Jewish Journal

Michael Jackson and Jew noses

by Brad A. Greenberg

June 30, 2009 | 8:19 pm

Ruth Ellen Gruber has an interesting arts piece from Vienna. It’s all about stereotypes of Jews and other minorities, and making a guest appearance is a portrait of Michael Jackson, who fits right into the theme of disrupting conventions:

Gruber writes for JTA:

Amid all the noisy outpouring over Michael Jackson’s sudden death, the last place I expected to find him was in a Jewish museum. But there he was, his pale, mask-like, surgically engineered image featured as part of an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in the Austrian capital.

Called “Typical!—Cliches of Jews and Others,” the exhibition deals with the use (and abuse) of ethnic stereotypes in popular culture. The exhibition, which runs until October, has been shown at the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Spertus Museum in Chicago.

It was assembled long before Jackson died June 25 in Los Angeles.

In a life-size photograph from 2002, he is shown with lank black hair framing a long, square stubbly chin, pinched red mouth, huge made-up eyes and a tiny nose with distorted pointy tip.

The photo is used to illustrate how, for better or worse, the King of Pop attempted to destroy stereotypes and, literally, to cut himself away from the confines of physical definition.

Jackson’s “surgical transformations mirrored back to the culture the blurring of boundaries demarcating adulthood, sex and even race,” Guy Trebay wrote in The New York Times after Jackson’s death.

The “Typical!” exhibition deals with stereotypes commonly used to categorize African Americans, Muslims, women, Native Americans and others.

But given that it is mounted at a Jewish museum, much of its focus is on stereotypes about Jews. The exhibition poster employs a few sketched strokes to conjure up some: corkscrew curls, a hat and a huge hooked nose.

Indeed, the multitude of variations on the (alleged) size and shape of the Jewish nose form a major theme.

“The paradigm for the ‘typically Jewish’ nose originated in the craniological studies of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach,” an information panel informs. A German natural scientist who died in 1840, Blumenbach “claimed to have evidence that Jews had an especially prominent nasal bone.”

Exhibit installations examine the misuse of this and other paradigms in “scientific” teaching, as well as the ways in which they became part of the vernacular shorthand that shapes the way we see others and ourselves.

A section called “the schnoz,” for example, shows a collection of 19th century walking sticks whose handles are formed by exaggerated noses. The contemporary artist Dennis Kardon’s installation “Jewish Noses” features dozens of larger-than-life-sized casts made from the noses of actual Jews to demonstrate the silliness of such nasal cliches. Also, a modern painting ironically comments on the love and success that are supposed to result if one has a nose job.

“I am often asked whether or not Jews have a ‘Semitic’ nose,” reads an exhibition quote by the historian Sander Gilman, who has written extensively about Jewish stereotypes. “After 54 years of experience, I can only answer that every Jew I have ever met has a nose.”

(Hat tip: Holy Weblog!)

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