Museum Crush talks to American artist Doug Fishbone, whose new commissioned video piece, The Jewish Question, is part of the Jewish Museum’s hard-hitting exhibition, Jews Money Myth exploring the role of money in Jewish life
How did you get involved with the exhibition at the Jewish Museum?
My wife is an Israeli artist and knows the [Jewish Museum] curator Dom Czechowski, and he asked her if she knew of any artists who might be interesting for a show around Jews and Money, and of course she said, “Ha ha! My husband”!
A lot of my work deals with Jewish themes either directly or obliquely in a kind of cultural way rather than a religious way. Dom came to a performance that I did a few months back in London, and the topic largely centred around the idea of money. He really liked it and said, “Hey let’s have a chat and see if maybe you’d be interested in the show.”
It’s the kind of work that I have been working on for many years, which is this slide-show narrated type of thing, so I thought that would work quite well in a museum context.
I am descended from a British Jew, my father having been born here, so it’s an interesting way to look at this particular set of stereotypes, because I know my father’s life very directly reflected them, growing up in a society with a lot of discrimination, feeling the need to move to another country because he didn’t think he’d have opportunities.
Stereotyping is a difficult subject to make art from, but you seem to take it head on
The stereotype about Jews and money is obviously a deeply fraught nexus because a lot of people will fixate on it and say, “Ha ha! They run the world!” and other people will say, “Well, no we don’t.”
But in fact some of the major, at least American stereotypes about Jews are that all the doctors are Jews (and all the rich people).
In my father’s experience in the late ‘50s experiencing discrimination being Jewish and finding a job as a doctor was a really useful focal point for a video discussing the error in all this kind of stereotyping. I mean, we all know that stereotypes are exaggerations but for me it was a very personal way of speaking from my experience, but also as it relates to the broader experience.
As you point out, your video is very personal and references your own family history – including a letter of recommendation a British senior doctor wrote for your father for a position in a hospital in America in which pointedly references your father’s religion. What is it like working with such emotive and personal material?
I was looking through some papers at my parents’ house and I was like, what the hell is this? But that was what it was like. I remember speaking to the father of a friend of mine in America who by the time he retired had attained a very senior position at Merill Lynch, the financial firm.
But at the time he entered the industry in the late sixties, he couldn’t get a job in Wall Street unless it was with one or two companies like Goldman Sachs. Other than that it was basically, if you’re Jewish, hard luck!
The idea of the Jews controlling Wall Street, which is a very central idea, is actually quite a modern concept because it’s based around historical prejudices. So it’s interesting to see how quickly prejudices can take root and then seem eternal at the same time.
There is a lot of humour in your work. What’s your view on the ‘tradition’ of Jewish humour?
I read an interesting book about Jewish humour and its development over the years, and it pointed out that it’s almost another stereotype that Jews are funny. For most of the history of Judaism there wasn’t a big comic tradition, it’s a much more contemporary thing. In fact there was an interesting statistic I read, I’ll have to misquote because I don’t have it to hand, but at a certain point in the 1970s something like 75% of all comedians and people in that industry in the United States were Jews. And that’s interesting because again because that was one area where they could find some opportunities and then flourish. But it doesn’t mean that the Jews in 1970 were 75% of the world’s funny people!
In a way it’s like a group takes the opportunities they have and then people think oh look at that, they’re good at it naturally – like blacks and athletics or whatever it is, it’s very complex.
I think of humour as an audience seduction, to get people to sit and to watch something. I have a thing I think about as an artist and that is that you have to eat your own cooking. I need to happily watch what I am making other people watch, so humour for me is an important way that presents concepts. I don’t want the work to be didactic and pedantic, I don’t think it’s necessarily going to change people’s views on everything, it’s just a very personal way of meditating on things that are troubling, but I want to do it in a way that’s also a bit hopeful and I think humour allows that. Even humour that’s a bit grim has an innate hope in it somehow – that’s maybe just a personal conviction. Others may disagree.
I have a very particular style in matching spoken word to visuals, when I tell a joke I’m actually illustrating it, which is a very unusual phenomenon in that normally when you tell a joke it’s a verbal thing. If I were to tell you a joke, a guy walks into a bank blah, blah, blah, you would visualise that. But if I show you those images, then I actually can root it in a physical reality or a cultural specificity. There’s a chance to use the visual to make an extra layer of punchline that critiques something other, and then it almost expands the possibility of the joke, or it exploits the possibility of the joke.
So I think it allows for different layers of subtlety, while being fun. That’s a voice that I’ve always aspired to because I find that when people can do comedy that is very thought provoking, that is something very special and I hope I attain that at times.
The piece you made for the exhibition uses the slide show presentation format. How would you define it?
Someone once referred to the work as time-based collage which I’d never thought of, but I think of it more as a narrated slideshow. In a way it is a collage with a visual flow of images from vastly different historical moments that work together in a way that shows that anti-Semitism really is a very consistent theme. Going from an image of a Victorian print and then to a photo from the 1970s is conceptually problematic but as a mode of collage it’s unified by something broader.
I built the video using a lot of source imagery so in a way it’s like using individual still images in a construction, like it’s kind of a collage of 2-D objects in a sense.
Did you find the sheer breadth of anti-Semitic imagery in the show surprising?
In my own research I came across many of the iconic images featured in the exhibition, you know there’s a figure of a fellow straddling the globe, a greedy Jewish financier that appears in my work, so there are certain crossovers because there is such a definite, well-travelled vocabulary.
What I was really excited about and very honoured about was to be involved in a show that was so deeply curated because I learned a great deal from it. On the one hand I wasn’t surprised, but on the other I was. But the sheer weight and the proliferation of the imagery is one of the strongest messages. This kind of stuff has been going on for a long time and we have the visual evidence to prove it! There is such a historical depth to the show and it’s heartbreaking.
There is a particularly strong, grotesque image of a sculpture of Rothschild and from what I understand the museum had been ambivalent about exhibiting it. But you look at these things and you think ‘my God, these were once seen as generally culturally accepted objects’.
Perhaps even more troubling are the contemporary objects like the little lucky figurines of Jews, which a curator brought back from Krackow in Poland, of all places. If ever there was a graveyard for the Jewish people it’s Poland.
And then they might say: ‘why is it offensive? It just means that these people are good in business and their luck will rub off’. But there’s 2000 years of visual evidence to show that it is offensive from some really important perspectives. So as with anything, it is about context, people aren’t thinking of that historical arc.
But from what I understand the museum had it planned for a number of years and I think they were quite thoughtful about thinking is this a topic that is going to generate real discomfort? My sense, being an American Jew living in Britain but speaking from a very limited perspective, is that the community here is much less brash and visible than it is in New York, where I am from. So a show with this theme in New York would be much less on the nose, let’s say, because New York is a bit more freewheeling and it’s a much larger Jewish community by a magnitude of multiples of ten at least, maybe more.
As an American Jew in London what are your thoughts about the rise of anti-Semitism in Britain?
I work in such a broad range of topics using contemporary imagery to think about human foibles and unfortunately the work is often very timely from one angle or another. But right now there seems to be a particularly resurgent anti-Semitism and for people of my father’s generation that wouldn’t have been a surprise, they’d have been like ‘well OK, so what else is new’? But I come from New York where anti-Semitism is not that visual, although it’s not invisible. It’s just basically a Jewish city, – half of it. So for me it’s troubling. And with my wife being Israeli I’m often in Israel so that whole set of issues is very prevalent in my thinking.
I think that the broader visibility that the internet allows us to dredge up makes us perhaps think that things are worse, but I don’t know. I hope they’re not worse, I hope in some ways they’re better. I think in some ways certainly they are, but in other ways there’s an intractable hostility that finds its new target. Everyone is on [George] Soros right now. People still hate the Rothschilds but Soros seems to be the bugbear now, I’m not quite sure why, maybe he’s the only visibly recognisable oligarch at the moment. There are wealthier people than Soros you could go after, but it’s very troubling and I don’t know where things will head.
I did an interesting bit of research once, I read a book about ethnic jokes and it made certain classifications like there are certain types of jokes that are about smart, cheap people, in particular Jewish people and Scottish people, and then you have other types of jokes which are about stupid, dirty people, and you don’t blur those lines because then the jokes don’t make sense. If you mix ethnic groups and tropes then people are not sure where to go with it. You know the historicity of it makes people think it’s truer, which is very odd. Well there must be something to it if people have been saying this for 500 years, right?
Jews Money Myth is at the Jewish Museum, London until July 7 2019.
Watch Doug Fishbone’s The Jewish Question on Vimeo
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