One of the jokes in Doug Fishbone’s video monologue The Jewish Question (2019) concerns a Jew who is waiting for his friend to come out of a church that is offering $100 for anyone who converts – an offer his friend, a fellow Jew, had eagerly taken up. “So? Did you get the money?”, he asks. To which his newly-baptised friend replies scornfully: “That’s all you people ever think about, isn’t it?”
The large part of Jews, Money, Myth comprises historic artefacts, artworks and documents surveying the enduring cultural stereotype of the avaricious and monied Jew, through eight hundred years of European history. (Barring some ancient Judean coinage, the show’s chronology starts around the time of Edward I’s anti-Jewish edict of 1275 and the expulsion of English Jews in 1290.) But the inclusion of works by contemporary artists offers a jolting insight into the ambiguous, strangely persistent strand of anti-Jewish sentiment that continues to agitate contemporary western culture – obsessed with the supposed link between Jews and money. That this exhibition can be described as a timely one is depressing.
As a show-opener Jeremy Deller’s video collage of clips (Untitled, 2019) gleaned from the news, mainstream entertainment and the Internet covers a lot of ground, mixing the satirical provocations of South Park (1997–) and Family Guy’s (1999–) caricaturing-of-caricatures – Peter Griffin trying to prompt Shakespeare’s Lorenzo (in The Merchant of Venice) into explaining to the object of his affection (Shylock’s daughter Jessica) that ‘her people’ ‘control a disproportionate amount of the world’s wealth’ – with zero-irony conspiracy-theory fodder that insists that it’s Jewish-owned banks which caused the subprime crash.
Deller’s work is a shrewd observation of how caricature and fiction continuously repeat the Jews-and-Money trope, even when it’s deployed as a twisted form of admiration (American conservatives extolling how Jews are ‘good with money’ on cable TV; Donald Trump offering bizarre, nudge-wink, compliments to his Jewish Republican audience about how “everyone in this room is great at negotiating”). For sure, while few in the liberal, twenty-first century West openly tout a purely ‘racist’ view of Jews (there are on show some enduringly shocking examples of racist caricatures from the nineteenth-century: among them French financier Alphonse James de Rothschild portrayed as a hunched, hook-nosed, hairy animal, groping moneybags), the trope of a network of international, string-pulling, financier Jewish interests has never really gone away, which is why Hungarian billionaire George Soros appears in both Deller’s and Fishbone’s culling of Internet memeology.
It’s on that point that the show balances, of course; whether the more deranged conspiracy theories about international Jewish interests really have any serious traction, beyond the sweaty imaginings of Internet neo-fascists or the more confused sections of anti-Israel leftists is open to question. Right-wing nationalist outrage at ‘globalisation’ or the furious row over anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party, are only two aspects of a bigger question: whether ‘legitimate criticism’ of issues of global power and influence – of the financial system, or the state of Israel – are covertly anti-Semitic.
It is of course impossible to decrypt a cultural prejudice that deliberately couches itself in rationalisations, and that’s a quagmire the show sensibly avoids. Maybe, though, there’s something about the moral ambiguity of money and power that incites simplistic explanations. Ryan Gander’s brilliantly slight intervention – a bronze cast of a wallet and a mobile phone, left as if by some forgetful visitor on a gallery bench (Zooming out, 2015) – touches on the emotional guilt attached to covetousness. Seeing it, one is seized by the usual moral dilemma of whether to hand in or to pilfer the valuables. Seen in relation to Rembrandt's extraordinary, deeply humane depiction of Judas Repentant, Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629) – the abject, disconsolate Judas begging the priests to take back their money, the price of his betrayal of Jesus – one realises something of the power of money to motivate and subvert all principles and good intentions. It’s easier to personify money as the obscure machination of a particular clique, than as the systemic expression of power as such and one’s relation to it.
That’s not a self-help issue; it’s political. Though Karl Marx comes in for criticism (in one the accompanying gallery video docs) for the alleged anti-Semitism of his essay ‘On the Jewish Question’ (1844), it’s a pity that the show does not read that complex text more closely. If it had, it might have found, in Marx’s shifting logical reversals, that ‘money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations’. What Marx is talking about is that while Christian (capitalist) nations live, in practice, according to the economic logic of self-interest – a supposedly ‘Jewish’ moral trait – those capitalist systems cannot admit that it is self-interest, not ‘Christian’ selflessness, on which they thrive. For such a disavowal, you always need scapegoats. Money… that’s all us people think about, isn’t it?
Jews, Money, Myth at The Jewish Museum, London, 19 March – 7 July 2019
From the May 2019 issue of ArtReview