The Arty Semite

Censorship at The Jewish Museum?

By Tom Freudenheim

  • Print
  • Share Share

As someone who has spent a lifetime working in museums, I’ve long been sensitive to the decisions made in the process of selecting or omitting works for display. According to a recent article on Tablet Magazine, and another in The New York Times, The Jewish Museum in New York made the decision to remove “Stelen (Columns), 2007-2011,” a photographic installation by artist Marc Adelman, consisting of 50 profile pictures from a gay dating site that show men posing against Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

From ‘Stelen’ by Marc Adelman.

The Jewish Museum’s decision to remove Adelman’s work from the exhibit, titled “Composed: Identity, Politics, Sex,” suggests that the issue of censorship in museums has arisen once again. But casually tossing around that accusation every time a museum conflict arises is to do an injustice to the serious nature of real censorship.

Patrons (that is, funders) have often jerked around the creative people hired for their talents. That may be exasperating, but it doesn’t automatically constitute censorship. Nor does a museum’s decision not to display something. Rather, The Jewish Museum’s decision is about a much more troubling issue that doesn’t get much attention: the unauthorized use of images of people in a wide array of photography exhibitions.

After all, sex and gender issues aren’t exactly new to museums. I saw The Jewish Museum exhibit, and it had little impact on me. That’s a personal reaction to the glut of themed exhibitions that expect art and art museums to provide a means for addressing (or attacking) socio-political issues that may be better served in other forums. Personal privacy and potential voyeurism, however, are issues that do not seem to be on the radar screens of the museum world.

Many photographers ask their subjects to sign releases, to make sure there’s an understanding about future use. (I’ve had that experience a number of times.) But in addition to previous issues of image appropriation — pictures of homeless people, “street freaks,” and so on — we now have to deal with the appropriation of images that appear online.

I guess I can’t expect whatever photos accompany my Facebook page to be considered personal and private. But would I feel that my privacy was invaded if an artist used those images in a work of art? Possibly. And what if my images were used in a manner that I considered defamatory? What if a photographer catches me crossing the street picking my nose — and displays that photo in a public venue?

I suppose there ought to be an understanding about the use of images, and that curators, in assembling a photography exhibition, show sensitivity to the people depicted. We might expect that a museum exercise due diligence in this respect, rather than just wait for the issue to arise, as The Jewish Museum did with Adelman’s photographs.

But whatever The Jewish Museum’s faults might be, their actions are not censorship. Let’s keep a sense of proportion about this. Insofar as the case has been reported on Tablet and in The Times, it seems to me that The Jewish Museum acted responsibly, responding to the concerns of people whose images were on display. I still worry about that unauthorized photo of me that some street photographer takes, and how I might feel if I saw myself on display in a museum exhibition. Though in that case it might just be titled, “People Doing Funny Things When They Cross the Street.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Tom Freudenheim, The Jewish Museum, Stelen, Marc Adelman, Exhibits, Composed

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.