McJesus: Hold Your Horses!
Before you get all bent out of shape, it might be a good idea to check a few things out first. A big fuss was made about a particular sculpture on exhibit at the Haifa Museum of Art. A tweet with a photo of the sculpture was posted requesting that people boycott the Museum.
The text beneath the tweet is:
The Aramaic organization is going to file charges against the Museum directorship for offending the feelings of the Christian public in Israel. In the name of freedom, one cannot insult the faith of the Christian population in Haifa and the world. If the same exhibit had insulted Jewish and Muslim symbols together with Christian ones for the same artistic purposes, we would not have said anything and we would have believed your claims of artistic freedom in spite of the fact that we oppose using religious symbols in an offensive manner regardless of the religion. You are just afraid to hurt Jews and Christians and offending Christians is easy. The principle of equality of all faiths has been damaged and you must take down the exhibit and apologize. [my translation]
I spoke with a few people who claim the McJesus sculpture by Finnish artist, Jani Leinonen, is an offense against Christianity, and none of them had actually been to the exhibit, even though they live in Israel. They, and the writer of the tweet above, based their opinions on a photo of a sculpture taken totally out of the context in which it was situated. The tweet says they would not have said anything if the exhibit insulted Jewish and Muslim symbols too. Not having been to see the exhibit, however, they do not know that there are artworks that some Jews might find offensive. There is one image of a Muslim symbol that I suppose a Muslim could take offense at. And there are two pieces of art that manipulate ancient mythological symbols, putting a naked male body together with an Egyptian goddess in one and a Babylonian goddess in the other. But I guess it is pretty safe to use symbols from dead religions.
In fact, in another room, there was an image to which I, as a woman, objected. In art, it seems, there is something for everyone to find distasteful, it is a kind-of equal-opportunity cultural institution.
I certainly do not want to insult anyone. And I am not going to tell anyone who is offended by the McJesus that they should not be offended. People have feelings that have a logic all their own and nobody can tell anyone else how to feel. All I can do here is describe what this exhibition meant for me after having seen it and having talked with Haifa Museum of Art administration staff, one of the museum curators and two of the exhibiting artists. I was all set to see offence in McJesus and I was all set not to.
The thing I first noticed, however, was that the image in the tweet above stimulated a stream of thoughts in me in a way I have not experienced as a result of seeing a piece of artwork in a long time. A few months ago, I was captivated by the works in a Hungarian gallery dedicated to ceramic artist Margit Kovacs; I enjoyed sitting and gazing at a number of her works and she, as a person, interested me. But none of her pieces led me to reflect deeply on any spiritual or philosophical issues. It was the beauty of her work that charmed me. Perhaps another observer would have been provoked into deep thought by something of hers. And that is the nature of art — it touches one person one way and another person another way and another person not at all.
Seeing the McJesus in Context
Before setting out, I opened the Haifa Museum of Art website and here is a very condensed version of their introduction to the cluster of exhibitions addressing the same issue from a variety of perspectives:
This exhibition focuses on the responses of contemporary artists to issues of religion and faith in the contemporary global reality, which is dominated by the consumer culture. . . . In the contemporary context, the artists participating in the exhibition employ religious symbols to criticize the encroachment of the consumer culture on our lives in general, and on the religious sphere in particular. The artists also criticize the way religions use consumer values and practices in order to prosper in the contemporary reality.
Artists from Israel and abroad, known to be grappling with questions of consumerism and societal values, were invited to participate. Together with brief introductions to the artists, the website told the potential visitor that:
The image of crucified Jesus appears as a subversive element in the works of Jani Leinonen, Magnus Gjoen, and Nick Stern – provocative works that address the collaboration between religious systems and the consumer culture.
So we are set up to be faced with some provocative pieces of art using the crucifix and Jesus.
The exhibit in the room in question is called “Sacred Goods” and the name really does give away the point of the collection: Sacred GOODS. In all, there were 17 pieces, nine by six Israeli Jewish artists, two by an Israeli Muslim artist and six by five international artists. I was not moved by all of the pieces of art. Of those depicting Jesus, only the McJesus sculpture reverberated within me. I attribute that to the fact that I had engaged in debate about it with Facebook friends and it was the only artwork using Jesus that was fueling all the controversy. Therefore, I had already developed an emotional association with the sculpture.
Other artists exhibiting in that venue could well have wished for their works to have generated all the attention and debate McJesus got. After all, Israeli artist Andi Arnovitz told me that the artist hopes to spark discussion; Karam Natour concurred.
After getting up close and seeing McJesus “in person” I wandered around to take in the other works. The video by Vania Heyman quickly became my favourite. Each time I watched it, I saw something else. I think it is a brilliant work that lends itself to reflection and discussion. I despaired that I would not be able to share it with you and then a simple google search brought me to the YouTube video. So those unable to get to the museum before mid-February can still see it:
I wonder if you consider anything here offensive. I think for many people, the answer would be in the affirmative.
Two photographs from a 19-image series created by Ido Abramsohn are on display:
According to Abramsohn’s website, these are representative of souvenirs sold to the tourist as a kind of “authentic” Israeli experience. The curator raised the idea that one must look beneath the surface of apparent culture that may have few values beyond consumerism.
Norwegian Magnus Gjoen grew up in a number of different European countries. According to the curator, this piece, Break Glass for a New Beginning (Adam and Eve), suggests that the “old” is no longer with us: it is wrapped up and stored in the attic. Perhaps the artist is wondering if classic art belongs in the museum’s storage space, having passed its expiry date. On his website, Magnus writes that “his art is about rediscovery, taking things from the past and renewing them for the contemporary market.”
I find it interesting that he writes about renewing classic art for the contemporary market rather than for the contemporary art lover. Words are important.
Also speaking about renewal – Karam Natour seems to be always reinventing himself. I assume this would characterize most artists, but this is the focal subject of his artistic creations. He is very much present in most of the images he creates. Not surprisingly, he told me that since birth, he has been drawn by colour and images as opposed to text. And he uses images to work out possible solutions to problems. He is looking for something broader, something bigger and art is a great channel by which to do that.
Just as Gjoen is looking at “old” versus “new,” Natour is exploring the “living” versus “dead.” and for him, the “battleground” is the human body. It is a duality, the place that is the most physical and at the same time, it houses the spiritual. And “everyone has a role in the evolution of human consciousness,” he says.
This image draws me in to look closely over and over again. The living human body (the artist) is surrounded by images from an ancient mythology and a dead civilization that was once so vital. Natour suggests that contemplation of the thoughts and feelings aroused by the contrasting elements of this image encourages exploration of potential solutions to the problem of modern consumerism.
I think one can find influences from his upbringing on his approach to art and life — born into a Muslim family in Shfaram, he went to a Christian school and now he lives in Tel Aviv. He speaks fluent Arabic, Hebrew and English. I imagine that he has learned to adapt and to synthesize different approaches to life; I did not discuss with him personal conflicts or problems he encountered during his 27 years, but I can imagine that there were challenges to his sense of identity and more. Perhaps there is something in this that has turned him toward ancient mythology.
Natour understands the reaction of the Christian community to the McJesus sculpture. Then he went on to say that he is happy with the freedom in art to explore ideas and the senses, and he hopes the art world does not lose this freedom. There is a problem, he admits, and then asks, “how do we tackle this constructively?” The debate “makes us think about the place of art in society and about how people consume symbols; it is invisible.” Thinking about it and talking about it helps us work out how to resolve it.
Natour’s approach to life is that problems have solutions. This was clearly evident when I asked him if he did not use Muslim symbols on purpose, in order not to arouse controversy or antagonism in his own community. He said that if there comes a time when Muslim symbols find their way into his artwork, he will deal with the consequences:
I accept whatever happens and appreciate how this compels me to think.
Andi Arnovitz submitted a work called, Prayer Alone, to the exhibition. I spoke with her about her own work and her reaction to the controversy surrounding McJesus.
Arnovitz has a sense of humour. One day she decided to put her head on the photocopier machine – a simple store-bought machine like many of us have at home – and when she saw the image that emerged she thought:
Wow! Isn’t this a metaphor for prayer? When we pray, whatever is of concern for us at the moment is in focus and the rest is not.
She invited people to put their heads on the photocopier and think about God.
For me, this is an evocative piece. I find the overall image a bit overwhelming — I am a details type of person who sees the trees and has to work to step back and see the forest. So I am drawn into each individual square, each individual world represented within it. And I can become immersed in each one. I wonder what someone who sees the forest would experience when viewing Prayer Alone.
In contrast with the other works in this exhibit room, Arnovitz’s does not lament our loss of the ability to pray or the ability to connect with the spiritual at a deep level. “Anyone who knows a moment of prayer or who has a spiritual moment is there, and it is not something from the past. It is not lost.” She brings, then, a contrasting perspective to the issue being explored in the museum in this exhibit.
Arnovitz told me she smiled when she heard about the controversy — it is the best promotion any museum could hope for. And, in fact, the Haifa Museum of Art Director General told me that on the Saturday following the protests the museum was more packed with visitors than usual. (Over 30,000 visitors have been to the museum since opening night.)
Arnovitz said that artists who produce works similar to the McJesus sculpture know that they are running a serious risk and they are aware of the potential backlash. Of course, art history can point to many such controversies. However, these works ask people to consider alternative points of view — that is the goal in taking a chance. For example, Andi remarked, “you can have lectures talking about the role of women in society and you can have one image that is seared into your consciousness.” Which will likely have the greater impact on our ways of thinking and our understanding of the relevant issues?
There are all kinds of images that are shocking and upsetting, so to single this one out — if you are hypercritical, hypersensitive, you are going to find something to complain about.
Arnovitz talked about her own personal boundaries. She is an Orthodox Jewish woman. She does a lot of work with old discarded prayer books but would not use a Tanach; she would not manipulate a Jewish symbol just to make people angry. She would do it “to make a statement, to create change, to generate a conversation.”
Andi talked about our highly nuanced Israeli society. She asks for balance.
She believes those protesting the McJesus and demanding it be taken down lost their credibility because of the timing. Had it happened the week after the exhibition opened, it would have been relevant for conversation. But one month before closing arouses curiousity regarding the true motivations behind the forces that ignited the fires of protest. It is not really clear what the origin of the trigger was after so long.
The issue of BDS and the claims on the part of the artist that he is against his work being displayed in Israel (originally raised a few months after the opening, according to an email he sent to me) is just one of the kinds of situation that “refuses to allow artists to interact; this is tragic”, says Arnovitz. But, she went on,
that conversation is one that should be taking place between the artist and his gallery. To blame the Haifa Museum of Art is naive. As an artist, I understand that he is manipulating the situation.
Other Pieces Looking at Consumerism and Jews
Gabi Ben Avraham, self-taught photographer, submitted two photographs from a series on a Baba Sali gathering.
There is a lot that can be said about these images and how they invite us to question the role of icons in Judaism, the role of religious leaders, the need some people have to concretize aspects of spirituality, and the willingness of others to exploit this natural human need in order to sell products and make money. If we remain on the surface of these images, we can find them demeaning and mocking, but if we go deeper perhaps we are willing to meet ourselves in similar circumstances.
In a different exhibition room, we find this painting by Olga Kundina; Haredi Jews are the subject of this piece and McDonald’s is the stage — the message presented can apply to any organized religious environment. Insulting to Haredi Jews? Hmm. It has almost become cliche to exploit McDonald’s when talking about consumerism and other unsavory aspects of modern society. The juxtaposition of Haredi Jews with McDonald’s is unexpected, and perhaps disturbing and demeaning on a certain level. But what is Kundina asking us to consider when viewing her work? And if it triggers meaningful debate and analysis of the relationship between religious environments of today and consumerism, does that justify the potential insult?
Should the McJesus Sculpture Be Taken Down?
Some within the Christian community in Haifa and the north demanded removal of McJesus from the exhibit. Culture Minister Miri Regev agreed that it is injurious to Christian sensitivities and wrote a letter to the Haifa Museum of Art asking them to take it down under threat of future ministerial funding decisions to the detriment of the Museum. I read posts and comments declaring that it is disgusting and so obviously has no place in the art world at all, if it is even art, perhaps, likely not art, just garbage.
And then, Jani Leinonen, himself, asked that it be taken down because he supports cultural and academic boycott of Israel – and of Israelis, it turns out. On the morning I went to see the exhibit, I sent off an email to the artist and asked to engage with him regarding a number of questions his sculpture aroused in me. He sent what turned out to be a form letter declaring that Israel is this and that and, therefore, he is pro-BDS. He added a special note to me stating that he would not discuss his piece with me, interesting as that may be, because of BDS.
I doubt the Haifa Museum of Art would have invited Leinonen to exhibit in Israel had they known he supports BDS. Perhaps he did not support BDS until BDS leaned on him and, if that is the case, he joins the list of artists and performers who cowardly give in to hate. I believe that is the case, in fact. Perhaps not, but if so, then to me he is no different than those who call his sculpture demeaning and anti-Christian without taking the time to do any research, in his case on Israel and in the latter case on the issue of the manipulation of religious symbols in art, legitimate and otherwise. If he was already BDS, then why did he agree to participate in the exhibit in the first place? In fact, I was informed by the Museum that he told them he would be happy to participate in the exhibit and they should work through the gallery representing him.
Is his sculpture art? I am uneducated in art; all I know is what I like and what I do not like. I am not a judge of whether something can be called a work of art. I think many of those demanding the removal of the sculpture are just like me – uneducated in art. But just because something may be classified as art in the eyes of those who are educated, does not mean that everything is permissible. Where are the boundaries? Who decides? These are all issues that need to be discussed. In order to discuss them intelligently, the contentious pieces need to be seen. There needs to be conversation around them and not a black curtain put up to keep them out of view.
Yet that is what I found the day I visited the museum – a black curtain; out of sensitivity to Christians (and I wonder about those Christians who were among the 30,000 visitors to the exhibit before things blew up), the opaque curtain was put up to hide the contentious room from the casual passer-by. You had to intend to enter the room, as if doing so was a risk to your mental health and the museum needed your informed consent. The black curtain hid the entire room and not just the offensive-to-some piece(s) of art. It felt almost like subterfuge to enter.
There was an entirely different piece of art I would not have minded putting a black curtain around. It was a manipulation of the female body in a way that made me very uncomfortable. It was not erotic or pornographic. It was, in my view, just disgusting. But should I organize a protest outside the museum demanding it be taken down hoping, at least, that it will be covered with a curtain and let me go on my merry way without having to be confronted with the image?
When I think back to how I felt seeing that work, I can imagine that this is how devout Christians feel about seeing the Jesus sculptures and drawings. So it is not that I do not understand, but that I seek a different approach. I am going back to the Haifa Museum of Art (it really is a large cluster exhibition) and I intend to ask specifically about that work. I want someone to explain to me what makes it art and how it is relevant to this particular exhibition. I do not expect to like it. But I do expect to understand the point. And with that understanding, I will then be able to hold a conversation about provocation in art, provocation in pretend-art, and more.
After having explored the ideas that arose from the protests around the McJesus, I can reframe how I see the visual arts in terms of an art form I better understand – writing. Some works of art are poems, some are prose, some tell stories and others lecture to the viewer. Some are stream-of-consciousness, like the works Saul Bellow and others produced, and they are not necessarily easily understood. Others are in-your-face clear and unambiguous. Art seeks to arouse emotion, whether the feelings are comfortable or not. Art should trigger discussion among people who disagree because, as Natour said, “Everyone has a role in the evolution of human consciousness.” But this should not be without red lines.
I am glad for the protest that exploded over the McJesus sculpture because otherwise this whole stimulating experience may have passed me by like a ship on the ocean on a dark night. I would have been the poorer for this lack of exposure without even knowing what I had missed.
Finally, I heard a rumour that the sculpture is going to be taken down next week as a result of a compromise between Haifa’s mayor and leaders of the Christian community. I do not have confirmation of the rumour from the museum as of this moment. But that news made me sad. I was surprised at the degree of sadness that hit my chest and belly. I wonder what will be next. Where will be the next attack on freedom of expression in art? Had I heard that the Christian leaders went to the Haifa Museum of Art and toured it with a knowledgeable curator and still concluded that it had no place in a museum in our city, I would have accepted that more easily. But, then, nobody asked my opinion.