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Spertus Museum pulls plug on controversial map exhibit
June 22, 2008 10:08 PM   Subscribe

The Spertus Museum/Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies has just canceled Imaginary Coordinates due to complaints that some of the artwork (NSFW: nudity, disturbing imagery) in the exhibit had an anti-Israeli slant.

This comes less than a year after the opening of their much-heralded new building. The show, which was part of Festival of Maps Chicago, was first shut down a few weeks after it opened in May, then retooled and reopened with limited access by guided tour only.

Spertus has purged information about the exhibit from their website, but you can still catch a video tour produced by the museum (exhibit tour starts at about 1:40).
posted by hydrophonic (45 comments total)

 
Any idea what was so offensive about the projected map one? Other than the suggestion that borders are not set in stone.
posted by Artw at 10:22 PM on June 22, 2008


it seems no one realized that the light-drenched exhibition space would be dangerously bright for the antique maps, even in their protective glass cases.

The artist must be thick. What was she expecting? In America, when it comes to Israel and maps, transparency and light are dangerous things.

The barbed-wire hula-hoop was pretty cool though.
posted by three blind mice at 10:28 PM on June 22, 2008


"Becoming an Artist" or "Becoming me". Interesting post. I can't tell if her art is purposefully political or not. And yes, that artwork link is disturbing. I like it.
posted by sluglicker at 10:30 PM on June 22, 2008


Artw, I didn't mean to imply that Landslide was more controversial than other pieces. I spent some time looking for more information on the art included in the exhibit, and that was just poor link placement on my part.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:35 PM on June 22, 2008


I'm thinking this probably just follows general thinking on examing Israel in America: i.e that you just don't, not ever, and if anyone does you run around waving your hands in the air as much as possible.
posted by Artw at 10:35 PM on June 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


And I'm just thinking this thread is going to consist of a series of knee-jerk criticisms of Israel and American supporters of Israel. God, this shit gets old.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:48 PM on June 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


Look, personally, I don't think they should have pulled the exhibit, mostly because it gives fuel to a popular myth, already repeated in this thread, that American supporters of Israel are somehow uniquely aggressive in shutting down criticism of the State of Israel, and that any and all criticism of the state is inherently good, and any and all responses to that criticism is somehow bullying or misguided. In this instance, people at a Jewish museum felt that the art piece tended to show Palestinians as rather ordinary and sympathetic, and Israelis as guarded and suspicious, without contextualizing how the images were created or what circumstances might have caused these reactions. But instead of having an actual discussion about whether these criticisms and concerns are valid or not, instead this thread is going to be swarmed by people who have nothing to say about the subject except that it's another example of American supporters of Israel shouting down anything that outs them in a bad light.

I'm not a Zionist, and have been critical of Israel's long history of human rights abuses my entire life. But I am a member of the American Jewish community, and get rather exhausted with this particular charge, leveled against my fellow American Jews. It's just this frothing face of contempt, and is useless to dialogue.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:03 PM on June 22, 2008 [8 favorites]


Hmm... well, call me a knee-jerker if you will, but if there's some kind of nuanced point here, other than that anything not uncritically pro-israel is not acceptable at the Spertus, then I'm missing it.
posted by Artw at 11:04 PM on June 22, 2008


And I'm just thinking this thread is going to consist of a series of knee-jerk criticisms of Israel and American supporters of Israel. God, this shit gets old.

Almost as old as mindless apologia from those who feel the need to defend all of Israel's actions, without exception. Nowhere near as old as the next ad hominem that I know will probably be coming. Still, megakudos to you on totally killing the possibility of any open or fair discussion.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:07 PM on June 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


It's a microcosm!
posted by Artw at 11:09 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yes. I responded with ad hominem and apologia. Good call. You really have nailed the American Jewish community, and know exactly how we'll respond.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:11 PM on June 22, 2008


You really have nailed the American Jewish community, and know exactly how we'll respond.

At first I thought you were trolling. Now I realize you're just clueless. There's nothing in this post which is "nailing" the American Jewish community, other than in the fevered imagination of your own comments.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:13 PM on June 22, 2008


FWIW I don't think it's a "jewish" thing in the slightest. I don't think Jewish museums in other countries would be pressured into dropping this exhibit. That the Sperta is lessens it considerably.
posted by Artw at 11:14 PM on June 22, 2008


There have already been two comments rooted in the pernicious myth that American Jews just shout down any criticism of Israel. But, hey, go ahead and keep telling Jews that any concern they might have is cluelessness on their part, and then remind them that they are the ones prevent any discussion from happening. It's a wonderful rhetorical device.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:15 PM on June 22, 2008


FWIW turned out to be "very little indeed".
posted by Artw at 11:16 PM on June 22, 2008


Well, I don't know about museums in other countries. But nobody has yet discussed whether or not the criticisms of the piece were valid or not. If they were not valid, than it is fair to say that the museum pulled the piece because it won't tolerate legitimate criticism of Israel.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:21 PM on June 22, 2008


"Some visitors were particularly outraged that pieces in the exhibit challenged borders Israel has fought to define for decades."

That seems to be the controversy around the projected map. From the artist's description:

"This kind of real-time map generates unique moments rather then being a product of the past or a representation of a fixed geographical taxonomy."

I agree with Astro Zombie that this discussion has been done a lot here, and often not very well, but these discussions won't get any better if we prevent them from happening.

My honest reaction is that the debate is not at all served by shutting this down, but I can understand the desire of some Israel's supporters to better contextualize the issue. However, that full weight of context shouldn't really fall to any one artist, and I'd much prefer that the museum went to the trouble of contextualizing this before they shut it down. If the exhibit is causing that much trouble, surely an attempt in that direction could be made. It seems worth it.

That said, I have never seen a museum exhibition do a perfect job of showing all viewpoints on any issue. Art intended to spark thought or discussion can't be expected to contain all the answers. That responsibility really falls on the audience.
posted by dosterm at 11:21 PM on June 22, 2008


Well, I did suggest that any discussion of Israel in America will be disruptted by loudly shouting idiots. I'm not entirely sure that Astro Zombie is arguing against me there.
posted by Artw at 11:23 PM on June 22, 2008


You must be reading a different thread, Blazecock, and one in which you didn't make this comment:

Almost as old as mindless apologia from those who feel the need to defend all of Israel's actions, without exception. Nowhere near as old as the next ad hominem that I know will probably be coming.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:23 PM on June 22, 2008


Artw: Jewish museums in other countries would be pressured into dropping this exhibit.

In Australia the Zionist part of the Australian Jewish community regularly lobbies everyone to regard Israel as uniquely threatened and pushes to try and suggest that Iran threatens the entire West etc. My Jewish Question by Antony Loewenstein is all about this. It also describes how the Zionist lobby operates in the UK.

That said, surely a place funded by the Jewish community is free to put on anything it wants and does not have to consider the other side. If this was a Palestinian art centre it would be surprising to see them not get criticised if they put on an exhibit about the unique right of Israel to exist or whatever.

This shows that there are Jews who are really worried about Israel's taking Palestinian Land, War crimes and the rest of it and that the Jewish community is not united in universally supporting everything Israel does. And it also shows that those who do very strongly support Israel are silly enough to hire those who don't as curators.
posted by sien at 11:26 PM on June 22, 2008


Well at least it didn't occasion a visit from the counter-terrorism police. We had Barbed Hula show here quite a few years ago. I don't how it would be received in our current repressive environment though.
posted by tellurian at 11:48 PM on June 22, 2008


Well, I'm not that guy

Well, no, you're not that guy, you're just the guy claiming everyone is out to get American Jews, even though no one said anything of the sort here. Whatever.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:49 PM on June 22, 2008


Yes. That's exactly what I said, and you didn't just misrepresent it at all.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:49 PM on June 22, 2008


hmmm....let's see. It's a jewish museum, presumably funded by jews. They don't exist without the steady stream of cash from their donors. One caught wind of this exhibit, and called up the others on the board of trustees. They all discussed the political messages underlying some of the pieces. They considered whether or not they would continue to donate to such a museum, or if they would even try to pull in new donors at their next gala function. What do you think happened?

The exhibit looks really cool. I wish it was still going on, I would have definitely checked it out. But criticizing the museum for pulling it is like criticizing wal-mart for not carrying video games rated M. It's a private institution, and ultimately those who fund the institution will be making decisions about what will be displayed there.
posted by Kifer85 at 11:51 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, you did lead in by describing the thread as an attack on the American Jewish community, then describe two posters as spreading pernicous myths about that comunity, basically adding up to an accusation of bigotry, which is not exactly condusive to reasoned debate.

On preview: What Blazecock said.
posted by Artw at 11:51 PM on June 22, 2008


My complaints were about two specific comments that did not address the subject of the thread at all, except to say, oh, how typical, once again supporters of Israel are shutting down any criticism of Israel.

If I misinterpreted these comments, I apologize, but that's how they read to me, and it's still how they read. If the original authors would like to explain a subtler interpretation that I missed, I am open to it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:54 PM on June 22, 2008


Oh, and of course anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic art has been the subject of controversy many times before, with the Iranian Holocaust Cartoon Contest as one of the more infamous incidents. In the latter case
posted by Krrrlson at 12:00 AM on June 23, 2008


Well, it'd be largely pointless, but I'd 100% criticize Walmart for political censorship, if not for the utter pointlessness of it. Of course, WalMarts not really failing in it's core purpose, to sell as much stuff as possible to as many people as possible, by doing that. An art gallery has more lofty goals, one of which is to open discourse. An art gallery that cannot has failed, and criticism of it is entirely valid.
posted by Artw at 12:01 AM on June 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


I flagged my own first comment. I think my concerns are inexactly expressed in that one, but my second comment, which I posted immediately afterward, phrases what I was concerned about. And, honestly, if even raising concerns about how people react in a thread about Israel is an invitation to a torrent of abuse, then I'm starting to feel as though I'm just going to steer clear of these threads.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:03 AM on June 23, 2008


Astro Zombie writes "And I'm just thinking this thread is going to consist of a series of knee-jerk criticisms of Israel and American supporters of Israel. God, this shit gets old."

It's always good to anticipate trouble so strongly that your own concern becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Basically, you're blackmailing us: "any discussion that might be critical of Israel will turn into knee-jerk criticism, so we can't ever have any discussion of Israel that might be even a little bit critical."

Well, screw that. I used to be a strong supporter of Israel, but I've come to realize that making special exceptions for the State of Israel, for whatever reasons ("the only democracy in the Middle East", "our only ally in the Middle East", "the Jewish State", "to fight antisemitism", "because of the unique horror of the Holocaust", "because that's where Armageddon happens", whatever) just turns into the soft bigotry of low expectations and enables the worst Israeli actors -- the Likudniks, the ultra-Orthodox, the "settlers", the violaters of Palestinian human rights -- to continue to do the very things that make peace impossible. A special moral dispensation for the State of Israel hurts Israel and hurts America. I suspect many of the techniques hate most about Guantanamo Bay and the Iraq occupation were orginally developed in Israel's prisons and occupied territories.

No, I'm not absolving the Palestinians and Jihadists of their crimes, but as an American, I'm tired of giving Israel billions to purchase US weapons to violate human rights. I'm tired of the Likud and I'm tired of AIPAC influencing my country's foreign policy. I'm tired of the special pleading, and while I have great respect for the survivors and victims of the Shoah, I'm tired of the relentless marketeers of the Holocaust who use their fellow Jews' suffering as justification for any suffering they visit on anyone else.

Israel's had 60 years to make a working state and to find a modus vivendi with the Arabs. Raher than doing that, Israel's relied on the big guns and big money of the US to bail it out. It's not going to last. The American Empire is hollow and will soon crumble, and when we're literally out of AV-gas or fighting the Chinese for the last barrels of oil, we're not going to be there to prop up Israel.

That doesn't make me happy -- I wish Israel had been able to create a fairy-tale in the desert, a big kibbutz full of blooming orange trees. Instead it's full got the ultra-Orthodox fanatics and Palestinian child-suicide bombers. But as an American, it's not my problem, it never was my problem, and I'm tired of it being my problem.
posted by orthogonality at 12:04 AM on June 23, 2008 [10 favorites]


And I'm just thinking this thread is going to consist of a series of knee-jerk criticisms of Israel and American supporters of Israel. God, this shit gets old.

Yes, it does get old so why the fuck doesn't Israel stop acting that way?

Nothing has changed, are we supposed to forget that this country, Israel, to which I personally have been forced to contribute tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars through my taxes, has a complete disdain for international law and common human decency, that not a dozen months ago they dropped thousands of fucking cluster bombs, bombs that are considered to be a crime against humanity in all civilized countries, on Lebanon, a country that had done (as a country) nothing at all bad to Israel. (*)

Of course, the United States is at root to blame, if you own a vicious dog you're the root cause if it kills a child. But until your fucking Israel stops committing crimes against humanity you should expect all the shit you get.

Note: this is NOT intended to excuse the moronic Palestinians from their own fuckwit violence. Hardly! But since the various Palestinian liberation movements never manage to kill even one tenth as many Israelis as they sustain casualties, the onus is on the far more successful killers, Israel, to at least pretend to attempt to stop the madness.

(* - Yes, I'm aware that three soldiers were kidnapped by criminals in Lebanon. Only a madman would believe that this justified the killing of thousands of random people not connected to this crime.)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:06 AM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


And I'd like to note that within my lifetime I've gone from thinking of Israel as the "miracle in the desert" to my current state, where if I read that Israel had been destroyed, I'd think, "A shame but you reap what you sow."
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:16 AM on June 23, 2008


My complaints were about two specific comments that did not address the subject of the thread at all, except to say, oh, how typical, once again supporters of Israel are shutting down any criticism of Israel.

That would seem to BE the subject of the thread, would it not? I mean, putting that as bluntly as possible isn't that exactly what happened, to everybodies loss? Is there some reason why this is not exactly what it appears to be?
posted by Artw at 12:30 AM on June 23, 2008


And I'd like to note that within my lifetime I've gone from thinking of Israel as the "miracle in the desert" to my current state, where if I read that Israel had been destroyed, I'd think, "A shame but you reap what you sow."

Oh don't do that. Firstly it's just more ammo for silly gibberish, secondly it's not going to happen except in the rhetoric of fearmongering loons and weak dictators trying to puff themselves up, and thridly we shoudl really be hoping for a happy, or at least stable, outcome for all parties, not grimly accepting of a worst case that drags everybody down.
posted by Artw at 12:36 AM on June 23, 2008


I do agree with you in some sense, Artw, but consider:

Israel is surrounded and also permeated by a large group of people that they have declared war against, but more, declared to be subhuman. These people have a much higher birth rate.

Moreover, Israel's tremendous strength depends on huge military and financial support from a geographically distant ally, the US, who is having serious issues and whose support depends entirely on cheap petroleum.

Unless Israel comes to a working arrangement with its neighbors, it will inevitably be destroyed, perhaps not this decade, conceivably not even the next, but inevitably.

If I had met even a single person who a) agreed with Israel's strongly militarist stance and b) didn't put the adjective "filthy" before the word "Arab" in their hearts, I would not be writing this.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:44 AM on June 23, 2008


Astro Zombie: "In this instance, people at a Jewish museum felt that the art piece tended to show Palestinians as rather ordinary and sympathetic, and Israelis as guarded and suspicious, without contextualizing how the images were created or what circumstances might have caused these reactions."

I dunno, man. I tend to agree with you, but I've been living in the West Bank for the past week and I've already been detained by IDF for half a damn day and gassed by some troops way the hell behind a hill somewhere for accidentally walking too close to the wall. Every Palestinian I've met seems rather ordinary and sympathetic, and traveling into Israel proper gives me the heeby-jeebies - everyone seems to have a gun. I breath a sigh of relief every time I get back across the wall into Palestine because it means I'm much less likely to have a damned gun pointed in my face. Last night, crossing through, the soldier told me I stunk like a Palestinian - I thanked her and collected my belongings to catch a (safe, non-Israeli) cab back home to Beit Sahour. It's really insane, Hebron is honestly the most terrifying place I've ever been in my life, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the Palestinians. So if the exhibit portrayed the Israelis as guarded and suspicious, I would definitely say that lines up neatly with my (albeit brief and cursory) observations of the conditions on the ground.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:12 AM on June 23, 2008 [12 favorites]


It's not jews who are criticized on Metafilter for their knee-jerk defense of Israel, it is American Evangelical Christians. Who do so because they are trying to hasten the coming of Armageddon, which for some reason requires the existence of Israel.
posted by breath at 1:37 AM on June 23, 2008


we each see this in a different perspective, for sure. Take a moment: imagine a museum in an Arab country portraying arabs in a nasty light. What would then happen?
Main point: is the museum a public or a private museum? Makes a big difference. Museums get lots of flak when they belittle Jesus and often must remove the pieces.

As for the art: I would have to see much more of it to begin to make a judgment. Having just read a book on the Ludz ghetto, I found the barbed wire nude very offputting.
posted by Postroad at 4:13 AM on June 23, 2008


Over here in the UK they showed the bared-wire hula-hooping video in all its glory on national television at 7pm in the evening, as part of a report of the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy... sometimes I just love my country.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:19 AM on June 23, 2008


Take a moment: imagine a museum in an Arab country portraying arabs in a nasty light. What would then happen?

OK, so Israel is just another totalitarian state in the middle east who plays to a sense of racial pride so that the rank and file won't question their masters or whether there might be a better way to run things. Got you.

Or is that not the argument you're making?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:42 AM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


[a handful of comments removed - further name-calling needs to go to metatalk, thanks]
posted by jessamyn at 5:42 AM on June 23, 2008


I do wish to add one thing, and that's paradoxically I have no more beef with the people of Israel than I do with the people of the United States, where I live.

Both groups bear a great deal of responsibility for the crimes committed in their names, but at the same time both groups have been deceived by a small group of rich crazies, who either make huge money from warfare, or have religious beliefs that encourage behaviour that would bring on the Apocalypse.

Most Israelis I know favour a much more moderate stance than their government involving serious negotiations and concessions from all the belligerent parties, especially Israel.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:01 AM on June 23, 2008


Spertus released a statement to the press about the closing (which they forwarded to museum's e-mail list), which basically states that they canceled the exhibit in order so they wouldn't hurt their fundraising abilities.

I couldn't find a copy of the statement on the spertus website, or a complete copy on any of the news websites, so I figured I'd include it here, since I'm sure someone would like to read it.

"The Board of Trustees of Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies has voted to close the temporary exhibition Imaginary Coordinates ahead of schedule after a run of nearly two months. The exhibition, originally scheduled to be open through September 7, will close immediately.

Imaginary Coordinates is a multi-media exhibition inspired by and including rare and antique maps of the Holy Land from Spertus' collection. These maps were brought together with objects of material culture and contemporary works by renowned Israeli- and Palestinian-born women artists. The works in the exhibition convey varying perspectives about Middle East borders and boundaries. One of the exhibition’s goals was to foster conversation on this subject.

"Spertus is an institution that takes risks and seeks to inspire discussion on the critical issues of our time. When you take risks, you learn things. In this case we came to realize that parts of the exhibition were not in keeping with aspects of our mission as a Jewish institution and did not belong at Spertus," said Dr. Howard A. Sulkin, President of Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. "This exhibition caused pain for members of our audience. That was never our intent and we apologize."

"With our new Michigan Avenue facility," Sulkin continued, "Spertus unapologetically sought to build a home for Jews and Jewish issues, and, with equal enthusiasm, opened its doors to everyone. As we grow into our new space, we are still learning how to balance our new programming and new audiences with sensitivity to our core constituents. Obviously, we still have a way to go in achieving this balance."

Spertus Institute Trustee Philip Gordon said the Board's decision to close the exhibition was extremely difficult and was made only after a great deal of thoughtful and deliberate consideration.

"Spertus was at risk of seriously alienating its core constituency. As trustees, we are stewards of this important center of learning and culture for the long term. We agreed that our fiduciary and mission-based responsibility to Spertus required us to direct the staff to close the exhibition," said Gordon. "Spertus has a mission to educate and engage people, and that mission extends far beyond this one exhibition."

After being made aware early on of significant criticism that Imaginary Coordinates conveyed anti-Israel points of view, Spertus changed its viewing policy to require that visitors explore the exhibition accompanied by a tour guide. The intent of this change was to provide a fuller contextual understanding of the works and better monitor visitors’ reactions and input. Nonetheless, the exhibition continued to elicit criticism that led the Trustees to conclude it was inappropriate for Spertus.

Spertus officials said the exhibition's closing was a unique situation.

"We do not believe the decision to close this exhibition in any way establishes a precedent. This is a unique decision involving a unique exhibition on a subject that generates particularly passionate opinions in the Jewish community," said Sulkin. "Spertus will continue to offer extraordinary, cutting-edge programming that inspires thought and provokes dialogue."

Imaginary Coordinates opened on May 2. While it has been criticized strongly, it has also received positive feedback from other visitors and substantial critical acclaim."
posted by Arbac at 2:33 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


MYTH: American Jews shout down any criticism of Israel.

TRUTH: Spertus Museum cancels show which some American Jews construed as having an anti-Israel slant.

Glad we cleared that up.
posted by wfrgms at 3:21 PM on June 23, 2008


Yes. One deals with a specific incident, the other is a broad generality.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:08 PM on June 23, 2008


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