Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Nails and Planks

It seems pretty much a non-issue to me, but apparently some folks are capable of getting their knickers in a bunch by anything even tangentially having to do with religion these days. The Art Newspaper reports:

The Ben Uri Gallery, London’s Jewish Museum of Art has stirred up controversy by showcasing an exhibit of crucifixion paintings by artists including Graham Sunderland.

Critics denounced the show, “Cross Purposes: Shock and Contemplation in Images of the Crucifixion”, as inappropriate for a Jewish museum. Benjamin Perl, a patron of the gallery went so far as to say the museum was “trying to play to the non-Jews. What type of material is this for our Jewish museum?”

First, I'd ask Mr. Perl to consider the precedent of the Jewish Museum here in New York, which evolved into an important player within the international art scene through its decision to exhibit both Jewish and non-Jewish artists' work. From Annie Cohen-Solal's fantastic biography "Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli" comes this description of what was originally called the Museum of Jewish Ceremonial Objects:
With the guidance of art world figures such as Meyer Schapiro, the board voted to rename it the Jewish Museum and announced plans to mount exhibitions of contemporary art, and even show the work of Gentiles! [...] Given the Jewish tradition of involvement with intellectual progress of all kinds, the board reasoned, it was only fitting that the community take a leading role in cultivating the avant-garde of New York's art scene. (p. 271).
Second, of course, London’s Jewish Museum of Art has its own rationale for the exhibition:

David Glasser, co-chairman of the gallery, responded in an email to supporters by saying that the museum is “very proud to represent the Jewish community in the mainstream but this like all our challenging exhibitions are totally from the artistic context. Ben Uri as a museum does not address issues from a religious context.”

Glasser was also concerned by a poll on the website of the Jewish Chronicle (since finished) asking whether or not a Jewish museum should stage an exhibition of Crucifixion art. The poll came out overwhelmingly in favour of the show, with 63% of responders supporting it.

Not surprisingly, Glasser also noted that many of the complaints about the show came from folks who hadn't seen it yet.

Within a historical context, I'd always considered crucifixion something that would be emotionally very loaded for Jewish people (albeit in a different way from how it is loaded for Christian people), given its usage by the Romans on Jews as well as Gentiles, especially with the practice being forbidden by Jewish law. From Wikipedia (with the usual caveats about that source):

Ancient Jewish law allowed only 4 methods of execution: stoning, burning, strangulation, and decapitation. Crucifixion was thus forbidden by ancient Jewish law. The Aramaic Testament of Levi (DSS 4Q541) interprets in column 6: "God [will set] right errors. [He will judge] revealed sins. Investigate and seek and know how Jonah wept. Thus, you shall not destroy the weak by wasting away or by [crucif]ixion. Let not the nail touch him."

Mind you, I'm aware that today any historical subtitles are heavily overshadowed by crucifixion's symbolism within Christianity for many people, but, I don't mind noting how many of those same people sport tattoos, earrings, bumper stickers, t-shirts or what have you bearing the same imagery they supposedly consider "sacred." Indeed, this self-generated transformation of the imagery from the sacred to the secular (the focus of the exhibition intellectually [see Ben Uri Gallery]) seems an uber-timely exploration as fundamentalists of all stripes work themselves in a frenzy suggesting it's the "other" who poses the greatest threat to their traditions and values. If only by its hopefully helping folks notice the planks in their own eyes, I applaud the effort.

Labels: art exhibitions, religion


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand that this exhibition is related to the Ben Uri's acquisition of a Crucifixion by Chagall showing Jesus wearing tefillin. Chagall painted it as a response to the Holocaust -- he transformed the Christian context to make the Crucifixion about the suffering of Jews.

As for the controversy, it would be hard to manufacture a better way to raise the museum's profile.


7/28/2010 09:21:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

More info assuming I have the right Bennie.
Benjamin Perl, fighting assimilation?

7/28/2010 09:35:00 AM  
Blogger annell said...

Thanks for this post. I enjoyed reading it, and wish I could also see the show for myself. Religion is always causing trouble or are people just looking for something to fuss about? It isn't easy to offend, today.

7/28/2010 10:57:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

All this and no urine. Wow.

7/28/2010 01:09:00 PM  

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