Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Man Who Cried Anti-Semitism

How the media amplified dumb attack on public sculpture and why Shorewood took it down.

By - Jan 5th, 2016 11:56 am
Spillover II. Photo by Michael Meidenbauer

Spillover II. Photo by Michael Meidenbauer

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.”

Did he feel any responsibility to call the artist and ask his intention? “It’s for the artist to explain, it’s not for me to explain,” Sweetwood says. “It looks to me like he did it deliberately.”

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.”

34 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Man Who Cried Anti-Semitism”

  1. Begonia says:

    Who is the Amenta cited in the story? Davida Amenta, Village of Shorewood Trustee?

  2. Bruce Murphy says:

    yes, sorry we failed to identify her, just fixed that.

  3. Oneida says:

    everything that’s wrong in this world.

  4. Sam says:

    “Who cares. I have nothing to do with it.” Oh really? Then why did you get involved in the first place? Get your name in the papers?

  5. Daddy says:

    Excellent reporting and commentary as always. This is why I love Urban Milwaukee and hate the clowns at the Journal Sentinel. This professionally offended clown should never have been given any mind. I would fire Schumacher immediately for this and many other indiscretions.

  6. Evian says:

    This guy is an absolute joke. “It has nothing to do with me” is 100% antithetical to what this was. It was a complete ploy to draw attention to himself, his blog and his ‘consulting’ business and sadly Shorewood, Milwaukee and more took the bait.

    “Within a few days the Internet buzzed, my article went viral and it quickly forced a meeting between the artist and the local community. After I did four TV interviews and four newspaper interviews..” Tell us again how it has nothing to do with you.

    This guy is/was nothing more than an attention-starved, publicity hound.

  7. Max says:

    Just my opinion, but this says more about the lens Mr Sweetwood views life and art with than any intention of the artist.

  8. Chadrick James says:

    Even absolutely nothing can offend these days. Personally I love this statue so it better go back up. It is a visually stunning piece of work, period

  9. John H says:

    Sweetwood is awful. He was also swanning all over his LinkedIn page (where he had a SECOND post about this) talking about what a great job he’d done driving publicity. He is, with no doubt whatsoever, intentionally lying about both his intentions and actions – here’s the link to the post, which you may wish to cite, as it directly refutes the statements he made to you:

    I did have fun mocking him by playing word-jumble: my favorites I found in the very same picture he used were ROBE BAN and BAD HEAD.

  10. Brandon says:

    Ever since Sweetwood’s initial article I have been beyond frustrated with the attention he and the sculpture have received. His actions to gain attention, the imagination required to see the “hate”, and the media’s coverage have been nothing short of click-bait; and it is refreshing to see this idea researched and articulated so well.

    Plensa is no more responsible for the groupings of letters in his sculpture than the Parker Bros are for the words that appear in any shake of the game Boggle. I understand the social pressures Plensa will receive from the ignorant, hate mongers, and race baiters to change the sculpture, but I hope he doesn’t indulge them. The sculpture is only offensive to the offensive.

  11. Willie Ray says:

    It’s very likely Mr. Sweetwood would see swastikas in the wrinkles of my German Grandmother’s face or Luftwaffe Insignias in the afternoon cirrocumulus clouds. The eye of this beholder looks inward and tells us what he sees there.

  12. Ed Werstein says:

    It was my favorite piece of local public art as well.
    By the way, as an experiment I just threw all my Scrabble letters onto the floor and the phrase, ‘Sweetwood sucks’, just popped right out at me (after a little mental gymnastics).

  13. Great comments.

    I have nothing to add.

  14. judith ann moriarty says:

    let’s muddy the waters a bit, okay? does anyone out there think that sculptor Niki Johnson should have been dissed because of her “Eggs Benedict,” sculpture(depicting a Pope constructed from condoms? the Plensa flap strikes me as much the same kind of pointy head censorship by a few who think they know what art is. to those on the Milwaukee Art Museum’s board, those who quit in a fit over her work being exhibited in the new contemporary re-do, tch, tch., are any of you eating crow? I’ve written about art for three decades and seen fools come and go, but this takes the cake. For shame Shorewood.

  15. AG says:

    judith ann moriarty, I have a feeling if someone made a picture of the prophet Muhammad out of condoms you would probably be pretty up in arms yourself.

  16. 2fs says:

    The difference, Judith, is that Johnson fully intended to be critical of the Catholic church. Therefore, if someone feels she crossed a line in Eggs Benedict, they would have at least potentially a reasonable argument.

    Plausa’s sculpture has SFA to do with anti-Semitism – or religion or politics of any sort. Sweetwood, to judge from his blog linked above, is clearly a professional shit-stirrer.

    So while I agree with you on Shorewood’s reaction and Sweetwood’s mendacity, and I do not defend the MAM board, they at least were taking a plausible position, in that Johnson was directly addressing the Catholic Church.

  17. judith ann moriarty says:

    Johnson’s intent was not to offend but to call attention to the AIDS problem. Frankly, I think censorship of the arts is, in essence, fascist in concept. So, the question here seems to be one of “intent?” Also, don’t assume I’d be up in arms if the Prophet M. was portrayed by an artist who used condoms as an art medium. I wouldn’t be.
    By the way, the artist’s name is Plensa not Plausa.

  18. M says:

    Here’s another name for Matt Sweetwood: FAME WHORE.

    I pieced that phrase from letters used in his blog about how to exploit social media. At the risk of giving him more attention, here’s the blog:

    His concluding sentence: “Using social media to build my brand and business worked- and even better than I had even imagined.”

    As noted, too bad Shorewood officials took the bait. Is it still possible for common sense and good judgment to prevail over opportunism and fame whoredom?

  19. 2fs says:

    Yep – I missed that typo till after I’d posted. (Brain had the word “plausible” in mind…)

    I did not assert that Johnson intended to offend. But she was addressing, specifically, a controversy, and therefore, if someone else felt that she’d done so in a way that was offensive, they’d at least be talking about something the work actually engages with.

    Sweetwood’s idiocy here has nothing whatsoever to do with Plensa’s work, its content, its intentions, or anything else but Sweetwood’s efforts at self-aggrandization. The criticisms have about as much to do with the work as if he were to criticize the Scrabble people if someone spilled all their board’s Scrabble letters on the floor and he managed to pick out offensive phrases amongst the randomness. I don’t know Plensa’s composition process – how which letter goes where – so maybe it’s not quite as random. But it’s sheer paranoia, with no evidence at all, to imagine he wanted to encode hateful messages amongst them.

    I’m opposed to censorship of the arts. But I am not opposed to criticism of the arts. And the criticism of Johnson’s work that you describe (insofar as it falls short of censorship) addresses the work and the intentions Johnson has attributed to it. Sweetwood’s criticisms are utterly inane and irrelevant to the work.

  20. Laura Ricci says:

    John H said: “He is, with no doubt whatsoever, intentionally lying about both his intentions and actions – here’s the link to the post, which you may wish to cite, as it directly refutes the statements he made to you:

    I was happy to post there a brief comment comparing Sweetwater to Joe McCarthy. Anyone else want to help this guy out gaining the notoriety he seeks with a comment?

    Just call me Joe. Joe McCarthy.

  21. CindyV says:

    Note to the artist: Next time you do an alphabet piece of art, don’t use vowels. It’s sad that the world has come to this but it has.

  22. Diane Buck says:

    Plensa does use other forms of writing in his sculptures: Chinese, Korean, Arabic. All probably safer than our 26 letter alphabet. Comments here and Bruce’s article are all wonderful.

    The Village of Shorewood was too quick to be politically correct. Now the problem appears solved; however, other crazy folks that have nothing to do will find more to complain about in the arena of public art.
    Plensa is truly an outstanding artist and Shorewood is fortunate to have an example of his sculpture.

  23. David Pionke says:

    Shame on Sweetwood… Who’s next?

    If anything should be taken down in Shorewood, it’s the new Metro Market on Oakland avenue. It’s a disgrace! Raising concerns to Chris Swartz on its design features, which lack any consideration for human scale he defended what the architects “approved”. It is obvious that the project was not designed with the existing streetscape in mind, but rather scale deserving of a suburban strip mall. Once the facade covered white metal grids are rusted and the overly expansive parking structure goes unused, the question will be asked, What were they thinking?

  24. Virginia Small says:


    Your points about the new Shorewood development ignoring human scale are important. Such projects will continue to proliferate unless engaged citizens can have more input and impact.

    It’s often framed that it’s about density, but density can be achieved without destroying neighborhood character, beauty, human scale, etc. There are examples in many cities and in some Milwaukee neighborhoods. But it may take more thought, care and commitment to “quaduple bottom lines” and not just what serves a developer and can be cranked out in cookie-cutter fashion.

    Here’s an article about the human-scale issue in NYC–

  25. M says:

    It’s like Sweetwood took a Rorschach inkblot test and blamed the inkblots–or test creator–for what he read into them

    He’s seeing the world–and beauty itself–through smeared-up, dark-colored glasses.

  26. David Pionke says:

    How true Virginia. What’s further unfortunate is that according to Chris many local architects sat on the design board that ultimately approved this project. Many of whom I imagine are tied to UW-Milwaukee’s School of Architecture?

    Myself a grad of the program and who lives on the east side, I find this project reflects poorly on the community as a whole. Not to mention it violates the first design principle that was impressed upon us as students.

    Now the question becomes, what can be done? And according to Chris, nothing.

  27. Jill says:

    How is it that no one in the entire Jewish community around here noticed the offensive “words” yet one out of towner comes here, makes a stink, and suddenly everyone’s up in arms over it? Why on earth are we giving so much credibility to someone who doesn’t even live here when our own fellow community members of the Jewish faith haven’t even raised an eyebrow??? We should’ve told him to pack his bags and go back to Jersey if he finds our artwork so offensive.

    This whole mindset we have in society today – that ONE PERSON’S offense should result in complete upheaval of something that is working just fine for everyone else is just getting old.

  28. David Pionke says:

    One person’s offense can do much damage when left unnoticed. However, what offense was committed here, and by whom? That is issue.

  29. Nicholas says:


    I always got the sense from his first post about it, that he was under the impression there were little to no Jewish community in Milwaukee or the area, and that’s what lead to the “anti-Semitic” art.

  30. TJ says:

    It’s pretty crazy to me that no one has mentioned that the artist is Spanish, and the Spanish word for Jew (Judío) only shares one letter, so it is EXTREMELY conceivable he did not notice those three letters close together, and furthermore that it could be problematic. The piece itself says to me that everyone is subject to others’ interpretations of who they are, so the random assembly of letters where people can pick out their own words is something that speaks to THEIR interpretations of people. But what do I know? Like Mr. Sweetwood, I am not an artist.

  31. George C says:

    I can’t help but think this Matt character must be something like the guy from the Curb episode who gets peeved at Larry for whistling Wagner.

  32. M says:

    Thanks to Laura (#21) for tracking Huckster Matt Sweetwood’s gloating blog about his fame whoring at the expense of a renowned artist:

    Below are the first three of the 10 steps he took to set the stage for what he considered a “sexy” self-promotional coup. In case anyone was not sure how Shorewood and MKE got played, he provides his full playbook.

    From his Pulse Power blog:

    “It took 6 days from the time my blog, “Hateful Sculpture in Milwaukee Needs to be Scrapped” posted until Jaume Plensa, a world famous artist, was compelled to remove his Spillover II sculpture. On a recent visit to Milwaukee, I had observed that there was an ethnic slur, “Cheap Jew” in plain sight, made from letters of the sculpture. Within a few days the Internet buzzed, my article went viral and it quickly forced a meeting between the artist and the local community. After I did four TV interviews and four newspaper interviews the story was all over Milwaukee and the country. On the 6th day a truck came to remove the sculpture and it’s offensive remarks.

    Click Here to See Some of My Interviews

    As of this writing, the version of my blog that is posted on my personal website has 66,000+ views, the version on LinkedIn Pulse has 2,000+ views and the version on the Good Men Project version has 6,000+ views. And there are thousands of Facebook shares from the various platforms.

    Here are 10 steps I took to make that happen:

    Content is King: My topic was controversial and from a blogger’s perspective that is very sexy. Think of ways or angles you can take, that will make what you write about interesting, thought provoking and different. If you are writing about the adhesive property of masking tape, and you start talking Newtons of force versus temperature of glue, don’t count on a good result. If you show how masking tape can be used as handcuffs, expect a much bigger view and comment rate.

    Pick a Catchy Title: Make sure it is concise and attention grabbing. It also has to be specific to your article and cannot apply to just any article. The not so good: “Sculpture with Hateful Words Needs to Be Removed”. The better: “Hateful Sculpture in Milwaukee Needs to be Scrapped”. The second title is specific and cleverly uses the terms (a sculpture can’t hate). And I played off the “Scrapped” in the last line of my blog for an impactful conclusion. A great title makes your heart race faster.

    Research Your Subject Thoroughly: I could have just written about what I saw. But I researched the artist and when I discovered that he was world-renowned, I was able to make the point that the ethnic slur on the sculpture was not just sloppy work of a local artist. Research also told me the area had a famous person, Golda Meir, who lived close by and who the slur was relevant too. It gave a richness, context and detail to my article.”

    And ad nauseum. Notice how he dragged the late Golda Meir into it…

    Perhaps there is a name for this type of character assassination. If not, “Sweetwooding”?

  33. Marie says:

    George C. (#32) noticed the apt 2010 Curb Your Enthusiasm episode about whistling Wagner and being attacked for it. Humor can be a great antidote to absurd behavior like this teapot tempest…

  34. Jim Sorensen says:

    Sweetwood should have been ingnored. Take it to court for being absurd. Everyone is a victim, it’s absurd.

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