Saturday, October 6, 2007

Independence Paintings in Burlington, Vermont: The End?

Frequent readers of this blog will have noticed the attention I have been giving to a controversy in Burlington, Vermont regarding the exhibition of Independence Paintings: Inspired by Four Stories, mural sized collage of painting and text by Bread and Puppet Theater founder, Peter Schumann. My involvement with the story began with my writing an account of my own break with Bread and Puppet over the exhibition of just that particular work.

The story, at least in Burlington, seems to have drawn itself to a close though there are a few developments that I feel the need to comment upon.

Sally Pollak, in an article in the Burlington Free Press provided both an account of how the piece had come to be exhibited and of the fallout in Burlington. The exhibition was brokered by Marc Estrin (whose defense of the exhibition as "appropriate" I responded to here) working with Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel, a group that hosts anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial material on their website.

I have, like both Chasan and Kadour already noted the anti-Israeli and Holocaust denial material on the VTJP website, to which Bob Greene, a spokesperson for representatives VTJP has stated to Ken Picard in Seven Days:

“We’ve been called a thinly disguised hate group and anti-Semites, despite the fact that a quarter of our regularly attending members are Jewish, including one who escaped Hitler, [....] These are dangerous, ugly libels. If we were a group that had money or made money, we’d sue these motherfuckers.”

Greene and VTJP can deny that they advocate antisemitism or Holocaust denial all they wish, but as Chasan, Kadour, and I have all pointed out, a simple visit to their website contradicts such denials. A libel is only a libel if it has no basis in fact. Labeling me a "motherfucker," as Greene has done, does not change that.

While the September 19 Seven Days piece by Ken Picard, framed the story as one between political art and censorship (despite the fact that many of the most vocal critics of the exhibit, Rabbi Joshua Chasan, Ric Kasini Kadour, and I never called for censorship) Pollak's piece was far more nuanced, identifying the problem as the fact that a group with no connection to the arts community, sponsoring an exhibition for political purposes, to quote Yoram Samets in the Pollak article:

"It is our understanding that the Art Hop is an open community opportunity for artists to display their work and for the community to get involved, [...] In this case, Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel hijacked the venue for their political agenda. What we have here for the first time is the Art Hop being used by a political organization to further their point of view."

However, despite this, rather than discuss ways to prevent Art Hop from being hijacked in the future by a political organization, State Senator Hinda Miller, as reported Picard, has assembled a coalition to "go after" Art Hop's funding (the Pollak piece describes it as a petition "to overhaul policies and procedures at the annual arts celebration.") The artists, including those highly critical of Schumann's work have reason for concern: art festivals, like the larger Open Studios weekends we have in the Boston metropolitan area thrive on free expression-- and indeed, a review process unless highly streamlined, is cost prohibitive due to need for staffing. The fear that any potentially controversial artwork could be dropped from Art Hop is a real one that must be addressed. At the same time, statements by Carlos Hasse, Executive Director of the South End Arts and Business Association, which sponsors Art Hop are clear that there is a willingness to reevaluate its processes and listen to community concerns. The question is: can this be done without endangering artistic freedom in Burlington, Vermont?

If we value freedom of speech, we must oppose censorship, but rather than grit our teeth when ideas with which we disagree are given voice, we should instead explain why those ideas are wrong and why ours are better. This is the practice, not of censorship, but of following bad speech with good, and this is what I have attempted to do in my own critique of Schumann's work and of his apologists.

That said, my critique of press coverage of this event is over the most central issue: what is the truth-value of the art in question? Journalism, which by nature, reports on current events, is often at a failure to account for historical context. Both Picard and Pollak do a good job of identifying the participants in the controversy and what they have to say about one another's positions, but not about the truthfulness of the claims. After all, is not the value of political art the ability to tell truth to power?

Schumann and VTJP have chosen to confuse issues by injecting false analogies with the Holocaust into any discussion of the
Arab-Israeli conflict shows that they lack the moral seriousness to discuss the facts of the conflict, the causes, their history, and any possible solutions in an honest and thoughtful manner-- they simply have no regard for historical truth. The reports of the September 8th presentation make an unambiguous case that civil discussion has broken down, and while there are guilty parties of varying political affiliations, the fault originates with those who inject divisiveness and dishonesty when there should be truthful, reasoned, dialogue. Ugly statements breed ugly statements.

Schumann chose to juxtapose the Warsaw Ghetto with the West Bank Wall in a single piece of art (note that this was not a decision made by the Palestinian artists with whom he worked in Beit Sahour) and it seems to be understood by both his supporters and his critics (nearly everyone except for him) as a statement of near equivalence. The system of ghettos Germany established in the General Government of Poland killed five- to six-hundred-thousand Jews through engineered concentration, overcrowding and famine over a period of two years. A statement of equivalence is either to falsely charge Israel with genocide in the West Bank (where is the evidence?) or to claim that the Warsaw Ghetto was merely a place of high unemployment and humiliating checkpoints (as Schumann described the West Bank in his February presentation at the Boston Center for the Arts.) The Warsaw Ghetto killed over one-hundred thousand, the West Bank Wall, despite some of its worst effects, has prevented terrorist attacks on Israel, eliminated the need for IDF reprisals-- it has saved lives, both Israeli and Palestinian and permitted rebuilding in Palestinian communities-- but neither Schumann nor VTJP are concerned about that.

In the meantime I should note that Pollak did not repeat Picard's erroneous report that Schumann's family were refugees from the Nazis. I have mentioned this issue with Picard via email, and as Picard did not state he was in error when I brought it to his attention, I have to assume that this was an instance of Schumann misrepresenting himself in order to deflect criticism.

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