Friday, November 7, 2008

The problem with self-criticism is that it's always someone else expected to be self-critical

A review of the latest exhibit at the Spertus Museum asks a few questions.
With "Twisted," Spertus had an opportunity to distinguish itself from other Jewish museums, becoming self-conscious and thus vulnerable. Instead, it settled for being just another PR voice for American Judaism, piling up even more evidence that Jews are marginalized and oppressed. Until it manages to grapple more fully and honestly with the provocative topics it raises so promisingly, it will be hard to treat the museum as much more than a $55-million building with a great view of Lake Michigan.
Perhaps this is fair; I don't know. Self-conscious reflection usually sounds like a good thing, but not necessarily when it's only some groups expected to make themselves vulnerable.

I certainly don't expect to walk into El Museo Del Barrio or the National Museum of the American Indian expecting to find something challenging those identities. In fact, NMAI describes it's mission like this:
It is the first national museum dedicated to the preservation, study, and exhibition of the life, languages, literature, history, and arts of Native Americans. Established by an act of Congress in 1989, the museum works in collaboration with the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere to protect and foster their cultures by reaffirming traditions and beliefs, encouraging contemporary artistic expression, and empowering the Indian voice.
El Museo Del Barrio describes itself like this:
When Puerto Rican educators, artists and community activists founded El Museo del Barrio in 1969, they envisioned an educational institution that would reflect the richness of their culture. Thirty years later, as New York City's only Latino museum dedicated to Puerto Rican, Caribbean and Latin American art, El Museo retains its strong community roots as a place of cultural pride and self-discovery, yet projects itself nationally through exciting exhibitions and programs.

Into the new millenium, El Museo del Barrio will continue to offer a forum for the unique creative languages of the varied communities of caribbean and Latin American descent, and to provide positive role models for cultural exchange.
It seems to me that at least some museums ought to act similarly for Jews. There certainly seem to be many Jewish museums in the US (though maybe I'm extrapolating unfairly from New York), but I'm not really sure that implies there is space in the American discourse for a Jewish identity to emerge free from the weight of thousands of years of oppression. I'll allow that perhaps enough museums already cater to Jews that there's room for the Spertus's quite different mission, but then I think it may be even more important to ask not only how the museum is supposed to best serve it's community, but also which community that is.
As for a question Weinberg did not ask: Why doesn’t "Twisted" tackle stereotypes of Jews by Jews? If the museum really wants viewers “to closely examine stereotypes and clichés, and to reflect on them and discuss them,” wouldn’t it have been fascinating if the show included ads from the Yiddish press at the beginning of the twentieth century which were designed to assimilate Eastern European immigrants? What about cartoons from Jewish newspapers, in which Jews of one denomination denounce other types of Jews?
I think it would be great to deal with how Jews are encouraged to see themselves and their fellow Jews in distorted ways. So often it's been Jews at the forefront of antisemitic movements. In part because antisemites promote these Jews to the front of the movement to avoid criticism, but also, I think, because assimilation ultimately demands assimilating to an antisemitic environment and rejecting the validity of a Jewish perspective. It's enough to get lost in a funhouse of relativistic mirrors.

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