What Is "Jewish" Art? Looking Back at the Hanukkah Project Three Years Later

By Jacobson, Heidi Zuckerman | Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview
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What Is "Jewish" Art? Looking Back at the Hanukkah Project Three Years Later


Jacobson, Heidi Zuckerman, Michigan Quarterly Review


In retrospect, 1993 was probably the height of multiculturalism in the visual art world. The pinnacle was the widely criticized 1993 Whitney Biennial curated by Elizabeth Sussman and a team that included Thelma Golden, curator of the historically important Black Male exhibition, among others. Whitney Biennials are notorious for attracting negative press, but the 1993 installment was particularly vilified. Criticism included Michael Kimmelman writing in The New York Times, "I hate the show."1 1993 was also the year in which I joined the curatorial staff of The Jewish Museum in New York. It was also during this era that The Jewish Museum organized an exhibition titled Bridges and Boundaries that explored the complex historical relationship between Blacks and Jews.

My prior knowledge of The Jewish Museum had centered on the very impressive avant-garde exhibitions presented there from the early 1960s to the early 1970s. During that period, The Jewish Museum was at the forefront of the presentation of contemporary art, with the first museum exhibition of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, the first major presentation in the U.S. of Yves Klein, and Primary Structures, a show which helped to define Minimalism. Hence, there was an impressive precedent for presenting new art at The Jewish Museum.

In the mid-1980s, however, The Jewish Museum redefined itself as an institution that promotes and preserves Jewish history and culture. It was decided that the mission of the museum was to present Jewish culture-both art and history-and, as such, that the artists or projects presented must engage Jewish tradition. The Jewish Museum is a culturally specific institution in which the balance and integration of artistic and cultural history are often debated; at the same time the exhibitions, like those at many cultural institutions, are subject to the pressures of attracting large and diverse audiences. At exhibition committee meetings, the curatorial staff would discuss whether a work, artist, or exhibition was "Jewish" enough. The debate fluctuated to include religion, ethnicity, subject matter, form, and content. We often had difficulty defining what the term "Jewish" meant and identifying what works would be appropriate. I learned that historical subjects and artists were less likely to create internal strife than contemporary ones. The dilemma seemed to be one of conceptual vs. overt identity, whether it was more important that the artist was "Jewish" or that the work said something about being Jewish.

Ultimately, I developed and implemented a contemporary project series at The Jewish Museum as an attempt to re-engage the institution's tradition of presenting avant-garde exhibitions. The series included commissions of projects by esteemed contemporary artists. As a means of changing the museum from a passive space for presentation into an active, essential part of the installation, I proposed placing these works in non-traditional spaces around the museum such as the roof, the building's facade, and windows. The work was simultaneously presented in actual and virtual space, in the museum and on our newly launched website. My methods for determining which artists would be appropriate for showing at The Jewish Museum varied greatly. For example, I invited conceptual artist Kristin Oppenheim to create a sound piece for the stairwell of the museum because, to me, the incantations of her voice in her works recalled Jewish cantorial music and sacred songs. I chose the collaborative Israeli artist team of AYA & GAL MIDDLE EAST, because their work addressed the Israeli/Palestine quandary over land, an issue that I thought was relevant to American Jews-many of whom, especially in New York, hold strong Zionist beliefs. Jewishness as my operative category was based on the artist's engagement with a range of religious, cultural, and political questions.

The history of the museum reflects what could be seen as a contemporary identity crisis, similar perhaps to the one that faces many secular Jews across America.

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