Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art focuses on thirteen contemporary, internationally recognized artists who use imagery from the Nazi era to explore the nature of evil. Their works are a radical departure from previous art about the Holocaust, which has centered on tragic images of victims. Instead, these artists dare to invite the viewer into the world of the perpetrators. The viewer, therefore, faces an unsettling moral dilemma: How is one to react to these menacing and indicting images, drawn from a history that can never be forgotten?

The artists are often two generations removed from the Nazi era and are descended from families of both victims and perpetrators. Obsessed with a history that they seem impelled to overcome, they ask us to examine what these images of Nazism might mean in our lives today. These artworks draw us into the past, leading us to question how we understand the appalling forces that produced the Holocaust. These works also keep us alert to the present, with its techniques of persuasion that are so easily taken for granted, its symbols of oppression that are too readily ignored.

Mirroring Evil is the most recent of many exhibitions at The Jewish Museum that have addressed the period of the Holocaust. In 1994 The Jewish Museum mounted an exhibition on the memorialization of the Holocaust and the complexities surrounding the commissioning, creation, use, and meaning of memorials. It focused on the preservation of memory and the intent and effect of physical memorials created as sites of mourning and contemplation. The works included in that exhibition referred to classical, poignant, and reverential buildings and sculptures and to events. That exhibition also showed contemporary art that challenged the very idea of the Holocaust monument. In Mirroring Evil, the artists dismiss classicism, edifices, and memorial rituals. They replace them with a disquieting, demanding, and jolting approach, which asks us over and over again to look deeply into human behavior.

The museum collects and exhibits art that provides visitors with many approaches that inspire thought about the period of the Holocaust. For example, in 2000 The Jewish Museum mounted the exhibition, Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theatre? Like the works in a 1985 Jewish Museum retrospective of another young artist who perished in the Holocaust—Felix Nussbaum—Salomon’s paintings and drawings present the intimate chronicle of a life during the Nazi period. The cumulative effect of these works draws the viewer into the experience of living through the Nazi era.

Norman L. Kleeblatt, Susan and Elihu Rose Curator of Fine Arts, conceived of this project. As in the past, he has brought together works by a diverse group of artists to create a groundbreaking exhibition and a wonderfully informative publication. The catalogue essays provide an extensive and invaluable frame of reference for the works in the exhibition. Among other topics, this book provides a background on transgressive art, a critical analysis of the individual works in the show, and an exploration of the context of the museum as the presenter of work that may be considered taboo, in addition to a discussion of the psychological devices of Nazi oppression.

This exhibition was made with the support of devoted Jewish Museum staff, the contributions of generous donors, collectors, and museums, the advice of insightful consultants, and the loans of art by the remarkable artists whose work is the subject of this project. In addition to Norman Kleeblatt, I thank Maurice Berger, Rabbi Irwin Kula, Luisa Kreisberg, Stuart Klawans, and Reesa Greenberg for their thoughtful and sensitive work as consultants; Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi for her advocacy and thoughtful contextualization of the exhibition; and James E. Young, Ernst van Alphen, Lisa Saltzman, and Ellen Handler Spitz for their insightful essays. I am additionally grateful to those institutions that have worked in cooperation with The Jewish Museum to create and host educational and public programming. In particular, I would like to thank Peter Nelson and Facing History and Ourselves; Sondra Farganis and The Vera List Center for Art and Politics of The New School; The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; Grace Caporino and The University Seminar in Innovation in Education at Columbia University; and Betsy Bradley and The New York Public Library. I also thank Daniel Kershaw and Allan Wexler who together created the exhibition design; Joanna Lindenbaum, assistant curator for the exhibition; Carole Zawatsky, director of education; Aviva Weintraub, director of media and public programs; Anne Scher, director of communications; and Ruth Beesch, deputy director for program.

The exhibition funders have demonstrated much appreciated support for taking on a show that is filled with difficult, challenging art. Our thanks go toThe Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Dorsky Foundation, the Ellen Flamm Philanthropic Fund, Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, and to many other donors to whom we are most grateful. I am additionally grateful to the lenders and artists whose work has been included in this exhibition. Both are courageous in recognizing that provocative and troubling images often yield important consideration and understanding.

Finally my appreciation to the museum’s Board of Trustees, whose commitment to a complete understanding of the Jewish experience in the world makes this a museum that reaches far in its use of art for inspiration and education.


JOAN ROSENBAUM
Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director,
The Jewish Museum

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A notorious Nazi once said that when he heard theword “culture” he reached for his revolver. Now, it seems, every time we hear the word “Nazi” we reach for our culture. Thus might we protect ourselves from the terror of the Nazi Reich, even as we provide a window into it. It is almost as if the only guarantee against the return of this dreaded past lies in its constant aesthetic sublimation—in the art, literature, music, and even monuments by which the Nazi era is vicariously recalled by a generation of artists born after, but indelibly shaped by, the Holocaust.

Until recently, however, this has also been an art that concentrated unrelievedly on the victims of Nazi crimes—as a way to commemorate them, name them, extol them, and bring them back from the dead. By contrast, almost no art has dared depict the killers themselves. It is as if the ancient injunctions against writing the name of Amalek or hearing the sound of Haman’s name have been automatically extended to blotting out their images as well. Of course, such blotting out was never merely about forgetting the tormentors of the Jews. It was, in fact, a way to remember them. By constantly condemning these tormentors to oblivion, we ritually repeat an unending Jewish curse that makes us remember the enemies of the Jews by enacting the attempt to forget them. A new generation of artists sees things a little differently, and the results are as unnerving as they are taboo breaking.

“You can’t shock us, Damien,” are the words artist Elke Krystufek has pasted over one of her collages. (The reference is to the English artist Damien Hirst, whose vivisected animals floating in glass vats of formaldehyde caused an enormous sensation in the early 1990s in London.) “That’s because you haven’t based an entire exhibition on pictures of Nazis.” Is this to say that the point here is to shock? Or, that in a culture inured to the images of vivisected animals, only images of Nazis can still shock? Or is Krystufek after something else altogether? I think it’s something else. Rather than repeat the degrading images of murdered and emaciated Jewish victims, thereby perpetuating the very images the Nazis themselves left behind, artists like Krystufek now turn their accusing gaze upon the killers themselves. For these artists, the only thing more shocking than the images of suffering victims is the depravity of the human beings who caused such suffering.

To the traditional art that creates an empathetic nexus between viewers and concentration camp victims, these artists would add an art that brings us face to face with the killers themselves. Rather than allow the easy escape from responsibility implied by the traditional identification with the victims, 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 behind. In the process, we are compelled to ask: Which leads to deeper knowledge of these events, to deeper understanding of the human condition? Images of suffering, or of the evildoers who caused such suffering? Which is worse? The cultural commodification of victims or the commercial fascination with killers? These artists let such questions dangle dangerously over our heads.

Victimized peoples have long appropriated their oppressors’ insidious descriptions of themselves as a way to neutralize their terrible charge. But what does it mean to appropriate images of the Nazi killers into the contemporary artistic response to the terror they wrought? Is this a way to normalize such images, making us comfortable with them, bringing them back into the cultural conversation, denying to them the powerful charge that even the killers themselves hoped to spread? Or is it merely to redirect the viewers’ attention away from the terror toward its causes?

These are the easy questions articulated so disturbingly by this exhibition of Nazi imagery in recent art. Tougher, more unsettling, and even more offensive questions are also raised and addressed by both the works in this exhibition and by the essays in this catalogue. To what extent, for example, are we even allowed to consider the potential erotic component in the relationship between Nazi murderers and their Jewish victims? What does it mean to “play” Nazis by building your own model concentration camp out of LEGOs? Is this different from “playing” Nazis in the movies? Were Nazis beautiful? And if not, then to what aesthetic and commercial ends have they been depicted over the years in the movie-star images of Dirk Bogarde, Clint Eastwood, Frank Sinatra, Max von Sydow, and Ralph Fiennes? What does it mean for Calvin Klein to sell contemporary perfumes and colognes in the Brekerian images of the Aryan ideal? And, if this is possible, is it also possible to imagine oneself as an artist drinking a Diet Coke amid emaciated survivors at Buchenwald? Just where are the limits of taste and irony here? And what should they be? Must a depraved crime always lead to such depraved artistic responses? Can such art mirror evil and remain free of evil’s stench? Or must the banality of evil, once depicted, lead to the banalization of such images and become a banal art?

If these questions are problematically formalized in this exhibition, they are also profoundly elaborated in the unflinching catalogue essays. All of the writers are acutely aware that exhibiting and writing about works such as these may be regarded by some to be as transgressive and disturbing as the art itself. In this vein, both the curator Norman Kleeblatt and literary historian Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi have probed deeply into what Ezrahi presciently calls the “barbaric space” that tests the boundaries of a “safe” encounter with the past. Cultural critic Reesa Greenberg reminds us that “playing it safe” is no longer a viable option for museums, curators, critics, or viewers when the questions at hand are, necessarily, so dangerous. For, as art historian Lisa Saltzman shows in her reconsideration of the avant-garde, since “All the verities are [now] thrown into question,” such transgressions require an art that makes excruciating demands on both critics and viewers. It is almost as if the more strenuously we resist such art, the more deeply we find ourselves implicated in its transgressions.

In a parallel vein, child psychiatrist and art historian Ellen Handler Spitz explores the perilous border between inviolate childhood and absolutely violated children, that inner terror of children devastated by a cruelty whose name they cannot pronounce. What can children do with such trauma? Ernst van Alphen persuasively argues that to some extent the child has come to stand “for the next generations, who need to learn a trauma they have not directly lived,” who instead of talking about such terror, or looking at it, will necessarily “playact” it as a way to know and work through it.

For a generation of artists and critics born after the Holocaust, the experience of Nazi genocide is necessarily vicarious and hypermediated. They haven’t experienced the Holocaust itself but only the event of its being passed down to them. As faithful to their experiences as their parents and grandparents were to theirs in the camps, the artists of this media-saturated generation make their subjects the blessed distance between themselves andthe camps, as well as the ubiquitous images of Nazis and the crimes they committed found in commercial mass media. These are their proper subjects, not the events themselves.

Of course, we have every right to ask whether such obsession with these media-generated images of the past is aesthetically appropriate. Or whether by including such images in their work, the artists somehow affirm and extend them, even as they intend mainly to critique them and our connection to them. Yet this ambiguity between affirmation and criticism seems to be part of the artists’ aim here. As offensive as such work may seem on the surface, the artists might ask, is it the Nazi imagery itself that offends, or the artists’ aesthetic manipulations of such imagery? Does such art become a victim of the imagery it depicts? Or does it actually tap into and thereby exploit the repugnant power of Nazi imagery as a way merely to shock and move its viewers? Or is it both, and if so, can these artists have it both ways?

Years ago, the German artist Gerhard Richter openly broached the question as to whether the popular dissemination of Holocaust images amounted to a new, respectable kind of pornography. In his installation ATLAS, Richter juxtaposed photographs of naked, tangled corpses next to sexually explicit images of naked and tangled bodies copulating1. His aim was not to eroticize the death camp scenes so much as it was to force viewers to ask uncomfortable questions of themselves: Where is the line between the historically inquiring and the erotically preoccupied gaze?

Where is the line between historical exhibition and sensationalist exhibitionism? In fact, here we might even step back to ask whether any exhibition, even the most rigorously framed, can ever merely show such sensationalist imagery without descending into sensationalism. Can the artists, curators, or even we, as viewers, objectively critique such sensationalist images without participating in the sensation itself? In the end, viewers of the exhibition and readers of this catalogue will have to decide for themselves—and even here the answers may depend on just how self-aware each of us is when it comes to understanding our own motives for gazing on such art, or our own need to look evil in the face even as we are repelled by what we see.

In reference to Germany’s Holocaust memorial problem, I once wrote that after the Holocaust, there could be no more “final solutions” to the dilemmas its memory posed for contemporary artists; there can be only more questions2. For these artists, the issue was never whether or not to show such images, but rather, what to ask of them: To what extent do we always reobjectify a victim by reproducing images of the victim as victim? To what extent do we participate in the degradation of victims by reproducing and then viewing such images? To what extent do these images ironize and thereby repudiate such representations? And to what extent do these images feed on the same prurient energy they purportedly expose? To what extent does any depiction of evil somehow valorize or beautify it, even when the intent is to reveal its depravity?

For artists at home in their respective media, questions about the appropriateness of their forms seem irrelevant. These artists remain as true to their forms and chosen media as they do to their necessarily vicarious “memory” of events. But for those less at home in the languages of contemporary art, the possibility that form—especially the strange and new—might overwhelm, or even become the content of such work, will lead some to suspect the artists’ motives. Historian Omer Bartov, for example, has expressed his sense of “unease” with what he describes as the “cool aesthetic pleasure” that derives from the more “highly stylized” of contemporary Holocaust representations.3 Part of what troubles Bartov is that such work seems more preoccupied with being stimulating and interesting in and of itself than it is with exploring events and the artist’s relationship to them afterward. Also implied here is an understandable leeriness of the ways such art may draw on the very power of Nazi imagery it seeks to expose, the ways such art and its own forms are energized by the Nazi imagery it purports only to explore.

Even more disturbing may be the question Saul Friedlander raised several years ago in his own profound meditations on “fascinating fascism,” in which the historian wonders whether a brazen new generation of artists bent on examining their own obsession with Nazism adds to our understanding of the Third Reich or only recapitulates a fatal attraction to it. Friedlander writes: Nazism has disappeared, but the obsession it represents for the contemporary imagination—as well as the birth of a new discourse that ceaselessly elaborates and reinterprets it—necessarily confronts us with this ultimate question: Is such attention fixed on the past only a gratuitous reverie, the attraction of spectacle, exorcism, or the result of a need to understand; or is it, again and still, an expression of profound fears and, on the part of some, mute yearnings as well?4

As the artists in this exhibition suggest, these questions remain open—not because every aesthetic interrogation of Nazi imagery also contains some yearning for “fascinating fascism,” but because neither artist nor historian can positively settle such issues. In fact, by leaving such questions unanswered, these artists confront us with our own role in the depiction of evildoers and their deeds and the ways we cover our eyes and peek through our fingers at the same time.

NOTES
1. For a reproduction of this installation, see Gerhard Richter, ATLAS (New York and London: Marian Goodman and Anthony d’Offay, 1997), 16–23.
2. See James E. Young, At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust: Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), for a study of these issues as they arise in more public art and architecture.
3. Omer Bartov, Murder in Our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 116.
4. Saul Friedlander, Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 19.


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We want to get near to the toxin [of Nazism] in order to get as far away as possible.

Barbara Ehrenreich1

Tell me, my dear Anna, what would you do if Adolf Hitler walked into the room?

George Steiner
The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H.2

Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke," a 1998 conference at Harvard, focused on the use of racist stereotypes by contemporary African-American artists. At the conference, this generation of African-American artists who emerged in the 1980s and deliberately play with black stereotypes were pitted against an earlier generation that advocates the use of affirmative imagery. Reports and reviews of this two-day meeting made it clear that the meaning and function of racist imagery in art was still a contentious subject. Also at issue was the considerable white patronage of this ambiguous work. Moral considerations were particularly acute, given the current position of multiculturalism and the fragile state of affirmative action. Writing in Artforum, Ronald Jones related the debate to the divergent interpretations of Anselm Kiefer’s art, which plays with images from German nationalist mythology and Nazi ideology. Comparing the two situations, Jones pointed out that to equate Kiefer’s work with a “celebration of Nazi mastery” would be simplistic and absurd.3

Such racist representations intentionally carry multivalent meanings. The controversy they have spawned follows the debates about explicit sexual imagery that fueled the culture wars in the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s.4 Without a doubt, the artistic representation of Nazis and the symbols associated with them has caused a similar debate on the international stage.

Like the contested subject matter that the Harvard conference explored, the entry of Nazi representations into the supposedly pristine aesthetic sanctum of the “white cube” was as taboo as the artists’ confrontational aesthetic strategies. The hotly debated work of Kara Walker and others marked a 180-degree turn from the art centered on personal identity and multiculturalism that thrived in the United States during much of the 1980s and 1990s.Work depicting Nazi villains, art, and architecture stands in sharp contrast to politically motivated identity art. Clear moral imperatives have been exchanged for purposely conflicting messages that hold the viewer captive to situations in which any sense of moral certitude seems impossible.

Work about the Nazi and Holocaust era is part of a larger body of contemporary art that reflects today’s historical amnesia and how current events have rewritten what we had assumed to be historical gospel. Francesco Bonami explored these issues in his 1998 exhibition Unfinished History at the Walker Art Center. In the catalogue, he astutely commented,“History is not working any longer . . .nothing really matters when Leningrad changes its name, erasing the mesmerizing power of an entire revolution, or when teenagers have no clue as to how Pol Pot changed the world. History washes away hubris and pain, sorrow and power.”5 Distance from historical events and divergent attitudes among different generations are clearly central to the changing and contentious definitions of experience and memory. These have become the subjects so many contemporary artists engage.

A BRIEF BACKGROUND

Such works from the past decade continue a dialectic that began in the early 1970s. Nearly thirty years after World War II ended, ambiguous Nazi imagery began to emerge with greater frequency, especially in fiction and film. In the early 1980s this phenomenon intensified, especially in Germany, where artists used ironic or satiric strategies to produce works with hermetic, often intentionally deceptive meanings. Anselm Kiefer’s Occupations (1975) stands out for its unwillingness to resolve its implied meanings or the political position of its maker.

In this series of photographed “performances,” Kiefer posed on top of various German monuments or in assorted German Romantic landscape settings performing Hitler’s Sieg heil salute. Dwarfed in scale and distanced from the foreground, Kiefer’s image in these photographs left many viewers suspicious of his intentions. The critic Gotz Adriani, for example, described the Kiefer of Occupations as a “ridiculously lonely, Chaplinesque figure” and his pose as “sarcastically
pointing up the false pathos of the occupiers before an empty backdrop . . . shadowboxing with the past.”6

From a more self-consciously problematized position, Andreas Huyssen suggests that Kiefer was satirizing these gestures of occupation. While Huyssen rhetorically questions whether satire and irony are appropriate for dealing with this history, he demonstrates that the best of Kiefer’s work derives its power precisely from the “unbearable tensions between the terror of German history and the intense longing to get beyond it.”7 Nevertheless, the ambiguity of Kiefer’s art, be it his early photo works or his later monumental paintings centering on German myth and tragedy, reflects a complicated historical situation that is often glossed over by art that focuses on the victims of the Nazi era and proposes redemptive messages about the Holocaust. Questions regarding the moral integrity of Kiefer’s work raise issues about collective German guilt, the historic myths that still resonate in contemporary life, and the seduction and repulsion experienced in confronting Nazi aesthetics and subject matter. Two inextricably linked questions emerge: Do we trust Kiefer, and can we trust our own responses to his work? These questions launch a trajectory of conflicting reactions applicable to the works of the artists in this volume. Kiefer’s art, and work like it, tests viewers. If we choose to engage with this work, we must grapple with our own assumptions about the Nazi era and its visual legacy.

Kiefer was not the first artist whose work probed the taboo confines of Nazi or Holocaust subject matter, nor was he the only one to use transgressive modes of presentation. Until about 1990 the phenomenon remained largely German or Austrian. In works such as Zwei Österreicher oder Geschichte bedingt Interpretation (Two Austrians or History Determines Interpretation) (1976), the Munich-based, Austrian-born Flatz had himself photographed in poses composed and lit identically to Heinrich Hoffmann’s official shots of Hitler.8 Like Kiefer’s Occupations, these works proved to be disturbing images for Germans. Other works, such as Hans Haacke’s Undihr habt doch gesiegt (And You Were Victorious after All), 1988 and Jörg Immendorf’s Café Deutschland series (late 1970s) have flirted dangerously with images from Nazi history in general or of Hitler in particular.

The discourse at the intersection of such subject matter and the Neo-Expressionist style that began to emerge internationally in the early 1980s was tense. So tense, in fact, that some works, such as Georg Baselitz’s Model for a Sculpture (1980), a centerpiece for the German Pavillion at the 1980 Venice Biennal, may have been misread as an image of Hitler.9 In light of this evolving critique, it is not all that coincidental that Moshe Gershuni’s project for the 1980 Israeli Pavillion dealt with fascist/Nazi themes.10

Like artists in Germany and Austria, some artists in the United States have deployed similarly taboo images. Robert Morris’s much debated poster of 1974 of a chain-bedecked, naked male torso sporting a Nazi helmet provoked more than aesthetic curiosity. The collision of its allusions to taboo politics, sadomasochism, and male chauvinism pushed buttons inside and outside the art world. Morris’s poster became one of the cornerstones for Susan Sontag’s inquiry into this ideologically complicated subject. In her essay “Fascinating Fascism,” first published in 1974, Sontag expressed grave moral concern about the meanings inherent in, and audiences served by, a spate of fascist aesthetics and Nazi imagery in contemporary photography and film.11 As with Kiefer, such representations, particularly because of their intentional political and moral ambiguity, proved troubling. Sontag and other critics condemned them, knowing full well that the possibility of constraining freedom of expression actually mirrored fascist politics. Six years later, as German Neo-Expressionism arrived on U.S. shores, certain art historians, especially those associated with the journal October, no longer focused on Sontag's concern about the meanings and intentions of such taboo images but rather on the political implications of the expressionist style of the painting and sculpture itself.12

The work of Christian Boltanski and Art Spiegelman has also been interpreted as potentially exploitative. Both have become internationally renowned for their work relating to the Nazi era and the Holocaust. A half-Jew who spent the war in hiding, Boltanski has created a host of works that transform photographs of ordinary citizens into allusions to Holocaust victims. His work, like Kiefer’s, has been questioned because of the multiple readings it encourages. Sans Souci (1991) is one of his more difficult works. Here he rephotographed the family album of a Nazi officer, showing the perpetrators in their seemingly harmless domestic bliss.13 Traditionally, borders between the moral andthe immoral have been carefully guarded, offering sure footing for representations of the Nazi era. Boltanski’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.

Spiegelman, the child of Holocaust survivors, challenges boundaries both aesthetically and ideologically. First, he dares to tell his own father’s “survivor’s tale” in the seemingly banal, pop-cultural form of a comic book, using different animals to represent this true story as Orwellian allegory. But even more disturbing is the way he portrays his father. As victims, survivors are usually shown as morally unblemished. Yet Spiegelman has chosen to portray his own father as unsympathetic, cold, misogynist, and—even more paradoxically—racist.14

Boris Lurie’s large-scale collages Saturation Paintings (Buchenwald) (1959–64) and Railroad Collage (1963) are earlier, less well-known examples of transgressive art about the Holocaust era that place the viewer at the highly uncomfortable intersection between desire and terror. Lurie appropriates the harrowing, iconic photographs taken by Margaret Bourke-White and others in the weeks following the liberation of the camps. He juxtaposes her images of the piles of victims’ bodies and the emaciated survivors clinging to barbed-wire fences with prurient nude pinups. Simply put, as we look at these opposing scenes of defilement, Lurie forces us to confront our own voyeurism. The artist equates our looking at representations of victims with viewing pornography. Given Lurie’s personal history, it is more difficult to condemn his artistic production than that of Kiefer, Flatz, or Morris. It is perhaps because he raises irreconcilable issues at extraordinarily high stakes that his works, unlike Kiefer’s, have seldom been shown or discussed. Lurie, a radical left-wing artist who was part of the highly politicized No!art group, expresses this unpopular, even shocking view not only as a Jew, but also as a Buchenwald survivor. Therefore, he cannot be charged easily with two of the common accusations often leveled at art that deploys taboo Nazi or Holocaust imagery: dispassion with the subject or distance from the events. In Lurie’s case, the visual representations are so horrific that it is easier to ignore them than to engage in the many terrifying issues they bring forth. After nearly forty years, his collages sustain the power to shock. One would think their aesthetic and ideological edge might have mellowed after the extensive controversies that surrounded the sexually charged images by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andreas Serrano and the more recent ones related to the exhibition of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary.

Lurie’s collages crossed boundaries. But who sets these boundaries, and who dares to traverse them? Not least, who has the right to? Whatever the answer, most ideological boundaries—especially those regarding representation—have a way of dissolving with time. What has seemed shocking, transgressive, or inappropriate in one decade becomes normalized by repeated exposure and by distance, not so much from the events represented, but from the societal attitudes that prevailed at the time of their creation. Transgressive art questions assumed proprieties and often attempts to change society’s standards and behaviors. Breaking one set of assumptions permits a new set of questions to be broached. But Lurie’s simultaneous crossing of forbidden boundaries—ones that have to do with sexuality, voyeurism, and the Holocaust—creates an entanglement that few historians or curators have chosen to engage. Through nonengagement, however, we remain at an impasse, and serious issues proposed by this survivor are left unresolved. David Levinthal’s highly composed photographs of Nazi military spectacle and violence to Jews and women have fewer explicitly sexual connotations than Lurie’s collages. Yet the sensuality of his images has been called into question for their intentionally ambiguous meaning. In this case, the usual concerns about exploitation of the live subject are evidently not at issue. However, the possible misuse of his implied subjects has been posited by both critics and other artists. As a student at Yale, Levinthal, already a collector of antique toys, played with images of Hitler. In the series Hitler Moves East, he sets up battle scenes that are at once aggressive and playful. Like a number of artists discussed in this volume, Levinthal shows how toys and children’s games are anything but harmless and how society reflects its values in the playthings made for juveniles.

While in Austria, Levinthal was stunned to find toys from the Nazi era, especially miniature figures of Nazi soldiers and the paraphernalia of their pageantry and violence. He uses these materials to make miniature stage sets, adding other elements to enlarge the repertoire of his narratives. Levinthal photographs them in voluptuous colors. Self-consciously exploiting the sexuality of Nazi aesthetics, he accomplishes for photography what filmmakers like Pier Paolo Pasolini in Salo—The 120 Days of Sodom (1975) and Liliana Cavani in The Night Porter (1974) have done in film. But something about the photograph as innate luxury commodity seems to provoke more discomfort than experiencing the similar, more fleeting imagery of a film. It is precisely for plumbing the oft-discussed sexuality of Nazi aesthetics that Levinthal’s photographs, like numerous films, have often been attacked. Levinthal captures us in the moral quandary that philosopher and social critic Georges Bataille has called the dual impulses that sway humans: violence and desire. Following Bataille’s logic, Levinthal’s photographs of Nazi pageantry and racist violence drive us away by their inherent terror, yet they pull us in by an awed fascination. Bataille observes that “taboo and transgression reflect these two contradictory urges. Taboo would forbid the transgression but fascination compels it.” 16

Maurizio Cattelan’s proposal in 1993 for a performance piece seems to be the work that tested what Saul Friedlander has called the “limits of representation.” For the exhibition Sonsbeek 93, Cattelan
proposed advertising a “fake” rally of skinheads in the Dutch city of Arnhem. His highly intellectual and conceptual intention raised many issues at the nexus between the real and the counterfeit and between art and morality. It also extended one of the most pressing issues for modern and contemporary art: the connection between art and life. In proposing his “rally,” Cattelan wanted the public to realize how this very negative social element remains, nevertheless, a serious product of modern society’s failings. He was attempting to examine the primitive emotion of fear, but somehow expected that such advertisements might not actually result in a rally. He observes how the “skin[head] introjects [sic] his existential negativity” and feeds his “emptiness with the nightmares of recent history.” The highly controversial and indeed suspicious nature of Cattelan’s proposal poses pivotal questions for art and for society. Through what the artist feels to be an ultimate betrayal of his fellow beings, he (like Barbara Ehrenreich) asks us to use such “representations” to “search to understand, understand to grow up to be more civilized.”17 And Cattelan demonstrates that art can expand understanding intuitively, but cautions us that it cannot provide answers.

Realizing the potential danger this proposal may have posed for the population of Arnhem, curator Valerie Smith boldly opposed the plan. In the communication between artist and curator lies the notion, perhaps even her hope, that Cattelan’s project was meant to be left as a concept. However, its conceptual daring, and the potentially tragic results it may have wrought, force us to confront not just what the limits of representation might be, but also what the limits may be today for increasingly adventuresome artworks.18 The issue was the social responsibility of artists, but also the dangerous confusion between the real and the represented.

All of the artists mentioned have all dared to flaunt controversy. Some, like Lurie, have suffered critically and commercially for their positions. Others, like Kiefer, have succeeded in part because of the ambiguous narrative disruption of their work. James E. Young has effectively considered some of the ideological problems presented by recent work about the Holocaust. He shows how many issues are raised by those who make the works and by those who dare to look at or write about them. These works are often criticized as evasive and self-indulgent.19 However, condemnations of representations are often posed across the same generational divide that rocked the African-American community discussed at the start of this essay. In these cases, distance from World War II and the Holocaust seems to increase the artist’s experiment with transgressive representations or strategies. However, the distance does not necessarily make viewers more tolerant of its challenges.

Although he does not write about visual art perse, Saul Friedlander has dealt with problematic Nazi
imagery more extensively and for longer than many. In the early 1980s, he coined the term “new aesthetic discourse on Nazism” to investigate fiction and film using Nazi images and the ambiguous strategies that surround them. For example, Friedlander trains his lens on George Steiner’s novel The Portage to San Cristóbal of A. H. (1981) and examines Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s highly nuanced, brilliant, and provocative Hitler, A Film from Germany (1977). Friedlander lays out the moral and aesthetic problems such imagery poses. On one hand, he is concerned that transgressive images and ironic stances may simply revoke all meaning. On the other, he understands that the postmodern probing of the limits of representation may ultimately extend a fuller grasp of the dilemmas intrinsic in this onerous subject. He realizes that “Nazism represents an obsession for the contemporary imagination” and ponders whether attention given to its imagery functions as “a gratuitous review, the attraction of the spectacle, exorcism, or the result of a need to understand.” And he worries whether the seduction of Nazi imagery operates as “an expression of profound fears . . . and mute yearnings as well.”20


THIS PROJECT, THESE ARTISTS

This volume and the exhibition it accompanies concentrate on the work of thirteen artists who use Nazi imagery—the ultimate signifier of evil—to mirror moral and ethical issues that resonate in contemporary society. Each artist puts the viewer in the uncomfortable terrain between good and evil, seduction and repulsion. If we dare engage in their discomfiting art, we are forced to confront the very process of moral and ethical decision making. Using a variety of media and aesthetic strategies, they catalyze a process of self-doubt that, in many cases, is just short of chilling. They surround viewers with the unmentionable, bring them close to synecdoches for evil, then leave them to ponder the inexorable complexity of ethics.

Such self-conscious and morally ambiguous work appropriating Nazi imagery has become an unmistakably international presence in the art of the last decade. In fact, the first two issues of the popular German monthly Spiegel Reporter for the year 2000 included major articles about artists whose work images and imagines Nazis. The January 2000 issue highlighted Tom Sachs, a Jewish artist living in New York, whose recent work has tested the limits of representation in the face of what he considers a sacralization of the Holocaust.21 In February, the focus was on Piotr Uklan’ ski’s exhibition and book titled, all too simply, The Nazis.22 Uklan’ ski is a Polish-born, Christian-raised artist who divides his time between New York and Warsaw.

The installation of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s newest work, titled Hell, has proved controversial in the British press. Their monumental swastika-shaped model appears to be a concentration camp gone haywire. Hard to imagine, they have reversed perpetrators and victims in confusing and confounding ways. One part of this Gesamtkunstwerk shows Nazi bodies as they tumble into a mass grave usually associated with Jewish victims. No wonder the inclusion of this work in the Royal Academy’s show Apocalypse has been criticized for attempting to shatter Holocaust taboos.

With its lens on the depiction of perpetrators and its appearance in the aesthetic “white cube” of the art gallery, such photo-based appropriation differs considerably from the reverential art that Andreas Huyssen has called “an often facile Holocaust victimology.”23 “Holocaust art” has become increasingly prevalent during the past two decades and tends to be shown in exhibitions and programs that teach straightforward moral lessons, attempting to heal the wounds of the remaining survivors and to keep memory of the tragedy alive. References to and interpretations of its victim-oriented imagery remain mostly historical. The artists included in this exhibition, and others working in a similar vein, approach the subject in a radically different way. Their divergent concentrations on victim and perpetrator and their differing positions on moral rectitude and moral ambiguity illustrate Holocaust historian Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s “fundamental distinction between a static and a dynamic appropriation of history and its moral and social legacies.”24

The artists in this exhibition are offspring of both victims and perpetrators and come from a variety of national, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. All have shown their work internationally during the 1990s. They practice in Austria, France, Germany, Israel, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States and have exhibited these works in Düsseldorf, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Essen, London, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Lisbon, and New York. A substantial number of these presentations were surrounded by controversy. As a group, these provocative works use Nazi-era images to probe issues at the center of prevailing cultural and aesthetic discourses, among them desire, commodification, and spectatorship. Virtually all of them capitalize on the way art and, by extension, visual culture at large confuses the represented and the real. As their focus shifts from victim to perpetrator, they follow the complex issues about memory]recently outlined by Thomas Lacquer. As a cultural historian, Lacquer asks us “to concentrate on the task of representing temporal contingencies rather than spatial absolutes, on the history of political and moral failures, for example, that produced the Holocaust rather than the memory of its horrors.”
25 The artists in the exhibition place us precisely in the former position, asking us to look at cause rather than effect. Aside from their use of images of Nazis and Nazi-era aesthetics, the unifying premise for the works is how they force us onto morally ambiguous terrain. Such theoretical positions and aesthetic strategies cogently reflect Geoffrey Hartman’s assertion that it is incongruous for contemporary society to reverently teach about past atrocities while observing present ones tolerantly, at a distance.2


NOTES

1. Barbara Ehrenreich, in Male Fantasies, vol. 1 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987–89), x.
2. George Steiner, The Portage to San Cristóbal of A. H. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).
3. Ronald Jones, “Crimson Herring,” Artforum 36, no. 10 (Summer 1998): 17–18. See also Lorraine O’Grady, “Poison Ivy,” Artforum 37, no. 2 (October 1998): 8. The full title of the conference was “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke: A Series of Conversations on the Use of Black Stereotypes in Contemporary Visual Practice.”
4. For an insightful analysis of the power of art to fuel controversy, see Wendy Steiner, The Scandal of Pleasure: Art in the Age of Fundamentalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
5. Francesco Bonami, Unfinished History (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1998), 15–16.
6. Gotz Adriani, “Every Present Has Its Past,” in The Books of Anselm Kiefer (New York: Braziller, 1991), 10–20.
7. Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (New York and London: Routledge, 1995), 215, 228.
8. Cornelia Gockel, Zeige deine Wunde: Faschismusrezeption in der deutschen Gegenwartskunst (Munich: Verlag Silke Schreiber, 1998), 80.
9. Georg Bussman, “Hackenkreuze in deutschen Wald: Faschistisches als Thema der Neuen Malerei,” in Inszenierung der Macht: Ästhetisch Fazination im Faschismus (Berlin: Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, Nishen, 1987). See also Lisa Saltzman’s discussion of this misreading in her Anselm Kiefer and Art after Auschwitz (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 109.
10. See Roee Rosen, “The Visibility and Invisibility of Trauma: On Traces of the Holocaust in the Work of Moshe Gershuni and Israeli Art,” Jerusalem Review 2 (1998): 98–118.
11. Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism,” in Under the Sign of Saturn (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980), 73–105.
12. Benjamin Buchloh, “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting,” October 16 (Spring 1981): 39–68.
13. For a discussion of Christian Boltanski’s Sans Souci (1991), see Ernst van Alphen, Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature, and Theory (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997).
14. James E. Young, “Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the After-Images of History,” in At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 12–41.
15. Georg Bussman, “JEW-ART,” in NO!art: Pin-ups, Excrement, Protest, Jew-Art (Berlin: Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, 1995), 61–65. I thank Susan Chevlowe for sharing her copy of this article, translated by Kurt Germundson. I also greatly benefited from her own presentation, “Boris Lurie: Self-Representation in the Wake of the Holocaust” at the “NO!art” conference at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, in February 1999.
16. Georges Bataille, Eroticism, trans. Mary Dalwood (London: J. Calder, 1962), 58.
17. Jan Brand, Catelijne de Muynck, and Valerie Smith, eds., Sonsbeek 93 (Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 1993), 34–35.
18. Ibid.
19. James E. Young, “Germany’s Holocaust Memorial Problem—And Mine,” in At Memory’s Edge, 184–223. 20. Saul Friedlander, Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, trans. Thomas Weyr (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1984), 19; see also 11–22. See also Friedlander, Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews in Europe (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), 49–52, as well as Friedlander, ed., Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 1–21.
21. Jonathan Rosen, “The Trivialization of Tragedy,” Culturefront (Winter 1997): 80–85. See also Thomas Hüetlin, “Angst und Schreken und Chanel,” Spiegel Reporter 1 (January 2000): 117–25.
22. Piotr Uklan’ ski, The Nazis, exh. cat., The Photographers’ Gallery, London, 1998 (Zurich: Scalo/Edition Patrick Frey, 1999).
23. Andreas Huyssen, “Monument and Memory in a Postmodern Age,” in James E. Young, ed., The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History, exh. cat., The Jewish Museum,
New York, 1994 (New York: Prestel, 1994), 13.
24. Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, “Representing Auschwitz,” History and Memory 7, no. 2 (Winter 1996): 122.
25. Thomas W. Lacquer, “Introduction,” Representations, no. 69 (Winter 2000): 8.
26. Geoffrey Hartman, “Public Memory and Its Discontents,” in Holocaust Remembrance: The Shapes of Memory (Oxford, England, and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers,1994), 24–29.


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EXHIBITION CATALOGUES

After Auschwitz: Responses to the Holocaust in Contemporary Art. Edited by Monica Böhm-Duchen. Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Sunderland, England. London: Lund Humphries, 1995.

The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History. Edited by James E. Young. The Jewish Museum, New York, 1994. New York: Prestel, 1994.

Burnt Whole: Contemporary Artists Reflect Upon the Holocaust
. Washington Project for the Arts, Washington, D.C., 1994.

Contemporary Artists View the Holocaust. Edited by Jill Snyder. Freedman Gallery, Reading, Penn., 1994.

Dark Light: David Levinthal Photographs, 1984–1994. Edited by David Chandler. The Photographers’ Gallery, London, 1994.

The Living Witness, Art in the Concentration Camps. Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia, 1978.

The Road to Maus. Jane Kalir. Galerie St. Etienne, New York, 1992–93.

Seeing Through “Paradise”: Artists and the Terezin Concentration Camp. Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, 1991.

Witness and Legacy: Contemporary Art about the Holocaust. Edited by Stephen C. Feinstein. Minnesota Museum of American Art, St. Paul. St. Paul: Lerner Publications, 1995.


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