a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript - October 10, 1999
Mike Feder: Welcome back after a few week
hiatus to Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson.
We hope that you welcome us back as well! Today the topic will
be "The Brooklyn Museum: Art, Religion and Democracy."
Iím sure a lot of you will have opinions on that and weíll ask
you to call later in the midst of our discussion.
But first letís take a moment to review who we
are and what our mission is on this show.
Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Well, weíve just
been off for four weeks after doing a stint of over 20 shows,
which has been very gratifying, given all the feedback, the
letters, the emails, and the calls. Thereís nothing like interacting
with live human beings and really seeing the diverse contribution
of people with so many opinions dealing with real life issues.
Itís always difficult to articulate a mission
in a few words, but I received one email a few weeks ago that
captures in a powerful way what weíre doing and what weíre about.
The fellow titled the letter: Why live? And he
wrote to me that he read my book Toward a Meaningful Life,
and (I think) he also listens to the show, and he basically
said that heís come to the end of his rope because of different
failures in his life, a very terrible childhoodÖ and he essentially
said, can you tell me why to live?" And he added, "Donít
send me for help. Iíve already been through all types of therapy."
Clearly heís a sophisticated, well thought-through person, and
it captured for me what this show is about. I think there is
an underlying erosion on all levels of life which leads many
people to the question "Why live?"
Not everyone asks that question in quite such
graphic terms, but the issue basically is whether things really
matter. There are talk shows and thereís an Internet and people
read the newsÖ and you get a sense that youíre speaking to people
that, after it all, so much of our daily life experiences seem
so temporary; that on a fundamental level it all really doesnít
matter one way or another.
Of course we all have personal issues that very
much matter, but life in general is so fast paced that we tend
to distract ourselves from some type of deeper purpose. And
so for this radio show, nothing would satisfy me more than if
we gave people a sense that "you matter," that youíre
valuable, indispensable, that you have something to give, to
contribute, and therefore, all your choices and all your activities
also matter. Life is not just a mind game and itís not just
a random, circumstantial type of existence where weíre living
with a sort of victim mentality, but rather you can take control
of your life. So, thatís what Toward a Meaningful Life tries
to bring across.
Feder: Well, I think thatís an excellent
restatement of our position, and this needs a little background.
First of all, weíre talking about the bookówhich is a blueprint
for this radio showóToward a Meaningful Life, by Simon
Jacobson, which is still available out there in stores. The
book is very simply and well laid out in terms of topics: Men
and Women, Spirituality, Grieving, things like that. And then
thereís the Meaningful Life Center from which this is all generated.
Jacobson: Thatís our organizational name,
and we achieve our mission through the publication of materials,
this radio show, a websiteÖ utilizing all the media available
as channels of communicating that every one of us is a musical
note that has something great to contribute to this great, cosmic
composition called life.
Feder: Weíre here every Sunday on WEVD
1050am, from 6-7, with what we hope is an interesting and inspiring
topic and good discussion, and your phone calls.
So tonightís topic is about this whole "war"
thatís been going on around the Brooklyn Museum; itís been happening
for about a couple of weeks now, and I believe itís moved into
court now. It was in the papers, and on the streets, with protests
everywhere. And we are subtitling tonightís show, "Art,
Religion and Democracy."
Now Iím assuming for the purpose of moving the
program along that everyone, or virtually everyone listening,
knows about this, so thereís no need to really go over it, unless
you think you want to. What I want to do is invite the listeners
to call in with your questions and comments a little while after
we get our discussion cranked up here. The number is 212-244-1050.
Now, where to break in to a situation like thisÖ
Jacobson: In the spirit of this show, which
is subtitled "For Skeptics and Seekers"ó meaning that
no questions are off limits and all issues can be addressed,
especially in our environment of society where people often
get the impression (often for good reasons) that religion silences
and is driven by fear and dogma. I greatly welcome a topic like
this because it gets straight to the issue of free expression.
Of course weíre dealing here with a museum of
art which chooses to display certain kinds of art that the Mayor
of the city and others may find offensive, so they in turn have
retaliated with their opinions, and have threatened and have
actually cut public funding that they control toward this museum.
Now, just as a disclaimer, my expertise is not
politics, nor is it finances, so the issue here from my point
of view is not so much whoís right, but rather the issue of
the general regulation of free expression. This country is based
on the Bill of Rights, freedom of speech, free expression, free
press, and I, for one, as a Jew, must acknowledge the power
on which the founding fathers established this country in that
way, the freedom of religion, which is really one of the driving
forces which brought the first English immigrants to this country.
So therefore the foundation on which this country
is based is what really allows people such as myself to have
received a very intense Jewish education. Had something in the
government decided to regulate that and say, "No, itís
a Christian country and since the majority of people are Christian,
then only Christianity should be taught so you canít have Jewish
schools," Jews would not be able to flourish the way they
do. So for Jews, weíre acutely sensitive to the issue of freedom
Feder: In some of the original colonies,
the Protestant majority tossed some of the Catholics out and
they had to go find other colonies.
Jacobson: So this country is predicated
on the Divine premise that "all men are created equal,"
and the inalienable rights of human beings to express themselves
freely. And of course this carried over into the freedom of
expression in arts, music, literature, and the press.
So Iím the first advocate for this type of freedom
of expression without anyone regulating it, because once you
begin regulating, where do you draw the line? And who determines
whoís the regulator?
Frankly, looking at this issue of Mayor Giuliani
cutting fundsÖletís reverse the case: Letís say he was a very
liberal mayor who heard that the Board of Directors of the Brooklyn
Museum refused to display this art exhibit and he said, "Oh,
youíre infringing on free expression. Iím going to cut the funds
because youíre not being democratic."
Feder: Interesting point.
Jacobson: So frankly, both are regulation.
And I am not a believer in governmental regulation when it comes
to freedom of expression because then, where do you stop and
where do you draw the line? That doesnít mean that a mayor or
anyone does not have the right, just as anyone has the right,
of free expression, to express that something offends them,
and people have that right as well.
So I do not know what the Board of Directors of
the Museum were thinkingóthey also represent the constituency
as they were obviously electedÖ
Feder: Some were appointed by the city,
Jacobson: Thatís interesting. But without
even getting into that, the fact is that their responsibility
as well includes sensitivity to the constituency they represent.
I find questionable their prudency of displaying an exhibit
that is offensive to any religious group that lives in that
community. Not that I believe in censorship. A library should
carry all types of books. However, sensitivity should be displayed
when making a public presentation and exhibition. Just as a
library would be careful not to make a sexually explicit presentation
at 5 in the afternoon when the library is filled with schoolchildren.
But let me divide the two things here. The issue
of an artist being able to express himself, which I want to
address as well, that freedom of expression of a human being
to express anything he likes, is there a line to be drawn there?
Weíll address that in a moment. But Iím talking now about people
who control what is or isnít displayed or exhibited publicly.
For instance, the New York Times is a free press.
However, I believe that on their front page they will not publish
propaganda of a hate group. It could be for financial reasons,
but also in the name ofÖ
Feder: They may not want to offend their
Jacobson: Exactly. So thereís a question
of displaying a religious item, whatever it may be from whatever
religion, and offending a group. Is that wise judgment from
a group of Board of Directors of a reputable museum?
Because when you do that, what about Nazi art,
or for that matter, another form of art that is extremely offensive
to a very large group, or to the Board of Directors themselves?
So it becomes a very arbitrary thing, that if it offends the
people who control it, they wonít allow it to be displayed.
Again, this is not the oppression of individual
artistic expression. Thatís why I want to take it away from
the controversy between the city and the museum. This is question
of wise judgement and what you do in different circumstances.
Feder: In other words, youíre taking it
above the law, or beyond the law in a way.
Jacobson: Right. For argument sake, let
us assume that no regulation is required when youíre talking
about freedom of expression because youíre opening up a Pandoraís
box and tampering with a very sensitive area of government intervention
in peopleís expression.
So we have mixed feelings, because the fact is
that freedom of expression allows on the one hand for religious
freedom, and on the other hand, it also allows for pornography,
for offensive material thatís been written and published and
depicted. That offends and can even be described as being vulgar
and driven by depravity.
So, yet, weighing the twoóas Churchill once said,
democracy is the worst system heíd ever found, but he never
discovered a better oneóso weighing the two, youíd rather not
have that type of government regulation. But I would like to
address the issue of what is the responsibility of an artist?
Letís say that it is a given that every human
being has the right to express his or herself. What is the responsibility
of an artist in that expression, how far can he or she go? Or,
is there no limit at all? Are the parameters defined only by
the taboos of a particular society, what people will tolerate.
Feder: Let me specify this or refine this
so I understand what youíre saying. Youíre not asking whether
there should be a limit on the expression of an artist, youíre
asking whether there should be a limit on what can be displayed
by an artist? Thatís two different things. An artist can sit
in a loft and paint anything that he pleases. Whether or not
it should be displayed is a separate thing. Is that what youíre
Jacobson: Well, I think it goes hand in
hand. If someone has in his or her heart to create something,
the question is are they responsible to their own conscience,
to their own heart, even if it isn't displayed. Whatís their
objective? So, yes, I am talking about the actual expression
of the artist. What is art and what is the responsibility, if
at all, of an artist?
My objective here is not to question the issue
of individual freedoms. Rather, to address the obligation and
responsibility of an artist. What is art? And what is your objective
in creating that art? What Iím getting at is not the responsibility
of a Board of Directors of a museum as to what to display. That
issue, from my perspective, has to be driven by a sensitivity
to community as well as the freedom to allow artists to express
themselves, and some type of balance that is not easy to always
Feder: But youíre asking this question
now of the artist.
Jacobson: Yes, Iím getting straight to
the artist itself. In other words, letís say, for argument sake,
art is an expression, as Picasso said, itís a lie that reveals
a deeper truth about life. "Lie" meaning that itís
an artificial representation, art as in artifice. Thatís why
itís called art. Itís a human being studying the human condition
or studying nature or studying phenomena, and through art, expressing
a dimension that can be beautiful or can be ugly, but itís a
form of art because itís teaching us more about ourselves, about
life. Even if itís something uncomfortable to us in a way, it
exposes a deeper dimension.
When I say art here, I donít mean art in the literal
sense of drawing, but literature, music, film, anything that
human beings create in order to illuminate or give us a deeper
understanding about life, about ourselves.
Sometimes it can shake us because it deals with
the shadows, the dark part of our lives. Now that type of free
expression, as I said, is what this country is based on and
I am completely supportive of it.
The real question comes down to this: can an artist
create something that will be violent, or incite violence? Iím
using an extreme example because I want to demonstrate how difficult
it is to determine things. But for instance, no one in this
country would say that because of free expression you have a
right to go hurt someone else physically. You can get up in
front of a microphone, you can go on the radio, you can publish
whatever you like, but you canít physically go hurt someone.
Now what about writing something or drawing something
that incites others to violence? So that already gets more complicated
because you have to prove that it does.
Feder: You know, the greatest standard
that exists in the Supreme Court and one of the most famous
cases of all which is quoted by everybody regarding where the
limit might be was stated by Oliver Wendell Holmes, where somebody
was in a theater and someone was rabble-rousing someplace and
because of the inciteful nature of the words and the content
and the style, there was a riot and people were hurt, and I
think someone may have been killed.
And Holmes said it finally came down to, "Freedom
of speech does not give you the right to yell ĎFire!í in a crowded
theatre": one of the most famous phrases every uttered
by someone in the Supreme Court. So this is what it all comes
down to, this is what youíre talking about. Itís a very fine
A piece of art is not going to jump off a wall
and hurt anybody. Or do you think it might, I donít know!
Jacobson: Well, itís not just a question
of artówhat about words in a newspaper? The fact is, that the
great big propagandist machines of the Fascist regimes have
always been very successful at inciting crowds. I mean if you
depict a certain group in a certain way, in a very hateful way,
and you say itís time to get revenge, there are ways to use
art, music, the airwaves, journalism to incite people.
And even in this country, if it comes to that
point where you see that thereís direct inciting. I believe
there are laws regulating that.
The reason weíre discussing this is that you want
to take extremes of the spectrum and then try to reach into
the grayer area.
Feder: Well, weíre moving along and an
hour is never long enough for such topicsóI think a three-hour
program would be just about rightóbut meanwhile we do want people
to call, so maybe between you and me, we could delineate one
or two larger issuesÖ
One question for me is that we work hard, the
government takes money out of our pay, (without asking us, they
just scoop it out, and most of us agree that maybe theyíre allowed
to do that) and then they just give it to all sorts of institutions.
Do they have a right to do that any way they like, or withhold
it in any way they like?
Jacobson: I would address that on an entirely
different show because thatís a different topic entirely, and
itís about the governmentís support of public institutionsÖ
Feder: Art and free speech.
Jacobson: Well, as you titled it, Art,
Religion and Democracy. And what I would like to say about addressing
the question of free expression, coming from a Jewish perspective,
a Torah perspective, is that free expression is a Divine right.
It isnít just a social or a legal right. Itís a Divine right
because G-d created a human being with unique resources and
talents and abilities and wants every human being to actualize
their deepest talents.
So self-actualization, self-expression is a Divine
mission that we each have. At the same time, thereís a responsibility
that that type of mission entails. Itís not just a free-for-all
for you to express your ego; it should come with great humility
knowing that you were blessed with the power to illuminate a
deeper insight into life, into the human condition.
And from my perspective, a true artist is someone
whoís been blessed with that humility. Because if that humility
doesnít exist, the artist can become abusive, just as a therapist
canÖwhen you go to a therapist, we all know thereís a certain
element of sensitivity and discretion thatís necessary. Because
if a person bares their soul to someone they trust, the therapist
can easily manipulate that situation because the client is vulnerable,
and we all recognize that sensitivity is required.
An artist, from my point of view, is similar to
that. Even though you donít go to the artist as a clientÖ
Feder: I was going to say, you donít go
to the artist and place yourself in their handsÖ
Jacobson: However, an artist was blessed
with gifts to illuminate things in life even though that illumination
can be painful at times, but if it doesnít come with humility,
then what you have is a situation where there can be serious
abuse of that artistic expression.
Feder: When you say humility, do you also
include or connect to that a concern for the larger good of
humanity? Would you put that on an artist too? Are they supposed
to shoulder that burden?
Jacobson: Part of the larger good of humanity
doesnít mean that everything you depict is beautiful. If you,
through your art, can demonstrate a certain ugly side to human
nature, or an ugly chapter in human history, or a negative element
to society, thatís also part of the greater good. And I would
trust someone who is humble to do that.
However, someone driven by ego or driven by name
recognition or making money, is often taking a sacred gift and
abusing it in some way. Now does a person have the right to
do that? Of course they have the right to do that. Everyone
can do anything they want to do as long as itís within the law
of this country. But for me, that would be a greater desecration
than if they broke the law, because itís a desecration against
G-dís gift to you.
And even if no one approaches or hires you, it
doesnít matter, itís a blessing of life and a blessing of the
gift that you were given. Now the truth is, when you speak to
a true artist they will tell you about that type of humility,
that they feel theyíre a channel for a higher truth. Yet, we
all have egos so it is tinged and can even be tainted by an
Letís say an artist decides that through a sensational
exhibit, he can make a lot of money. And so what drives that
person is sensationalism more than artistic expression.
Feder: Some of the greatest repressive
dictators throughout history have said exactly the same thing,
that they are merely a humble channel for the truth that they
are giving you. In the same words!
Jacobson: Well, anyone can say it and it
doesnít mean anything. The question is whether others say it
about them as well. To make that claim about yourself is not
the issue here. You can recognize it in certain types of behavior,
but the point Iím makingóthere are a lot of con artists out
there, a lot of people calling themselves artists who arenít
artists, and who determines that is another discussion that
Iím not going to get into.
Feder: Itís a discussion with no answer.
Jacobson: Well, I think thereís an answer;
and if you dissect things you can get to a certain clarity,
but the point Iím addressing is that even if there are many
con artists out there, it doesnít mean that one cannot achieve
true humility in this type of experience. And Iím giving a perspective
that I think is an extremely important one because this would
be the way to dance on that thin line between free expression
and artistic value, so to speak.
Feder: I think Iíll stop at this point
and exercise my right to free speech and hope that nobody interferes
with that so that I can announce some details. Youíve been listening
to Rabbi Simon Jacobson, and this is Toward a Meaningful
Life with Simon Jacobson. My name is Mike Feder and weíre
here every Sunday night from 6-7pm and youíre listening to WEVD,
1050AM in New York City.
This show is an outgrowth of the Meaningful Life
Center in Brooklyn, and this show is also based very much on
Rabbi Jacobsonís book called Toward a Meaningful Life, in
which almost every subject that you hear discussed on the air
here is discussed.
We really want to thank everyone who has emailed
us or written or called us. Here are some of the ways you can
get in touch with us, and we want to hear from you. The most
important thing is the telephone number: 1-800-3MEANING or 1-800-363-2646.
You can also email us at email@example.com.
You can always write to us at The Meaningful Life Center, 788
Eastern Parkway, Suite 303, Brooklyn, NY 11225.
Iíd also like to tell you that we have a new website
where you can download transcripts of this program, and previous
and future programs. Itís www.meaningfullife.com.
We have a caller whoís been hanging on forever,
Louise, are you still there?
Caller: It hasnít been forever actually
it just seems that way to me! Regarding this business of funding,
to support one museum and not others holds the threat of control
through providing or denying funding. Itís implicit, whether
itís exercised or not, and that leadsówhether one has the ability
to control fundingóto a judgment of what is to be displayed,
what can be read as what is art.
Iím thinking for instance of a particular artist
who hung a toilet on the wall of an art gallery. Art.
Feder: This is a public or a private art
Caller: A private one. Somebody stood on
a motorcycle on a platform, just a regular motorcycle, at the
Museum of Modern Art, that was art. Somebody just painted squares
of color on a piece of fabric and that was called Mondrian.
My point is, what do these do to illuminate anything?
Rabbi, you said that art ought to illuminateÖ
Jacobson: Okay, I hear the question, Louise.
Iím sure the artist would be able to defend and explain how
that illuminates an aspect of life, and to be honest, thatís
why when you elect a serious professional or artistic Board
of Trustees to any museum, we, the community, trust that they
will choose art that does satisfy certain criteria, even if
the board doesnít fully appreciate it.
Itís a very subjective question because if a million
people call something art, does that make it art? Is it just
a question of numbers? Itís a question of its own. I gave my
subjective interpretation of art because I see it in terms of
something that can be constructive. But some people could argue,
no, whatís wrong with being a selfish, egoistic artist who just
wants to express himself and say anything that he or she may
Caller: May I answer that?
Jacobson: Well, itís a rhetorical question.
Feder: Louise, are you an artist?
Caller: No, Iím a housewife! When I get
off the air, would you treat that rhetorical question as a legitimate
question as to why the opinion of you, for instance Rabbi, should
dominate the opinion of me or my cousin Lucy and why should
the government force me to fund your private opinion?
Jacobson: I think thatís a very legitimate
question and I think we should address it at another point because
itís a question, as you pointed out Mike before, of whether
the government should be funding anything publicly altogether.
Feder: It might be hard to stay away from
that today; weíll see what the other listeners have to say.
Okay, we have Seymour on the phone.
Caller: I just want to say that nobody
in this world has the right to offend anybody, whether itís
through art or speech or the printed word, people just donít
have the right to do that.
Feder: Well, whoís to decide whatís offensive?
Caller: The people who are being offended.
Feder: Well then nobody would ever do anything.
Caller: Thatís not true. I mean, people
have to be nice to each other. You take this artist who displayed
that picture in the Brooklyn Museum. He has no right to offend
the Catholic religion. Heís desecrating the Catholic religion
and he doesnít have the right to do that.
Feder: What if I decide that what youíre
saying is offensive, should I cut you off the air?
Caller: If Iím saying anything offensive,
I should be cut off.
Jacobson: Well, I donít feel offended by
what youíre saying.
Caller: Thatís because Iím not saying anything
Jacobson: The question that I would have
is this. I agree with you that nobody has that right. The question
is, how do you enforce that? Letís say a person does offend
someone. What should you do? Imprison them?
Caller: You enforce it by doing what Mayor
Giuliani is doing: to refuse to fund these displays. I think
he is 100% right in doing what heís doing.
Jacobson: Well, the reason I disagree with
regulation of the Mayor is because then it goes both ways. Would
you agree then with a liberal mayor who wanted, in the name
of artistic expression, not to offend artists who want to display
things that are their personal expression and decided to cut
the funds from museums who offended artistsí rights.
And for that matter, we find in history that there were Christians
who were offended by Jews. And they persecuted the Jews because
they said, "you offend us."
Feder: The Nazis found the Jews very offensive.
Jacobson: And so what Iím trying to say
is that, I agree, no human being has the right to offend another
human being and who determines that is the person whoís being
offended. And I definitely think that the Board of Directors
in the Brooklyn Museum did not use very wise judgment when thereís
a whole segment of the population that may be offended by certain
art. To me it smacks of sensationalism and theyíre getting a
name from itótheyíre getting the greatest publicity from thisó
Feder: I think that was intentional.
Caller: The trouble here is that I believe
we have too much freedom of expression in this country and everybody
falls back on the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Jacobson: The problem is that if you allow
Mayor Giuliani to do that, what happens if President Clinton
says, "Iím going to cut funding to New York City because
I donít like what Mayor Giuliani is doing."
Once you allow government regulation there is
no stopping it.
I do believe that government is responsible to
uphold the community's welfare, based on the principles of the
Constitution, including our responsibility and sensitivity to
each other and to a higher calling, as stated in the words engraved
on our currency: In God we Trust. However, this must be appreciated
in a non-denominational way, preserving the separation between
religion and state and not advocating any particular religion.
Rather government must uphold the basic inalienable right that
all men are created equal, creating an environment of mutual
respect, even as we exercise our freedom of expression.
Feder: You know, when Barry Goldwater was
running for president, he said that New York City was so offensive
as a city that he wanted to cut it off and let it drift out
into the Atlantic! I mean thereís a limit, isnít there, somewhere?
Jacobson: Look, I donít want anyone to
get the impression that I am for offending, or even for the
right to offend. I donít believe in that. I think a human being
has no right to offend another person and yes, they should be
accountable if they offend someone.
The question is, how do you regulate it? Thatís
the issue here. Whether Mayor Giuliani or the government should
regulate it, I donít believe in that as well. So, whether itís
self-regulatoryólisten, this is a discussionóbut I think that,
particularly an artist, has a personal responsibility in the
use of his or her Divine given talent.
You know, if you offended somebody, Mike, I would
say to you as a friend, "I think what you did was wrong."
And if I offended someone I think you should say the same to
There are ways to communicate, even if you disagree
with someone entirely, without offending. Because what I would
say is offensive is the lack of respect of the sacred
space of another human being, including their opinions.
Feder: And you know what? And maybe the
intention to hurt also. In the law they say "malice of
Jacobson: Right. So Iím a firm believer
of that, with artists and all people for that matter. And that
doesnít mean that we canít write a piece of material that can
be perceived as being very strong or harsh or criticalóbecause
some people will be offended because they donít want to be criticizedóbut
thatís why I spoke about humility before. And although I didnít
have the opportunity to elaborate, I think itís a critical point
in peopleís interaction with one another. Because if someone
who is humble criticizes you, you would feel that they really
have your welfare in mind. Whereas if someone is arrogant, you
feel that they are really just angry, obnoxious people and taking
it out on you.
Feder: Letís go to a call from Victoria,
youíre on the air.
Caller: I think whatís really saddening
me is the fact that people seem to be ignoring the fact that
the artist who painted the Blessed Virgin Mary had no intention
of blasphemy. The use of the dung is something that is inherent
in his African culture. I think a lot of it has to do with fertility,
and I think thereís so much anger on the part of those people
protesting that theyíre not opening up their hearts and their
minds at all to listen to what his interpretation was.
Heís a practicing Catholic and it really made
me kind of sad. As far as the dead animals are concerned, I
could see that being a little off-putting for most people, but
You know, we look at Picassoís Guernica Ö that
probably riled up a lot of peopleís emotions at the time. Or
I remember as a child going to the New York Worldís Fair and
seeing da Vinciís painting of "Heaven and Hell." I
was about nine years old and that picture terrified me. But
it rattled me. And art is supposed to do that sometimes.
Feder: Also, just to add for technical
reasons, the artist apparently uses this process in every painting,
whether it has to do with religion on not.
Jacobson: Okay, well, I still see this
topic of the Brooklyn Museum controversy as a springboard for
discussion, and what happens if an artist did have the
intention to offend, or, was not, if Victoriaís correct, in
this type of situation where it clearly is a desecration of
a religious relic, whether Jewish, Christian or Moslem. I am
sure that there are people who would argue in the name of freedom
of expression that that should also be permitted. And again,
weíre not discussing not regulating it and whoís regulating
it, but the issue of displaying something like that.
I think that we live in a society where it would
probably be considered quite insensitive if someone actually
desecrated a religious relic because whatís the point? Why are
you trying to do that? Whatís the intention?
Now, in the name of art, sometimes so you wonít
express it. You want to do it, keep it to yourself. Why make
a public exhibit of something that a group would consider to
be a desecration? And again, Iím not talking about government
regulation, but just the ethics of it.
Feder: Hereís a question. It is difficult
though sometimes to separate these issues from law and democracy
and who should actually do what to whom, or refrain from it,
but hereís a question:
It seems to me that throughout history, in fact
for maybe a couple of thousand years, and certainly in the modern
world, that a lot of artists, some of them brilliant, even transcendent,
artists whom I might even decide donít have malice in their
hearts, they have found religion itself, and various parts of
religion, offensive to them, and they have expressed that in
their art, and they represent the opinions of great masses of
people. Sometimes it seems to me that perhaps established or
organized religions might very well ask themselves how they
have offended sensitive people.
Jacobson: Iím very in tune with that question
and I appreciate it.
Feder: Okay, we have Steve. Youíre on the
Caller: I read all this controversy between
everyone in the paper. Youíre all off base. The people who are
at fault are the directors who chose this exhibit. What, these
are the only artists that there are? There are no other artists
around who submit paintings for submission? The directors, theyíre
at fault for choosing these. There are many artists who submit
their paintings for display. Why they chose this is beyond me,
but they have no brains.
Jacobson: Steve, have you been listening
to this show?
Caller: Partially, I just got in about
5-10 minutes ago.
Jacobson: Oh, because 15-20 minutes ago
I made the exact point about the Board of Directors.
Caller: Well then I have to compliment
you. The captain of the ship. Heís at fault. Whoever the helmsman
is. They are off base. Why are they condemning Giuliani above
Feder: Valuable point, Steve. Okay, we
have Moshe on the phone.
Caller: Hi, I just picked up your show.
Itís funny to me that the liberal people who want so much government
donít want the government to then control anything. When the
mayor of the city says, "No, weíre drawing the line in
the sand," all of the sudden they call him a totalitarian,
some kind of bully.
Feder: Can you define what you mean by
"so much government"?
Caller: Well, government is doing a lot
of things today. Government is paying for a lot of things. Theyíre
taking a lot of our tax money. A lot of the money that we earn
and invest in creating businesses and jobs, and thereís a market
economy, and then weíre taxed to fund so many things. So many
things the government has taken over. The American people have
given over control into the hands of the government because
of their idea that we need to have universal this and universal
that, and the government should do everything for everybody.
It kind of comes back and bites you.
Now the Mayor, whoís in charge of the government,
says we shouldnít have our public money going for things like
Jacobson: What is your opinion Moshe?
Caller: My opinion is that we shouldnít
have it going for arts at all, because let the free market have
art. Why donít we fund everybody who needs a car ride somewhere
because itís very difficult to get places? Letís fund everyoneís
Feder: You know, it sounds good to me.
Jacobson: Well, this evening we already
have three votes for that position, so thank you Moshe.
Feder: No, I agree with that position,
Moshe. I believe that the government should stay out of arts
funding or no funding and that leaves them free to do whatever
they want. Okay, we have another call here. Peter, youíre on
Caller: Good evening. The young lady two
calls back seems to be the only one who looks at this museum
thing from a different perspective. She doesnít assume the arrogance
that what the Anglo-Saxon knows as the Madonna and what the
Anglo-Saxon knows as proper is the point of view that that artist,
from his ancestral culture, feels is his perspective.
He looks upon dung as a source of nourishment
and he has a portrait of athletes that he esteems, and thereís
dung on that portrait. So itís an arrogance to say that his
culture is absolutely wrong because the people from that culture
live entirely differently from us.
Feder: So let me ask you a question. Would
you be in favor of a museum, just generally, to be able to display
anything it wants without losing any sort of privileges or funding,
or being stomped on?
Caller: Well, I would hate to see genitalia
flopping all over the place.
Feder: So thatís what would offend you.
Caller: Yeah. People playing with genitalia,
hanging onto genitalia. I think thatís sort of gross, but I
wouldnít mind seeing genitalia displayed, I just donít think
it should be flopping all over the place.
Feder: You want to keep it in its place,
Jacobson: Thank you Peter. My thought on
all of that is that itís fascinating that everyone has a place
where they draw the line.
Feder: What offends them.
Jacobson: Yes. Even if in one culture certain
things are completely acceptable, but in other cultures itís
completely taboo, then the question is, I believe, whether every
culture should have the right to display itself publicly in
a culture that is offended by that expressionÖthatís a really
Feder: Thatís the beauty of democracy.
Thatís the whole noble American experiment; that we have all
these cultures here, thatís why each culture has to leave off
individually bothering another culture.
Jacobson: But just to show you how fragile
the situation is, if someone on that Board of Trustees was offended
and would have voted not to do it, it just wouldnít have happened.
We wouldnít even know that it didnít happen because that vote
would have been behind closed doors. Iím sure there are hundreds
of decisions being made like that all the time based on individual
whims. I donít know that thereís true fairness.
Feder: You know, when it comes to points
of information, museum directors, or board directors of any
organization, they are appointed in the most insular, exclusive
way. It has nothing to do with what people want. This is just
as a point of information.
Dick, youíre on the air.
Caller: I enjoy the show very much. A couple
of observations. One is that the first issue to address is whether
or not the government is under any obligation, or should be
under any obligation, to fund things of this nature. The second
is that if they do, my personal feeling is that they shouldnít
have the right to censure it. The third issue, though, on any
of this stuff, is that we all have the right to either see it
or not to see it. No one is being forced to go to the Brooklyn
Museum to see this stuff. If you donít like it and you find
it offensive, in a free society you just donít go. I mean thatís
the real issue, I think.
Feder: Thatís what Justice Brennan once
said in a case about offensive things on the radio. He said,
thatís what the dial is there for, to turn it off.
Caller: Thatís exactly right. So aside
from the fact that my personal feeling is that itís just a political
move on behalf of the mayor, and he knows full well that the
Brooklyn Museum is going to benefit financially from this because
such a brou-ha-ha has arisen, which I guess is part of his agenda,
I think that we all have the right to see it or not to see it.
For example, someone may take a Torah scroll and
desecrate it, and in that personís belief itís art, in whatever
fashion he may deem it to be. No one is forced to go see it.
Jacobson: The only comment I would say
is back to the comment I made earlier, that it is the responsibility
of the artist Ö and what exactly is he trying to achieve by
desecrating something? And whether itís a Jewish religious sacred
object, or a Moslem or a Christian one, I think it all falls
in the same category of the question, should a Board of Directors
(forget about the government, I agree with Dickís comments about
government regulation) should a Brooklyn Museum that is open
to the public and funded by the public have discretion if they
are offending their community?
Because if they were elected, and the community
was offended by their decisions, what would happen? The community
in which the majority felt offended wouldÖ
Feder: Would vote them out.
Feder: Okay, next call. Andrew, youíre
on the air.
Caller: Okay, Iíve noticed that in the
media the reporters keep mentioning the dung, and they keep
mentioning that in Africa this represents rebirth or life, and
they never mention the cut-outs from the pornographic magazines.
And the second thing I keep hearing, is you know, in Africa,
or parts of Africa this dung represent life, but letís face
it, this guy knew what he was doing. Weíre in the 21st
century. Heís not some little African living in an unexposed
civilization. He knows what dung is. Dung has always been dung.
Itís disgusting. Trust me. He knew what he was doing and it
has nothing to do with rebirth. Thatís for Africa. He knew what
he was doing when they put it in Brooklyn, New York.
Feder: Okay, thank you Andrew. I appreciate
Jacobson: Andrew sounds like he knows the
Feder: Okay, we have time for one or two
more calls. We have Matt on the phone.
Caller: I just feel strongly that if this
were another symbol of another culture or another group, the
argument would take on an entirely different color.
Feder: Spell out what you mean.
Caller: Well, if we took a portrait of
Martin Luther King Jr. and splattered it with dung, or Mohammed,
or the Star of David Ö and I think the reason for that is that
I really believe that thereís a rising anti-Christian hatred
in this country ó an example is what happened in Texas. This
guy comes in and shoots up a church with all kinds of anti-religious
epithets but you donít hear it being called a hate crime.
Even if another kind of art from another kind
of group even made it into the museum, which I even doubt, I
think youíd see an entirely different color on this whole argument.
Feder: Okay, thanks for the comment. Our
last call before we have to move on is from Elizabeth. Go ahead.
Caller: Iím questioning very seriously
any validity of the notion that one does not have to right to
offend another person, or that anyone has the right not to compel
someone not to offend another person. We are not allowed to
physically harm another person, and there are rules against
other forms of harassment and damage to other people, but offending
them has never been a right to be protected against. I mean,
this is fantastic. It may some ethical or religious notion,
but itís not something that has ever absolutely had a place
in law or history or right, not to be offended.
Feder: In other words, to turn it around
from the negative, we have the right, assuming weíre not going
to physically hurt anyone, to offend people if we want?
Caller: Well, this is the history of the
world! Somebodyís always getting offended. Thereís the expression,
"Whoís ox is getting gored?" Somebodyís always going
to be offended by something.
Feder: You know, I think I agree with you
a little bit!
Caller: An atheist could be offended by
a crucifix! A person who doesnít believe in physical mutilation
could be offended by a crucifix. There are plenty of things
about religion that could be offensive to a normal person who
hasnít been brainwashed from childhood that to look at crucifix
is a normal thing to do.
Feder: You know, I think thatís a good
point. Thank you Elizabeth for your call.
Jacobson: Well, I agree with part of what
Elizabeth is saying. Iím not suggesting that we write laws and
we regulate that, because what offends one person is for another
person a religion, and so on.
However, I was talking about personal responsibility.
I would ask Elizabeth this question: whether she felt that she
is going to exercise that right to offend people. In other words,
someone is intentionally going out to offend someone?
Even though you canít regulate it and you canít
enforce it, however, I donít think itís something that weíre
Feder: You donít condone and encourage
Jacobson: Exactly. Offending someoneÖif
you knew someone personally, Elizabeth, myself, who offends
someone and you are a friend of theirs, your child offended
someone, you would teach them sensitivity. That doesnít mean
that we can prosecute them or weíre trying to prosecute them.
I think thereís a strong distinction between those two and I
was talking about individual responsibility to each other, not
as a group.
I want to make one comment about the religion
aspect, that both Elizabeth and you Mike did before as well
(since we titled the show: Art, Religion, and Democracy). The
question is this. What about religion in art? Does religion
regulate art? Because in religion, certain things are sacred,
there are absolutes. If something is sacred, you donít mock
it, you donít caricature it, you donít depict it in any way
that can be perceived as being a desecration.
However, in a secular society, where, letís say,
nothing is sacredóand Iím not saying that in a bad way, just
as a statement of factónothing is sacred because youíre not
building it on any Divine power, things are more or less arbitrary:
green lights and red lights.
I mean, we would say that human rights are sacred.
So I would say that even in a secular society like ours, we
donít think that nothing is sacred, certain things are
sacred, but overall, as far as relics or certain religious traditions,
secular society doesnít give it the same type of absolute sanctityóthat
this is off limits.
Feder: For good historical reasons, too.
Jacobson: Right. So the question is, can
these two worlds meet? Or will they always lock horns because
theyíre based on two different axioms? Thatís a topic that I
would have loved to have more time to address.
Feder: Well, thereís always other shows.
Jacobson: However, I do want to say one
point about that. It goes back to my point about humility earlier.
You see, religion, for many people, and rightly so, has a very
bad image. It has become an inflexible, claustrophobic, dogmatic,
fear-driven (and I could keep going on with many adjectives
that Iíve heard over the years) system that represses human
freedom, human expression, free-spiritedness.
Many people would not see religion as being a
channel for free-spiritedness because history dictates otherwise.
You see how many people have been killed and persecuted in the
name of religion. More people have been killed in the name of
religion than in the name of atheism. Thatís a fact.
However, I must cite my favorite story that I
always cite with Reb Levi Berditchev, the Chassidic Rebbe in
the 18th century. He was going to synagogue on Rosh
Hashanah and he invited a friend to come with him to services.
So the friend said, "Rabbi, Iím an atheist. I donít believe
in G-d. So whatís the point of goingójust to pay lip service?
It would be hypocritical of me."
And the Rebbe responded, "The G-d you donít
believe in, I also donít believe in."
I donít like the word religion, frankly, because
it has all those stereotypes that I mentioned before. I see
a relationship with G-d as being an expression of free-spiritedness.
However, the structure is not meant to be a structure thatís
limited, itís a structure thatís freeing. No different than
the fact that the seven or eight musical notes on the musical
scale are in a structure that allows for the expression of music.
And no one would argue that music in any way is rigid or inflexible
However, you canít add music notes to the scale.
Thatís just life. But you can play the notes in infinite combinations
that create beautiful music.
So from my perspective, a relationship with G-d
is anything but locking up the spirit; itís freeing up the spirit.
Yet to free the spirit, the rules are not rules that are superimposed,
theyíre the rules of existence. Thatís how you play the music.
Thatís how you free yourself.
If you offend someone else, if you hurt someone
else, if youíre violent, you in a way lock up your own free-spirited
expression. Itís not just a crime against others; itís a crime
So in that context, art, music, are sacred to
me because they are true tools that G-d blessed us with to express
the deepest insights, and you see what kind of beautiful art
has been created and what depth it has illuminated. Even art
that shakes us, we see what power it has. It can illuminate
and teach us things about life that we wouldnít see conventionally.
An artist has that ability to capture it, and I more than embrace
the artist's divine right to use his great talent. But it also
entails a responsibility that we have, under G-d, and this should
be regulated from your own spirit rather than from a government
or from some group.
Iím definitely not for that because groups and
governments historically have always tended to repress and overstep
Feder: I hesitate to interrupt but we have
less than a minute to go. The show today is partially underwritten
by Pamela Title.
You have been listening to Toward a Meaningful
Life with Simon Jacobson. This is Mike Feder. I think we
can all agree that one of the most sacred things in this country
is free speech.
Jacobson: Freedom of expression and I think
itís very gratifying to have a show like this and get all these
calls. I hope we can continue to discuss this topic in the future.
Feder: Just to mention once again, if you
want to comment, we have our email at firstname.lastname@example.org
or 1-800-363-2646. Next week weíre going to talk about angels.
Thank you very much.
Jacobson: Thank you Mike and I welcome
you all back next week.