There are many ways to trivialize history, especially in a culture as amnesiac as ours, where even the most horrific chapters of modern history tend to be forgotten or misremembered and mythologized as soon as they disappear from the front pages of the newspapers and the nightly television news. Intellectually, ours has in many respects become a self-lobotomized society in which the moral fatuities of pop culture are quickly made to fill the gaps left vacant by our widespread incomprehension of the historical past. When you encounter students today at some of our allegedly “best” schools who cannot tell you when or why the Second World War occurred-never mind Mao’s cultural revolution or Stalin’s gulag archipelago-what hope can there be for any public comprehension of the massive evils that made the 20th century the most murderous in human history?
Traditionally, the principal province of this trivializing process, which effectively trashes the moral gravity of history by turning fact into meretricious fiction, was to be found in movies, television, comic strips and other forms of pop culture. Nowadays, however, certain art museums have shown themselves to be as eager as the pop media to compete for honors in this carnival of disinformation and bad faith, and so we have on view at the moment not only a second showing of Gerhard Richter’s loathsome pictures of the Baader-Meinhof gang of German terrorists at the Museum of Modern Art, where they were first exhibited a scant two years ago, but the even more repugnant exhibition called Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art , which Norman L. Kleeblatt has organized at the Jewish Museum.
Exactly why a respected institution devoted to the study and exhibition of Jewish art and culture should wish to inflict this numbskull mockery of the Holocaust on the New York public is not a question easily answered. Who could have imagined that the question would ever have to be raised in this quarter? Given the cynicism that now reigns in certain parts of the museum profession, opportunism-the hope of reaping the rewards of controversy-cannot be ruled out. Nor can the sheer stupidity of museum curators and the trustees who support their folly. What I suspect is the case with the Mirroring Evil show, however, is an ardent desire to mount an exhibition that is seen to be “transgressive,” to cite the contemporary art world’s favorite cant term of high praise.
What the Jewish Museum itself has given us in the way of explanation or defense of Mirroring Evil only compounds the offense by offering statements that are either morally callous, ludicrously misleading or transparently untrue. Mr. Kleeblatt’s opening statement in the exhibition catalog, for example-that the artists in this exhibition have “created works in which viewers would encounter the perpetrators of the Holocaust face to face”-is certainly not true. And it isn’t made any more credible when this blather about coming “face to face” with evil is repeated a few pages on in James E. Young’s essay, “Looking into the Mirrors of Evil,” with its claim that the show’s artists “add an art that brings us face to face with the killers.” This, too, is a wholly false statement.
Hollywood stills of movie stars dressed up as Nazi officers and a room lined with photo portraits of Hitler alternating with photos of Marcel Duchamp-to mention two of the items we are invited to admire in this show-do absolutely nothing to bring us “face to face with the killers.” Repulsive photo collages like Economical Love (Pussy Control) and (Hitler
Hairdo) are merely contemptible, while the model of a death camp made of Lego blocks is simply a very sick idea. But then the very conception of Mirroring Evil is a sick idea. I can see why some half-wit/anti-Semite might find this sort of thing amusing. After all, minus the subject that is abused in this exhibition-the Holocaust-the art in Mirroring Evil , if we still want to call it art, is no better or worse than much of the stuff currently on view in the Whitney Biennial. It’s all part of the avalanche of sub-intellectual trash that nowadays passes for art in the museums under the banner of Conceptual Art, which by its very nature is wholly devoid of aesthetic interest.
But the subject of this particular exercise in Conceptual Art is the Holocaust, and that is what some of us do not find amusing. It is not to be forgiven. It is for this reason that I refuse to name the so-called artists whose work I have cited here. I’ll leave it to others to provide them with their 15 minutes of fame. In my view, anyway, the principal perpetrator of this debacle is its curator, Mr. Kleeblatt, with his absurd claim that Mirroring Evil brings us “face to face” with the Nazi killers. Does he really not understand what the term “face to face” means, literally or otherwise, or is he only pretending not to understand? I am not myself persuaded that he doesn’t understand the moral folly of this ghastly show. All this crap about a “face to face” confrontation with evil looks to me to be nothing but an unsuccessful attempt at damage control. Mr. Kleeblatt was clearly determined to reap the rewards of controversy, but was also hoping to avoid responsibility for its fallout. My own sympathies are wholly with the people who have been protesting this show.
As I sat through some of the video stuff in Mirroring Evil , listening to a museum trustee extolling its alleged virtues, and then again when I read through the atrocious catalog, what came immediately to mind was a passage in Gershom Scholem’s beautiful and tragic memoir of Walter Benjamin ( Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship ,1981).Scholem,whowas then living in Palestine, describes a visit to Berlin in 1932 in the following passage:
“I went to Berlin on my European trip of 1932 and attended a performance of The Threepenny Opera , which had then been playing to full houses for two years. I was astonished when I saw that a middle-class audience that had lost all sense of its own situation was here cheering a play in which it was gibed and spat at with a vengeance. Three months before Hitler’s assumption of power, for anyone who watched such a spectacle with detachment this was a true prelude of what was to come. I hardly could be under any illusions about the fact that a major part of this audience was Jewish.”
Well, New York in 2002 is certainly not Berlin in 1932, and the miserable lack of talent in Mirroring Evil doesn’t bear comparison with the brilliant talent that went into the creation of The Threepenny Opera, but the moral parallels of Jews engaged in mocking their own tragedy are nonetheless striking and heartbreaking.
Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art remains on view at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, through June 30.