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When is a statue just a statue? In the Village of Shorewood, not this week. An East Coast blogger visiting his daughter, was looking at Jaume Plensa’s sculpture, "Spillover II," that sits perched in Atwater Park, at the corner of Lake and Capitol Drives. He 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 wrote that the sculpture was "not art but a piece of scrap."
More than a few heated comments were exchanged in response to the blog, some claiming that the blogger was seeing things that weren’t there and others suspecting the artist’s motives.
So who is right? Paradoxically, both viewpoints may be close to the truth. It seems unlikely that the artist is an anti-Semite. His work has been dedicated to bringing people closer together. He even has submitted designs for Holocaust memorials, not a move many anti-Semites would make.
Yet, the statistical likelihood of such phrases emerging from random letters is very, very small. If the words were intentional and the artist isn’t responsible than who? I have a theory: busy artists of international stature often don’t fabricate what they design. They employ artisans who take their designs and bring them into being. We know the artist told his workers that the letters should be entirely random. If they were intentionally arranged to send an anti-Semitic message, that speaks to the culpability of his underlings.
Did artist Jaume Pensa look his work over when it was done? Assuredly. Did he notice what the New Jersey blogger saw? No, but that, in and of itself, doesn’t establish intent. More likely the fault lies with his workers who fabricated the piece. Artisans working for established artists have been known to monkey around with the boss’s creation. In the software industry, where some programs run on millions of line of code, programmers have been known to insert cute phrases in and among the functional sections of code. Like a graffiti tagger, they leave a sign of their existence in a place that many may never see it. One classic example occurred in the nineteen eighties. The Business Insider article entitled "Microsoft Programmers Hid A Bunch Of Profanity In Early Software Code" pretty much sums it up.
The good news in this story is that those at the center of the issue 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 to be brought back to his studio to be revised.
His comments were noteworthy. He was saddened and dismayed that people saw hurtful messages in his work, which is why he is changing it. For those convinced there’s something there, look to the artist’s fabricators.
Otherwise, as far as I am concerned, case closed.