Toward 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.” I’m sure a lot of you will have opinions on that and we’ll ask you to call later in the midst of our discussion.
But first let’s take a moment to review who we are and what our mission is on this show.
Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Well, we’ve 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. There’s nothing like interacting with live human beings and really seeing the diverse contribution of people with so many opinions dealing with real life issues.
It’s 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 we’re doing and what we’re 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 he’s come to the end of his rope because of different failures in his life, a very terrible childhood… and he essentially said, can you tell me why to live?” And he added, “Don’t send me for help. I’ve already been through all types of therapy.” Clearly he’s 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 there’s an Internet and people read the news… and you get a sense that you’re 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 doesn’t 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 you’re 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 it’s not just a random, circumstantial type of existence where we’re living with a sort of victim mentality, but rather you can take control of your life. So, that’s what Toward a Meaningful Life tries to bring across.
Feder: Well, I think that’s an excellent restatement of our position, and this needs a little background. First of all, we’re talking about the book—which is a blueprint for this radio show—Toward 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 there’s the Meaningful Life Center from which this is all generated.
Jacobson: That’s our organizational name, and we achieve our mission through the publication of materials, this radio show, a website… 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: We’re 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 tonight’s topic is about this whole “war” that’s been going on around the Brooklyn Museum; it’s been happening for about a couple of weeks now, and I believe it’s moved into court now. It was in the papers, and on the streets, with protests everywhere. And we are subtitling tonight’s show, “Art, Religion and Democracy.”
Now I’m assuming for the purpose of moving the program along that everyone, or virtually everyone listening, knows about this, so there’s 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 this…
Jacobson: In the spirit of this show, which is subtitled “For Skeptics and Seekers”— 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 we’re 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 who’s 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, it’s a Christian country and since the majority of people are Christian, then only Christianity should be taught so you can’t have Jewish schools,” Jews would not be able to flourish the way they do. So for Jews, we’re acutely sensitive to the issue of freedom of expression.
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 I’m 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 who’s the regulator?
Frankly, looking at this issue of Mayor Giuliani cutting funds…let’s reverse the case: Let’s 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, you’re infringing on free expression. I’m going to cut the funds because you’re 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 doesn’t 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 thinking—they also represent the constituency as they were obviously elected…
Feder: Some were appointed by the city, I think.
Jacobson: That’s 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? We’ll address that in a moment. But I’m talking now about people who control what is or isn’t 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 of…
Feder: They may not want to offend their advertisers.
Jacobson: Exactly. So there’s 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 won’t allow it to be displayed.
Again, this is not the oppression of individual artistic expression. That’s 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, you’re 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 you’re talking about freedom of expression because you’re opening up a Pandora’s box and tampering with a very sensitive area of government intervention in people’s 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 that’s been written and published and depicted. That offends and can even be described as being vulgar and driven by depravity.
So, yet, weighing the two—as Churchill once said, democracy is the worst system he’d ever found, but he never discovered a better one—so weighing the two, you’d rather not have that type of government regulation. But I would like to address the issue of what is the responsibility of an artist?
Let’s 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 you’re saying. You’re not asking whether there should be a limit on the expression of an artist, you’re asking whether there should be a limit on what can be displayed by an artist? That’s 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 you’re suggesting?
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. What’s 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 I’m 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 capture.
Feder: But you’re asking this question now of the artist.
Jacobson: Yes, I’m getting straight to the artist itself. In other words, let’s say, for argument sake, art is an expression, as Picasso said, it’s a lie that reveals a deeper truth about life. “Lie” meaning that it’s an artificial representation, art as in artifice. That’s why it’s called art. It’s 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 it’s a form of art because it’s teaching us more about ourselves, about life. Even if it’s something uncomfortable to us in a way, it exposes a deeper dimension.
When I say art here, I don’t 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? I’m 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 can’t 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 ‘Fire!’ 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 you’re talking about. It’s a very fine distinction.
A piece of art is not going to jump off a wall and hurt anybody. Or do you think it might, I don’t know!
Jacobson: Well, it’s not just a question of art—what 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 it’s 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 there’s direct inciting. I believe there are laws regulating that.
The reason we’re discussing this is that you want to take extremes of the spectrum and then try to reach into the grayer area.
Feder: Well, we’re moving along and an hour is never long enough for such topics—I think a three-hour program would be just about right—but meanwhile we do want people to call, so maybe between you and me, we could delineate one or two larger issues…
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 they’re 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 that’s a different topic entirely, and it’s about the government’s support of public institutions…
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 isn’t just a social or a legal right. It’s 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, there’s a responsibility that that type of mission entails. It’s 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 who’s been blessed with that humility. Because if that humility doesn’t exist, the artist can become abusive, just as a therapist can…when you go to a therapist, we all know there’s a certain element of sensitivity and discretion that’s 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 don’t go to the artist as a client…
Feder: I was going to say, you don’t go to the artist and place yourself in their hands…
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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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, that’s 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 it’s within the law of this country. But for me, that would be a greater desecration than if they broke the law, because it’s a desecration against G-d’s gift to you.
And even if no one approaches or hires you, it doesn’t matter, it’s 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 they’re a channel for a higher truth. Yet, we all have egos so it is tinged and can even be tainted by an ego…
Let’s 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 doesn’t 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 I’m making—there are a lot of con artists out there, a lot of people calling themselves artists who aren’t artists, and who determines that is another discussion that I’m not going to get into.
Feder: It’s a discussion with no answer.
Jacobson: Well, I think there’s an answer; and if you dissect things you can get to a certain clarity, but the point I’m addressing is that even if there are many con artists out there, it doesn’t mean that one cannot achieve true humility in this type of experience. And I’m 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 I’ll 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. You’ve been listening to Rabbi Simon Jacobson, and this is Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. My name is Mike Feder and we’re here every Sunday night from 6-7pm and you’re 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 Jacobson’s 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can always write to us at The Meaningful Life Center, 788 Eastern Parkway, Suite 303, Brooklyn, NY 11225.
I’d also like to tell you that we have a new website where you can download transcripts of this program, and previous and future programs. It’s www.meaningfullife.com.
We have a caller who’s been hanging on forever, Louise, are you still there?
Caller: It hasn’t 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. It’s implicit, whether it’s exercised or not, and that leads—whether one has the ability to control funding—to a judgment of what is to be displayed, what can be read as what is art.
I’m 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 gallery?
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 illuminate…
Jacobson: Okay, I hear the question, Louise. I’m sure the artist would be able to defend and explain how that illuminates an aspect of life, and to be honest, that’s 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 doesn’t fully appreciate it.
It’s a very subjective question because if a million people call something art, does that make it art? Is it just a question of numbers? It’s 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, what’s wrong with being a selfish, egoistic artist who just wants to express himself and say anything that he or she may want?
Caller: May I answer that?
Jacobson: Well, it’s a rhetorical question.
Feder: Louise, are you an artist?
Caller: No, I’m 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 that’s a very legitimate question and I think we should address it at another point because it’s 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; we’ll 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 it’s through art or speech or the printed word, people just don’t have the right to do that.
Feder: Well, who’s to decide what’s offensive?
Caller: The people who are being offended.
Feder: Well then nobody would ever do anything.
Caller: That’s 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. He’s desecrating the Catholic religion and he doesn’t have the right to do that.
Feder: What if I decide that what you’re saying is offensive, should I cut you off the air?
Caller: If I’m saying anything offensive, I should be cut off.
Jacobson: Well, I don’t feel offended by what you’re saying.
Caller: That’s because I’m not saying anything offensive!
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? Let’s 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 he’s 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 fundsfrom museums who offended artists’ 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 I’m 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 who’s being offended. And I definitely think that the Board of Directors in the Brooklyn Museum did not use very wise judgment when there’s a whole segment of the population that may be offended by certain art. To me it smacks of sensationalism and they’re getting a name from it—they’re getting the greatest publicity from this—
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, “I’m going to cut funding to New York City because I don’t 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 there’s a limit, isn’t there, somewhere?
Jacobson: Look, I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I am for offending, or even for the right to offend. I don’t 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? That’s the issue here. Whether Mayor Giuliani or the government should regulate it, I don’t believe in that as well. So, whether it’s self-regulatory—listen, this is a discussion—but 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 me.
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 forethought.”
Jacobson: Right. So I’m a firm believer of that, with artists and all people for that matter. And that doesn’t mean that we can’t write a piece of material that can be perceived as being very strong or harsh or critical—because some people will be offended because they don’t want to be criticized—but that’s why I spoke about humility before. And although I didn’t have the opportunity to elaborate, I think it’s a critical point in people’s 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: Let’s go to a call from Victoria, you’re on the air.
Caller: I think what’s 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 there’s so much anger on the part of those people protesting that they’re not opening up their hearts and their minds at all to listen to what his interpretation was.
He’s 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 this…
You know, we look at Picasso’s Guernica … that probably riled up a lot of people’s emotions at the time. Or I remember as a child going to the New York World’s Fair and seeing da Vinci’s 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 Victoria’s 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, we’re not discussing not regulating it and who’s 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 what’s the point? Why are you trying to do that? What’s the intention?
Now, in the name of art, sometimes so you won’t 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, I’m not talking about government regulation, but just the ethics of it.
Feder: Here’s 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 here’s 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 don’t 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: I’m very in tune with that question and I appreciate it.
Feder: Okay, we have Steve. You’re on the air.
Caller: I read all this controversy between everyone in the paper. You’re 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, they’re 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. He’s at fault. Whoever the helmsman is. They are off base. Why are they condemning Giuliani above anyone else?
Feder: Valuable point, Steve. Okay, we have Moshe on the phone.
Caller: Hi, I just picked up your show. It’s funny to me that the liberal people who want so much government don’t want the government to then control anything. When the mayor of the city says, “No, we’re 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. They’re taking a lot of our tax money. A lot of the money that we earn and invest in creating businesses and jobs, and there’s a market economy, and then we’re 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, who’s in charge of the government, says we shouldn’t have our public money going for things like this.
Jacobson: What is your opinion Moshe?
Caller: My opinion is that we shouldn’t have it going for arts at all, because let the free market have art. Why don’t we fund everybody who needs a car ride somewhere because it’s very difficult to get places? Let’s fund everyone’s car services.
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, you’re on the air.
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 doesn’t 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 there’s dung on that portrait. So it’s 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 that’s what would offend you.
Caller: Yeah. People playing with genitalia, hanging onto genitalia. I think that’s sort of gross, but I wouldn’t mind seeing genitalia displayed, I just don’t think it should be flopping all over the place.
Feder: You want to keep it in its place, I understand.
Jacobson: Thank you Peter. My thought on all of that is that it’s 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 it’s 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 expression…that’s a really good question.
Feder: That’s the beauty of democracy. That’s the whole noble American experiment; that we have all these cultures here, that’s 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 wouldn’t have happened. We wouldn’t even know that it didn’t happen because that vote would have been behind closed doors. I’m sure there are hundreds of decisions being made like that all the time based on individual whims. I don’t know that there’s 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, you’re 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 shouldn’t 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 don’t like it and you find it offensive, in a free society you just don’t go. I mean that’s the real issue, I think.
Feder: That’s what Justice Brennan once said in a case about offensive things on the radio. He said, that’s what the dial is there for, to turn it off.
Caller: That’s exactly right. So aside from the fact that my personal feeling is that it’s 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 person’s belief it’s 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 … and what exactly is he trying to achieve by desecrating something? And whether it’s 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 Dick’s 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 would…
Feder: Would vote them out.
Feder: Okay, next call. Andrew, you’re on the air.
Caller: Okay, I’ve 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 let’s face it, this guy knew what he was doing. We’re in the 21st century. He’s not some little African living in an unexposed civilization. He knows what dung is. Dung has always been dung. It’s disgusting. Trust me. He knew what he was doing and it has nothing to do with rebirth. That’s for Africa. He knew what he was doing when they put it in Brooklyn, New York.
Feder: Okay, thank you Andrew. I appreciate that.
Jacobson: Andrew sounds like he knows the artist personally.
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 … and I think the reason for that is that I really believe that there’s a rising anti-Christian hatred in this country — 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 don’t 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 you’d 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: I’m 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 it’s 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 we’re not going to physically hurt anyone, to offend people if we want?
Caller: Well, this is the history of the world! Somebody’s always getting offended. There’s the expression, “Who’s ox is getting gored?” Somebody’s 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 doesn’t 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 hasn’t been brainwashed from childhood that to look at crucifix is a normal thing to do.
Feder: You know, I think that’s a good point. Thank you Elizabeth for your call.
Jacobson: Well, I agree with part of what Elizabeth is saying. I’m 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 can’t regulate it and you can’t enforce it, however, I don’t think it’s something that we’re aspiring to.
Feder: You don’t condone and encourage it.
Jacobson: Exactly. Offending someone…if 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 doesn’t mean that we can prosecute them or we’re trying to prosecute them. I think there’s 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 don’t mock it, you don’t caricature it, you don’t depict it in any way that can be perceived as being a desecration.
However, in a secular society, where, let’s say, nothing is sacred—and I’m not saying that in a bad way, just as a statement of fact—nothing is sacred because you’re 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 don’t think that nothing is sacred, certain things are sacred, but overall, as far as relics or certain religious traditions, secular society doesn’t give it the same type of absolute sanctity—that 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 they’re based on two different axioms? That’s a topic that I would have loved to have more time to address.
Feder: Well, there’s 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 I’ve 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. That’s 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, I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in G-d. So what’s the point of going—just to pay lip service? It would be hypocritical of me.”
And the Rebbe responded, “The G-d you don’t believe in, I also don’t believe in.”
I don’t 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 that’s limited, it’s a structure that’s 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 or dogmatic.
However, you can’t add music notes to the scale. That’s 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; it’s freeing up the spirit. Yet to free the spirit, the rules are not rules that are superimposed, they’re the rules of existence. That’s how you play the music. That’s how you free yourself.
If you offend someone else, if you hurt someone else, if you’re violent, you in a way lock up your own free-spirited expression. It’s not just a crime against others; it’s a crime against yourself.
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 wouldn’t 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.
I’m definitely not for that because groups and governments historically have always tended to repress and overstep their boundaries.
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 it’s 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 email@example.com or 1-800-363-2646. Next week we’re going to talk about angels. Thank you very much.
Jacobson: Thank you Mike and I welcome you all back next week.