Yesterday, my friend Rabbi Eliyahu Stern over at Beliefnet contrasted the new Borat movie with another recent cultural production highlighted by the New York Times last weekend: Jewface, an album of early 20th century songs that both mock and celebrate Jewish stereotypes (songs like Irving Berlin’s 1916 ditty “Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars”).
Stern wrote: “Unlike Borat, here it is actuall [sic] Jews embracing and promoting the worst Jewish stereotypes. Unlike the Borat effect, ‘Jewface’ does not mock anti-Semitic sterotypes; it celebrates them and says yeh, there is some truth here.”
While I don’t know that much about Jewface, my instincts about it were quite different, which inspired an email exchange with Rabbi Stern about Jewface and Borat — and the nature of art — that I reprint here for your reading pleasure:
Daniel Septimus wrote:
i totally disagree with you about jewface (i read your post). is there no value in exploring the ways we’ve perceived ourselves in the past? and is it not more interesting if we do it through past (kitschy) artistic explorations?
From: eliyahu stern
Sent: Tuesday, October 31, 2006 11:44 AM
To: Daniel Septimus
Subject: RE: Question
regarding the issue of artistic exploration: i think there is good art and bad art. likewise i think there is a good politics and bad politics. Jewface is art that promotes bad politics. the question i have about exploring our past is why these texts why these tracks? what are you trying to do when you are exploring this genre? what is the value? i don’t see how this is in any way redemptive. i don’t believe that art is neutral and that said i don’t see how what this is offering is in any way socially beneficial.
Daniel Septimus wrote:
as for good/bad art: pop culture tells us more about a society than just about anything else. i would say this jewface business, at the very least, has historical value in that it tell us things about how we used to perceive ourselves. but ultimately i also support the artistic experiment of throwing it back into the world to see what will happen. i agree that the politics of art is relevant, but ultimately its goal cannot be political or social. if it those are its goals then it’s propaganda, not art.