Keeping the “tribe” without the “tribalism”

Posted on January 27th, 2014 by

What do political scientist Norm Ornstein, the Pew Study and the American Civil War have to do with one another?  I can’t speak to their relationships in the real world, but I would like to share some thoughts about they have started to link up in my mind.

Ornstein, author of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, has been speaking recently about a phenomenon he calls “tribalism”.  There are many aspects to his analysis, but at its core he defines the situation as one where people start to care more about who is making the argument than about the content of the argument.  Politicians switch positions on issues depending on which party or which leader has made the proposal.  Tribalism makes compromise nearly impossible – because while it’s conceivable to find middle ground on an issue there is no middle ground on identity.

It has occurred to me that this type of tribalism is a feature of the modern world that is by no means restricted to Washington.  The Pew Study is the most recent effort to slice and dice the American Jewish community and discern its subgroups.  I am aware of the controversy over the methodologies of the studies but I don’t think anyone would deny that differences within our community sometimes impede our collective well-being.  There are real disagreements about matters of policy, but I am often struck by the fact that the fiercest struggles are matters of identity.  At a recent forum it happened that a panel was introduced only by their names.  About midway through the policy discussion, a clearly distressed audience member raised her hand and said “we all have prejudices, tell us something about who you are so we will know your prejudices.”  The single item I found most striking in the Pew Study was that when the questions weren’t about labels or rituals, but instead about values – there was a surprising level of commonality across all groups.  I manage a museum, so I have a vested interest in the preservation of the inanimate objects we imbue with meaning (what flags we fly, how we dress, what we use to worship), but I find myself wondering whether we sometimes put so much value in the distinctive aspects of our material culture that we lose sight of the human bonds that tie us all together.

And this takes me to the topic of the Civil War.  When Ornstein was recently asked if this is the worst state that Congress has ever been in, he conceded that it was worse in the years immediately prior to the Civil War…but added, who wants to use that as a standard of comparison?  Our current exhibit points out that the war not only divided the Union but exacerbated divisions within the Jewish community.  As “who” became more important than “what”, factions became irreconcilable.  In many cases people stopped talking to their neighbors and shut themselves off from alternate points of view.  In the echo chambers that emerged, progressively more radical solutions started to seem normal.  Families and congregations were split forever.

I think that identity is a basic human need, and that museums like JMM perform a public service by expanding understanding of elements of both our common identity and of the distinctive sub-segments of the Jewish experience.  However, I hope we always keep in mind that identity should not be a wall but a window, something that draws us into new worlds and helps us reexamine our own assumptions.

Civil War cropped 1A blog post by executive director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click HERE.

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A Visit to the MET

Posted on April 23rd, 2012 by

A Blog Post by Senior Collections Manager Jobi Zink

While I was home for Passover, we went to New York City to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My AAM card got me in for free (saving $20 suggested admission fee). My dad used in old teacher’s pass and he, Jordana and Eric also got in for free.

We specifically went to see The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Paris Avant-Garde. This temporary exhibition occupies nine galleries on the third floor and is absolutely amazing! Gertrude Stein and her brothers Leo and Michael, and sister-in-law Sarah lived in Paris during the early 20th century. Although they did not have a lot of money, they were interested in purchasing art. They amassed a tremendous collection of works by young, talented, and virtually unknown artists including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

The Steins hung the works salon-style in their 460 square foot studio in Paris at 27 Rue de Fleurus, represented in a full size at the beginning of the exhibition.  In order to accommodate new acquisitions, they frequently moved and rearranged their artwork. Fortunately, the Steins also took photographs of their various installations. The curatorial team relied on over 400 photographs to curate the exhibition. Eric particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of the exact paintings that were documented in the large photomurals in each of the galleries.

The Steins opened their apartments on Saturday afternoons, allowing visitors to see their collection, shaping art appreciation for future generations. When the Steins found themselves low on funds to buy more art, they would sell pieces of their collection. Clara and Etta Cone of Baltimore were frequent buyers, and thus it was not surprising that several pieces on display were on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art.   http:///www.artbma.org/collection/overview/cone.html 

Picasso’s famous portrait of Stein reminded me of a line from The Paris Wife by Paula McLain where Gertrude Stein plays prominently in shaping Ernest Hemingway’s writing career. In the book Hadley and Ernest wonder, “How much do you think Gertrude’s breast weigh?”  My father used the audio tour and found that it provided more information than the text panel about the rift between Gertrude and Leo.

Photography is not allowed in the exhibition, but the link below will provide you with highlights from the exhibition.

http:///www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2012/steins-collect/images 

After the signing exhibit me I’ll when I separate ways and explore different parts of the museum. My dad was enthralled with the painting of Napoleon at battle.  http:///www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/110001498 

Eric spent two more hours in the hall of armor.

Eric poses with Henry VIII armor

My sister and toured the American Period Rooms –installations of original furnishings and structures from of the most impressive homes in the country. My sister was particularly taken by and tables and other large furniture created by the Harter brothers, well I enjoyed paintings by Thomas Dewing, Tiffany lamps and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style home.

This is the side of the Vanderbilt library table with mother-of-pearl inlay by the Harter brothers.

We all enjoyed the temple of Dendur installation – an actual in Egyptian temple that was saved in 1965 before the Nile River was intentionally flooded.

Dendur.

As you can see, even if you don’t have a free pass, the museum is well worth it!

 

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Highlights from the Detroit Art Scene: Part II

Posted on March 5th, 2012 by

A blog post by Senior Collections Manager Jobi Zink.

One of the “selling” points of the CAJM conference inDetroitwas the many museums that we would go to. Rather than just attending sessions in one hotel or conference center, we toured a number of museums. Several of the sessions were then related to the exhibitions we just saw.

We began Tuesday morning at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (www.thewright.org)

While I remember Chris Webber for calling a time out for University of Michigan during the 1993 NCAA Championship game when his team did not have any time outs remaining, I learned that he began to collect African American artifacts in 1994. His collection,including slave records and costumes worn by James Brown, was donated to the Wright in 2007.

Our final conference sessions were held at the Detroit Institute of art (www.dia.org). As an art history major specializing in American Art, I felt like I was in heaven!

We ate lunch in the Rivera courtyard, surrounded by “Detroit Industry” murals by Diego Rivera. Rivera was a Marxist who believed that art belonged on public walls rather than in private galleries; he also gave the worker and the manager equal stature in art and in life.

For more details about the 27 panels that Rivera completed in just 11 months click on this link: http:///www.dia.org/art/rivera-court.aspx

I had a flashback to our February 10th field trip to the National Gallery of Art when we came to “Watson and the Shark” by John Singleton Copley. This is the third and smallest version of this painting. The second painting is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Encountering “First State Election in Detroit, Michigan, 1837” by Thomas Mickell Burnham was very timely as Tuesday was theMichigan primary!

Rabbi Sprinzen would be proud that I can still read “Sampson” and “Delilah” in Hebrew. I love the frames on the Elihu Vedder paintings, too!

This piece reminded me a little bit of the Hutzler Cabinet. Must be all of that dark wood and intricate design.

I’ve always found the triptych “Classical Figures” by Thomas Dewing to have a calming effect on me.

I had no idea that all of this amazing art and history was hidden in Detroit. Thank you, Deborah, Josh, Terri & Stephen and the rest of CAJM, for the opportunity to see it all!

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