NEW YORK — Leonard Cohen died the day before Donald Trump was elected president. I mention this only because one of the works in “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything,” a giddily hagiographic exhibition at the Jewish Museum, is a found object, in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. But instead of a urinal, or a bicycle wheel, the found object selected for display by artist Taryn Simon is a back issue of the New York Times, from Nov. 11, 2016.
Why that particular issue?
Because the front page that day led with a photograph of president-elect Trump shaking hands with President Barack Obama and because, below the fold, was a photo of Leonard Cohen. It ran alongside an obituary with the headline “Writer of ‘Hallelujah,’ Whose Lyrics Captivated Generations.”
What, apart from the serendipities of breaking news, does the death of Leonard Cohen have to do with the election of Donald Trump? And why is this presented as art?
I wish I could tell you.
I love Leonard Cohen. Lines from his poems and song lyrics occasionally skitter through my brain. I even play a few of his songs on my guitar.
It’s true, his deep voice and monotonous melodies can begin to grate. But when you tire of Cohen’s music, there is still the idea of him — this dapper, doleful, ironic, gracious, anxious, reclusive, theatrical, seductive Jewish Canadian troubadour — to fall back on. It’s a tremendous tonic.
So I came to this show as many will come: to have my feelings rekindled, adjusted, enhanced.
Instead, I was plunged into a Jacuzzi of kitsch. I tried, in the spirit of Cohen’s own poetry, to feel free — “like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir” — but instead felt squeezed dry of all but secondhand sentiments, my best thoughts hijacked at every turn by a pantomime of feeling, a parody of catharsis.
Simon’s presentation of the front page of a newspaper juxtaposing the election of Trump with Cohen’s death — as if the two things had anything to do with each other — is the simply most egregious example. It’s pure emotional manipulation, with a presumed audience in mind.
Leonard Cohen was a poet. This is an attempt to collapse poetry into groupthink.
“A Crack in Everything” is not intended as a documentary-cum-shrine, in the tradition of last year’s “Watching Oprah” exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is an art exhibit.
The problem is that, by and large, the art is blah. That’s a shame, because there is some great Leonard Cohen-inspired work out there that’s fresh, uncomplicated, poetic and true. It’s just not in this show.
Organized by John Zeppetelli and Victor Shiffman of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, “A Crack in Everything” opened in Montreal in November 2017. Montreal is Cohen’s hometown, so the show there spoke to aspects of Canadian and Jewish identity that Cohen was always alive to. (He used to return to Montreal, he liked to say, to “renew my neurotic affiliations.”)
In New York, the show is slimmer, with work by just a dozen artists. Still, to see it all you would need more than three hours. And if you want to listen to covers of Cohen songs playing on a loop in a chillout room on the third floor, add at least an hour.
Most of the art is video. Some of it is interactive. In one piece, Ari Folman’s “Depression Chamber,” you are cordially led, one at a time, into an antechamber, and from there into a crypt-like room. You lie on a sofa and see an image of yourself projected onto the ceiling. As Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” plays, the lyrics morph into symbols that swim across the walls and up to the ceiling, where they slowly form a shroud covering your image.
It sounds impressive, but it felt digital and tacky. When the dirge finally ended, I rose to my feet with relief.
Upstairs, you enter a room with an octagonal wooden bench. Dangling from the ceiling are microphones. It’s a “participatory audio installation” called “Heard There Was a Secret Chord” by the collective Daily Tous Les Jours.
The lyric, of course, is from “Hallelujah,” which is described in an enjoyable catalogue essay by Sylvie Simmons as “the all-purpose hymn for the millennium, the feel-good singalong/treatise on the bleakness of human relations and go-to vocal workout on TV talent contests.”
You sit or lie on the wooden bench and hum “Hallelujah” into one of the microphones. Your voice accompanies a virtual choir of humming voices created by — what else? — an algorithm. The number of voices in the “choir” corresponds to the number of people listening on a website — asecretchord.com — that functions as a one-song radio station. It all amounts to an excellent definition of hell.
But it gets better. The seat beneath you vibrates in proportion to how loudly you sing into the microphone, thereby “closing the circuit of collective resonance,” says the wall label, and connecting you to “the universal Cohen magic.”
Let me reiterate: I love Leonard Cohen.
But I wanted to puke.
There are better things in the show — Christophe Chassol’s “Cuba in Cohen,” for instance. The 15-minute video takes footage of Cohen reciting his 1964 poem “The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward” and sets it to melody, throwing in an underlying drumbeat and bass line for good measure. It’s weirdly riveting.
But unless you’re in the mood to sit through hours of spliced footage of Cohen, there’s not much else. Thanks to some flaw in its very conception, the exhibition reduces even good artists, such as the British filmmaker Tacita Dean, to uncharacteristic glibness.
Dean’s 16mm film “Ear on a Worm,” commissioned for this show, alludes to Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.” Projected onto a small patch of high-up wall, it shows a house finch on a wire against a blue sky. After exactly 3 minutes and 33 seconds, the bird flies off. And then the film begins again.
It’s a lovely visual haiku, I suppose. But its imaginative poverty is plain when compared with the song’s lyrics, a brilliant succession of poetic images, bursting with surprise and concision.
Candice Breitz, an artist with a knack for taking singalong cliches and shifting them up a gear into something more interesting, has a video installation called “I’m Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen).” Breitz separately filmed 18 aging men passionately performing Cohen’s 1988 comeback track, “I’m Your Man,” in a recording studio. She also persuaded an all-male synagogue choir, from the Montreal congregation to which Cohen belonged, to sing its own arrangement of the album’s backing vocals a cappella.
There is comedy and not a little pathos in the sight of old hippies singing “I’m Your Man.” But the work feels more like a joke at their expense. And it’s missing the element that makes most jokes good: brevity.
Breitz’s work shares with the exhibition as a whole an element of kitsch to which I seem to have had an allergic reaction. What is kitsch?
Milan Kundera provided a famous explanation in his novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” “Kitsch,” he wrote, “causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass.
“It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.”
These days, kitsch floods the field when cultural icons die. We shed our tears, then straightaway succumb to the warm glow, the social-media-induced satisfaction, of watching ourselves weeping together.
All of which is perfectly human. Mourning, after all, is a communal activity. But who or what are we mourning? Did you know David Bowie or Aretha Franklin? What about Leonard Cohen? I know I didn’t.
The idea of these people we admire — the image we have of them — might act as a tonic. But mourning their loss has nothing to do with their art. The art affects us individually, in ways that are often incommunicable. That art was the same the day before the artist died and remains the same the day after. It has nothing to do with who, meanwhile, became president.
Cohen saw poetry as “the ashes of something that’s burning well.” He didn’t want to confuse the issue, as so many poets do, by trying “to create ashes instead of fire.”
This show suffers from that very confusion. It’s more about the ashes than the fire.
Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything Through Sept. 8 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., New York. thejewishmuseum.org.