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John Haber
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Mirroring Evil: Nazi Art Now

Springtime for Hitler and Germany. Swan song for cutting-edge art?

"Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery / Recent Art," at the Jewish Museum, truly deserved outrage and debate. And yet the controversy had the stale air of an art-world ritual. Passionate, measured, predictable, and media ready, the ritual begins whenever a museum features contemporary art's struggles with religion, politics, or sex. One can hardly imagine art these days without one or more, so the ritual starts up often. A show subtitled "Nazi imagery / recent art" actually manages all three.

The exhibition pushes the ritual to extremes in some other ways, too. On the one hand, the Jewish Museum does its typically thoughtful job. from Piotr Uklanski's The Nazis (Scalo Verlag Ac, 1999)The curator, Norman L. Kleeblatt, chooses a tough, nagging question: must art and culture trivialize the Holocaust? He frames the question even better, with intelligent running commentary. On the other hand, he picks art so lame as to make the question appear far too easy and intelligence appear just plain insensitive.

The show reflects an art world dependent on its own rituals. Inadvertently, it points to the irony of art and art institutions that absorb and trivialize what they attack—including a culture of all-absorbing trivia.

A ritual and a dance

The ritual goes something like this. First, participants step so far back from art that they need not encounter it. In an ideal world, judgments about art hinge on intimate experience. Once art spoke in nuances of color and imagery. More recently, as in an installation, one's judgment begins with entering the work physically. When Jesse Helms denounced Robert Mapplethorpe, however, the show had passed through much of its tour without upsetting anyone, and another show even claims Robert Mapplethorpe for America. At the Jewish Museum, the outcry began months before the opening—but either way, it wrenched art and its audience into the unexpected contexts and collisions that define political art.

Next, the ritual requires a museum, a public institution in more ways than one. It draws a wider audience than galleries, not just adults who take art and controversy for granted. It may try too hard to push its gift shop, but it does not have to trust to the market. Even when a show does not depend directly on tax dollars, it benefits from nonprofit status. That helped Helms and, more recently, Rudy Giuliani pass off their ignorance as issues of arts funding, as if taking risky art off the dole were a good in itself. At the Jewish Museum, the ritual focuses on the museum as defender of a heritage.

Third comes the media blitz. As often noted, this gives crummy art more attention than it deserves. Critics had already begun to dismiss Mapplethorpe as too slick. They wished Giuliani had let better work in the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" than Chris Ofili and his turds get publicity. This time, they wish that decent artists could get shown, period. Meanwhile, the museum gloats—or, like the Drawing Center at Ground Zero, runs in panic. One suspects it planned things this way. How would the art world do without the media dance?

One expects a backlash, to be sure. In the fourth stage, the critics get denounced, not unfairly, for censorship, since art has to find its own ways. The critics also have a conservative agenda, quite apart from their stated one. Helms and Giuliani clearly had problems with Mapplethorpe's homosexuality and Ofili's multiculturalism, his layering of African art onto a Madonna. At the Jewish Museum, one respects far more the feelings of the critics, some of them Holocaust survivors, some perhaps still burning from art that had depicted Giuliani himself as a Nazi only two years before. Yet no one should control even memory—and indeed no one can, a theme of the show.

Fifth comes the compromise. Museums do not exactly constitute a radical underground after all. The curators post warning labels. At the Jewish Museum, they make an exemplary effort to promote discussion, however unfriendly. The museum tactfully avoids images from the show on its Web site, and it begs viewers to share reactions on leaving, on a computer bulletin board. It schedules events around the issues. By the time of the events, of course, the press has lost interest.

Finally, people see the work. It turns out, strangely enough, to side with the critics after all. Ofili has made Christian art that shares Giuliani's piety. "Mirroring Evil" hates the Holocaust as much as anyone. Indeed, the artists care about how inadequate they feel in addressing it. They make art out of precisely that.

Good idea . . .

Only how well do they do it? All right, they do badly indeed, but they still have a lot to say. Too often, as art becomes a ritual and a commodity, curators prize their careers above their audience. They become art-world celebrities. They escape into blandness, even at their most political, as at the 2002 Whitney Biennial, or they promote their own scholarship as the last word, as at the Met's spring exhibition of Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi. The Jewish Museum once again does better.

Its past retrospectives—of Chantal Akerman, Camille Pissarro, and George Segal—drew on unfamiliar work to illuminate a career. These exhibitions balanced the demands of fine art and each artist's Jewish heritage. They enriched both, too, by allowing the demands to confront one another, as they may well for a secular Jew.

Kleeblatt does the same here. He takes themes of broad, pressing interest to Jews and, of course, to others. He finds young artists from seven countries, almost all new to me, who work with these themes. He insists that they, the wall labels, and the whole installation offer questions more than answers.

Theodor Adorno first asked if art were still possible after the Holocaust. He meant the problem of facing the enormity of the fact without profaning it, encapsulating it, or accepting it. He could just as well have meant another age-old complaint about art and artists, one that Jesse Helms would understand: they bring complexity and irreverence to what they represent. They make it harder to close oneself off to something—or to close it off once and for all. They make it impossible for horror and awe to become silence or for silence to become repression and oblivion.

Others, such as Susan Sontag, try almost the opposite of Adorno. They connect Nazism to artifice, much as Max Beckmann in the 1930s presented allegories and circus actors. Its public displays, like Leni Riefenstahl with her film of the Olympics, have inspired a scary notion of the spectacle, as in the movies of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. Its seaminess has become the routine vocabulary of sadism and camp. Its images manipulate mass desire and deaden protest—relevant concerns indeed for art and culture now. The medium, in other words, is the message, but Marshall McLuhan had better stop smiling.

So the Jewish Museum starts with thoroughly acceptable, thoroughly challenging ideas. More interesting still, it rephrases them in light of a current generation. For artists who grew up with post-Vietnam War culture rather than world wars, how can the idea of the Holocaust stay alive? For these artists, irreverence comes with the territory, whether in art or with Bart Simpson. For these artists, too, spectacle and media manipulation are a way of life.

. . . Except for the art

The exhibition works perfectly—up to the moment one gets to the art. As one walks in, a monitor plays clips from Cabaret, Hogan's Heroes, and The Producers, to name just a few. Surely no one wastes time denouncing these, not even the TV show. And even then, one takes pleasure in its obviousness. The monitor also flows seamlessly into the first work. Piotr Uklanski, better known for his disco dance floor, papers a room with actors in Nazi uniform, among them a former president.

Still, I already had my doubts. As in a book version, Uklanski asks how handsome actors can blunt the terror of their roles. Yet as Hogan's Heroes proves, putting actors in uniform may not glamorize the Nazis. Besides, who does Uklanski expect to play the part if not actors? But, John, isn't this how we remember World War II, as Werner Klemperer and Marlin Brando, fools, thugs, and cardboard heroes? Um, speak for yourself.

The show goes downhill, and fast, for that kind of obviousness dogs every single work. Some take up the idea of representation. These want to raise questions about anyone's response to art and commerce. In practice, they just seem to blame art and capitalism for the Holocaust—or to reduce mass murder to a TV commercial. They let one shrug off the art as a kind of logical fallacy. Since fascists use images, and movies use images, therefore movies are fascist, right?

This group includes Maciej Toporowicz's Obsession, splicing a perfume commercial into Nazi films. It comes off as his obsession, not mine. Rudolf Herz finds it interesting that that the same photographer once shot Adolf Hitler and Marcel Duchamp, but they do not look alike to me. Christine Borland commissions conservative artists for heads of Josef Mengele and gets, surprise, innocuous sculpture. Just in case Tom Sachs was not glib enoughwith his Tea Ceremony, Prada toilet or Space Program: Mars, here he fashions a death camp out of a Prada hat box, while Zbigniew Libera prefers Lego. Neither carries the weight of feminist artists who play on Barbie, because Barbie really is used to sell images of girlhood and women.

The other artists do Adorno for the MTV generation. They agonize over their distance from the Holocaust. They simply confirm their lack of imagination. Roee Rosen writes schlock porn fiction about Eva Braun's last day. Alan Schechner pastes himself into a death-camp photo holding a Diet Coke. How nice that he associates liberation with soft drinks.

Ironically, the two groups see through each other, diminishing the impact of each all the more. Ironically, too, by looking at how culture trivializes the Holocaust, they produce trivial art. And that trivializes the costs of both capitalism and the Nazis all the more. The greater the risk, the safer art plays, and the worse the damage.

Last rites

Modernism and Postmodernism have faced something of the same dilemma. To suggest why, let me look again at the strangeness of art's ritual.

Art, historians like to explain, descended from ritual. One might well say that it descended by trivializing ritual, because it gave the most abstract expressions of a culture its human face. The notion of fine arts emerged only gradually. In the process, cultures had to transform public symbols and hopes of transcendence into personal expression, private property, and secular meanings. The choral lyric becomes lyric drama. God's word takes the form of everyday sunlight and shadow—a saint greeting the sun, a woman reading a letter, a still life, the Surrealist unconscious, and now an LCD.

However, the history implies that ritual can pop back in anytime, from site-specific art to performance. It has to once the public enters the picture. For forty years or more, art has had just that step in mind.

From Minimalism and Performance on, the space around the viewer shares in the creation of the work. More recently, Postmodernism has demanded a critical look at the politics and culture of the avant-garde. Critics have seen modern art as less liberating than it had seemed. They find it caught in an old romance of personal expression while giving in to big public sources like the Jewish Museum.

Postmodernism, then, claims that Modernism promised freedom and failed. It helped to create the institutions that absorbed it comfortably. And sure enough, Postmodernism has had to do the same. Galleries and museums thrive, at the expense of most artists. No wonder museum panels declare Postmodernism dead, like funeral operators at yet one more ritual. When bad artists filling trendy galleries take on trivia and end up with a trivia quiz, they reenact the ritual of rebirth and funeral, too.

Ritual, absorption, trivia, critique, ritual, absorption, and trivia—it sounds unbearably pessimistic. But maybe not. As long as the ritual can carry on, art can try to confront things. In the end, "Mirroring Evil" and its reception have something marvelous to say: survivors of evil cannot escape pain by silencing art, and art cannot escape inflicting pain by understanding the survivors.

Laughter and forgetting

There is another sense, then, to the word trivialize. It can mean refusing to acknowledge experience, but it can also mean the transformative process that art has always brought. Naturally art trivializes the Holocaust, too, but literally with a vengeance. Chaplin's Great Dictator trivializes Hitler, in order to laugh at him—and to inspire the hope of facing up to him. The Producers trivializes Hitler in order to laugh at human behavior. The laughter gives them authority that lectures about Calvin Klein and Prada lack.

"Serious" art trivializes horror, too, the only way one can—by trying hard to grasp it. Like laughter, it, too, refuses the lectures, and it, too, turns on the viewer. It makes for a messy history, with neither innocence nor evil as larger than life. It leaves open the possibility of one's moral complicity in the past or in the future.

Living artists have been handling Fascism just fine, thank you, and not just in the movies. Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, to take the obvious, make memory into a difficult subject. I found Richter's Uncle Rudi, his uncle grinning in uniform before marching off to die in World War II, as moving as anything in his retrospective. Kiefer uses perspective lines and the scrawl of the artist's signature as a burrowing into the past and a forgetting of the isolated self. And yet the problem of an art world able to absorb evil when it pretends to mirror it will not go away.

In "Mirroring Evil," I felt provoked only by Boaz Arad. The only Israeli in the show, he edits a clip of Hitler, so that the dictator apologizes in Hebrew. Hitler's jerky gestures compress further in the splicing, and the clip recycles unceasingly. It leaves one uncertain whether to feel relieved or constrained always to relive the horror. I smiled, but I took a deep breath first.

I grew up a Jew without beliefs and without rituals. I played at fighting the Nazis and the Cold War. I stood in terror of the Holocaust. Like the artists at the Jewish Museum, I knew that it had happened before my birth, and I had no idea what personally to add. But is adding nothing enough, even when the loss stretches beyond counting? Adorno had it backward. The Holocaust makes art necessary—or rather, as necessary as ever.

Art must continue, despite Adorno, if a public is to find common ground for grieving or its renewal. No doubt the Jewish Museum makes me uneasy. I wonder whether art has anything left beyond glib answers, cheap shocks, and old power games. Yet in that, too, the show may have value. Rituals really are phony, and mirrors really do get things backward. The trick is being able to bear exposing them.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Mirroring Evil" ran at the Jewish Museum through June 30, 2002.

 

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