March 14, 2002
Expressions of Evil
A controversial exhibit on Nazi imagery at The Jewish Museum begs the question: how offensive is too offensive?
I have seen each of the works planned for the "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art" exhibit slated to run March 17-June 30 at the Jewish Museum in New York. I have seen the video and have most recently, after the exhibition became controversial, been party to the discussion. While not every piece is to my liking, every work in the show has a point. (The show focuses on 13 contemporary, internationally recognized artists who use imagery from the Nazi era to explore the nature of evil.)
Each tells us something important, either about our world and ourselves or about the killers and their world. Some pieces offend -- deliberately and provocatively. (Exhibits include "Giftgas Giftset," by Tom Sachs, which features colorful poison gas canisters with Tiffany, Chanel and Prada logos; Zbigniew Libera's "LEGO Concentration Camp Set," and Alan Schechner's "It's the Real Thing: Self-Portrait at Buchenwald," a self-portrait of the artist holding a Diet Coke superimposed over a photo of Buchenwald inmates.)
Religious Christians who have never faced the dark side of Christian anti-Semitism will be offended to see that with proper lighting, the cross can be transformed into a swastika, but the offense reveals a painful truth that it is better we -- Christians and non-Christians alike -- confront than avoid.
Menachem Rosensaft, the distinguished child of survivors and brother of one of the 6 million Jews who were killed, was offended by the Lego set that resembled a concentration camp, replete with barracks and perhaps even crematoria. Perhaps they are right. But, perhaps Robert Jan Van Pelt is more insightful when he recovered the plans that allowed architects and ovenmakers, builders and planners to create a place where 35,000 prisoners were herded into barracks with only 70 latrines, without adequate water and with only one exit. Van-Pelt has demonstrated that the excremental assault, which Bruno Bettelheim once blamed on the victims for succumbing to their infantalization, was a deliberate part of the architectural planning, the most predictable result of their planning efforts.
Boys can assemble toys -- ugly toys. Men can build big toys --death camps where systematic murder is commonplace. If a Lego set can make that point, it has much to say, even if it offends. If it is seen in this light, it will not offend.
I am not fond of the picture in which a child of concentration camp survivors puts himself inside the Buchenwald barracks with a Diet Coke can. As one who has wrestled with the exhibition of Holocaust artifacts and photographs, I do not like retouching or transforming original images. It falsifies, even if it reveals.
Yet, by their masterful writings, Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi have put those of us who were not there back into the concentration camp. What child of survivors has not put himself/herself in the camp? What student of the Shoah has not attempted to penetrate the inner kingdom of night?
The Passover hagaddah bids the Jews: "In every generation one must see oneself as if he emerged from Egypt." Future generations may hear the same admonition regarding the Holocaust. The picture may teach us humility. We cannot enter that kingdom of night. We can only approach as if we were there.
Those of us who study the experience of life and death within the camps have learned to respect the experience of the survivors. Wiesel has said, time and again, that "only those who were there will ever know and those who were there can never tell." That cannot be the end of our journey, because we have to listen to those who have spoken -- however inadequate may be some of their words. But in the end, our attempts to get there are futile, as this artwork so clearly demonstrates.
I don't like confronting the eroticism of the Nazi world, but unless we do, we will neither understand its power nor our ongoing fascination with its perpetrator. At its best, art raises provocative questions. And this exhibit, together with its catalogue and its public programs will certainly provoke. Such is its virtue. But it is not provocation for its own sake. This art provokes because the Shoah provokes.
Abraham Foxman, a survivor of the Holocaust and the longtime director of Anti-Defamation League, has said that the exhibition is premature. "Not in the life of the survivors," he said, but he too may be wrong. The exhibition deals with not how we understand victimization, but how we approach the perpetrators. The offense is not a trivialization of the dead or the means by which they were killed but a confrontation with their killers.
Let the question be asked: Can we confront the perpetrators without in some way doing violence to the victims? Permit me to speak from experience. I worked as a consultant to HBO's Emmy Award-winning film, "Conspiracy," which was a reenactment of the Wannsee Conference, the Jan. 20, 1942, meeting convened by Reinhard Heydrich and attended by 15 high-ranking German and Nazi party officials, at which the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" was coordinated. The victims were not present at that table; they were inconsequential.
The killers spoke a language that did violence to their victims and to portray that history, we had to use that language. Not every portrayal of the Holocaust can be a memorial to its victims. Even some great works of history, such as Raul Hilberg's magisterial work, "The Destruction of the European Jews," which considered the Holocaust from the record of German documentation, offended the victims.
But there is a corrective. Let survivors speak with these artists. Let the artists speak in the presence of the survivors. Let the conversation be genuine. The chambers of the Jewish Museum are safe enough, open enough and respectful enough for it to be the forum where generations talk to one another deferentially, openly, seriously.
The Jewish Museum has responded to the complaints by doing what museums do best: preserving the exhibition and respecting the freedom of the visitor to see the exhibition without imposing the most controversial works on those visitors who want to see the rest of the exhibition but not the controversial pieces. By its signage, it will warn visitors of what they are about to see. By the exhibition path, no one will have to come across one the three pieces that some found offensive.
To realize what this means, we should understand the difference between a film and a museum exhibition. A film has a captive audience and moving imagery. A museum has captive imagery and a moving audience. The Jewish Museum will respect the freedom of movement of the visitors so they can see what they want to see and -- equally importantly -- not to see what they do not want to see. By signage, by placing a piece or two behind a screen and by providing a mouse for the visitor who chooses to see a computer screen, the visitor's freedom is preserved -- all visitors -- those who appreciate these works, those who are offended by them and even those who appreciate the work even as it offends.
Let the exhibition open, let the works be seen in context and then let the criticism begin. Perhaps Rosensaft and Foxman are right and their views will prevail, or perhaps we have reached a moment where the intergenerational transition is well underway. Better such a discussion should occur in the presence of those who were there -- with their overwhelming moral stature -- then when it is too late to receive their searing criticism and respond.