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Jewish World Review Jan. 16, 2002 / 3 Shevat, 5762

Michael Long

Mike Long
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Discretion and Art

Controversy at the Jewish Museum of New York -- ONCE upon a time, the man on the street once knew his Manet from his Monet; this was long ago not in time but in culture, back when the firmament of the art world still connected standards to skills and mastery. Combining elitism and relativism, the arts debate in America has, for the last half-century or more, been a monolog. The fundamentals of art administration today are 1) expression itself is art whenever it is asserted to be art; 2) provocative installations must not be distinguished from thought-provoking artworks; 3) nothing is inappropriate. The modern discussion of art is sophistry because anything is art, and anyone can play.

Which is precisely why a recent amazing comment by Rabbi Abraham Cooper ought to be heard.

First, some background. The Jewish Museum of New York is bringing to town an installation of works by thirteen artists examining images of the Holocaust with dissonant insertions. In particular, the show features a concentration camp "kit" for Lego blocks, and a photo of emaciated camp survivors inset with a man posing with a can of Diet Coke. The museum is privately held. It is entitled to display whatever it likes.

Now, consider what Rabbi Cooper told the New York Post. Notice how by cutting to the bone of this issue, he bares the larger problem of the art world: "Chutzpah. It's not an issue of censorship -- such an exhibit will find a way into the pop culture. But the Jewish Museum should be building a firewall to protect history, to stand with the victims, to help the community at large to understand the sacredness of memory."

No demand for censorship. And no pious, responsibility-free posturing about the freedom of the artist, as is the most common answer from the art world. Just a call of bellwether clarity for a little discretion, a little wisdom, a little interest in the community -- a little maturity. This art may or may not be good, but that's not the point. This museum has a unique role to play not only as a presenter of the arts but also as a keeper of history. The Jewish Museum is a guardian of the moral gravity of a terrible moment in history. This particular installation does not belong here because this kind of emotional spelunking should not be indulged here. Somewhere else, perhaps, but not here.

Rabbi Cooper can be expected to find this strikingly appropriate balance between expression and reverence, as he is a co-founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. As a keeper of that sacred history, he understands better than most that while we are morally obligated to respect other voices, we also have an obligation to respect history, for in respecting history we preserve it, and in preserving it, we avoid learning its harshest lessons firsthand, and again.

The arts debate in America ought to be conducted in just this way, in terms of where something is appropriately presented -- but it cannot be, because of taxpayer funding for the arts.

There was a time when a vast majority of Americans could agree on the desirability of certain cultural enrichments such as symphonies and museums. But public funding was like blood in the water, and led to expanding the tenuous notion of "art in the public interest" from symphonies and museums to candidates for carnival sideshows.

Hence the usual art debate, which boils down to what is or is not in the public interest, and it fractures into questioning what is offensive or blasphemous and how much the taxpayers ought be taxed to pay for what offends them, and how good it is for the soul to be offended in the first place.

The libertarian answer we are left with is soulless but logical: pull the plug on all public funding for the arts. A community that wants a symphony orchestra or a museum ought to be able to scrape up the funds from local arts lovers and businesses, just as the kids in a garage band have to save up for guitars and an amp. Until we quit the funding altogether -- or until we find the courage to define clear standards for the limited public art we will fund -- we are merely subsidizing certain forms of entertainment over others, and that's wrong.

The debate in New York is being hashed out, as it should. The framework is made possible precisely because private individuals are debating the use of private funds. But as long as the government keeps a hand in the business of art, we will see neither such clarity nor civility elsewhere.

JWR contributor Michael Long is a a director of the White House Writers Group. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Michael Long