The debate rages on over Peter Schumann’s “Independence Paintings” at the 2007 South End Art Hop
A TENNESSEE TALE
I am continually dismayed by the suppression of art and attempts to limit its availability and accessibility. Art is the voice of the artist, the depiction of ideas, of simple beauties, harsh realities, personal beliefs, political statements and interpretations of those beliefs and statements. The creation is entirely at the hand, from the imagination, and in the vision of the artist, just as the impression or perception of it is in the eye of the beholder.
Last year in Tennessee, censorship reared its head over the creation of food art juxtaposed with the American flag as a statement about obesity and health in America. The exhibit was closed. Granted, it was not to everyone’s taste, but it made a valid point about a social issue in America. The fact that a work of art may be controversial doesn’t make it wrong.
Go ahead: Voice dissent, open the subject for debate, foster intellectual debate on the underlying issues. These are the footings for communication and understanding. Open that debate, but don’t shoot the messenger.
Our country was built on the guarantee of certain freedoms, including freedom of speech. To quell the voice of an artist, any artist, is to step on one of our First Amendment rights as American citizens. Once the move to silence such voices begins, it will not end until the entire choir has hit its last chord.
Piesyk is the Web editor of FreeThinkers for Peace and Civil Liberties and a Goddard College alumna.
WALLS ARE WALLS
I haven’t seen Peter Schumann’s exhibit that has caused all the controversy in Burlington, but I do have something to say about the reaction of some Jews to it.
I decided to write this after reading the quote from Rabbi Chasan’s email to Vermont clergy that equated “Israel the State” with “Israel the people.” That comparison needs to stop, because the rabbi is saying that people who criticize, protest or even hate what a government does are the same as people who hate others because of their religion, heritage or race. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States — or Germany, for that matter. Some governments deserve severe criticism, and Rabbi Chasan should reflect on what he has labeled as “hatred.”
I should disclose that in the early 1970s I was a Bread and Puppeteer for a few years. I admire and respect Peter’s puppet shows and his art. His political art often simplifies things that people need to see without all the complexity, the hemming and hawing, and excuses. So maybe it’s really anti-political. With that said, I have sometimes watched — or maybe even been in — a show and disagreed with a comparison Peter was making. So be it. It’s a free country.
There is no comparison in human history to the Nazi Holocaust. There is no genocide, no matter how brutal, that compares in size, in horror and in mechanical efficiency to the killing of six million Jews and a few million other “outsiders” in the mass extermination camps and crematoria that were the Final Solution. When people use the term “Holocaust” too loosely to compare events, I too feel compelled to correct the record.
But a ghetto is a ghetto, a wall is a wall, and subjugation of one people by another can differ by degree and still be called subjugation. When Israel builds a wall, or its soldiers bust down doors of peoples’ homes, how do you distinguish what those people experience from that of other people? The grandparents mourn and protect, and the children grow up angry and wanting to resist. That’s what happens when those with armies build walls.
I am a first-generation American and my mame-loshn, my mother tongue, is Yiddish — the language the Nazis herded into the Jewish ghettos. I never knew my grandparents, Chave Leah and Avrom Yitzkhak Salczman, because they raised their children, my mother among them, in Warsaw and stayed there when the ghetto walls went up. We presumed that they were at some point packed in a cattle car and became smoke rising from a concentration camp chimney, but have no details. Some of my father’s relatives were in the resistance in Bialystok. The survivors I grew up among included partisans who smuggled weapons and threw Molotov cocktails at the Nazis in Warsaw and other places.
If a state, by which I mean a government with political boundary lines and police powers, establishes that people of a certain religion or bloodline will be its first-class citizens, and that anyone else will be “others,” it is a set-up for tragedy of one kind or another. That would be true for Israel, Iran, Sudan or Ireland. And if it happened here — say, in Kentucky or Oregon — we Americans would not allow it.
In the history and the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I do not see black and white. I understand the threat and terror that Israel’s Jewish citizens live under. There is a long list of the things that Palestinian political and religious leaders have done that have made things worse and contributed to the conditions their people live under now. But Jews, in Burlington or anywhere else, must acknowledge that in its attempt to protect itself or go after its attackers, the State of Israel has put all Palestinians in ghettos. The inside of a ghetto wall oppresses everyone on that side of it, including the innocent people who just want ordinary lives.
Israeli Jews argue vehemently about this all the time, and a significant number have long recognized that building walls cannot make a lasting peace. They get called lots of things in those debates, but they are usually not called anti-Semites, an accusation American Jews are more apt to throw around. Since the Holocaust, we have always said, “Never again!” I was taught that it was a global promise, not a tribal one.
The Holocaust was the greatest evil with no comparison. But if we do not recognize its smaller elements when they arise, and if we cannot give wrongful action a name or paint its picture on a wall, then nothing has been learned and humanity is not made better.
A 10-YEAR-OLD TEACHER
In responding to the controversy at this year’s Art Hop, I defer to my 10-year-old grandson Lucian’s experience this summer. Lucian attended “Kids 4 Peace,” a 10-day camp held in Vermont with Jewish, Muslim and Christian children from Vermont and Jerusalem. The other night at break-the-fast — the meal that ends the daylong Yom Kippur fast — Lucian stood in my kitchen wearing his “Kids 4 Peace” T-shirt and answered questions about the camp.
“Were there more differences or similarities between the kids?” one woman asked. “Differences,” he replied, and then explained how each group represented their religion in a presentation called, “The Children of Abraham’s Tent.” “But what about when you were playing with each other. Were there still differences?” she probed. Lucian told about how the children had slept together outside watching the August meteorites and telling scary kid stories. Then, he said that the favorite activity of the boys was swimming and soccer. He paused, and then explained that the favorite activity of the girls was swimming and soccer. We all smiled.
All adults — including myself — who love taking sides, could learn a lot from this. Yes, there are differences, big ones, but the similarities are as common as life itself. And, we all sleep under the same night sky. Peace. That is what we should be talking about. Peace. How about it?
KEY ISSUES IGNORED
While Ken Picard’s story, “Over the Wall,” was the most comprehensive story to appear in the Burlington press regarding the controversy surrounding Peter Schumann’s “Independence Paintings” at this year’s Art Hop, it failed to address the key issues of the debate.
The three most vocal critics of the piece and its exhibition — Rabbi Joshua Chasan, Ric Kasini Kadour and I — have never stated any opposition to art representing the Palestinian plight, nor have we advocated censorship. Our position was that the work, by appropriating imagery of the Holocaust in a manner that we found intellectually dishonest, amounted to soft-core Holocaust denial (in terms of minimalizing or trivializing the genocide) and thus, anti-Semitism.
Mr. Kadour’s essay asked that the work be presented in a context where that would be clear. Rabbi Chasan’s letters to Art Hop’s organizers were to ask them to consider the ethical implications of the exhibit, and his letter to his fellow clergy was to ask them to speak their consciences (Rabbi Chasan’s letters have been published on my blog). My own writings explained in explicit detail why the work should be regarded as anti-Semitic. I do not charge anti-Semitism on a whim.
At no point did any of us advocate censorship. We have only attempted to follow bad speech with good speech. While it is sad that would-be censors, unable to articulate their own criticism, attempt to co-opt a cause that does not call for censorship, it is worse when those who court controversy misrepresent all of their critics as censors. I encourage members of the community to work with Art Hop organizers to evaluate what went wrong so that trust can be re-established.
That said, the issue of Holocaust denial is barely addressed in the article, and opinions that have little basis in fact are given equal footing with those that are well researched and well thought out.
Furthermore, Bob Greene and Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel (VTJP) can deny that they advocate anti-Semitism 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. Picard could have and should have visited the website and reported on what he saw there, as I did. 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.
That 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 8 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.
Thal was a mime-puppeteer in Bread and Puppet Theater, but has since terminated his association because of Schumann’s “Independence Paintings.” He’s written about this issue on his blog.