Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

George F. Will: Exploiting the Holocaust, intellectually

By George F. Will - (Published June 20, 2002 in the Sacramento Bee

NEW YORK -- An iron law of avant-garde art is that theorizing expands to fill a void of talent. That law explains the execrable exhibit "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," now in its final days at the Jewish Museum at the corner of 92nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

The works by 13 "internationally recognized" artists make, the museum brochure says, "new and daring use of imagery taken from the Nazi era." In the cant of artists' self-puffery, the word "daring" usually means artists are daring to strike political poses that are imbecilic and, among the avant-garde, fashionable. Here the artists daringly draw "unnerving connections between the imagery of the Third Reich and today's consumer culture."

Examples of the works are:

"Giftgas Giftset," three replicas of Zyklon B gas canisters in the colors, and bearing the logos, of Chanel, Hermes and Tiffany's. "Prada Deathcamp" is a model of a concentration camp on cardboard from a Prada hatbox. The exhibit catalog theorizes that the artist "dares to observe Holocaust museums and their visitors from the position of a critique of consumption." These two works ask the "irreconcilable" (does the illiterate author mean unanswerable?) question of "whether the artist is fascinated by the label-logo culture or mocking it."

"LEGO Concentration Camp Set" consists of replicas of boxes of the children's building blocks, but the boxes bear photographs of models of barracks and crematoria. The catalog theorizes that this work shows "how such seemingly harmless items may pose serious psychological and philosophical questions about gender, sexuality, and childhood."

In "It's the Real Thing -- Self-Portrait at Buchenwald," the artist digitally inserts a photograph of himself, holding a Diet Coke, into the foreground of a famous photograph of emaciated Jews in their bunks shortly after the liberation of Buchenwald. The catalogue theorizes that this work "draws parallels between brainwashing tactics of the Nazis and commodification. Just as much of Europe succumbed to Nazi culture because it was the dominant paradigm, so does our contemporary culture succumb to consumerism."

Enough. The smug narcissism and overbearing didacticism, all expressed in jargon-clotted prose about "aesthetic strategies" and "transgressive images," is repulsive. The use of genocide as a plaything for political posturing is contemptible. What was the Jewish Museum thinking, and why did it not think again after Sept. 11?

Many of the works in "Mirroring Evil" are based on photographs (there are no oil paintings), which should demonstrate that photography has said almost everything that can properly be expressed graphically about the Holocaust. But, then, "Mirroring Evil" is evil because it really has nothing to do with the murder of 6 million Jews. Rather, it is an exhibit of the artists' exhibitionism, their fathomless fascination with their shallow selves. And "Mirroring Evil," although an extreme example, is hardly the only example of the miniaturization of the Holocaust, the turning of tragedy into mere raw material for intellectuals' fads.

In the June 14 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, William F.S. Miles, professor of Jewish historical and cultural studies at Northeastern University, reflects uneasily on his experience at a two-week course for college teachers conducted by the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. There he heard colleagues say how the explosive growth of Holocaust studies has turned that genocide into a "wonderful, creative teaching opportunity."

Participants in the course said "a gendered approach to the Holocaust is truly exciting" and "we can examine victims in terms of their class, too, or their national origins" and "you can tie (the Holocaust) in to dance, art, architecture. Even Web-page making." Miles reports: "Repeated analogies between victims of the Holocaust and battered women in America are made. ... There also is implied criticism of articulate survivors: ... We privilege them because they are eloquent."' Miles' mild response is:

"Experts are no longer eyewitnesses but rather clever scholars with the latest new angles, spins or hypotheses. All one can hope is that the intellectualization of the Holocaust be pursued in good faith with a modicum of sensitivity toward the survivors."

But what hope can there be for even minimal decency and understanding when today's intelligentsia is hospitable to trivializations of a huge tragedy? No vulgarity is unthinkable now that the Holocaust has become fodder for semi-intellectual wisecracks, the plaything of theory-weaving and ax-grinding academic and artistic mediocrities who discern a moral equivalence between commercial advertising and Nuremberg rallies.

A wit once said that everything changes except the avant-garde. But it does change. It gets worse.