Bruce Murphy
Back In the News

It’s Official, Sculpture Wasn’t Anti-Semitic

Jewish Federation’s annual audit of anti-semitism absolves the Shorewood sculpture.

By - Mar 25th, 2016 12:12 pm
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Spillover II. Photo by Michael Meidenbauer

Spillover II. Photo by Michael Meidenbauer

The Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation has issued its annual audit of anti-semitic incidents, and the Plensa sculpture, which had been accused of being virulently anti-semitic, and was for a time taken down by the Shorewood Village Board, was absolved of such accusations.

“We have determined that the sculpture does not constitute an anti-Semitic incident,” Elana Kahn, Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, told Urban Milwaukee.

It was back in November that a New Jersey resident named Matt Sweetwood wrote a blog claiming the sculpture — a kind of a hollow, faceless man made of random letters fashioned from metal — was anti-semitic. The popular sculpture, entitled “Spillover II,” had been installed five years earlier and had never seen a whiff of controversy.

Sweetwood claimed these words are “in plain sight,” as I later wrote, “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 the local media jumped all over the trumped-up controversy, with coverage by TV news stations and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which essentially validated Sweetwood’s claims by running a photo of the sculpture that highlighted certain letters in the same fashion as Sweetwood had. The accompanying story by JS art critic Mary Louise Schumacher took no stand on the issue while spreading the self-promoting Sweetwood’s specious claims.

In response to all the hubbub, the alarmed Shorewood Village Manager Chris Swartz, after consulting village board president Guy Johnson, took the sculpture down. But over time reason prevailed: Plensa offered to make some changes in the sculpture and by January, the village board had approved re-installation of the sculpture. It remains an alphabet stew of letters, just as it was before.

As Kahn tells me, “We have no reason to believe that the discovered words, most of which were not comprised of contiguous letters, were anti-Jewish messages.” However, she notes, some of the comments from the community response to the controversy “were unequivocally hateful, relying on tired anti-Jewish canards.”

As the audit concluded: “Several comments after newspaper coverage of the controversy around the Shorewood sculpture, Spillover II, raised questions about Jewish loyalty and referred to money, Jewish power. A few commenters referred with derision to the notion of Jews being the ‘chosen people’ and scoffed at anti-Semitism as a card played by ‘Jewish cry babies.’”

The annual audit listed more than 20 other confirmed instances of anti-semitism in the community.

With any luck, this report will put the entire controversy over the Shorewood sculpture to rest. Matt Sweetwood, thanks so much for your visit, wish you were never here.

6 thoughts on “Back In the News: It’s Official, Sculpture Wasn’t Anti-Semitic”

  1. Virginia Small says:

    Thank God that sanity and common sense has prevailed over social-media scamming and huckstering.

    And kudos to the MJF for conducting and publishing a rational annual audit. And thanks, Bruce, for your thorough reporting about the hubbub.

  2. Jerry says:

    These accusations were ridiculous to begin with!

    If I were the sculptor, I wouldn’t allow my fine work of art to be put back in this park. I would feel so insulted by the Jewish community that I would melt it down.

  3. Cox haversham says:

    Good to see this.

    One correction: the word is “blog post” not “blog”. Urban Milwaukee is a blog, made up or posts or articles. You don’t write “a blog” you write “on a blog”.

  4. Peter Gordy says:

    Just one cavil with Jerry’s comment: If you read the article, the Jewish community–or, at the very least, the Milwaukee Jewish community–did not raise a stink about the sculpture Whoever or whatever people in the Milwaukee area made the angry protest is/are neither identified, nor identified as Jewish; certainly no Milwaukee Jewish organization is identified. It was the Shorewood Village Manager, with the consent of the Village President, who decided to remove the sculpture, later reconsidering it and returning the artwork to its original site. A resident of New Jersey who may or may not have been Jewish, and who was not representing any community organization, made the accusation on his blog post, and the local electronic and print media gave the non-story some some limited play. Since there is no evidence that the Milwaukee Jewish community ever gave credence or credibility to Mr. Sweetwood’s accusation–indeed, the point of the article is that the largest Milwaukee Jewish community organization, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, explicitly denied that the sculpture was in any way anti-Semitic–is untenable . Thus, the destruction of the sculpture to,punish the Jewish community for a call for the sculpture’s removal that it never made, and would not have made,would be both unjust and unjustified. Ms. Small’s description of this affair in her comment as “social media scamming and hucksterism” seems apt.

  5. Dennis Grzezinski says:

    Bruce: Thanks for your thorough, responsible reporting on this issue. It has been in great contrast with what our mainstream media, which ought to have known better, has pubished. It is fortunate that eventually, reason has prevailed. Perhaps Lincoln was right about who you can and cannot fool, and for how much of the time.

  6. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    A case where random-ness has run amuck (coming up from the mass subconscious? Who knows? But certainly not intentional on the part of the artist!).

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