Mirroring Evil? No, Mirroring Art Theory

This is difficult, because I feel deeply conflicted in some ways about the Jewish Museum’s Mirroring Evil exhibition (opening March 17), so please bear with me. I’m not suggesting a boycott of the exhibition, as some Holocaust survivors have, because the art makes provocative-to some, inflammatory-use of Nazi imagery.

What I’m addressing here is not the art in the exhibition, which as of this writing I’ve only been able to see in the book-length catalog for the exhibit, which contains a number of essays by curators, art theorists and artists “contextualizing” the art.

But I do have something to say about the “contextualizing,” with which these art-theory academics smother the art. More precisely, I have something to say about the ideology behind this contextualizing, and the way the catalog’s essayists have done the art and the artists a serious disservice, imposing upon the work a naïve, one-dimensional, postmodern point of view. One that shackles the art to a curator-and-critic straitjacket of jargon (where everything is “problematically formalized”), that frames it in a single rigid lens that substitutes a simplistic moral relativism for real engagement with the issues.

With friends like these, the artists don’t need enemies.

I wish I didn’t feel this way. I’m sure the people at the Jewish Museum are well-intentioned. I know they believe they’re fulfilling an important role in examining the way a new generation of artists-some of them the descendants of Holocaust survivors and victims-react to a great evil that took place before they were born. I don’t find anything objectionable about the goal of the exhibit.

And when they called up a few months ago to ask me to be on a panel in connection with the Mirroring Evil exhibit, they weren’t asking me to endorse the art-which was described to me only generally as “using Nazi imagery”-just to discuss it. The subject of the panel was, as the program puts it, “How does the study of evil in art deepen on our understanding of the human condition?” No day at the beach, but it’s a subject I’d given considerable thought and reflection to in the dozen or so years I spent working on my book Explaining Hitler .

There was, for instance, a chapter devoted to my conversation with George Steiner about his controversial novel about Hitler ( The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H. ), a novel in which Mr. Steiner had given his Hitler character a long speech in self-defense. It was a Hitler speech whose eloquent adroitness had been disturbing to many readers and critics-and to Mr. Steiner himself, who confessed to me that at times he felt his Hitler character had escaped from him, golem-(or Frankenstein-)like. Turning Hitler into art turned out to be tricky, if not treacherous.

And I’d devoted two chapters to my somewhat contentious conversation with Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah , the unforgettable nine-hour documentary about the methodology of mass murder in the Nazi death camps. To the issues raised, not so much by Shoah itself as by Mr. Lanzmann’s subsequent attacks on just about every approach to Hitler and Holocaust representation different from his own.

Despite some points of disagreement with Mr. Steiner and Mr. Lanzmann, I had great admiration for their passion and daring, and the level and depth of their engagement with these immensely difficult questions. That was what was so disappointing about the essays in the Mirroring Evil catalog, which are incessantly patting themselves on the back for their “daring,” their “transgressiveness,” but which seem to me collectively to constitute a retreat from facing the subject: a retreat into a comforting, familiar and fashionable art-theory framework. One that shields the theorists from questioning the postmodern preconceptions so dear to them. The art is not yet on exhibit, so I’ll reserve my reflections on it until after I’ve seen it. But these ideas already are on exhibit, in effect, in the catalog, and thus are subject to review now.

It begins, this postmodern framing of the art, with the title itself: Mirroring Evil . (I’m tempted to say a more appropriate title for the 164-page catalog, which includes 20 essays, ought to be Mirroring Recent Art Theory .) The image of the mirror is central to the way we’re instructed to see the art: that when we look into the faces of the Nazi perpetrators, we’re seeing aspects of ourselves mirrored there, aspects that somehow implicate all of “Western culture” and reveal “the incipient Nazi in all of us.”

Or as one of the catalog’s essayists put it: “These artists challenge us now to confront the faces of evil-which if truth be told look more like us than do the wretched human remains the Nazis left.” It’s that old chestnut, endlessly recycled as if it were the last word in wisdom, from the Pogo cartoon: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no. Are there more differences or similarities between Nazi criminal and Jewish victim? Should art be about making these distinctions, or about blurring them?

Now consider the description in the museum program of one of the more controversial exhibits, which features six plaster busts of Josef Mengele. I’m not so much offended by the busts of Mengele; I think the objections that some Holocaust survivors have made to any display of Nazi imagery gives too much power to the mere images of the perpetrators of evil.

But what is objectionable, I think, is the way the program caption describes-frames-the Mengele art:

“Nazi criminal Josef Mengele was known to his colleagues for his good looks and charm, and is infamous to us for his unspeakable deeds. To explore this contradiction Christine Borland gave blurry photographs of Mengele and descriptions of him to six sculptors. L’Homme Double includes the resulting six sculptures, photographs and descriptions” (my italics).

But wait a minute: Where is this big “contradiction”? Has it only just dawned upon the devotees of contemporary art theory that people “known to their colleagues for good looks and charm” are capable of evil? Is their life so sheltered that they thought bad guys all looked like Quasimodo until the Mengele “revelation” opened their eyes? Didn’t they ever hear that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain,” as Hamlet put it?

Elsewhere we’re told that one artist’s “depiction of the positive aspects of a villain’s family life complicates the secure divide between good and evil that Western culture so comfortably assumes ” (my italics).

So the finger of blame is pointed at smug Western culture for its silly attempt to define such acts as mass murder as evil. How naïve compared to the sophistication of the catalog essayists-who can see right through that “secure divide,” because some of the evildoers were kind to their children.

The suggestion is that poor, pathetic Western culture has never before conceived of the idea that people who are nice to their children and pets can be cold-blooded killers, even mass murders. This “revelation” is sure to shake the smug foundations of our culture, as well it should. But this unexamined relativist notion-that there is no “secure divide” between good and evil-is the underlying premise of almost every essay in the catalog.

No “secure divide” between the perpetrators of mass murder and its victims? Israeli Jews in particular are singled out in one essay for engaging in “impersonations” of the Nazis in the context of the Intifada. We’re instructed that we must be brave enough to “move beyond the mechanistic Nazi-Jew divide.” Tell us again, what exactly is wrong with that “mechanistic divide”?

The brave, important, daring work of the art theorists is to show us that the Jewish victims of the Nazis weren’t all that brave compared to the theorists themselves. “To be a victim is morally safe even if it is mortally dangerous,” one essay tells us (my italics).

How much more brave to join with the art-theory acolytes and “subject ourselves to the danger of imagining ourselves among the perpetrators”? Not very many people are likely to exhibit the courage of these art-theory essayists, though: “There will be many who will prefer not to engage in such self-indicting activity.” There are those who will not have the courage to “stay the course” and buy into the moral equivalence that the catalog essayists are imposing upon the artists. Will you have the courage of these incredibly brave postmodernists?

To disparage the comparative lack of courage of Holocaust victims (they were “morally safe,” after all) ignores, of course, the acts of courage, the acts of resistance that the Holocaust victims and survivors displayed in the face of unimaginable suffering and unimaginable evil. Morally safe ? If only they’d known there was no “secure divide” between good and evil, if only they’d had the courage of the postmodernists to see themselves “mirrored” in face of the Nazis hunting and killing them, they would have chosen the “braver” course of “self-indictment.” But, alas, art theory wasn’t as advanced then, back in the 1940′s, as it is in our glorious postmodern renaissance.

Let me give you a concrete example of how this pervasive sophistry of the art theorists does a disservice to the artists themselves. The museum’s program tells us that “The artists employ the cerebral language of conceptual art, prompting us to reexamine our understanding of the forces that produced the Holocaust. Drawing unnerving connections between the imagery of the Third Reich and today’s consumer culture, the artists sharpen our awareness of present day techniques of persuasion and symbols of oppression …. “

In effect, we’re told that “the forces that produced the Holocaust” are analogous to the sinister forces behind “today’s consumer culture” and “present day techniques of persuasion and symbols of oppression.” So don’t look to 19 terrible centuries of anti-Semitism as the source of the Holocaust; blame 20th-century advertising.

Poor Alan Schechner, whose art is framed by this dumbed-down Frankfurt School theory: Mr. Schechner is the artist whose work has come to symbolize the controversy over Mirroring Evil . He has done a photo collage in which he inserts, into a famous photo of emaciated concentration-camp survivors at Buchenwald, a photo of himself casually holding a can of Diet Coke. Mr. Schechner titles this It’s the Real Thing: Self Portrait at Buchenwald .

The catalog essay imposes on Mr. Schechner’s work a simplistic moral equivalence: “The Coke can draws parallels between brainwashing tactics of the Nazis and commodification [which is the great evil in postmodern ideology]. Just as much of Europe succumbed to Nazi culture … so does our contemporary culture succumb to consumerism.” Right: Drink Coke; Kill Jews-same thing.

If that were true-if that were the only interpretation of Mr. Schechner’s work-the work would be offensive. But removed from this silly straitjacket of ideology, it may be a far more suggestive work.

Recently, I spoke to a Jewish friend whose grandfather died in Buchenwald. Mr. Schechner’s Real Thing struck a chord with him: about the vast abyss between the actual Holocaust experience of his grandfather and anyone removed by time and space from the “real thing.”

The problem, my friend suggested, is that the language of the catalog that makes this merely a work about consumerism is not as bold or transgressive as its writers believe it to be. The problem, he suggested, is their fear -in particular, their fear of ambiguity. They feel compelled to assign a meaning to the art that validates not something transgressive, but rather something familiar and comforting to them: the familiar and comforting assumptions of the postmodern orthodoxy that circumscribes their imagination.

Forgive me if I quote further from some of the incessant assertions of their own boldness that the curators and essayists in the catalog make, because cumulatively it’s an indication of collective self-delusion:

” Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art may be the most daring exhibition ever mounted by the Jewish Museum.”

” Mirroring Evil is a dangerous exhibition.”

“Playing it safe is no longer an available option for museums when the questions at hand are so necessarily dangerous.”

Mirroring Evil is not for the faint-hearted: Those not “at home with the language of contemporary art” may lack the requisite courage to face the danger.

I’d respectfully suggest that this notion of what is “dangerous” is a little overstated. Being a Jew in the Third Reich was dangerous. Being an art-theory essayist in America supported by multiple foundation grants is, well … a little less dangerous, to be charitable.

But they see it as a test for us : to see if you are as brave as the art theorists. And “the answers may depend on just how self aware” you are.

Even Susan Sontag fails their test.

Ms. Sontag, of course, is the author of an important 1974 essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” in which, as the catalog says, “Sontag expressed grave moral concerns about the meanings inherent in, and audiences served by, a spate of fascist aesthetics and Nazi imagery in contemporary photography and film.”

Then we’re told that “Sontag and other critics condemned them knowing full well that the possibility of constraining freedom of expression actually mirrored fascist politics ” (my italics).

So expressing “grave moral concern” is sloppily conflated with “constraining freedom of expression.” Independent criticism, fascist suppression: no difference. They “mirror” each other. But Ms. Sontag wasn’t calling for censorship; she was doing what critical intellectuals are supposed to do-offering a critique. Still, we’re told instead that somehow this “mirrored fascist politics.” The ability to know the difference between critique and censorship is one of the differences between non-fascist and fascist politics. (The best recent treatment of these questions can be found in Holocaust Representation , a new book by the brilliant philosopher Berel Lang. It doesn’t argue for external constraint, but rather for a kind of internal humility with which artists and writers of integrity respond to the problem of Holocaust representation.)

What’s fascinating to me in all the talk of how daring these theorists are, and how “dangerous” the path they tread, is the toothlessness of some of the art they choose to praise. Consider the misguided rhapsody in the catalog over The Great Dictator , Charlie Chaplin’s trivialization of Hitler, as “speaking truth to power.”

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 line that the struggle 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. Did The Great Dictator win an award from the pro-appeasement (of Hitler) Daughters of the American Revolution for “speaking truth to power?”

Don’t get me started on Chaplin-or on another cowardly Holocaust film that comes in for praise along with Chaplin’s, the self-congratulatory Life Is Beautiful by Roberto (“I Am Beautiful”) Benigni. (My more extensive comments on these two jokers can be found in “The Arrogance of Clowns,” an Observer essay reprinted in The Secret Parts of Fortune .)

If these two are cited for courage, who is cited for cowardice? Well, it could be you , the museumgoer, if you don’t pass the test that the museum’s daring and transgressive curators and critics have posed for you. Will you be as brave as them? The answer “may depend on just how self aware each of us is when it comes to understanding our own motives for gazing on such art.” In other words, you pass the test if you are able to indict yourself, to see yourself (like the brave essayists) as the Nazi in your mirror.

Here I’d like to make a distinction-one that I believe one of the essayists confuses-between the mirror and the Rorschach. They are not identical metaphors.

I’m particularly sensitive to this since my book is quoted in the essay on the subject:

“In Explaining Hitler Ron Rosenbaum argues that ‘the shapes we project onto the inky Rorschach of Hitler’s psyche are often cultural self-portraits in the negative. What we talk about when we talk about Hitler is also who we are and who we are not ‘” (my italics).

Now it seems fairly clear to me that the difference between the metaphor of the mirror and of the Rorschach is a difference worth preserving rather than blurring.

What I suggest in that passage is that what we project upon the Rorschach are the ways we find ourselves different from Hitler. They are cultural self-portraits “in the negative.” They may be at times defensive, protective cultural self-portraits, but the point of my Rorschach metaphor is not that there is no “secure divide” between us and Hitler; rather, it’s that there are differences which need to be examined, distinctions to be made-not mirror images to identify with. Making distinctions seems more important than embracing alleged similarities-looking into a mirror and seeing the image of a death-camp guard.

But of course, the essayists have told us that they are “at home with the language of contemporary art” and we are not, so they must know better.