Painting juxtaposing Torah with swastika on display at local school
Dr. Michael Riff says that he was "disturbed to my very core" when he came across a painting by Deborah Grant at the Feb. 8 premiere of the "Fine Print" exhibit hanging at Kresge Gallery at Ramapo College.
The image, painted as if it were drawn on a blackboard, depicts a man wearing a yarmulke with a Star of David and a cantor’s gown, holding up an open Torah scroll as if he were performing the hagbah ceremony at the end of the Torah reading service. Drawn from behind, the painting shows the inside of the scroll but in place of Hebrew text is the image of the eagle that was the symbol of the Third Reich, perched atop a swastika.
It is captioned, "The Old and New Testament."
Riff, a history professor who has been the director of Ramapo’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies since 1996, said that the piece can obviously be interpreted in several ways, from an expression of hatred towards Jews to an expression of revulsion at how the New Testament has been applied, but nonetheless, the painting is offensive. But he also said that the work did not merit discussion.
"Connecting the Torah with Nazism is hideous," said Riff. "The Torah is our sacred and central text. Placed with the symbol of the Third Reich just on its face is absolutely offensive. There is no arguing with that."
After viewing the piece, Riff took up the matter with Ramapo’s president, Peter Mercer. Mercer was upset by the piece, said Riff, but he decided not to pull it from the gallery, issuing a press release instead.
"While I am not asking that the piece be removed I believe that a college must uphold freedom of expression even when the views or ideas being expressed are not ones that the college would endorse I agree with Dr. Michael Riff, Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, who said, ‘If we feel that a work of art is offensive, please let us say so and not mince our words. Otherwise, we will live to regret it.’"-
In the release, he said that the school had contacted Grant asking her to explain her work, but the artist refused, saying only "that her work is open to varied interpretations but that she was ‘in no way aiming for shock value’"-
Grant could not be reached for comment, and the Kresge Gallery’s curator, Sydney Jenkins, would not speak with this paper about the exhibit.
The guest curator for the exhibit, Isolde Brielmaier, who is a visiting assistant professor of art at Vassar College and co-founder and director of the Brooklyn Institute of Contemporary Arts, also could not be reached. But she said in a statement that Fine Print was put together to explore the interplay between text and image, to discuss political and social ideas by allowing for a broad range of interpretations for the works displayed.
Grant’s work often pairs disturbing images and is intentionally ambiguous so as to spur thought, according to the Brielmair, but it is "not intended to be defamation."
"Among the themes that Grant frequently engages are critiques of pop culture and politics, issues of race, neo-colonialism, oppression, violence against women, and the history of fascism," Brielmeir said. "With regard to the last topic, she has explored the filmmaking of Leni Riefenstahl as well as the history of the Nazi regime. The image shown here is part of a larger group of works (which form her Random Select Blackboard series) that critiques the deplorable history of fascism and structures of power."
Other pieces in Grant’s "Blackboard" series (which can be found on the Internet) depict such images as a naked woman manually pleasuring a naked man, with the caption "Glass Ceiling," and a drawing of a pharmaceutical mortar and pestle with the caption "Oh Canada."
The college’s Hillel chapter is planning a response.
The director of the Anti Defamation League’s New Jersey office, Etzion Neuer, said that he had received several complaints about the painting and that he had also spoken with Mercer. He said the ADL would not ask the college to remove the painting, in accordance with ADL policy.
But, he said, the ADL wishes that Ramapo would have used better judgment and wished that it had chosen not to display the art.
"The artist has not offered any explanation, nor do I expect her to. But this is less about what the artist was attempting to convey than it is about the result," said Neuer. "Not every piece of art that is produced needs to be given a forum. There is such a thing as good taste."