Shelley’s Art Scandal – Anti-Semitic or Misguided?
Back in March 2018, a story hit the papers about a mural which had graced the streets of London. The story was about a misguided comment from Jeremy Corbyn and the content of the artwork. Before I started delving into the story, as I have to say I avoid the news mostly, only reading the headlines and then investigating things that I find truly interesting, I had a quick glance and the mural and recognised the area as a street just off Brick Lane in London. My first impression wasn’t “wow that looks like a provocative piece of artwork”, it was “Oh no! There was a beautiful chimp with a butterfly painted there last time I went and that is in the same spot”.
At this point I really was only concentrating on the picture and not on the actual news story as I started to pick it apart in my own opinion, before I started to read what the newspapers had to say about it, with the intension of writing an article, about my own views, then the views of others, and why I felt the artist and the papers where coming at this story from two different ends of the scale…
As I started to have a look at the new reports. Confusion hit me… this mural was from 2012, why was this suddenly back in the news?
As you well know if you have read my articles, I am not religious, or political, I don’t judge anyone, I try and see things from all points of view before I form my own opinion. This means I am a little thrown as to wanting to write about this piece, and try not to offend anyone involved as I don’t think that this was particularly meant as an Anti-Semitic piece, but I do think that the use of strong stereotypes and conspiracy theory has been misinterpreted by artist and audience and there are better ways in which he could have got his point across.
With all of this in mind, I am going to interpret the piece as I see it, then tell you the pitfalls of the way the artist presented his idea, and then look at why this is suddenly in the news again now. I don’t usually explain my thought process in my posts, but, for this one I think it is important, as my reactions to the piece builds on the feelings of an audience seeing it for the first time (and my reaction was to be more concerned about a piece of street art which I had seen in the same spot).
The piece was created by Mear One (Kalen Ockerman) who is a Los-Angeles based street artist, and it was removed after complaints came into the Tower Hamlet council. It was titled “Freedom for Humanity – False Profits”.
The image shows a group of what has been interpreted as bankers, sat around a monopoly board. Money is in the middle and some key landmarks can be seen on the board (the Statue of Liberty, the Gherkin, and the Eiffel Tower). The board is rested on the backs of people, hunched over, being used as a table. Behind the players, a pyramid with the eye of Providence which has been linked to the conspiracy theory of illumination, representing the New World Order, is prominently displayed, while around it a burning world of factories churns out smoke from their chimneys. To one side a protestor holds a banner which says “The New World Order is the Enemy of Humanity” while to the other side a woman is painted into a doorway with a babe in arms. It’s dramatic and certainly makes a statement.
What didn’t catch my eye, when first looking at the piece was what the bankers look like, now this could be because I didn’t feel that the faces were important, as I saw this as the few controlling the many, but on closer inspection (it is quite hard to see in some of the photos which have been put about) the men at the board share some stereotypical traits of how Jewish people have been depicted in days gone by. We know that the Jewish people were linked with underhanded monetary transactions way back into history and the stereotype wasn’t helped by characters such as Shylock from the Shakespearean play “The Merchant of Venice” where he demands a pound of flesh to recompense for an unpaid debt. This image of the penny-pinching Jew really comes from their exclusion from certain guilds during the Middle Ages meaning that they were unable to work in a certain trade, pushing them into the world of finance, retailing and moneylending. Let’s face it, we as humans can be abhorrent to cultures which aren’t like our own at times. Adding fuel to the fire of the stereotype, Christian theology stated that charging interest (usury) was sinful and pushed many Christians away from the idea of becoming financiers. As this was one of the few areas Jewish people could work in, they dominated the field, and as you would expect, became quite good at their trade. It is estimated by historian Howard Sachar that during the 1800s nearly three-quarters of the Jewish community in central and Western Europe were in this occupation. Due to the Christian beliefs, this put the idea about that Jewish were morally deficient simply because they dealt with something the Christian people considered sinful. It doesn’t, however, highlight how learned Jewish people were for the time, and they had high respect for literacy and understanding of economics. With all this in mind, it is easy to see why the stereotype came about. Later in history, we would see Hitler utilise this ability to persecute the Jewish people again, blaming them for under-financing the First World War and leading to the high debt that Germany found itself in while having to pay reparations. This fueled his anti-Semitic speeches and assisted in his rise to misguided power (ok this is an understatement, but this post isn’t about the rise and fall of the Nazi regime). This does, however, mean today, in some countries, Jewish families are still in prominent financial positions due to long lineage in the trade to reach the top of the financial world. Families such as the Rothschilds successfully franchised their banking business, which means today they have one of the “largest independent financial advisory groups” in the world and the company spans forty countries. This will mean that they are involved with many other businesses due to their financial power and knowledge of the industry. I will come back to this shortly.
The people who have the monopoly board on their back are supposed to represent workers, which is where my original reaction of the few having power of the many came from. They are there to support the board, as the bankers go about their affairs. The protestor leads the audience of the conspiracy theory of “The New World Order” in a very direct manner. If you’re not 100% sure what this theory is, it stems around having one world government, where the few make decisions for the many on a global scale. There are some heavy political arenas in play in this theory and honestly, you would be better reading about it here than me trying to explain it, but there are concerns from scientific experts and Christian theologists over the effect that this theory could have should it every really come to light. Personally, I think, we can’t all just get along now and let other countries go about their own business, so why anyone would think that one ruling power would be a good idea is beyond me, as people will always find something to have a conflict over.
Cogs and factories depict a world where natural life has been taken over by the want to make money in a totally Industrial Age, while the mother and child are left in the doorway homeless and pleading.
Now, where I think Mear One has tripped up, is firstly, he has brought a conspiracy theory to a country which isn’t heavily in to that theory, yes there are a few rumblings of it, but our political parties aren’t as tuned into it or don’t openly speak of it, therefore as a nation, it is not something at the forefront of our minds. He has then selected a prominent and powerful family (the Rothschilds, I say this because there are 6 around the board, father and five sons who successfully spread their business), as his indication of a ruling family in the financial power stakes. To put this in perspective, Walmart makes more than the Rothschilds do in a year, but they are financial advisors and some of the best, so their power isn’t from having lots of money but having the ability to successfully make others make money through influence and advice. I feel the monopoly board represents this, so little money really is shown in the grand scheme of things, but you can see buildings on the board, and the landmarks used to represent some of the countries which their empire reaches. What Mear One didn’t take into consideration was the demographic of people in the area this was created in, and what depicting a powerful Jewish family in this way may make them feel. The fact that Mear One wasn’t thinking that this is a Jewish family, doesn’t particularly come across when you see the faces painted. He has also linked the people in the picture to the conspiracy theory, which is lost on the audience somewhat, rather than being a piece about class this shifts the feel to anti-Semitism.
Mear One states that this is a freedom of speech piece, and while I am all for freedom of speech, placement of art does give it connotations of what is meant, and subjectivity and social anxieties can fuel a misinterpretation of meaning, as we have seen throughout art history.
So… why is this in the news again now? Jeremy Corbyn, way back in 2012 made a misjudged statement about the piece when the artist announced that he was being asked to take the artwork down.
This has reared its head again to sling dirt at a politician from seven years ago. Yes, he should have researched what he was talking about, before saying anything, but if I held things that people did against me seven years ago, I would be continually living in the past, rather than looking to the future, and I think really the media needs to do the same. There is no legitimate reason I can see for bringing up this story again other than to put a slur on yet another person. I will put it out there, I don’t particularly like any politicians, but this feels that they are trying to paint a man as a communist and a Nazi sympathiser from the news stories which have run.
To me, the artwork, while well done, was misguided. Corbyn’s statement was also misguided. I live in a culture where we work hard to eradicate the wrongdoings of the past (ok not everyone is on this page, but we do know that people shouldn’t be judged on the colour of skin, beliefs, political standing and class) yet this is what we see in this story. The artist making a statement about class divide poorly and a politician making a statement about freedom of speech… poorly.
Is art polarizing? And if it’s not, is it just bad art?
Hi Anony Mole, I think I see you in my editor list and you also have interested into art, don’t you? So do you want to share your point of view in art through your writing with us?
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