have deemed an art exhibit at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies too hot to handle. As a result, the exhibit, Imaginary Coordinates, which featured works investigating Israeli and Palestinian concepts of homeland, has been shut down two and a half months early because of complaints that it was anti-Israel.

What precisely was so threatening? In one video installation, an Israeli artist appeared nude on a Tel Aviv beach spinning a barbed-wire hula-hoop as it lacerated her skin, symbolising fortified barriers which cause pain to those they encircle.

In another video, an Israeli woman drove through Jerusalem asking for directions to Ramallah. Each person provides different directions and describes Ramallah as far away, when it is actually quite close, illustrating how psychic distance affects the maps in our minds.

Ahmad Ibrahim's Memory Map of Jimzu shows every home destroyed in his Palestinian village in 1948.

Another work was a menorah whose candleholders are IDF shell casings.

Challenging? Yes. Provocative? To be sure. But hostile to Israel? How could anyone presume that a Jewish museum would allow itself to demean Israel? Unfortunately, there is no telling what will provoke the sensitivities of those in the Jewish leadership. The artists dared to question a few shibboleths, and local philistines felt their hearts twitter in response. Like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, they commanded: "Off with her head." And just like that, Imaginary Coordinates has become a figment of our imagination.

This decision reminds me other art museums that have censored or cancelled controversial exhibits. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum bowdlerised an exhibit about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. The Corcoran Gallery cancelled an exhibit of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. Rudy Giuliani tried to force the Brooklyn Museum to cancel its exhibit, Sensation, which he deemed offensive to Catholics. Often the institutions came out looking badly in the wider community for compromising their artistic integrity.

Steven Nasatir, president of the Chicago Jewish Federation, told the Chicago Tribune that he felt that the Spertus show was "clearly anti-Israel", though he refused to specify what he found objectionable. About the closing, he said: "It's an institution saying, 'We made a mistake, we're sorry and let's move on.'"

Nasatir's "let's move on" reminds me of the policeman at the scene of a car wreck urging bystanders to move on. It's the call of bureaucrats everywhere who prefer the public not question them.

What should be the nature of a Jewish museum? Should it be a booster to Jewish identity, or should its primary commitment be to artistic integrity?

In an essay for the exhibition catalogue, Spertus director Rhoda Rosen articulated a bold vision for the institution's new $55m building in the heart of downtown Chicago. In hindsight, it is sad and ironic. Spertus, she wrote, is moving "from the parochial toward the civic":

While the new Spertus' starting point continues to be Jewish experience, the institution does not operate from a partisan point of view. ... At times broadly accepted Jewish assumptions will be examined and cherished, and at others they will be examined and questioned.


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How disappointing that such a bracing vision has been stymied.

If it must pull its punches over an exhibit most viewers and artists found well within the consensus of political and artistic discourse, hasn't Spertus lost the right to call itself an art museum? Isn't it more like a glorified gift shop displaying mezuzas, prayer books, tallises and other ritual paraphernalia? Such a museum isn't so much interested in art as in expressing a consensus Jewish view about creative expression and identity. Art that has to toe the line isn't art - at least not art in the traditional, freewheeling sense of the term.

Spertus president Howard Sulkin provides a perfect example of the schizophrenic nature of this issue. "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," he told the Chicago Tribune. But Spertus betrayed that very mission by cancelling Imaginary Coordinates.

Marc Wilcow, another museum trustee, further amplified the problematic nature of the conflict: "When there is a perception that the state of Israel is not being depicted in a balanced way it creates controversy," he told the Tribune. "Spertus is not interested in going around and hurting people's feelings."

So 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 is constrained by the parochialism of the local Jewish community. It has to toe the line and abandon its artistic principles in order to maintain ties to its core, and conservative, constituency.

Do these people think their audience consists of children who cannot reason for themselves? Does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict need to be chewed and pre-digested like the worms a bird feeds her young? Is Israel such a fragile reed that even Israeli artists should not be allowed to question it? What an impoverished Jewish worldview.

This is nothing less than the closing of the American-Jewish mind. We can think for ourselves, thank you. We don't need to be protected from so-called dangerous art.

Rutgers sociology professor Chaim Waxman has noted the declining affiliation of Jewish youth with the organised community. He attributes the decline largely to the close-mindedness of the Jewish leadership. 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 more fully without having to censor myself." Young Jews aren't interested in their father's Oldsmobile. They are interested in the world at large, which includes Judaism, Israel and other Jewish issues. But they no longer have to approach them from within the community, especially if that community is hostile to free inquiry and expression.

So when you hear Jewish leaders bemoan the loss of commitment by young Jews to the organised Jewish community, tell them they brought it on themselves. Steve Nasatir thinks he can force these decisions down the community's throat without paying a price. Well, there is a price. It is the withering away of the next Jewish generation.

Richard Silverstein runs Tikun Olam, a blog dedicated to resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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