Honoring a Picket Line At the Jewish Museum

All those who just can’t bear the idea of hearing anything

further on the Jewish Museum’s Mirroring

Evil exhibit are hereby excused from reading further. I understand the bridge

column has some thought-provoking bid strategies to discuss this week. Or those

who’d like to read about yours truly’s brief moment of glory (ignominy?) on

Oscar night can refer to this footnote.1

For those of you still with me, for those of you who read my

original, fairly scathing review of the Mirroring

Evil catalog in the March 4 Observer

(“Mirroring Evil? No, Mirroring Art Theory”) I have a surprise: There actually

was one work of art (as opposed to

art-theory construct) in the exhibition that I found arresting. And there was

one artist who described one work of art she had not included in the exhibit, but which I wish had been there.

And then there is the matter of my decision to cancel my

appearance at the museum-sponsored panel “The Root of All Evil.” A decision

that had little to do with the art at the exhibit, puny as most of it was, and

everything to do with the pain on the faces of the Holocaust survivors

picketing the opening of the Mirroring

Evil show.

Let me explain the chronology

which I think will help put my decision-which was not an easy one-in the

context of the whole controversy over the Mirroring Evil exhibit.

1) Late last year the Jewish Museum asked me to serve on a panel

on the question of art and evil with, among others, Robert Jay Lifton (author

of The Nazi Doctors ) in conjunction

with a museum exhibition that was to feature what was described to me at the

time in general terms as “art that makes use of Nazi imagery.” I agreed to

serve because it’s a subject I’d written about in my book Explaining Hitler , and because I was an admirer of Lifton’s work.

But then …

2) I received the museum’s book-length catalog of the Mirroring Evil exhibit, filled with

painfully pretentious essays by curators and art-theory academics, a catalog

that imposed a naïve postmodern moral relativism on the art. The ideology of

the catalog essayists implied that American consumerism was in effect equivalent

to Nazism, and the purpose of the art was to demonstrate “the Nazi in us all.”

The essays were so one-dimensional, so deeply in thrall to art theory and

postmodern orthodoxy that my verdict was: “with friends like these the artists

don’t need enemies.”

Still, at this point I didn’t feel any impulse to withdraw from

the panel. I’d been asked not to endorse

the museum’s art but to discuss it, and I assumed that I could make the kind of

critique I made of the catalog essayists in my column when I appeared on the

panel.

3) Nonetheless I began to feel a bit uneasy when I learned, two

weeks before the scheduled date of the panel, that my two other fellow

panelists had dropped out for medical reasons. The person I was dealing with at

the museum spoke jokingly (I think) about “a curse” on the panel. But on

Sunday, March17,fourdaysbeforethe Thursday-night panel, the museum, as far as I

knew, had not been able to come up with any replacements for the cursed panel.

And then …

4) That Sunday night I saw the footage of the Holocaust survivors

picketing the exhibit’s opening.

5) Actually, that’s getting a little bit ahead of myself. It’s

ignoring my experience of seeing the art. I had pledged in my first column,

when I was ridiculing the postmodern sophistry of the catalog, not to judge the

art by its pretentious promoters. I decided to see the art in the relative

tranquillity of the Thursday night before the official opening. An evening

which also featured four of the artists whose work was on display in a panel

discussion.

As for the art itself, well, this is something I wanted to say

but didn’t get around to saying in my original skeptical look at the art-theory

hubris of Mirroring Evil . That the

art about the Holocaust I’ve come to admire is art that actually investigates . The way Claude Lanzmann’s

Shoah investigates the killing

process, the way Art Spiegelman’s Maus investigates

the experience of victims, survivors and their families. But so much of, almost

all of the art in Mirroring Evil , while it purports to be

daringly “about the perpetrators,” doesn’t investigate the perpetrators at all.

Instead it declares by fiat (or the curators in the catalog declare all too

accurately, alas, on behalf of it) that the way

to investigate the perpetrators is to investigate ourselves . To look for the Nazi within. It’s appealing in that you

don’t have to leave your room to investigate ultimate evil, you just have to

look in the mirror. But it’s appalling because it doesn’t take the trouble to

investigate whether in fact what we share with the perpetrators, the way we

supposedly “mirror” them, is as important or interesting as the way we differ.

Such differences (like the “secure divide between good and evil”) are just

illusions to postmodernists, and it turns out to be much easier to gaze at the

mirror or the navel.

The only work of art in the exhibit that said something more to

me was “Hebrew Lesson” by Boaz Arad, in which the artist had taken some film

clips of Adolf Hitler haranguing a crowd and altered Hitler’s voice so that he

was repeatedly made to plead in guttural Yiddish: ” Shalom Jerusalem! I apologize! “

I would not call this a major philosophical investigation of evil

on the order of Shoah necessarily,

but it captured something of the poignancy of our helplessness before the

unchangeable face of evil in history. The unchangeability of history and the

way it gives rise to wishful thinking that is absurdly inadequate, but in its

very absurdity captures some truth about the way the mind works in the face of

the abyss of iniquity.

But it wasn’t until the artists’ panel that night that I saw a

work of art-one not in the show, but displayed in slides by one of the artists

in the show-that I felt truly lived up to the magnitude of the subject matter.

Demonstrated that it’s possible for a work of visual art to deepen our

apprehension (in both senses of the word) of evil.

It was all the more surprising to

me that it was a work-or slide of a work-shown by Christine Borland, a Scottish

artist whose “Mengele heads” had, when I’d first read about them in the

tendentious program of the Mirroring Evil

exhibit, left me skeptical. The Mengele work ( L’Homme Double ) involved Ms. Borland supplying six sculptors with

descriptions of Nazi torture doctor Josef Mengele and commissioning them to

sculpt busts of him for display as her “work.”

I’d already ridiculed the simplistic and effusive description of the work in the museum

program: “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 ….”

As if no one had noticed before that good looks, charm and evil

intentions could be found in a single individual. It was precisely the kind of

thing I was talking about when I said that “with friends like these the artists

don’t need enemies.”

And when I saw the “Mengele heads,” the work itself, I wasn’t

much more impressed. Again it didn’t seem to take us deeper into Mengele’s

head, it just seemed to make an obvious point about the heads, about the

unreliability of witness descriptions

But Christine Borland’s other

set of heads-the ones she displayed in her slides at the museum’s artists’

panel- did something more. Part of it was precisely because it was a work of

investigative art. She described how she’d been invited to produce some kind of

art project for the German town of Münster, and she found herself poking around

an anatomy museum which featured a department of human anomalies, among them

bodies displaying the disease known as “microencephaly,” in which a person

suffers from a disproportionately small head.

She found connections between these heads and Nazi medical

experiments of the type that Josef Mengele sponsored and inspired. And then,

remarkably, she made a kind of art out of that. She had the heads scanned in

three dimensions by a computer. Then she had some plastic-fabricating company

make ghostly white busts of the heads from the scans. And then she mounted the

curiously, abstractly anguished heads, some heartbreakingly microencephalic,

some not, on poles. And set the poles in a garden. And there before me, before

all of us in the Jewish Museum, was something I had not expected to see in the Mirroring Evil show (in fact it was not

technically in the Jewish Museum

show) but which fulfilled the mission of the show in the way I thought none of

the official works did.

I’m not sure exactly why or how, but the vision of those heads on

those poles somehow became a haunting embodiment

of evil in art, a comment on evil as

art. It’s interesting: One of the most illuminating encounters I had in the

writing of my Hitler book was with the philosopher Berel Lang, author of Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide and

the recent Holocaust Representation .

And one of the most illuminating things Lang spoke of was the way that what

distinguishes Nazi evil from other evil was the way Hitler and his minions had

turned evil into a kind of art.

Hitler as failed artist was in some way using genocide to sculpt the genome of

humanity, to carve out, by extermination, the master race in isolated artistic

“splendor.” The heads of Mengele himself in Borland’s Jewish Museum

installation really told us nothing, at least nothing new about that. But the heads in the Münster piece cumulatively

showed us what was inside Mengele’s

head, showed us his vision, demonstated how evil could reach its most repellent

height as a demonic form of art.

Now let’s return to “The Root of All Evil,” the

grandiose-sounding title

of the panel I decided to withdraw from. Until that Sunday night I had every

intention of showing up.

And then on Sunday night things changed for me. Things changed

when I came upon local TV news footage of the protest in front of the Jewish

Museum. Sunday was the official opening to the public. There hadn’t been any

pickets the night I attended the artists’ panel. I know the museum had been

engaged in commendable outreach efforts to survivor groups, and had altered the

design on the exhibit to offer “viewer discretion”–type signs to warn survivors

that some of the material beyond the sign might be “disturbing” to Holocaust

survivors. I think part of me wanted to believe that this outreach had worked,

and that I wouldn’t have to see, wouldn’t have to face what I saw on the news

Sunday night.

But there it was. There they were. People with numbers tattooed

on their arms and pain inscribed on their faces. Shaking their fists and

raising their voices and bearing signs, and chanting to those entering: “DON’T

GO IN! DON’T GO IN!”

It wasn’t what they were saying, it was the look on their faces.

It wasn’t even that all survivors condemned the Mirroring Evil exhibit. But these survivors did, and I felt they

were speaking to me.

I couldn’t argue myself out of the impact their pain had on me.

Maybe the best way to express it was what a friend of mine said

when I called her up to discuss it. She’s the daughter of survivors. And here’s

what she said: “There is so much that

has been done to these people, and there’s so little we can do for them …. “

And one thing I realized I just couldn’t do was add to the pain of a survivor in order to make some

points on a panel. The next morning I e-mailed the museum a cordial letter,

regretting the fact that I just could not cross the line the survivors had

drawn. I made clear I wasn’t condemning others for seeing the art, for going to

the panel, for subbing for me on the panel. 

It was just something I

couldn’t do.

One of the museum people I’d been dealing with called to tell me

that there had been no official picketing request thus far for the Thursday

night of the panel. It was a point I addressed in my letter and one I

reiterated to him: It wasn’t required that some aging survivor stand out in the

cold Thursday night or maintain a 24-hour vigil. I couldn’t not pay attention to what I’d seen in

their faces on Sunday. I couldn’t not

pay respect to the line they’d drawn Sunday, even if they weren’t there

Thursday night. I couldn’t cross that line.

The panel went ahead with some excellent substitutes, I’m told,

and I’m glad for that. I’m also glad I wasn’t there. Would my attitude have

been different if I had more respect for the art and less disrespect for the

art theory the museum catalog essays imposed on it? I can’t say for sure. Maybe

so. I’ve tried not to be critical of the Jewish Museum for the goal of examining controversial art by a

new generation of artists. But I wish the museum hadn’t so uncritically

embraced the trivializing postmodern ideology of the curators and critics it

lent its institutional imprimatur to.

But I think the best, most devastating comment about the whole

experience can be found in Art Spiegelman’s remarkable, slashing full-page

6-panel New Yorker cartoon on the

show. It appears on the Back Page of the March 25 New Yorker . The first five panels show a seedy skinhead painting a

blood-red swastika on a city wall. And then in the final panel, we see the

portion of the wall with the swastika mounted on the wall of the Jewish Museum

as part of its Mirroring Evil

exhibition. And the skinhead being toasted by museumgoers for his “art.”

Since Mr. Spiegelman is

(deservedly) a figure that so many of the catalog art-theory essayists and many

of the artists themselves pay respect to, as someone who found a unique,

expressive visual form to represent his family’s experience of the Holocaust in

Maus , his comment is all the more

devastating a rebuke.

As is the import of Spiegelman’s title: Duchamp Is Our Misfortune . It’s an explicit reference, as many

readers will know, to a notorious 19th-century German anti-Semitic slogan

revived by Hitler’s Nazis, one that is translated: “The Jews are our

misfortune.”

To say “Duchamp is our misfortune” is not precisely to say “Postmodernists are our misfortune.” I think it’s clear Spiegelman is also referring

more specifically to Duchamp’s famous dictum about art, one reverently cited by conceptualists and

postmodernists,  which comes down to

“art is anything an artist points to.”

Our misfortune is to

suffer from art that in fact does no more than point. And doesn’t even point

well. Art that is, in effect, pointless.

It had always been a dream of mine to appear in an Errol Morris

production. So even my nanosecond On the

Beach moment in his four minute Oscar- opening film was a thrill. But it

occured to me when Errol was filming interviews-using his “Interrotron”-for the

film, asking people what movies changed their lives, that I lived the first

half of my life anticipating nuclear holocaust (thanks to On the Beach ) and much of the second half investigating a holocaust

that had already happened. No wonder I’m such a cheerful guy.