Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey, has been rated number one among regional public community colleges and ninth in the United States for educational value by U.S. News & World Report magazine. Now a six-week art exhibit at the college’s Kresge Gallery threatens to tarnish that reputation.
The guest curator is Isolde Brielmaier, a Ugandan art professor from Vassar College who seems to have a particular affection for anti-social “art” including explicit anti-Jewish themes. One work featured in the exhibit, created by artist Deborah Grant (who has no relationship to Ramapo College), depicts a Jewish rabbi dressed in phylacteries with a Star of David on his yarmulke, holding up Torah scrolls with the Nazi swastika instead of text. The inscription below the image reads: “The Old and the New Testament.” The implication could not be clearer: the Jews’ holy text is fascism and they are the new Nazis.
The exhibition is part of African Ancestry Month. What does such an anti-Semitic image have to do with African ancestry? One also wonders what American taxpayers would make of the exhibition which they are funding in part by grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts.
For obvious reasons, the college has not been eager to publicize its controversial exhibition. Indeed, I learned of the art only after a Jewish student, upset with the college’s insistence on keeping it in the exhibit during its entire six weeks run, provided a photograph she had secretly taken of it.
That an outsider obtained a copy of the photo did not go down well with the college publicist, Bonnie Franklin, the Vice-President of Communications at Ramapo. Her initial reasons were bureaucratic: the campus gallery discourages photos of exhibits and especially their release to the public. But Franklin was eager to defend the artist’s right of self-expression. Although admitting that she personally found the work “offensive,” she stressed that it “has been extremely stimulating on our campus as an educational instrument.” She further explained that the campus had held several forums to discuss the work. “The piece is subject to interpretation, people have read other things into it. Some have seen it as anti-Christian for example. There have been a number of interpretations.” Finally, she fell back on the default position that the college is a “public institution and such things are protected by the first amendment.”
The simple truth is that Grant’s image equates Jews with Nazis, as curator Isolde Brielmaier admits. Speaking in the post-modernese language of Grant’s work, she says that it “frequently engages in pop culture and politics, issues of race, neo-colonialism, oppression, violence against women, and the history of fascism.” Brielmaier also notes that artist Deborah Grant studied the style of Nazi film propagandist Leni Riefenstahl—a fact that reveals much about her intent in contrasting the Old Testament, the holy book of Jews, Muslims and Christians, with a New Testament of Nazism.
Ramapo president Peter Mercer said that when he first saw Grant’s piece, he contacted the state attorney general to determine whether exhibiting it was illegal. Informed that it was legal, he proceeded to give his go-ahead, after being assured by Isolde Brielmaier that the artist had “no intention to shock anybody.” Today, he defends it mainly on free-speech grounds. “I’ve had positive comments about the exhibit from Jewish faculty here at Ramapo who felt the exhibit was justified as free speech,” said Mercer. When asked how many Jewish faculty had actually praised the display, he replied that there were “two of the Jewish persuasion” whom he declined to identify.
Meanwhile, the College Board of Trustees, Visual Arts Faculty and Mercer himself felt the need to write disclaimers about Grant’s work justifying its display as necessary to “free and lively artistic expression.” Would Mercer defend a similarly offensive work if it targeted, for instance, blacks rather than Jews? This was a question he pointedly refused to answer.
If "a work of art is a confession," as Albert Camus once said, then Deborah Grant’s piece is a candid admission of anti-Semitic views. That Ramapo’s leadership is determined to defend such views as a “stimulating” component of campus discussion says much about the way that ideas are used as a bludgeon on its campus.