The Nazis assume many different guises in the modern imagination. They personify not only the evils of war but also a robotic commitment to order, hierarchy, and purity. They are the dirty secret under the squeaky-clean surface, the seductive sadomasochistic dream behind absolute power. They represent the totalitarian tyrant and also the modern mob. They are meat for black comedy, from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to Mel Brooks’s The Producers; Hollywood, in Hogan’s Heroes, even treats Nazis as rather lovable fools. There is one aspect of Nazi history, however, that the modern imagination typically approaches with circumspection: the Holocaust. How can a modern artist, working in a secular tradition that emphasizes personal vision, possibly fathom the systematic murder of 6 million Jews? The scale of the crime is too great to encompass. Art would go blind staring directly into this black sun.
The controversial exhibit Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art, which Norman L. Kleeblatt has organized for the Jewish Museum, examines the ways in which thirteen younger artists today make use of Nazi imagery. Only a few of the works are based upon the Holocaust, but these are the ones that have aroused anger. It seems unlikely that the anger will long survive the opening, however, for most of the works in the show – including the controversial images – are numbingly predictable and pretentious. With a few important exceptions, they represent simpleminded deductions from fashionable academic ideas and, as such, inspire a kind of seminar-room torpor. They reveal much more about the limitations of contemporary art, in fact, than they do about evil. Regarding the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt made a celebrated comment about the “banality of evil.” Here, the only risk is the evil of banality.
Nonetheless, critics are wrong to attack the Jewish Museum for raising the subject. The last thing a Jewish museum should do is avoid art about the Holocaust. The problem is that this didactic exhibit, while congratulating itself for presenting challenging art to the public, does not also seriously question any assumptions underlying that art. For example, in one video an artist has juxtaposed the famous Calvin Klein ads – the ones that show Adonis in underpants – with fascist-inspired imagery, including Nazi glorification of the body and Nazi violence. And yes, there are similarities among the images; yes, the crowd then as now follows fashion; yes, the Calvin Klein ads display a disturbing and narcissistic obsession with the body. But those ads are not promoting an organization determined to seize control of the Capitol and assassinate its competitors. Fashion is not fascism. These glib and fatuous comparisons make it more difficult to distinguish genuine evil from ordinary folly – a vital distinction to uphold.
Another artist in the show has created a room that repeatedly juxtaposes, in a chessboard pattern, a photograph of Hitler with one of Duchamp. Because the same photographer took both pictures, the two men have a certain formal resemblance. We are supposed to marvel at the comparison. And Duchamp even loved chess! But what connection – what serious connection – does Hitler have to Duchamp? That they both made paintings? That they were both, in their different ways, performance artists? Trivial connections sometimes conceal more than they reveal while emitting an air of high-flown significance. Art like this reminds me of people who find it fascinating that Hitler was a vegetarian. (Whenever that overrated fact is mentioned, a glassy-eyed “Oh, wow!” feeling enters the room.) And then there is the matter of Nazi sex. By now the world has long since concluded that Nazis were actually sadomasochists and acknowledged that a man in a Nazi uniform has an erotic presence – oh, those lickable leather boots! – especially if he also happens to be a Hollywood actor. These clichés are not overlooked in the exhibit.
For anyone with a sense of history’s weight, such art seems too light. This is particularly the case when the Holocaust is directly addressed, since there is nothing in history heavier than the ashes of Auschwitz. An artist must be aware of this weight if he or she does not want to make jejune or morally vain art. Two of the Holocaust works in the show are particularly weak in this regard. Both employ trendy art-world ideas and strategies about consumer culture. In one, the artist has placed himself, holding a can of Diet Coke, in a famous photograph of gaunt prisoners at Buchenwald; this is supposed to expose the chasm between generations of Jews. In the other, the artist has created a model of a death camp from a Prada hatbox, implying that the Holocaust is becoming a kind of brand name and once again that fashion, like the death camps, destroys individuality. Defenders of such juxtapositions argue that the Holocaust is sometimes exploited and that for younger generations, the Holocaust is receding with time. Both observations are true. So what? Do they justify failures of insight, balance, and scale?
Wiser artists know they cannot presume too much if they wish to solve the problem of moral scale. They must stand somewhat apart, be somewhat indirect. By using a cartoon format for Maus, Art Spiegelman found a successful way to address the Holocaust. (His work is not included in the exhibit, since the museum wanted to emphasize the work of younger and less familiar artists.) Using a childlike or cartoonish idiom acknowledges that when it comes to understanding the Holocaust, we remain children; it posits a separate but related world in which to explore the subject. Working in the Spiegelman tradition, Zbigniew Libera has made a LEGO Concentration Camp Set that chillingly evokes the obsessive concern for order, the indoctrination of children, and the primitive cruelty of the Nazis. Mischa Kuball has built a mysterious cross called Hitler’s Cabinet that, through projections out its arms of German movie images from the twenties and thirties, becomes a flickering swastika; it evocatively suggests the way the light of truth becomes propaganda. And in Hebrew Lesson, Boaz Arad has spliced and edited documentary-film footage until Hitler says in Hebrew, “Hello, Jerusalem. I apologize.” It is the only work in “Mirroring Evil” that shook me.
All visitors to this show should also go upstairs to see the paintings of Zoran Music, a survivor of Dachau who is little-known in America. In the tradition of Goya – and with genuine skill – he has painted the camp cadavers. He is not sentimental. Few survivors are. The mouths of his hollow-eyed dead are locked open in a silent scream. Their flesh is crumbling into the ground. The air is sulfurous with dirt and rot. Keep Music in mind as you study “Mirroring Evil.”
Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art
At the Jewish Museum; through 6/30.