Sometimes a Sculpture is Just a Sculpture

Sometimes a Sculpture is Just a Sculpture: The Curious Case of Shorewood’s “Spillover II” by Plensa

This article was published online by on Nov. 17, 2015

Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, many of us think we know anti-Semitism when we see it. Whether someone’s offhand comment, or a stereotypical cartoon, our radar is finely tuned to identify the anti-Jewish sentiments of others.

Nevertheless, we occasionally can err. A case in point: Shorewood’s sculpture by noted Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa, entitled “Spillover II.” Composed of random letters made of polished steel, the sculpture is especially striking at night, when illumination and shadows create what seem to be even more than three dimensions. While not everyone’s cup of artisanal tea (see Mary Louise Schumacher’s review in the Journal-Sentinel), the sculpture represents an honest attempt to place striking art in civic locations.

The sculpture’s peaceful repose in Shorewood was shattered recently when a visiting east coast blogger noticed words that seemed to jump out of the jumble of random letters. They included the phrases “Cheap Jew” and “Fry Bad Jew.” Writing about the offensive language in his blog, he opined that the sculpture was “not art but a piece of scrap.”

The blog quickly went “viral” and soon Milwaukeeans were debating. Was this an intentional act? Or was the blogger seeing things that weren’t there? The blogger remained firm in his conviction that the words were placed intentionally and with the knowledge of the artist, himself.

I became curious and looked up the artist. Plensa is an artist whose humanitarian credentials are unimpeachable. He regularly tries to bring communities together through his work. He even submitted a design for the Illinois state Holocaust memorial. Not the act of your average anti-Semite.

I then wondered if perhaps if the offending phrases were the work of Plensa’s employees, since they were the one’s most likely responsible for the sculpture’s fabrication. Such creative additions happen more often than you’d think. Even in software code, spurious material can be found. Witness the Business Insider article entitled “Microsoft Programmers Hid A Bunch Of Profanity In Early Software Code.” Ahem.

Additional information convinced me that we were chasing shadows. First, I learned from experts that the likelihood of finding such words among thousands of random letters is much higher than I initially assumed.

Second, a close examination of the sculpture revealed that the blogger had taken liberties in piecing words together, ignoring letters, jumping lines, creating letters out of two different letters, etc.

Third, I saw a statement issued by Plensa’s representatives in Chicago, who said: “Plensa is deeply saddened that his sculpture has been so egregiously misinterpreted. Plensa’s works and beliefs are the antithesis of anti-Semitism.”

Fourth, and most convincing, was a subsequent blog from the east boast blogger, which utterly undermined his credibility. Entitled, “The Power of the Blog: Six Days from Submit to Pick-up Truck,” it bragged how, within six days, his blog post had led to television and press interviews, forcing the artist and the village of Shorewood to remove the sculpture. It then went on to offer a primer in how to get your blog post noticed, spelling out all the steps he used to sensationalize and spread his story, such as “Content is King,” and “Pick a Catchy Title.” By this point, I felt manipulated.

The good news in this story is that those at the center of the issue swiftly responded in an appropriately sensitive way. That includes the village of Shorewood, The Milwaukee Foundation, The Milwaukee Jewish Community Relations Council, and the artist himself, who had the piece taken down and brought back to his studio.

The future of the sculpture is not yet clear. Personally, I hope it is returned quickly to its former location. I’d even argue that the artist ought not to make a single revision to his work. Why? The reason is simple. The Plensa Sculpture affair shows how the power of social media can transform an innocuous matter into something explosive. In that regard it differs little from the rhetorical firestorm currently dominating American political discourse.

What’s more, there are still real anti-Semites in the world and their metastatic message is on the move. While we haven’t experienced the growing violence faced by Jewish communities in Europe, we still have seen a twofold increase in anti-Semitic incidents here in Wisconsin. We need to remain vigilant and ready to respond. To meet the challenge of real anti-Semitism, we have to act with deliberation and forethought, not with alarm and panic. This means when we encounter a case like the Plensa sculpture we should not assume the worst. A simple background check on the artist would have revealed the unlikelihood of ill will. The burden of proof rightly belongs on the accuser, in this case the out of town blogger. In sum, I’ve come to the conclusion that, in this case, a sculpture a just a sculpture.