Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Independence Paintings in Burlington, Vermont, Part 3

I have been following the dispute over the exhibition of Peter Schumann's Independence Paintings in Burlington, Vermont, from my desk in Somerville, Massachusetts, so I am often forced to wait for and digest reports as they come in.

For those of you who have just joined me, the reason I am following a dispute over a collage being exhibited so far away from me is that for a number of years, I had performed with Bread and Puppet Theater, of which Schumann is founder and artistic director, in their Boston-area shows. It was when this painting was exhibited in conjunction with a Bread and Puppet show at the Boston Center for the Arts that I determined that I could not in good conscience continue with the troupe. I wrote about that event here.

For the past few days I have been digesting reports of the events on Saturday, September 8. That morning Peter Schumann gave a presentation regarding Independence Paintings which was inspired by his experience working with a group of Palestinian performers during a visit he made to the West Bank last year. WCAX reporter Andy Potter wrote an account entitled "Art Exhibit Draws Fire" describing "a flare-up of emotion."

The cause of this "flare-up" was the structure of the work, which, assuming that it was the same piece I saw at the Boston Center for the Arts, comprises of paintings of pained figures, clearly portrayed as Jews juxtaposed with text describing Israeli Defense Force counter-terrorist operations in the West Bank as described by the Palestinian performers. Schumann, in his talk on February 12th, 2007 described these Jewish figures as inmates of the Warsaw Ghetto. During the question and answer segment of the February presentation, he was called to explain why he felt it necessary to make a juxtaposition between the Warsaw Ghetto, an instrument of the Holocaust, and the West Bank, noting that juxtaposition implied an equivalence between the death by engineered starvation, and overcrowding, of one-fifth of Poland's Jewish population and the high unemployment rates on the West Bank. Schumann denied he was making any such comparison, but offered no other explanation as to why the West Bank and the Warsaw Ghetto appeared in the same piece other than the fact that he had chosen to read John Hersey's 1950 book, The Wall on the trip. Vocal critics saw this as a false accusation of genocide against Israel. Vocal defenders of Schumann at the same event, when they were not trying to shout down the critics, saw it as a true accusation.

I have already noted that there is no evidence supporting such comparisons and like a number of other critics, I viewed the work as "soft-core" Holocaust denial and thus, anti-Semitic propaganda.

Based on the reports I have received concerning the event on September 8th, a similar emotional dynamic appears to have been at work, however a key difference is that some in Burlington had read reports of the event in Boston, while the Boston audience had known only that the work was inspired by Schumann's work with Palestinian artists.

As noted before, WCAX reported a "flare-up." A personal email sent to me on September 8th at 11:55pm by Marc Awodey (who was not in attendance) related events as described by people he met that day: "a well orchestrated cadre of about 40 [...] protesters [...] waving [I]sraeli flags, yelling, plugging their ears when [S]chumann tried to speak." Note that Ken Picard's article dated September 12th in Seven Days estimated that the number of disruptive protesters amounted to "about a dozen of the 100 or so people in attendance." One of Awodey's sources reported that at least one of the protesters loudly made racist statements regarding Palestinians.

An email sent by Rabbi Joshua Chasan to local Christian clergy on September 9th (and published here at his request) gave this account:

Unfortunately, some of those hurt [by comparisons between the West Bank Wall and the Warsaw Ghetto] were as rude and hostile as supporters of Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel at the Saturday morning talk by Peter and the fellow he invited, Joe Koval. This issue pushes a lot of buttons.

Awodey forwarded me a piece by Marc Estrin, author with Richard T. Simon of Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater entitled "Concerning the Hubbub at the Schumann Exhibit, and Why the Sponsorship and Speaker were Appropriate" which described the following:

[A] contingent [...] leafleting the audience, posting flyers [...] and generally trying to disrupt Kovel’s talk with aggressive muttering, badgering, shouting and flag-waving throughout, and starting a political campaign to get individuals and businesses to withdraw sponsorship from the Art Hop.

Without a transcript of what was said, it is hard to determine whether the "badgering" of Kovel's talk was disruptive heckling and how much was simply a reasonable inquiry from someone who questioned either Koval's or Schumann's positions. There is little doubt from the given reports that some element of the dissent voiced at the presentation was intended to disrupt and silence, however, it is also likely that at least part of the group of dissenters were there to engage in a civil manner.

Clearly, there has been a break down in civil debate in Burlington around the exhibition of Independence Paintings but before I offer an interpretation of what this break down represents and examine its causes, I would like to attend to the rest of Estrin's essay for the light it sheds:

[P]olitical art is political by definition, that is, it addresses the polis about urgent issues affecting the life of people, and Israel/Palestine is an urgent issue. The back room of 696 [Pine Street] is devoted for the month to a show of political art. That it should be accompanied by related speakers, films and community discussion – and even controversy -- sharing its universe of discourse is a legitimate dimension to such work.

Art and artists certainly do have a role in the political life of a democracy, just as journalism and journalists, and history and historians. The most outspoken critics of the exhibition of Independence Paintings: Joshua Chasan, Ric Kasini Kadour, and myself do not deny the value of art in political sphere, and this is a point missed by Marc Estrin when the only critique he permits Schumann's critics is "This is politics [...] It doesn’t belong here."

The point is also missed by Ken Picard when he wrote "political art [...] creates controversy only when it’s done right."

The point on which Chasan, Kadour, and I all agree is that Independence Paintings is not done right, and sadly, very little of the reportage in the Burlington press has either described the content of the work.

What Estrin and Picard miss in discussing political art is the relationship between art and truth. I do not write of "truth" as a transcendent absolute found in speculative metaphysics, or the articles of faith of a given theological tradition, or even the truth understood the ideology of a given state or political movement. I make far more modest claims for truth: an interpretation of events or phenomena supported by a preponderance of evidence.

History is never just whatever somebody declares to have happened in the past, journalism is never just what somebody declares to have happened recently or currently happening. Were either so, we would have no means of distinguishing between history, pseudo history and myth; we would have no means of distinguishing between good journalism, sloppy journalism, and propaganda. Historians assemble a great many pieces of evidence to determine what happened in the past, and its significance. Journalists must rely on multiple sources to assemble a description of what is happening. What does this have to do with political art? Do we not expect artists to take liberties, to use hyperbole, satire, allegory, analogy, and symbolism?

A society becomes dysfunctional when journalists no longer make the attempt to be truthful, when history texts no longer have any relationship to the evidence that the past has left for us. Art is not held to the same rules of evidence of journalism or history, nor should it. However, political art ceases to have a value to the polis when it is no longer truthful, when it lies. At that point the aesthetic life of a society becomes sick and dysfunctional. If we do not acknowledge that art can lie, then we lose the ability to distinguish between the post World War I work of Otto Dix and the propaganda posters approved by the regime that banned so much of his work.

As mentioned before, Schumann juxtaposed images of the Holocaust with a narrative of Palestinian views of the West Bank Wall and IDF counter-terrorist activities in the same piece. The message was taken by both Schumann critic and Schumann defender alike that either a.) Israel is committing genocide in the construction of the West Bank Wall, just as Germany committed genocide in the construction, administration, and destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, or b.) that the Warsaw Ghetto was only as bad as the high unemployment rates and humiliation of going through an IDF security checkpoint. The evidence supports neither claim. The first interpretation is a false charge of genocide against the people and government of Israel and is antisemitism and "soft-core" Holocaust denial. The latter interpretation is very close to "hard-core" Holocaust denial and is unquestionably anti-Semitic. The act of juxtaposition has made a lie.

If we go back to Picard's aphorism "political art [...] creates controversy only when it’s done right" we see that this line of thought does not apply here. Good political art (such as that of Otto Dix) does create controversy, insight, or gives voice to thoughts that the audience simply has not found the means to articulate. But the controversy here has nothing to do with the quality of the art. The intensity of this controversy over how to interpret this piece, whether the piece should be exhibited or in what context it should be exhibited is a product of two factors: the degree to which Independence Paintings is untruthful and the degree to which the artist is a celebrity.

To further underline the untruthfulness of the work, let us examine Schumann's own statements:

Andy Potter reports that on September 8th,

Schumann explicitly disavowed any connection between his work and the Holocaust. "It wasn't the case, and if you think of it logically it simply doesn't hold up,"

Except that Schumann uses imagery that he admitted on February 12 in Boston was derived from his view of the events of the Warsaw Ghetto. Why would an artist knowingly create and exhibit something that does not logically hold up to the most basic scrutiny?

Schumann also stated at the September 8 talk that "I asked [the Palestinian artists] for the sake of creating this piece to tell me recent and local stories and then wrote these down." The methodology is sound but when compared with this statement from the September 4 article by Jack Thurston, "Schumann says his work is not anti-Semitic, it merely reflects a viewpoint many Palestinians really hold" several questions pose themselves. Can the work be free of antisemitism solely because it reflects viewpoints of "many Palestinians"? Why are the images of Independence Paintings not of life on the West Bank? Did the Palestinian artists suggest the use of the Warsaw Ghetto imagery?

The answer to the last question, appears to be "no." During the February 12 talk, Schumann was explicit that the inspiration to use images of the Holocaust came not from the Palestinians he met, but from the book he brought along with him on his trip, John Hersey's The Wall. The decision to juxtapose the West Bank with Warsaw was Schumann's and may have had little to do with anything said by the Palestinians he met. Indeed, if we consider that he stated that he had brought the book with him, the decision to juxtapose the two walls may have been made before he ever arrived in Palestine.

The break down of civil discourse in the wake of Independence Paintings is precisely because civil discourse must be rooted in truthfulness, and the work entered the political realm without ever having been truthful.

This is particularly disappointing when I consider Schumann's other works, some of which I have performed in, such as Oratorio of the Possibilitarians or World on Fire, which contained rich imagery, wit, sophisticated staging, and most importantly, truth.

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