Commentary Magazine


Nazis, Jews, and "Mirroring Evil"

Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/ Recent Art, on view at the Jewish Museum in New York through June 30, is a group show that engendered a storm of controversy even before it opened in March. It was clearly designed as a provocation—comparisons have been made with the last big controversial show in New York, the 1999 Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.1 But there are important differences, the most obvious being that, while Sensation was aimed at shocking the general public and ended up offending Roman Catholics, Mirroring Evil seems aimed at a particular segment of the public, namely, those who, whatever their interest in art, have a definite interest in how the “issue” of the Holocaust is treated. In producing an exhibit in this spirit, those responsible for Mirroring Evil signaled from the start that they were pursuing one or more non-artistic agendas.

The nature of those agendas is only suggested by the art itself, the quality of which, like that of a lot of current conceptual art, is unsurprisingly low, ranging from polished to facile to kitschy to crude. (In this respect, the works in Mirroring Evil do have something in common with those in Sensation.)

The objects on display include the following: a room whose walls are lined with 147 14? × 10? print reproductions of pictures of movie stars (Clint Eastwood, James Mason, Yul Brynner, etc.) playing Nazi characters; a short video, replayed repeatedly, in which documentary film clips of Hitler’s public speeches have been edited and spliced together in such a way as to make the Fuehrer speak in Hebrew the words, “Greetings, Jerusalem, I am deeply sorry”; a fake Lego concentration-camp set; a model of a death camp constructed on a flattened Prada hatbox; three cardboard cylinders, wrapped in colored paper and framed in a glass case, bearing the Chanel, Hermes, and Tiffany & Co. logos and labeled “Zyklon gas”; a room with a row of white pedestals, on top of which sit, in white baskets, white plastic kittens modeled to look like Hitler and holding little black swastikas—when you gaze into the mirror at either end of the row, you see an infinite regression of these “sculptures” that gives the impression of an endless line of prisoners; and a room in which all the walls have been covered from floor to ceiling with alternating photographic prints of Hitler and the artist Marcel Duchamp.

These works are said to be challenging, “transgressive,” even “dangerous,” because, as the catalogue essayists repeatedly remind us, they bring us “face to face with evil.” At the same time, however, and like other types of conceptual art, they are not, primarily, meant to be looked at. Their true value is not intended to reside in the realm of visual or aesthetic experience and creation but rather, so we are told, in the ideas that these works are said to express. For this reason, we are urged to read the catalogue so that we may properly understand how we are to think about them.

That document makes quite clear the level on which both the artists and the curators are operating. Of Pietr Uklanski’s Hollywood Nazi photo display, for example, chief curator Norman L. Kleeblatt writes, in the impressive-sounding jargon that is a hallmark of the contemporary art scene, “The Nazis is intimately related to postmodern art practice that intellectually scrutinizes and visually reframes representations from mass culture.” Kleeblatt goes on to tell us that Uklanski was “prompted” to create his piece by a magazine article on “best-dressed actors,” and that some viewers of his work were found “attempting to identify as many of the actors and roles as they could.” Kleeblatt then spells out what he considers to be the real significance of the work: Uklanski’s prints equate “Nazi” with “male,” and he “mines the aesthetic preoccupation of some artists to engage in anthropological or archival research to demonstrate the futility of collecting and to undermine presumed power structures.”

However nonsensical, this sort of talk is pretty familiar to anyone who follows the contemporary art scene; but other examples are far less benign. Consider the Hitler-Duchamp room. The images here were chosen, Kleeblatt writes (he contributed no fewer than eleven separate and quite breathless essays to the Mirroring Evil catalogue), because the artist, Rudolf Herz, sought to make “strategic use of the paradoxical fact that the ‘greatest terrorist of the 20th century’ [i.e., Hitler] and the hero of the 20th century’s avant garde were photographed by the same cameraman—none other than Hitler’s beloved photographer and the mastermind of his public image, Heinrich Hoffmann.”

But there is nothing paradoxical, or even significant, about this fact—the pictures were taken twenty years apart. What is telling about the statement is Kleeblatt’s description of Duchamp, who was not the “hero” of the 20th-century avant garde (that title, if it belongs to anyone, belongs to Cézanne) but of the anti-art movement known as Dada, which has had a baleful influence on much of the art of the past 40 years, including the art in this show.

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Such intellectual and scholarly deficiencies pervade the Mirroring Evil catalogue, a fact that has not gone unremarked. In reviewing the show for the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman wrote that, like Sensation and other supposedly daring exhibits, Mirroring Evil “turns out to have too much trivial art and too many extravagant excuses for why that is the case.” So what led the Jewish Museum, which can ill afford it, to mortgage its reputation to so dubious an enterprise?

The answer was hardly apparent from the press coverage surrounding the show, which focused on the outraged and/or baffled reactions of Holocaust survivors like Elie Wiesel and others who feel it is their continuing obligation to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. Those reactions were quite understandable; after all, for any museum to put on a display of art that, as the catalogue puts it, “plays with” the symbols and instruments of the suffering of millions of Jews who experienced first-hand the Nazi policy of genocide could only be taken as disturbed and deeply insulting to both the living and, especially, the dead. For the country’s leading Jewish museum to undertake such a task seemed incomprehensible; as a result, Mirroring Evil was portrayed, à la Sensation, as another case of artists doing what they do these days, namely, finding new ways gratuitously to offend someone.

But this is also where the analogy with Sensation breaks down. The focus on “appropriateness” and “shock value,” abetted by Jewish Museum officials scurrying, once the controversy broke, to show a sudden attentiveness to the feelings of their fellow Jews, obscured what Mirroring Evil is really about. Once we get past the common denominator of “outrageous” art, the real differences between the two exhibits start to become clear.

Sensation was mostly an expression of the free-floating, solipsistic, and often sexual “alienation” that has been a large part of the sensibility of the contemporary art scene. In Mirroring Evil, this tendency is best represented by such works as Roee Rosen’s Live and Die as Eva Braun (1995) and Elke Krytufek’s Economical Love (Pussy Control) (1998), Economical Love (Hitler Hairdo) (1998), and Economical Love (Abstract Expressionism) (1998). But unlike Sensation, Mirroring Evil takes as its organizing theme a historical event of considerable significance, and then instructs us in its “lessons” for today.

The director of the Jewish Museum, Joan Rosenbaum, described those lessons in the following words:

As an art museum that presents all of Jewish culture, we are committed to showing works of contemporary artists who have used images or the Nazi era to make a powerful and timely investigation of the nature of evil. These artists ask each viewer to consider his or her responsibility toward civil society, and to be vigilant about the bigotry and dehumanization that continue in the world more than 50 years after the Holocaust.

This is indeed an encompassing statement. But as it happens, there are only two places where the show asks us to direct our vigilance—only two places, in other words, that are singled out as current locuses of evil in the world. They are America and Israel.

Thus, in an essay on Alan Schechner—whose contribution to Mirroring Evil is an Internet image of a famous photograph (by Margaret Bourke-White) of survivors of Buchenwald, into which he has digitally inserted a picture of himself holding a can of Diet Coke—assistant curator Joanna Lindenbaum tells us that “The Coke can draws parallels between the brainwashing tactics of the Nazis and commodification. Just as much of Europe succumbed to Nazi culture because it was the dominant paradigm, so does our contemporary culture succumb to consumerism.”

In the same vein, the artist Tom Sachs, the creator of the show’s Giftgas Giftset (1998) and Prada Death-camp (1998), explains: “I’m using the iconography of the Holocaust to bring attention to fashion. Fashion, like fascism, is about the loss of identity.” Norman Kleeblatt elaborates: “The artist investigates the way consumer culture works against personal identity, especially marketing and advertising. For Sachs, these objects reflect the most controlled corporate identity since National Socialism.”

This sort of reasoning is emblematic of the Mirroring Evil catalogue and recalls nothing so much as the glib anti-American intellectualism of the 1960′s, the premise of which was that free and democratic capitalist America had something fundamentally in common with totalitarian Nazi Germany (remember “Amerika”?). It is almost quaint to see this once-potent notion being resurrected in the form of an art-world cliché, but one cannot forget the fact that it had its genesis in a much grimmer period. The critic Ron Rosenbaum, writing in the New York Observer, made the point well in discussing one of the catalogue essayists who relates the art in Mirroring Evil positively to the 1940 Charlie Chaplin film, The Great Dictator:

Chaplin made The Great Dictator at a time when a film that encouraged America to resist Hitler’s evil might have made a difference in the war in Europe, which the U.S. had yet to join—might even have helped forestall the Holocaust. Instead, Chaplin made a film that explicitly advocated pacifism instead of resistance to evil, a film that followed the shameful Hitler-Stalin pact [i.e., Soviet] line that the struggle [of the Western democracies] against Hitler was merely a meaningless quarrel between morally equivalent capitalist powers. Here we see the consequence of the foolish belief that there is no “secure divide” between perpetrator and victim.

This “foolish belief” is, in fact, the central conceit of Mirroring Evil, as the catalogue relentlessly points out. But it is not mere foolishness that this exhibit purveys. For if the idea that America is Nazi-like no longer resonates as it once did and can be set aside as a kind of nostalgia, the idea that Israel has assumed something of the character of Nazi Germany is by no means safe to dismiss. And yet it would be difficult for anyone who reads this show’s catalogue not to conclude that, in addition to their contempt for American values and success, a good number of those involved in Mirroring Evil are driven by a political animus against Israel.

Here is what Alan Schechner, who put the Diet Coke in Buchenwald, has to say about the Jewish state:

Throughout my time in Israel, I became acutely aware of how the Holocaust was used to justify some of the unsavory aspects of Israeli policy. I was told more than once how: “Whatever we do to them (the Palestinians) can never be as bad as what they (the Germans) did to us.”

The implication of this statement is clear: what Israel has been “doing” to the Palestinians is synonymous with what the Nazis did to the Jews. Or as assistant curator Joanna Lindenbaum writes approvingly, “not only does Schechner collapse history and the present into one image, he collapses victim and perpetrator into one person.”

The idea that Israel somewhere along the line became a Nazi-like aggressor against the Palestinians is also not exactly new. A byproduct of the Six-Day war of 1967, it gained truly wide currency during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. But unlike the United States, Israel has been in a continuous state of siege vis-à-vis most of the Arab world ever since it was founded. Today, as nobody should need reminding, it remains the target of a war of terrorism that could not be waged without the support of Arab and Islamic states. And as “traditional” terrorism has been wedded to Islamic fanaticism, the level of truly virulent anti-Semitism has risen to dizzying heights. It is now commonplace to read in Arab or Palestinian media praise for the work Hitler did and calls to finish the job he started.

In other words, to quote the Jewish Museum’s director, “bigotry and dehumanization” are indeed alive in the world “50 years after the Holocaust.” Where the worst is to be found, however, is neither in Israel nor in America but among the contemporary acolytes of Hitler—those whom we can accurately describe as modern-day Nazis—in the Islamic world, among them the men responsible for the attacks not only on Israel but on the United States as well.

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Mirroring Evil was, of course, conceived before September 11. But so were a lot of other events, many of which had no direct bearing on the issue of international terrorism and Israeli or American survival, and they were cancelled or postponed. Clearly, this exhibit could have been, too. At a minimum, the art it assembles is an offense against taste; but the justification for it, what Michael Kimmelman called the “extravagant excuses” for exhibiting it, is an offense against much more. That would have been true before September 11; it is even truer now.

Yet the Jewish Museum chose to carry on. Why? In the face of events that have clarified the “nature of evil” in the world as perhaps no others have done since the Holocaust, why would those in charge not reconsider, not admit to themselves that, what with Islamic fundamentalists like bin Laden ranting about killing Jews and Americans, and Hamas and its allies blowing up a couple of dozen Israelis every month, this was not the best moment to be offering a morally undermining critique of American consumer culture and Israeli policies of self-defense? Maybe it was simple inertia, maybe a sense of defiance; or perhaps, in the decision to proceed as planned, something else was at work, something like a self-willed and intrepid blindness.

Love, they say, is blind, and I think the phrase is strangely applicable here. Here is a sample of the overheated and at times off-the-wall discussion by the catalogue essayists of how, once inside the exhibition rooms, we should “imagine” ourselves to be Nazis:

I think the artists also use our fascination with and curiosity about evil to entrap us, to seduce us into revealing whatever disavowed voyeuristic pleasure we can take in it. They give us the means to experience our own sadism and, later on, waves of shame and even remorse. Through our spectatorial power (to look) and our powerlessness (in being unable to resist their seduction) we become momentarily doubles for both the perpetrator of evil and its victims. Through our participation in an art that co-opts us this way, we actually replay that co-dependent relationship. . . . Arriving in the art museum . . . in a state of willing disbelief appropriate to the realm of the aesthetic, we are kidnapped. Simultaneously, conspiring with the perpetrators (real and imaginary), we evade the burden of our guilt, taste the juices of our own cruelty, and feast in fantasy on our brief mastery over what in real life would repel and/or destroy us.

It does not take a psychiatrist to see in this passage—and there are many more like it—that what the essayists imagine to be our “obsession” with Nazis is actually their own obsession, and one of which they are quite enamored. The evil they claim lies within all of us, whether we be Nazis or Jews, Islamic terrorists or American soldiers, hatemongers or writers of poetry, actually lies in their own effort “vicariously” to embrace their dark impulses. This is the art of projection, you might say, and on a grand scale.

As it turns out, reading the catalogue is a far more unsettling experience than seeing the objects in the show, which offer little of visual interest and nothing of aesthetic pleasure and, despite the curators’ high hopes, do not actually move one to “experience,” or even to think about, the nature of evil (but do cause one to wonder about the states of mind and political attitudes of some of the artists). The fact that the show fails to achieve its ambitious goal may explain why Mirroring Evil has been ridiculed—“artists seeking their inner Nazi” is how one headline writer put it. But if you think about what the curators would have us do—namely, force ourselves into a kind of temporary psychosis—it is hardly amusing. This activity is intended to erase all manner of distinctions, not just between “perpetrator” and “victim” but, for example, between railroad worker and executioner, collaborator and resister, bureaucrat and camp guard, rescuer and informer, the man who remained silent out of fear and the man whose silence was calculated—not to mention terrorist and innocent, terrorist and soldier, Nazi and consumer, Nazi and fashion designer, or Nazi and advertising executive.

The list could go on, but the point is clear: we are asked explicitly to obliterate our consciousness of such distinctions, that is, our moral sense. Put another way, the exhibit seeks to persuade us to forget—to forget everything we know. Thus it stands diametrically opposed to what was for a long time thought to be the one irreducible lesson of the Holocaust: to remember.

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With reference to the works in Mirroring Evil, one of the catalogue contributors cites a “disturbing” question raised by the historian Saul Friedlander: namely, “whether a brazen new generation of artists bent on examining their own obsession with Nazism adds to our understanding of the Third Reich or only recapitulates a fatal attraction to it.” This seems the right question to ask, and I think we can safely respond that this exhibit does not add to our understanding of the Third Reich but, if anything, tends to confound it. A perhaps more interesting question is: what accounts for the growing attraction on the part of artists to Nazi imagery? The answer to that question, I believe, lies as much in the realm of art as in the realm of ideas.

Many of the works in Mirroring Evil could have been produced in the absence of the “theoretical” rationale provided by the catalogue. They are entirely consistent with a general tendency in postmodern art—a tendency represented by Sensation as well—to create works that, for lack of a better term, may be described as against life. And as the catalogue now and then reminds us, they have artistic antecedents.

It was no doubt sheer coincidence that a major retrospective of one of the artists whose spiritual influence, if not the influence of his aesthetic sensibility or his devotion to painting, can be discerned in the works on view at the Jewish Museum opened in New York shortly before Mirroring Evil. The exhibit is called Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, and it can be seen at the Museum of Modern Art until May 21, after which it will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. It is an eye-opening show, and one that should definitely be seen in conjunction with Mirroring Evil.

There is not a single oil painting in Mirroring Evil, yet many of the pieces it showcases are based, like Richter’s, on photography. The latter’s best known works—sometimes dubbed “photo-realist”—are large-scale paintings of photographs. Richter was heavily influenced by Andy Warhol, particularly Warhol’s idea of the artist as “a machine,” and the works that brought him critical notice in the 1960′s and 1970′s—including black and white deadpan renderings of World War II-vintage American planes flying in formation, paintings of a roll of toilet paper hanging on the wall, portraits based on family snapshots, including one of his uncle in Nazi uniform, and 48 equal-size portraits of famous figures as depicted in encyclopedias—were considered a German variant of pop art. At various times, Richter’s art has been described as conceptual, political, philosophical, and, in the case of his abstractions, neo-expressionist. He is also known for no less deadpan color landscapes, paintings of flowers, truly disturbing nudes, paintings of charged subjects like the eight student nurses murdered by Richard Speck and the corpses of members of the Baader-Meinhof gang, and, more recently, domestic portraits of his wife and children.

There is much to be said about the MOMA show, about the variety of Richter’s oeuvre, his antipathy to modernism, his admiration of the romantic (as represented by Caspar David Friedrich) and the classical (as represented by Titian and Vermeer), his stated aversion to politics, and, in particular, the role of effacing techniques in his painting. But this much is relevant to a discussion of Mirroring Evil and the nature of contemporary art: the two most striking aspects of Richter’s work are a trademark blurriness in the reproduction of images and a clinical rendering of the photo-subject. This clinicalness is, in fact, so sustained that in looking at the many well-crafted works in the show, including several that are quite beautiful, with their seamless surfaces and painterly delicacy, one is left chilled to one’s very marrow.

Richter himself, in a recent interview, has commented on this, the essential quality of his art:

I mentioned “the banality of evil” in order to show that banality has at some point been described as something terrifying. The chandelier [he is referring to his painting, Flemish Crown] is a monster. I don’t need to paint a monster; it is enough to paint this thing, this shitty, small, banal chandelier. That thing is terrifying. . . . I didn’t have to distort faces. It is much scarier to paint people’s faces as banal as I find them in photographs. That is what makes the banal more than banal.

This statement makes quite clear Richter’s anti-life ethos—in which evil is not evil, banality is. If you think some of the artists and curators involved in Mirroring Evil have approached their work with a certain detachment vis-à-vis the matter of human feeling and its relation to art, consider Richter’s answer to an interviewer’s question about why he and a colleague abandoned their efforts to mount an exhibition of concentration-camp images and pornography:

[Interviewer:] Finally, you decided that it was not possible to juxtapose such things nor even to make paintings from the documentary photos of the Holocaust. Why wasn’t it possible?

[Richter:] I’d say that it would have been impossible for me. I saw no possible moral or formal solution for how to exhibit the camp and the porno pictures. . . . I believe that there is no picture that can’t be painted. But there are personal limits and limits of the time, situations where the reception would go so predictably wrong that it doesn’t work. It is also the personal inadequacy to not be able to give something the right form.

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As an artist, perhaps, Richter deserves credit for failing to find the desired formal solution in this case. Moreover, it is a testament to his abilities in general that his paintings have the kind of unnerving effect that the organizers of Mirroring Evil could only hope for; they, like many of the artists they tout, seem to believe that simply making easy or clever use of the readiest symbol of evil to hand is sufficient to executing a significant work of art. Unlike the works in Mirroring Evil, Richter’s art encompasses something bigger than a subjective alienation or a hackneyed social critique or a political agenda: it conveys the nihilistic spirit of his time.

The problem is that you do not really want to look at Richter’s paintings for very long, which is a serious drawback for a painter. In the case of Mirroring Evil, by contrast, what is worth taking time to address is not the works but the ideas they represent. These include, finally, the ultimate justification that has been offered for the show—namely, that it provides a necessary corrective to years in which the Holocaust has been represented from the point of view of the victims. This is said to have constituted a misuse of that terrible event because of the risk of trivialization and the resulting cultural saturation.

The fact that some people are tired of hearing about what the Nazis did to the Jews is, of course, undeniable, and has been the subject of, among other things, some pretty good humor. (“How the hell do I know why there were Nazis?,” says a Woody Allen character. “I don’t know how the can opener works!” ) And who among us has not, at some point, thought that yes, never again, but do we have to be reminded so often?

But if the Holocaust suffers from overexposure, at least the usual tendency has been more or less faithful to the history of the event and its moral meaning. Mirroring Evil is an exhibit that seeks to distort that moral meaning, and to have us participate in the distortion. Among other things, this seems petty and soulless, and hardly the proper province of an art museum.

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Footnotes

1 See my article, “Art, Excrement, and Sensation,” in the January 2000 COMMENTARY.

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About the Author

Steven C. Munson’s contributions to COMMENTARY include “David Smith’s Vision” (May 2006) and “Inside the New MOMA” (February 2005).




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