Books at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (Pt. 1)

Books are in the air. On the ground. On custom shelving. Being displayed as libraries and archives and collections outside of their usual homes. The Bay Area Book Festival recently had their Lacuna; the Berkeley Art Museum had one in 2012-2014: The Reading Room (my 2012 posts here and here); the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco currently features Bound to Be Held: A Book Show by conceptual artist Josh Greene, through June 28.

I visited on Thursday June 11, after 5pm, when the admission was $5. In the center of the downstairs gallery stood an actual lending library, featuring books donated by regular folks, and available to be checked out and meant to be returned in a week or two. Carpeted within, the library also encouraged the visitor to sit and read with floor cushions and chairs.

And yet, the room could be cozier, divided into cubbies or intimate spaces. When I visited, it was vast and empty, just the guard and me. I peered closer at the books. Greene has labeled the spines with 1) birth year of the donor 2) the astrological sign of the donor and 3) the religion of the donor. Not surprising for this venue, many were labeled "Jewish."

Curiously, some were labeled "Hopeful." This word seemed the warmest part of the exhibition. It made me wonder if other kinds of creative labeling would have been more inviting. Actually, creative labeling opens up another world of possibilities. "Hopeful" was a great start.

How is this different from a public library? The labeling is one difference. The notations in the card catalogue, also there, is another. But for this aspect, I prefer Ann Hamilton and Ann Chamberlain's work (+50,00 others): annotated cards embedded in the walls at the San Francisco Public Library. I see a problem: in order to access this library you have to pay an admission fee to the museum. You could get a membership, I suppose, which is essentially prepaying.

As a second part of the project, Greene solicited donations from famous people, which will be auctioned off for a good cause. They were also asked to write what made the book meaningful to them and to send the notes with the book. A selection of these donated books are arranged on the wall on small shelves with a framed photo of the notes alongside. I do not know if these were representational of the bulk of the books received, but a high percentage of these books were from people in show business. (A friend suggests that writers might not want to part with their books.) There were also a few writers and artists. One donation was both sad and chilling.

Philip Seymour Hoffman's selection of Death Be Not Proud by John Donne. "For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow / Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me." The actor died recently,  in February 2014 of a drug overdose.

Once again, I have a mixed reaction. I am not happy criticizing anything that promotes artists and the book or the Jewish museum, but as much as I love books and the stories behind why we read them and own them, this kind of project doesn't inspire me on an artistic level or even on the human level; it doesn't turn my pages. Much of community-based art is like this. Some isn't, such as Ivan Cash's terrific and very human project, Last Photo that asks the question of residents of various cities: "What is the last photo on your phone?" Questions about community art to ponder:
  1. Whom is the work intended for?
  2. Who benefits/learns from it?
  3. What questions does the work ask?
  4. How does the work connect the viewer to humanity, the human condition, human problems, human emotion, etc.?
  5. How does the work either take me outside my comfort zone or teach me something new?
  6. How is the work original, surprising, unique, inspiring on its own and in compared to similar works?
  7. What is the viewer's take-away?
  8. In what way does the work engage the community now or during its creation?
  9. What does the work invite you to do or think about in the future?
I would hope that it could reach out to an audience unfamiliar with art or build a new community. But housed in a themed museum where one needs to pay to enter, I'm not convinced that this work does that, since the audience is somewhat homogeneous. I'm still baffled as to why, but it takes a powerful work for me to accept community-based art as art. Call me old-fashioned. Call me Ishmael. Call me maybe.

This is part one of a three-part series that looks at Books, Art, and Poetry at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Opinion: In a museum or gallery setting I would rather see book art, zines, and related objects rather than commercially published books on shelves; Olivia Carter created something closer to that vision  in her 2012 senior BFA show. 


Anonymous said…
I really liked your list of thoughtful questions. I am Girl Scout co-leader and our Cadettes are planning their Gold Award projects. I hope you won't mind if I use your questions to help the girls focus on their plans.
Thank you,
Alisa said…
Dear Diane,
Please do! I'm happy to help. If you can include the source, I'd appreciate it. Thanks.