Mirroring Evil at the Jewish Museum

Written on May 08, 2002

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Sacred, Profane or Art?

Mirroring Evil - Nazi Imagery/Recent Art, which opened at the Jewish Museum on March 17, consistently elicits either passionate denunciation or thoughtful praise. Edward Rothstein, commenting on the show in The New York Times, characterizes this phenomenon as a result of two distinct approaches to the Holocaust. One sees the Holocaust as a horrifying event among many in mankind’s sordid history. The event is profane, banal and all too possible. This approach positions the Holocaust, and Nazi symbols of oppression as analogous to other kinds of evil and destruction in our century. The other approach understands the Holocaust as a singular event, a unique catastrophe for the Jewish people, so overwhelming that it bears no comparison with the rest of mankind’s sufferings. Its uniqueness confers a sacred memory upon the kiddushim; those martyred simply because they were Jews. Through these two different lenses, one profane and the other sacred, we can begin to understand the diverse responses to this unique exhibition

Norman Kleeblatt, curator of Mirroring Evil at the Jewish Museum comments that the works in this exhibition "changed the nature of questions about the Holocaust, raising issues of how Nazis perverted the most human instincts for shelter, family and beauty." These works "ask us very different questions. There is inherent evil beneath the ordinary. This art tests us. This art puts us in the middle." Furthermore, he maintains that "what is of interest to me is not answers; they always fade. Rather it is the dialogue they provoke. I am interested in a civil dialogue with all concerned including the survivors."

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun of the Upper East Side and headmaster of the Ramaz Day School wrote a letter to the director of the Jewish Museum, Joan Rosenbaum, concerning the exhibition. "It seems to me that common decency, respect for the dead and some kind of sensitivity to the monstrous evil that was perpetrated on the Jewish people sixty years ago mandated much more discretion than has been manifested by the Jewish Museum…If another Museum had mounted this exhibit, we would have all screamed "anti-Semitism! What are we to call it when our own museum is the exhibitor?"

This presentation of nineteen conceptual works of art and installations presents a host of interrelated subjects. Six deal directly with the Holocaust while the rest use Nazi images to explore the glamorization of evil, sex and power, contemporary culture and the difficulties of historical memory. All these concepts are seen through the frequently difficult lens of postmodernist conceptual art that revels in irony and moral ambiguity. The majority of the works seek to draw a parallel between Nazism and our consumer, status-oriented modern culture.

The exhibition catalogue was published almost two months before the opening and prompted an avalanche of advance publicity and controversy. It contained seven essays, many color reproductions of the works and extensive treatment of the thirteen artists and their work. The catalogue caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The New York Times, and the New York Post. Provocatively, Director Joan Rosenbaum writes in the catalogue that the exhibition uses; “imagery from the Nazi era to explore the nature of evil [and invites] the viewer into the world of the perpetrators.” The catalogue implies that the exhibition itself becomes a "transgressive act.”

While there were some positive commentators, mostly contributors to the catalogue itself, early publicity was mostly negative, often comparing the show to the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” exhibition. The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors promptly condemned it and called for a boycott of the museum while the show was on view. Menachem Z. Rosensaft, founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Holocaust Survivors and a member of the US Holocaust Memorial Council mounted a personal campaign of columns in the New York Post, the Jewish Week and the Forward condemning the exhibition and its content. His outrage was two-fold: the banalization of the Holocaust, and the temerity of the Jewish Museum. His characterizations of the artwork set the tone of criticism with a glossary of accusations. The work, “satirized, ridiculed, banalized, trivialized, and vulgarized” the Holocaust while it “parodied or glorified absolute evil.” In short, it was a desecration of the Holocaust.

Rosensaft considered the venue especially egregious because the Jewish Museum, under the auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, “exudes the authority of the communal Jewish cultural and religious establishment…[thereby] conferring a singular legitimacy on all subsequent desecrations of the Holocaust.” Furthermore, commenting on one specific work, “the concept of a lifelike Mengele bust being displayed at any museum…let alone [the Jewish Museum] is about as palatable to Holocaust survivors who saw him murder their families and friends as placing a bust of Osama bin Laden at Ground Zero would be to the families of the victims of the September 11 tragedy.”

The pre-opening controversy became so heated that the Jewish Museum sent a special letter reassuring its members reassuring that it “will never, under any circumstances, exhibit any artwork that trivializes the Holocaust or its victims.” The museum officials met with Assemblyman Dov Hikind from Brooklyn and other protesters who appealed to remove three especially offensive works. The museum offered instead to post an advisory sign in advance of encountering these controversial works and to install a special door by which to exit the exhibition at that point. Neither Hikind nor the protesters were satisfied. Not surprisingly the opening was prefaced by a demonstration of yeshiva high school students. On the opening day, March 17, Hikind himself led another demonstration of about one hundred protesters.

With the exception of the curators at the Jewish Museum, none of the pre-show commentators had seen the actual work or the installation. Their reactions were totally based on newspaper images, comments and the catalogue photos and essays. Most of those deeply offended and opposed to the show, like Rabbi Lookstein, have refused to enter the museum until the show terminates in June 2002. These reactions have been generated by a handful of the works that touched on some very raw nerves in the Jewish community.

In interviews with Rabbi Lookstein, the well-respected Orthodox communal leader and a longtime member of the Jewish Museum, and with Dr. Michael Schulder, a respected West Side neurosurgeon, and cultural buff, the depth of outrage was especially revealing. The most controversial works include two by Tom Sachs entitled Prada Deathcamp and Gifgas GiftsetGifgas Giftset (1998) Mixed Media by Tom Sachs; Zbigniew Libera’s Lego Concentration Camp Set and Alan Schechner’s It’s the Real Thing: Self Portrait at Buchenwald.

The Prada Deathcamp, made entirely from a Prada hatbox, is a small cardboard model of a concentration camp with barracks and crematoria surrounded by a tiny barbed wire fence. The Prada logo is prominently displayed in the center of the game board-like setting. Sachs states that he is “using the iconography of the Holocaust to bring attention to fashion. Fashion, like fascism, is about loss of identity…” Unconvinced, Dr. Schulder sees this “interest in fashion and fascism as unbelievably stupid, just word associations. I know some survivors who afterward, have gone on and become somewhat successful and go out and buy Gucci and Prada. They are materialistic as anyone could be, but it is a little bit of a victory for them that they can go on and enjoy themselves that way.” Rabbi Lookstein feels the Gifgas Giftset, also by Sachs, in which gas canisters are made to resemble perfume containers sporting the faux labels of Chanel, Hermes and Tiffany & Co. are “horrific. Why should anybody want to display that? Anybody has a right to create as he chooses, but why does a museum have to display it?”

Enfants Gates (1997) Mixed Media by Alain SechasThe Lego Concentration Camp Set by Libera, consisting of empty boxes painted to resemble the famous building block sets for children, depicts the contents of toy barracks, crematoria, guards and corpses. It has been exhibited previously in a number of Holocaust art shows. The accompanying text panel explains that this work reminds us of the indoctrination of children by the Nazis, the pervasiveness of violence in today’s children’s products and how “even a beloved children’s toy may be perverted into a building block of evil.” Dr. Schulder perceives that this “could also easily be construed as a lighthearted depiction of a concentration camp barracks and gas chambers. It looks glib and frivolous to me. This trivializes the Holocaust.”

As a visual image Alan Schechner’s It’s the Real Thing: Self Portrait at Buchenwald has produced enormous controversy, existing only on a website and accessible at monitors in the exhibition. It depicts the artist, holding a can of Diet Coke, digitally inserted into a famous Margaret Bourke-White photo of starved Jewish inmates of Buchenwald. Schechner, painfully aware of the great affluence of contemporary society, feels he cannot legitimately imagine himself caught up in the genocidal Holocaust in which Jews were starved to death and in which he lost relatives. For Rabbi Lookstein, to depict the artist’s conundrum in this manner, putting “a can of Diet Coke in a picture of people who were starving to death is grotesque [and effectively] mocking the dead.” Dr. Schulder sees his use of a digital image on the web as a pure gimmick. He understands the artist’s approach to the tenuous nature of photographs that can be manipulated and shape our understanding of reality. However, he feels that this could have been done using many other images. The tension between the artist and the historical reality of the photograph is “ clearly lacking” in the artwork and “looks like a frivolous use of an image that should not be used frivolously.”

The six clay sculpted heads of the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele by Christine Borland elicited particularly painful responses. The artist commissioned six academic sculptors to depict the bust of Mengele from written descriptions and grainy photographs. The cruel but disarmingly handsome doctor was depicted by all as a conventionally attractive individual. The contradiction between his good looks and the evil he perpetrated is deliberately confused and distanced by Borland in using surrogates to make the artwork. This complex conceptual framework is not convincing to Dr. Schulder who relates the multiple heads to the phenomenon of celebrity watching. “My mother-in-law, a survivor, said; ‘Oh, celebrities are not a big deal, I used to see Dr. Mengele every day.’ In a way the artist’s intent is irrelevant, it’s the experience of the viewer that really matters. I could come in and say why are there six busts of Mengele as if he is a Roman Emperor, why is he being immortalized in this fashion? That is ennobling of the subject and is easily perceived as offensive.”

PART II

The Jewish Museum, anticipating this kind of reaction, worked very hard to contextualize the exhibition in its installation. Next to each work is an extensive text panel explaining the motivation of the artist and the questions the artwork is supposed to create. In most cases the “concept” of the conceptual art is broadly stated which leaves the viewer little intellectual room in which to maneuver. In addition, there are two interpretive videos, one at the beginning and the other at the end of the exhibition that conceptually bracket the show.

The first video raises important questions that shape an approach to the work that follows. 1) Who can speak for the Holocaust? 2) How has art, popular culture, film and television used Nazi imagery to present evil? 3) What are the limits of irreverence in confronting facts that are outrageous and terrifying? Do some art forms work against themselves? 4) Why must we confront evil? 5) How has art helped break the silence about the unspeakable? To set the tone of the exhibition these questions are posed but not answered. Unfortunately, the video only provides a superficial introduction to these complex issues with rather short clips of popular films and TV episodes that touch on the Holocaust.

After passing through the entire exhibition, the video at the end presents a spectrum of commentaries from a series of taped interviews with the artists, curators, educators, Jewish communal leaders and Holocaust survivors. There are as many assertions made as questions asked. The video monitor is surrounded by text panels that also attempt to provide a diversity of opinion about what has been seen. Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL and a consultant for the show, declares; “There is nothing more holy than transgressive. There is nothing more profane than the status quo.” He is challenged by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League who warns that “as long as there are survivors who will be hurt and offended by such images, exhibits like this one are premature.” Elie Weisel is quoted chastising the exhibition noting “with its appearance in the art world, the kitsch and vulgarization of the Holocaust has taken a big step forward.”

In response to this anticipated accusation, the Jewish Museum has launched an extensive series of programs to further educate the public about the issues raised by Nazi imagery in recent art. Every day in the downstairs dining room there is a public dialogue conducted by the volunteer staff an hour before the museum closes. At least six public programs, dialogues and a handful of film showing at the Museum and off site demonstrate that the Museum has made every effort possible to reach out, educate and open a dialogue with the public about its exhibition.

So far the dialogue with the press has had mixed results at best. Artnews observed that two successful works, Boaz Arad’s Hebrew Lesson, in which splices from Hitler’s propaganda speeches force him to say in Hebrew, “Shalom Jerusalem, I apologize,” and Roee Rosen’s Live and Die as Eva Braun, a mind-bending evocation of her last moments in the bunker with Hitler, were both done by Israelis. The reviewer, Barbara Pollack, feels that these disturbing works actually achieve the goal of entering the world of the perpetrators, but with a troubling “moral ambiguity.” A much earlier review in The New York Times by Edward Rothstein frames his reflections within the Holocaust debate between Jewish exceptionalism and universalism. He posits that the linking of Nazi evil with contemporary society “takes the extreme view of the Holocaust debates.” Rothstein insists that we are in fact not like the perpetrators; there are important distinctions to be made and “that there are times when a sense of moral ambiguity can really be moral blindness.” Commentary and Tikkun, representing right and left wing Jewish intellectuals, have both weighed in with highly critical reviews. The prestigious Art in America is planning a serious treatment of Mirroring Evil in the near future. At the very least the exhibition is not being ignored.

One of the easiest missed aspects of Mirroring Evil is found at the very end of the exhibition. The long desk set up for visitor reactions houses two books containing approximately one hundred and fifty handwritten comments and two computer terminals for visitors to write comments in a virtual log. After a month and a half there were over four hundred entries. They provide one of the best assessments of the exhibition because these logs reflect a wildly democratic, random and yet nuanced reading of how the Jewish Museum’s public, those who actually saw the exhibit, were affected.

They run an amazing gamut of opinion: “I’m glad the museum has the courage to display these works. It’s the best way to fight Nazism and its descendents;” “…a one-joke self indulgent trivialization dressed up as art;” “…very much an ‘art world’ type of thing;” “poorly executed…I was neither challenged visually or mentally…” “…the animating ideas were trite and the self-congratulatory egotism of the artists endless, The exhibit evidences the very commercialism the artists wish to criticize;” “ This is definitely one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen. Its not the works themselves that disturb me, but the fact that someone thought these kinds of things up…and were able to so easily tap into the images and words that fit this kind of evil so well. Somehow it seems to suggest that we’re all capable of comprehending, thus committing, these kinds of crimes;” “…[from a Jewish Day School in Connecticut] I believe that this does pay proper respect to the Holocaust, no matter what the critics may think;” and finally, “…after September 11 all these issues and questions are just heightened…now I am in tears, but thank you for this exhibit;”

Simply reading a small selection of these comments reveals how much Mirroring Evil has in fact connected and engaged its audience in a meaningful dialogue. The candid voices echo many of the questions the Jewish Museum wanted conveyed to its public. Questions of evil, recently raised after September 11 and the terrorist attacks in Israel, loudly resonates with the Jewish Museum’s visitors. Many of the comments reflect the essential controversy so stingingly presented by the Museum through the medium of art: is the nature of the Holocaust to be understood as sacred or profane? What greater justification for an exhibition could a museum ask for?

Rabbi Lookstein felt the show was ultimately a mistake in judgment that “developed its own momentum,” and the leadership of the Jewish Museum didn’t have the necessary courage to get out. Curator Norman Kleeblatt counters that it is “ a duty to show new ideas and concerns about the Holocaust. We know how to frame the questions in a serious way.” It would certainly seem that, regardless of one’s personal reaction to the artwork in Mirroring Evil, the Jewish Museum has been successful in beginning a trenchant contemporary dialogue about the Holocaust and its persistent evil that pursues us in our own troubled times.

Mirroring Evil - Nazi Imagery / Recent Art Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128

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About the Author

Richard McBee

Richard McBee

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art.

His artwork may be found at Portfolio and you may view his resume by clicking here (to be added).

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