Saturday, February 09, 2008

Peter Schumann’s Israeli-Palestinian problem?

Last year, Bread and Puppet Theater founder Peter Schumann sparked a small stir at the Boston Center for the Arts and later a larger stir in Burlington, Vermont, when he exhibited paintings protesting what he sees as Israeli oppression of Palestinians, matched with passages from John Hersey’s 1950 novel "The Wall" about the Nazi extermination of Warsaw ghetto Jews during World War II. Schumann says his theme was an “oppressed people who oppresses a people.” Critics charged that Schumann was equating Israelis today with Nazis, which he says “wasn’t my intent.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a third rail for the Left. This is part of why Schumann headed right in. But there’s nothing like comparing someone to Nazis (intentionally or not) to kill possibilities for discussion. When a handful of audience members called him on it at a public discussion at the BCA a year ago, Schumann dodged the question. When they reiterated their questions, many in the audience shouted them down. Neither Schumann nor any of the other leaders of the event spoke up to calm the crowd and reestablish a civil, respectful discussion of the issue. It was an ugly, insulting, disappointing, shameful scene. And if Schumann was looking to encourage discussion and reconsideration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he failed.

Its repercussions are still playing out. When Schumann showed the paintings again in Burlington, Vermont, last fall, pro-Israel folks complained, and a dozen or two of them disrupted Schumann during a talk there. More ugliness. (See Burlington newspaper account here.)

I recount all this to introduce my upcoming posts of interviews with Schumann and one of his critics. I’ve split my interview with Schumann into two parts (here and here). In the first we discuss his new pageant “The Divine Reality Comedy,” which plays at the BCA through Sunday – and which I highly recommend. It is a dark, acid, heartbreaking indictment of the torture and abuse perpetrated by our government in the name of winning the “War on Terror.” And, as always, it is astonishingly beautiful. In the second part, we discuss the paintings Schumann exhibited at the Boston Center for the Arts last year which caused the stir, and his new set of paintings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are on view at the BCA through Sunday.

Following my interview with Schumann, I’ll post an e-mail conversation I had with Somerville performer Ian Thal (see here), one of the most outspoken critics of Schumann’s paintings last year, who has posted much about the matter to his blog, including charges of anti-Semitism against Schumann. (See here, here and here.) I’m posting both Schumann’s and Thal’s comments to document the range of the issues and the dispute. These posts are not endorsements of either man’s views.

Schumann deserves much more of the benefit of the doubt than Thal gives him. And Thal’s argument that Schumann is “morally unserious” is contradicted by more than four decades of Schumann’s work. But it is evident that Schumann’s handling of his art and the discussion of it last year did much to hurt his ongoing explorations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


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