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Conney Conference poses a question that may have no answer

Is there such a thing as Jewish art?
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March 18, 2015

Is there such a thing as Jewish art?

The 2015 Conney Conference will pose  and hope to answer that question during its three-day swan-dive into Jewish arts at USC, March 24-26. Programs include panel discussions, art exhibitions and performances by an array of artists tackling the topic.

Spoken-word poet Rick Lupert of poetrysuperhighway.com answered the question with a definitive: “Yes. Period.” Lupert will be performing with composer and song-leader Craig Taubman on the evening of March 25. “Jewish art must exist because people are creating Jewish art,” the poet said matter-of-factly; he will perform one of his poems, titled “Unrequited Potato,” about waking up to the smell of latkes in the morning — an undeniably Jewish poem.

Photographer Bill Aron also thinks the question is a no-brainer. “I do identify as a Jew, and most of my work is about Jewish communities,” he said. On March 26, Aron will discuss his book “New Beginnings: The Triumphs of 120 Cancer Survivors,” which chronicles 120 survivors readjusting to their “new” normal life, post-treatments (“Maybe I’m the 121st,” the artist said, also a survivor). What makes his book Jewish? “There’s certainly a moral involved in my work, a sense of tikkun olam,” he said.

Stacie Chaiken, who will perform her play “The Dig,” about an archaeologist coming to terms with her Jewish identity, on the last day of the conference, also mentioned tikkun olam, using art as a means to heal the world. But unlike Aron, Chaiken is undecided about whether Jewish art exists. “I’m really not sure, but it will be neat to hear how people position themselves in terms of Jewish identities as artists,” she said.

Professor Doug Rosenberg, director of the Conney Project on Jewish Arts at the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, founded the conference back in 2005 with this question in mind. Five conferences later, he isn’t any closer to coming up with an answer: “I don’t know if it’s possible to come up with a definitive answer. With each passing conference, the question becomes more layered and more nuanced,” he said.

Rosenberg was first inspired to ponder the issue in 1996, after attending the exhibition “Too Jewish?” at the Jewish Museum in New York. The show also was presented at the Hammer Museum at UCLA. 

“That was really the first time that there had been a collection of contemporary work which asked the question if art could be contemporary and Jewish at the same time,” Rosenberg said. So, in 2005, he organized a symposium, what would become the first Conney Conference, hosted by the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at UW-Madison. 

Ten years later, this is the fifth conference since its inception and the first time the conference is taking place outside of Madison. “We decided to take the show on the road,” Rosenberg said.

It also will be the first time UW-Madison alumni and Palm Desert retirees Marv and Babe Conney, whom the conference is named after, will be attending the event. Marv Conney said he’s excited to see the conference expand and evolve. “It’s really learning its potential,” he said, speaking of the conference as he would of a grandchild.

“We’re no spring chickens,” Conney said of himself and his wife, who haven’t been able to attend the previous conferences. Back in 1997, the Conneys approached the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies with a proposition: They wanted to endorse an arts program at UW-Madison. Conney said that since the college started offering the Conney Project on Jewish Arts, the enrollment in the program has been primarily composed of non-Jewish students. “I think it’s important, because it speaks to the universality of the subject,” he said.

Professor Ruth Weisberg, director of USC’s Initiative for Israeli Arts and Humanities, had attended a couple of conferences before ultimately initiating a conversation with Rosenberg about taking the conference to the next level. She knew that the Conneys hadn’t attended previous conferences due to geographical barriers, so that was an impetus for her to suggest a change of venue. Weisberg, representing USC, and Rosenberg, representing UW-Madison, eventually joined forces. “It’s very unusual for two major universities to co-sponsor an event like this,” Weisberg said.

In joining the project, Weisberg only had one request for Rosenberg: “That the theme be more Israeli than it usually is.” So, for the first time, the conference will address intertwined identities among Jewish, American and Israeli artists. “We’ve never really approached that question before,” Rosenberg admitted but said he’s excited to cover new ground and uncharted territory.

Weisberg first became interested in the topic of Israeli identity in art when she visited Israel “and asked artists to tell me about being an Israeli artist.” She was shocked when the artists, refusing to be pigeonholed as strictly “an Israeli artist,” referred to themselves as “international.” “I found it amusing, since their art had to do with boundaries, territories and land,” she continued. This made her think about an artist’s relationship to his/her cultural identity.

Keynote speakers Stanford professor Janice Ross and artist Andi Arnovitz also will join the conversation. Ross will lead a discussion titled “The Chasidic Swan,” investigating the role ballet plays in Israel, and American-Israeli Arnovitz, aside from exhibiting her work in a Jewish feminist exhibition, will speak about her entwined identities.

There may be no absolute answer to the question posed at the conference, but as the Conney Project celebrates its 10-year anniversary, it proves there are endless ways to approach the topic — and no harm in trying.

For more information on the Conney Conference, click here.

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