The Man Who Cried Anti-Semitism
How the media amplified dumb attack on public sculpture and why Shorewood took it down.
Public art hasn’t been all that successful in Milwaukee, but Spillover II, a sculpture in Shorewood’s Atwater Park, has stood as one of the exceptions. The well-received work — a kind of a hollow, faceless man made of random letters fashioned from metal — had stood in park for about five years, without a whiff of controversy.
Its pedigree was impressive. It cost $350,000, was paid for by a private anonymous donor and Russell Bowman, former director of the Milwaukee Art Museum and current Chicago art consultant, helped select renowned artist Jaume Plensa. Plensa had created Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park, perhaps the most successful public art in America since the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel critic Mary Louise Schumacher called the work a “poetic visual epistle,” but complained that the “clumsy concrete slab” it was placed on undercut the work’s impact, turning it “trite and literal.”
Tom Bamberger, then a critic for Milwaukee Magazine, disagreed: “Shorewood got a fine work, a sonnet rather than a novel, from a great artist… The structure shimmers in the morning and afternoon light, when the individual letters start popping out. And at night its candescence becomes a humanistic ball of light.”
Neither Schumacher nor Bamberger (who is Jewish) saw any evidence of anti-semitism. Nor, for that matter, had any of the countless people who looked at the work since its installation in the fall of 2010.
Enter Matt Sweetwood, a New Jersey resident who says he makes his living as “a speaker and consultant” and happened to be visiting his daughter in Shorewood. Sweetwood, who is Jewish, took a look at Spillover II and decided it was a “hateful sculpture,” because its hundreds of random letters contained, he claimed, the words “Cheap Jew,” “Fry Bad Jew” and “Dead Jew. ” To make sure no one missed his blog post of November 8, Sweetwood tweeted it relentlessly and contacted Jewish anti-defamation organizations and the issue soon went viral.
Sweetwood claims these words are “in plain sight,” but if you look at the photo of the sculpture on his blog the words cannot be seen. So what he did is provide a second photo which changes the sculpture by highlighting only certain letters, and thereby turns a random alphabet stew into alleged anti-semitism. Yet even with the letters highlighted, if you read horizontally in the normal fashion you get either the word “dew” or “djew.”
Nonetheless, Sweetwood’s post condemned Plensa as a “coward” who committed a deliberate act of anti-semitism. How did he know this was deliberate, I asked Sweetwood? A professional artist, he says, would “know every inch of the sculpture. I’ve had several artists tell me,” he said, adding “I’m no artist.”
And so, a man who concedes he’s not an artist and really knows nothing but what a few friends told him and who never bothered to check his impression with the work’s creator, condemns a world-renowned artist as an anti-semite. Using the same approach, I would condemn Sweetwood as the real hateful person here, a publicity hound looking to drive up his name recognition for his consulting business. But Sweetwood denies this was his motivation.
In the pre-internet world, before the world was awash in blogs of wildly variable quality, Sweetwood would have been ignored as a crackpot. But nowadays, anyone who gets traffic online is automatically an authority. And so, because Sweetwood’s post had gone viral, Schumacher and the Journal Sentinel decided this click bait had to be covered.
Schumacher is not only an art critic, but a critic who had reviewed the work and found no anti-semitism. Did she link readers to her review? Nope. Did she weigh in with her view of this art work and its alleged hatefulness? Nope.
Instead she did a story helping spread his absurd claim. Worse, the newspaper validated Sweetwood by presenting a photo that, once again, altered the sculpture by highlighting the letters that Sweetwood wants people to see. Schumacher also included a quote by Rabbi Alexander Milchtein of the Milwaukee Synogogue for Russian Jews, questioning whether the work should be removed. I called Milchtein this week and he says he had viewed the work a couple times and “I didn’t notice anything,” but became convinced it was anti-semitism after Sweetwood’s charges were made.
Others in the media piled on with coverage, but there was one voice of sanity, Matt Wild at Milwaukee Record, who wrote that, “To my eyes, there are plenty of problems with the “hidden messages.” For one, seeing “Bad” requires you to lose the “Z” between the “B” and the “A.” And the “P” in “Cheap” isn’t a “P” at all, but a connected “N” and “D.” And you need to do some serious spacial gymnastics if you want to see “Dead.” Wild then went to to playfully note all the other words and phrases you could pull out of this alphabetic stew.
Shorewood’s village manager Chris Swartz (who did not respond to interview requests) rushed to do something in response to the controversy. He got in touch with Elana Kahn, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Milwaukee. Kahn says her group received many calls about the controversy, but had no chance to decide whether the sculpture was anti-semitic, “because the story quickly snowballed and evolved into ‘what do you do if there is a perception that there is anti-semitism.’”
But she notes that “there is nothing in the artist’s history that would suggest anti-semitic feelings. In fact, just the opposite. He was a finalist in a competition to create a Holocaust memorial.”
Swartz must have also called representatives of Plensa, who released a statement saying the artist “is deeply saddened that his sculpture has been so egregiously misinterpreted. Plensa’s works and beliefs are the antithesis of anti-Semitism.”
But Plensa ultimately said he was willing to change the art work to address the concerns. That’s hardly a surprise; when you make your living doing public art, you can’t afford a charge of anti-semitism spreading like wildfire online, no matter how absurd the accusation.
But as Shorewood Village Board Trustee Davida Amenta notes, Plensa is damned either way: “the problem that arises for the artist is if you change the work are you admitting there was a problem?”
Amenta doesn’t believe the work is anti-semitic and it appears that several other trustees feel the same way. But Swartz went ahead and made a quick decision to remove the art work and ship it back to the artist to defuse the controversy. Swartz consulted village board president Guy Johnson, but the full board wasn’t consulted. This decision came less than a week after Sweetwood’s blog post ran, and in our interview he pointed to this as proof that his theory of anti-semitism must be true.
Once the board met to consider the issue, its members decided at a December 22 meeting that the sculpture should be reinstalled to let people see it and solicit feedback. But the sculpture still hadn’t been returned by the board’s meeting last night, so members voted on a 7 to 0 vote, “to have the Jaume Plensa work returned to Atwater Park as soon as possible, with alterations as determined by the artist,” Johnson informed me via email. “We look forward to having this beautiful piece of public art restored to its location overlooking the lake.”
The problem, of course, is that no matter how the sculpture is changed, it will remain an alphabet stew of with hundreds of random letters, and other viewers can play Sweetwood’s game. “One person told me they saw the word “fag” in the sculpture and was offended,” says Amenta. “People will see whatever they want in it.”
In the meantime, this trumped-up controversy will make government officials more leery of public sculpture, and will make it more difficult for artists to succeed with such projects in this metro area. It also “trivializes real anti-semitism,” as Amenta notes, opening the door to attacks on Jewish groups that spotlight real examples of anti-semitism, which still arise in this country.
None of this, of course, would have happened without the tireless social networking of Sweetwood to fan the flames. When I asked him about this, Sweetwood replied: “It has nothing to do with me.”
But it was your blog that created this controversy.
“Who cares. I have nothing to do with it.”