Tuesday, July 1, 2008

"But what is 'Jew art'?"

(Statue in honor of Captain Dreyfus, in the courtyard of the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism.)

The title of this post is the question posed to me by a museum curator recently when I asked him what he thought of the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme. His question, however awkwardly posed, is a good one, so long as you grant that he is speaking from the particular point of view of an art museum. As a curator, how do you make a single artistic narrative out of art produced by and for the Jews in places as far afield as Shanghai, Damascus, Tunis and Troyes?

Yesterday we went to the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme, and also to the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. The former is located in the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan, a spectacular seventeenth-century mansion near the Marais. It is an enjoyable but rather schizophrenic museum which can't seem to decide whether it's an educational museum about the history of worldwide Judaism (in which case a lot of the world gets left out), a history of the Jews of France (in which case there's a surprising quantity of Italian silver and Algerian clothing), an art museum (it really isn't an art museum), or what. The story it is telling is rather mixed up.

I suspect this is because the Jewish Museum has a very eclectic collection (the history of the collection, recounted on the website, begins to explain some of its eclecticism), and is tasked with showing as much of it as possible, but there are all sorts of oddities: a section on Zionism but nothing on Israel, and a historical narrative that ends in 1939. This was particularly puzzling until we realized there's a separate museum and Memorial de la Shoah which covers the Holocaust. It still means that Judaism post-1948 and the State of Israel are left out of the story. There is an effort to represent contemporary Jews in the Museum of History and Art, including a photography installation by Sophie Calle called "The Eruv" and another series of photographs of contemporary French Jews, with their stories, dispersed throughout the display cases from the very beginning of the show. This could be particularly interesting given Jewish-Muslim intercommunal conflict, because so many French Jews are of Algerian or Tunisian origin, and the older generation grew up in a context in which there was less conflict between Jews and Muslims than there is today. But there is a strange imbalance in many of the materials the museum shows: a collection of Algerian Jewish costume, a collection of Italian Jewish silver, a collection of French Jewish tombstones.

Behind this all is the sense we've gotten here of the overarching presence of the French state in everything, and the felt necessity for museums and monuments to project a coherent narrative that is about Frenchness first and foremost. On top of this, the fierce commitment to a specifically secular state means that the position of the Jews is somewhat odd - although many French intellectuals (Bernard-Henri Levy, Claude Levi-Strauss, etc.) are assimilated Jews, the only visible Jewish culture is Orthodox. It's similar with the Muslims (we're staying down the street from the Great Mosque) - one only sees the more extreme end of this community. But it seems to come from a particularly French version of equality, which does not encompass the US vision of coexisting despite one's differences; it's more like the old colonial sense that everyone was equal because everyone had the same chance to learn good French, read Proust in the original, etc. - that everyone had an equal chance to become civilized.

I think this goes some way to explaining the Deportation memorial, which is actually quite powerful and effective. It's a memorial to all the deportees of WWII, not just Jews but Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals, etc., all the categories of "undesirables" of the Third Reich. Thus it has to solve the problem that most memorials of WWII in Europe do: the problem of who owns the Holocaust. in the US it is always a Jewish story first and foremost, but of course that leaves a lot of people out, even if the Jews were the majority of deportees. It does a good job of this, because it works by reproducing the experience of confinement (high walls, iron bars, narrow passages) and thus by focusing on the experience of the deportees (which was universal) and not their reasons for being deported. On the walls are quotations from Sartre, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, etc. - the pantheon of mid-20th-century French intellectuals, basically - about how terrible the war was. The effect, above all, is to make the Holocaust French, which is of course appropriate in a memorial to French deportees. But for an American Jew, it is interesting to see that all the things US Jewry thinks of as having happened "over there" are of course "over here" when you are in Europe; and that the sense of ownership of the WWII experience is as likely to be national as ethno-religious. I am sure this is complicated by the particular difficulty of coming to terms with the Vichy government's collaboration with the Nazis. The memorial itself is extremely powerful.

The memorial is positioned at the eastern (upstream) tip of the Île de la Cité, in effect "behind" Notre-Dame cathedral. One enters by descending a narrow flight of stone steps. There is a guard who makes sure there aren't too many people in the memorial at once, and whose job seems as much to defend the dignity of the memorial itself as anything else; he reprimanded two women waiting in line for smoking while they waited. At the foot of the steps is an open courtyard shaped like the prow of a ship, with high, bare stone walls, and a barred and spiked iron window grating, conspicuously locked, looking out on the waters of the Seine. Turning around, one sees a narrow passage into a dark stone interior, where a ner tamid (eternal light) burns. Cramped cells open off the central space, and the names of the death camps are inscribed on the walls, together with the quotations from French intellectuals. At the rear of the chamber is a sort of crypt, a long narrow space which one cannot enter, containing the tomb of an unknown deportee, and on either wall, hundreds of thousands of tiny light bulbs, one for each of the deportees. This looks a lot like the yahrzeit bulbs at many synagogues, and was the only particularly Jewish touch. As one turns to leave, the words "Forgive, but do not forget" are inscribed over the door.

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