News, Ethics & Culture

Anti-Semitic Jaume Plensa Sculpture is Removed

Anti-Semitic Jaume Plensa Spillover II Sculpture in Milwaukee Has Been Removed

Published on The Good Men Project 11/15/2015

It took 5 days from the time my article, “How I Discovered Hate in Plain Sight on a Popular Sculpture” posted until, Jaume Plensa, had his Spillover II sculpture removed for “repair”. I had observed that there was an ethnic slur, “Cheap Jew” in plain sight, made from letters of the sculpture. The Internet buzzed, my article went viral and it quickly forced a meeting between the artist and the local community. After I did four TV interviews and four newspaper interviews the story was all over Milwaukee and the country.

TMJ4 -NBC  •  WISN12 – ABC  •  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Highlighted for Clarity (credit Ed Dvir)

Highlighted for Clarity (credit Ed Dvir)

The sculpture in question is located in Atwater Park, Shorewood, just north of Milwaukee. Local officials, Jewish leaders, and press headed to the site to verify what I saw. After observing for themselves and speaking with Jaume Plensa and his representatives they came to agreement that the sculpture needed to come down and the offensive remarks needed to be taken out. The power of The Good Men Project and what we do here has made the world a better place.

Jaume Plensa’s Spillover II • Shorewood, WI

Jaume Plensa’s Spillover II • Shorewood, WI

Photo by Reuben W. Fortier

Photo by Reuben W. Fortier

So that’s the end of the story and all is well.

Not exactly.

What was disappointing to me was how so many people tried to make me the villain. I was an observer and reported what I saw. The sculpture was taken down because the people of Shorewood, local religious leaders and the press went to see it and saw for themselves that what I reported was correct.

My blog, (as well as the GMP Article) received tens of thousands of views and hundreds of comments. The comments were divided somewhat evenly for and against the removal of the statue. 99% of the comments came from people who had never visited the sculpture. Many of the negative comments were hateful and directed personal attacks at me.

Three of my favorite comments were:

“Oh my God, I pray for you, Mr. Sweetwood. The world is not out to get you and in fact, could probably care less if you’re a Jew, a Pole or whatever you may be. Be a person. A MATURE person, if you dare. What a baby. I’d be ashamed to be Jewish, if you represent the faith. Nice job”

“You are just another person, proud to be a troll and start fights that never existed. Hopefully, at the least, the art will keep crazy extremists like you out of Milwaukee”

Die Jew. I like it, and it’s quite fitting for the surrounding area. I may go buy some more of this guy’s work.”

Most of the comments made no logical argument why my observation was wrong or provided visual proof otherwise. They engaged in attacks with the intention of marginalizing me and inflicting hurt. This seems to be the way we conduct discourse in our society today. If you disagree with someone, even if they have been potentially victimized, post something vile about them, anonymously, and run away. In fact, many people claimed they were offended that I was offended.

The artist, Jaume Plensa also took that strategy. To quote his gallery’s press release  “Plensa is deeply saddened that his sculpture has been so egregiously misinterpreted.” This shows he has no real interest in healing any wounds he may have caused intentionally or unintentionally nor is he willing to take responsibility for what he has done. Then again, if he took responsibility, he might have trouble selling more $1,000,000+ sculptures. Plensa made himself the victim.

This is the response I hoped Plensa would have given: “I am deeply saddened that my work may have offended anyone. I assure you that it wasn’t intentional and I am not anti-semitic in anyway. I will gladly remove any offensive phrases in Spillover II and in fact I will check all of my other sculptures around the world to make sure this hasn’t happened there too.”

He couldn’t bring himself to say the right thing. Maybe he hasn’t really “dedicated his career to creating work that brings people from all cultures together through artwork that asserts our similarities are more important and powerful than our differences”

Maybe we need to examine his other letter-work sculptures more carefully to see what messages can found in in them too?



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15 replies »

  1. Jaume Plensa is a degenerate anti-semite, and his statement about his statue certainly shows this. Mr Plensa, please do not come back to the USA again. You are a disgrace.

  2. Hi, Matt.
    I think you might be missing the head of the nail on this so I figured it might be appropriate to reply.
    I have lived in Milwaukee or a suburb of it for my entire life. I used to live within walking distance of the sculpture and I have passed it thousands of times on my way to the beach. I have never really given it a deep inspection, but I have spent a fair amount of time looking at Plensa’s work.
    I understand where you are coming from when you say you are offended with the sculpture and I see how the set of letters could be construed as hateful, but I think you may have responded rather radically to the situation. The sculpture is being worked on such that people can’t make the stretch that you made and claim the sculpture is anti-Semitic.
    The thing that saddens me the most is that you immediately attacked the artist for his work. You saw the words in the sculpture and you immediately assumed that it was an act of anti-Semitism. Your original post effectively called Plensa an anti-Semite and called for the removal of one of his works. Picture this from Plensa’s perspective as I have. I went to a predominantly Jewish middle school. I’ve celebrated bar mitzvahs and some of my closest friends are Jewish. While I may not be Jewish, I have an appreciation of other peoples’ faith and commitment to God, and I would be deeply offended if someone came out and said that something I did was anti-Semitically motivated. You have already argued about the clarity of the words and I am not going to debate that with you, but have you thought about the impact of your words? By saying these things about another person, you in effect are doing the same thing that the statue did to you. The difference is there is no claiming your actions are unintentional.
    For now ignore the hate reflected in the misguided posts of the haters and talk to me. My real name and email are in the comment header. I’m not hiding at all. You talk about marginalizing and inflicting hurt, but that is exactly what you’ve done to Plensa.

    • I appreciate your thoughtful reply and your desire to not post anonymously. When I wrote this blog, I knew I would be attacked personally. But there are things that are worth standing up for.

      The reason I responded so strongly is that Jews have an expression, “Never Again.” And that is only a meaningless phrase without action. The Holocaust didn’t happen in one day. It was a slow creep of bad mouthing, rumors, written slurs, implied violence, violence, and then mass murder. In our country there can be no place for even the slightest drop of anti-Semitism.

      As to why I vigorously attacked the artist, you can read some of the comments posted around. But I will summarize: If you think an artist of Plensa’s caliber does not know every inch of his artwork and every inch is not an expression of his inner thoughts, you are fooling yourself. He was completely aware that if you cleverly connect the N and the D you get the P to complete “Cheap Jew”. He had the letters in his hands, at arms length away. It was his little sneaky way of expressing his inner thoughts. And he thought us Jews so dumb, we would never notice. It took 6 years, but we found him out.

      I think I need to write a blog about this.

      • Matt, I think you may be reacting a little adversely to the work. I don’t think there was any anti-Semitism at all.
        I think today we have developed a culture that is so identity involved that we fail to realize that not everything is subvert hate. Plensa is changing his work and is changing the letters of his sculpture so that it can’t be misconstrued for hate at all. Plensa has always been an artist that preached acceptance of other people regardless of their cultural backgrounds. Look to his previous works as an indicator of this. Tolerance, a set of sculptures in Houston, Texas promoting unity in diverse communities. His submission of a design for the Holocaust Memorial in Ohio also speaks to this, too.
        I feel in today’s culture we are overly self-aware and this in turn emphasizes our differences. I feel that maybe my generation is going to be the one to correct this trend in popular society, but it isn’t going to happen overnight.
        It could be that Jaume Plensa worked on his piece with intent and distinctly tried to incorporate the phrase you found in the sculpture. It could be that Jaume Plensa is secretly anti-Semitic and that he designed a sculpture to contribute to a slow creep against Judaism, and everyone should be outraged about the sculpture and we must go through all of Plensa’s works to seek out the inherent hate in those, too.
        Or it could be that it was simply a rather unfortunate placing of 9 letters in a sculpture comprising entirely of letters and that you overreacted to the combination, and instead of giving the man consideration and benefit of the doubt that this was a purely coincidental mistake, you took arms against Plensa and called him an anti-Semite.
        Either way, I think the most frustrating thing for me is I feel you never considered the second possibility because you have deemed it inconceivable. I feel artists are not perfect and that accidents happen. I am also not sure of exactly what everyone has said to you, but I think it’s prudent to realize that it isn’t a one sided story at all; when you post things calling sculptures that have improved a community for the better (It was installed to prevent people from gunning it off the cliff in their cars in suicide attempts) signs of subvert racism, people will likely offer a fair amount of debate. I’m writing this not out of hate at all and this isn’t a personal attack and I feel that a lot of these posts shouldn’t be thought of as such. I feel that sometimes by putting ourselves in the role of the victim, we may be looking to be victimized more than we look to right potentially insignificant mistakes.
        This being said, I believe that the fact that the sculpture’s “subvert anti-Semeticism” was not realized in a very religiously aware and culturally accepting community for 6 years and that there is a lot of backlash to your post really speaks to the second possibility, but I will leave it to the readers to figure this out.

  3. I personally feel Plensa deserves an apology as well. If I’m not mistaken, the Torah preaches benefit of the doubt in the phrase “In Righteousness you shall judge your neighbor”, and I feel that this isn’t something you’ve allowed Plensa. I’m not a Jew or a Torah scholar though so I could be wrong. 🙂

  4. This is great! I’m glad you got to see results from your post. It’s important to bring matters of this nature to everyone, especially the artist’s, attention. Well done!

  5. Equal time demands we lobby for more dead fewels of every creed.
    Can we have more dead christians, moslems, buddhists, druids, pagans and pastafarians?
    The satanists aren’t really a religion, decrying phony-baloney, supernatural nonsense as they do, so let’s let ’em be.
    Ditto the atheists, who’ve got that “reality-centric, prove-it-to-me-if-you-can” attitude that denies supernatural noise as explanations for mysteries, so let them be, too.
    As far as the rest of ’em go, they all can best contribute to the ongoing improvement of humanity by demonstrating the courage of their conviction in an “afterlife” by immediately immolating themselves.
    Until then, religious people are just talking hypocritical trash.

  6. Mr. Sweetwood, you have managed to irritate me. Well done, blogger. You have succeeded in finding trouble where there was none, creating drama, and have unneccessarily moved people to spend what I’m sure is no small amount of time and money to “fix” the so-called problem. For what it’s worth, I am familiar with the piece, though I never discovered what you so keenly observed–and probably wouldn’t have in this lifetime, or two lifetimes, for that matter. I am also familiar with art; both locally and around the globe. In college (20 + years ago), I was a sculpture major, and I am in involved member of the local art community. What insight does my experience give me? Enough to make a few observations of my own.

    What blows my mind about all of this is A) that you have been granted any attention at all for this nonsense, B) that people are so increasingly susceptible to sensationalism, and C) that you have such little regard for yourself as a writer and as a critic–or for any standards as such, it would seem, to behave so irresponsibly. You have flat-out attacked Jaume Plensa, which seems entirely unfair, given that his work and life do not, in any way, add up to your conclusions, and have gone on to attack him for not apologizing in a manner that suits you. And why should he apologize? There is no proof that he has done anything wrong.

    That said, I’d like to make note of a few things that I’m sure you can understand and appreciate, at least due to your experience as a writer. Having worked on numerous art and writing projects, I can first of all attest to the fact that when one becomes close to one’s work, one does not always see things that might jump out at others. In writing, this is why major publications have editors and proofreaders. Yet even at major organizations, these systems can and do fail. It happens to news teams, and happens to art teams. I’m guessing that an artist as renowned as Plensa gets a lot of help with his projects. But indeed, it is his name on the piece as it goes out the door.

    Was the grouping of letters simply an oversight, or was it intentional? Either is possible, to be sure; but sir, might it have occurred to you to investigate the situation further, rather than publicly going on the attack? Did you make an attempt to get in touch with the artist? It truly seems unlikely that it was intentional if you look at Plesna’s history as an artist and as a human (or what is public, at any rate) … and yet, this is how you chose to sum it up.

    “Jaume Plensa is an experienced artist and therefore it is no accident or coincidence that those hateful phrases are worked into the Shorewood sculpture. I call on the Village of Shorewood, Wisconsin to immediately remove this sculpture, along with it’s offensive and hateful phrases.”

    For what it’s worth, I regularly attend a Saturday morning coffee group at a local cafe in Milwaukee. In our group we have six men from the Jewish community, four men that are deeply involved in the art community, three men that are African-American, and 2-4 women (self included) on any given day. The group is a mix of artists, attorneys, writers, photographers, engineers, a politician, and a social worker. It’s a fun bunch of folks. We talk about everything under the sun, but tend to focus on art and politics. You’ll be glad to know that your piece made it to our discussion. The consensus–and this was coming from the Jewish members of our group–is that your thoughts regarding Plesna are nothing more than a load of dramatic zeal with one goal in mind which is to draw attention to yourself. Now, before you go making assumptions, I’ll give you some background. This is liberal group (surprise, surprise), most of whom are in their sixties. One happens to be a longstanding and respected critic of art and architecture, and at least two are collectors of art.

    The problem, here, is not one of biggotry, but rather, of narcissism–which our current culture sadly rewards. Congratulations on the medal you have given to yourself.

    • Normally I wouldn’t allow such a long-winded diatribe, containing personal attacks, to post on my site. But in your case, I am making an exception so that I may make an example of you.

      In your 725 word comment, you failed to find one reason why the words “Cheap Jew” was not on the sculpture. The fact of which I verified in photographs in my previous articles. And the fact of which was verified by news organizations that visited the site. And finally was confirmed by the townspeople of Shorewood, who had the sculpture removed, 6 days after my article posted.

      What your response did contain was a personal attack on me, including your understanding of my motives for writing this article and your claim of my narcissism. You don’t know me, so those claims make you look foolish. However, I do find it ironic, your so-called liberal group has no tolerance for my viewpoint and when you disagree, you try to diminish me instead of my argument.

      I quote you:
      “For what it’s worth, I am familiar with the piece, though I never discovered what you so keenly observed–and probably wouldn’t have in this lifetime, or two lifetimes, for that matter”
      “Was the grouping of letters simply an oversight, or was it intentional? Either is possible, to be sure”
      “And why should he apologize? There is no proof that he has done anything wrong.”
      The consensus of the Jewish members of your coffee group about me were’ “nothing more than a load of dramatic zeal with one goal in mind which is to draw attention to yourself”

      So let me summarize your argument (with comments):
      You never observed the hate speech so therefore when I saw it, I shouldn’t have seen it or, I guess, mention it.
      It was there, but it may have been there intentionally or unintentionally. True, but it’s my opinion it was there intentionally and through much research I am even more sure than ever. But in fact it was there.
      Yes, I can’t prove what was in his heart, but the fact is the hateful words were there. As Liberals, I would assume you would agree with the statement that if you offend someone, deliberately or not, you should apologize.
      If Jews disagree with me then I am wrong.
      The Jews in your group have read my mind and know why I wrote the article. Of course the why is irrelevant to the whole issue and the fact that hateful words were there and that is why the sculpture needed to go.

      In conclusion, I will address the Jewish members of your group as to why I made a big deal of this. I hope you have the courage and strength of character to pass it on to them…

      If you have ever heard a Holocaust victim speak, the thing that stands out is how they really were in denial anything bad would happen. Anti-Semitism started as gossip, then a little more overt, the graffiti, then official notices, and on and on. Each step of the way, it was mostly ignored. They didn’t believe anything really bad would become of it. Well, 6 million dead Jews later….As Jews we have a saying “Never Again”. When I saw those words on that sculpture, it was obligation to make “Never Again” more than just a slogan> I had an obligation to take action.

      And finally for you Ms. t_haus, if you haven’t noticed, our society has become very sensitive to language. We have to be careful how we re refer to people’s races, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, etc. Does that same level of sensitivity apply to Jews?

  7. I’m much more the mathematician type than you folks. Statistically speaking, you would have to be very naive to think the juxtaposition of the letters to form the 3 phrases was random. I think Mr. Sweetwood, the small fry in this controversy, was quite courageous.

  8. This is like eating a bowl of Alphabet Soup, seeing what can only be subjectively interpreted as an offensive slur considering how jumbled the “slur” was, then making a public attack on Campbells soup company. It’s insane. As a member of Shorewood, I know that a majority of our citizens, Jewish or not, believe what you did to remove our beautiful statue was uncalled for and unappreciated. You created drama and anger where there was none, and have become a villain in our community. Luckily, the statue has returned to be enjoyed by all who visit our beautiful park. Unfortunately, your blog is now the fifth google result when searching “Plensa,” which is an absolute shame.

    • Did it take you 6 months to come up with this response? If you really want everyone to enjoy the sculpture then removing the offensive words was the best option. And I did not decide to remove it. Enough people agreed with me and that is why it was removed. If it had the words XXXX Islam or XXXX Gay would you be so upset about it’s removal? No, you would have led the protest.

      I am disappointed in one thing, and that is being only 5th on Google search. I was hoping for the number one spot. But of you pass around my article a bit maybe we can get it there.

      • Hi, I would have been shocked five years ago with some of the responses to your actions in regard to the statue. Now, with the Trump phenomenon, nothing surprises me. People in the USA are more anti-semitic than I realized, and it sure is showing now. I support you completely on this issue. Thank you. Mitch DosikThe Rep Solution847-987-1842 Cell

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