Did the Jewish Museum Just Break Its Permanent Collection?

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I read here in the New York Times about the new re-organization of the permanent collection of the Jewish Museum in New York. The old exhibition was a standard historical chronology of “the Jewish experience.” The thing was heavy with objects, and, no doubt, they required more white space in which to breathe. The new re-organization rips apart the chronology, organizing the collection according to culture-conceptual rubrics. Also, the object heavy character of the exhibition is now pared down and there is a flattening mix and match aesthetic combining objects and contemporary works of art from different historical periods and geographical places. Neither one nor the other, neither the objects nor the art, stand out in particular.

In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin talked about blowing up the flow of historical time. This old move by the avant-garde sounds interesting in theory or is the final outcome at the Jewish Museum an incoherent mess? A permanent exhibition at a museum is supposed to put on view the “genius” of a collection. At MOMA, that genius is modern art. At the Jewish Museum the genius of the place would be the ritual and other kinds of material objects made of metal, textile, wood,  and glass, and these were what once defined the exhibition of the permanent collection. The genius of the Jewish Museum is decidedly not the works of kitschy and for the most part second-rate contemporary art that now enjoy such prominence as to stamp the exhibition as a whole with a flat impression. Lost in the reshuffle is what makes the Jewish Museum the special place that is, based on the strengths of its permanent collection. What the new reorganization does not do is focus on the objects, perhaps by way of highlighting what are, indeed, some of the very bizarre forms of Jewish ritual and folk art that are usually taken for granted as over-familiar by the museum-going public.

In his essay on Jewish Art, the critic Harold Rosenberg imagined a Jewish museum (or was it a museum of Jewish art?) as a collection of auratic objects, ready-mades drawn from the Bible (coats and jawbones and things of that nature). Rosenberg was not interested in ritual objects, to be sure. But no matter how dull the old organization of the collection, it had its own particular feel. The permanent exhibition of the collection was once a dark place crowded by objects. Empty, cool, uncluttered and unhurried, the new exhibition of the permanent collection of Jewish Museum does not do that anymore. It remains to be seen if that was or was not a good idea.

Including Edward Rothstein at the Wall Street Journal, people have complained that the place is too “universal” and not Jewish enough, But that’s not the problem. In fact, the the artworks are all “too Jewish,” in that self-ironizing way circa 1990s postmodernism. It could be that all needs to be done is fill some of that empty space and surround the contemporary art with more rare and precious objects, and then repaint the walls and dim the lights.

 

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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