Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Some Additional Excerpts from the NEJAR Interview

Here is some additional material from the interview Greg Cook conducted with me in the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research regarding my criticism of Peter Schumann's presentation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Holocaust. While Cook and I did have a face to face conversation on the evening of February 1st, the interview was mostly conducted via email on January 25th except for the first question and response which were from a follow-up on February 5th:

NEJAR: Do you really mean to compare Schumann to [Leni] Riefenstahl? That is a powerful charge. Aren't you basically calling him a Nazi?

Thal: I think the picture is far more ambiguous than that. The analogy I make is of how an artist interacts with the world of politics, not of the artist's ideology.

From documentaries and articles I've seen and read about Leni Riefenstahl, the picture I have of her is that of an artist whose work was accomplished and innovative (as is Schumann's) but who enjoys the patronage and association with extremists. In Riefenstahl's case, the extremists were Nazis, in Schumann's case they are Holocaust deniers like Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel or the International Solidarity Movement who support violent terrorism. At the same time Schumann pleads innocence when his association with extremism or the extremist content of his own work is questioned, just as Riefenstahl pleaded that she was just an apolitical filmmaker-- and she did in fact make some good apolitical films early in her career.

Remember: Riefenstahl was not a war criminal. She was a selectively amoral propagandist who could never take ethical responsibility for her art.

Schumann's decision to use misrepresentations of the Holocaust in order to completely demonize Israel and then, depending on the interview, either defend this representation, or state that this was never his intent, is a similar personal moral failing, though lacking the patronage of a powerful nation-state, it's a failing on a much smaller scale.

* * *

NEJAR: Have [your feelings about Bread and Puppet and Peter Schumann] changed at all since a year ago? Or since last fall?

Thal: They solidified further [...] when I discovered his support for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) which uses western activists as human shields to protect arms smuggling operations for terrorists based in Gaza, and when he worked with Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel (VTJP) whose official website includes Holocaust Denial materials.

* * *

NEJAR: Clearly, comparing people to Nazis (whether intentional or not) shuts down all discussion.

Thal: False charges of genocide, which is ultimately what using the iconography of the Warsaw Ghetto as a metaphor for the Palestinian West Bank, even by insinuation, only enables genocide and war-crime deniers everywhere-- be they Holocaust deniers in Europe, America, and the Middle-East, or Armenian Genocide deniers in Turkey, Japanese deniers of the Rape of Nanking, or Communist deniers of the atrocities of Lenin, Stalin or Mao.

NEJAR: But the Israeli-Palestinian matter is such an important and dear and tense issue that it seems hard for us to talk about it at all. What's your sense of why it's so difficult for our community to talk about?

Thal: It's difficult because too many of the people with strong opinions are unwilling to deal with the complexity of the situation-- consequently they attempt to impose simplistic schema that are completely inappropriate to the subject matter. There's a refusal to address the role that neighboring states have played in perpetuating the conflict for their own political gain. There's often a refusal to see the role that antisemitism and Arab racism against other minorities in the region have had both as a motivating factor and as window through which the situation is viewed. There's a refusal to see how the Palestinians are violently oppressed by the very political parties that claim to represent them.

NEJAR: What might be some ways to aid in a discussion?

Thal: Research. Learn how to distinguish between well researched history and propagandistic pseudo-history.

* * *

NEJAR: Are you going to see the Bread and Puppet performances at the BCA next month? Or Schumann's new paintings there, which he says are about a young Palestinian man whom he believes was falsely imprisoned by the Israeli government? Will you perform with Bread and Puppet this time around? Ever? How come?

Thal: I'm performing my own show at Willoughby and Baltic in Somerville on February 9th, so I'm rather busy, but even if my schedule were not at issue, there would be both ethical and practical matters.


Given the content of any of Schumann's work regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to come from animus and not from a commitment to truth (even the sort of truth found in allegory or satire) it's not worth my while. The experience the past year has left me with grave doubts regarding his intentions and his sincerity-- and I can't work with an artist whom I can no longer trust. I certainly cannot trust his perceptions of what constitutes "a fair trial." The Israeli courts often decide in favor of Palestinians who sue the government-- what makes this situation special?

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