Arts & Culture After the Hype, Some Find Exhibit of Shoah-related Art Disappointing

At a media preview last week for the controversial exhibit of Holocaust-themed art at New York’s Jewish Museum, a viewer surveyed an installation that juxtaposes photos taken of Hitler with those of French avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp.

“That’s deep,” the man grunted sarcastically as he walked away.

That may prove a common reaction to the “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art” exhibit, which opened Sunday and will run through June 30.

The exhibit features examples of a new movement in international art — conceptual works featuring Nazism and the Holocaust as metaphors for issues in contemporary society.

“Obsessed with a history that they seem impelled to overcome, they ask us to examine what these images of Nazism might mean to us today,” the director of the museum, Joan Rosebaum, wrote in the exhibit’s catalog.

Some of the pieces work quite well, among them a photo collection of hundreds of actors playing Nazi officers that shows how ubiquitous these images are in popular culture.

Also effective is a short video clip in which Israeli artist Boaz Arad has edited syllables from Hitler’s speeches to make the Nazi leader say, “Shalom Yerushalayim, ani mitnatzel,” Hebrew for, “Hello Jerusalem, I apologize.” The emotional impact of seeing and hearing the fuhrer say these words — which are both inadequate and impossible — is devastating.

All too often, however, the pieces in the exhibit are superficial. What are viewers to think of Tom Sachs’ work “Giftgas Giftset,” which features colorful poison gas canisters with Tiffany, Chanel and Prada logos?

Sachs didn’t help himself with an interview in The New York Times Magazine, when he appeared either unable or unwilling to address the possibility that some might be offended by his work — or what connection his Jewishness might have to his art.

“I’m using the iconography of the Holocaust to bring attention to fashion. Fashion, like fascism, is about loss of identity,” Sachs told the Times.

Even before viewing the work, some found it not only superficial, but downright offensive.

Since news of the exhibit broke several months ago, some groups have insisted that the exhibit is insulting to the memory of Holocaust victims and to Holocaust survivors.

Specifically criticized have been Alan Schechner’s “It’s the Real Thing: Self-Portrait at Buchenwald” — a self- portrait of the artist holding a Diet Coke superimposed over a photo of Buchenwald inmates — and Zbigniew Libera’s “Lego Concentration Camp Set.”

Approximately 75 people — Holocaust survivors, yeshiva students and other community members — demonstrated Sunday when the exhibit officially opened.

Protesters shouted “Shame on you” and “Don’t go in.” A protest organizer said the exhibit “trivializes the Holocaust and demeans the suffering of its victims.”

Referring to the Diet Coke piece, concentration camp survivor Mayor Glikman said: “A man stands over here with Coca-Cola, and if we went for a little water we were killed.”

In reaction to the criticism, museum directors added cautions saying that some people might be offended before a room with several particularly provocative pieces, as well as an additional exit that allows exhibit-goers to leave before viewing the most-controversial works.

For some survivor groups, however, the changes weren’t enough.

“The items in question are the moral equivalent of anthrax,” said Menachem Rosensaft, a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. “So long as they are displayed anywhere in the building, the Jewish Museum will be contaminated and should be off-limits to the entire community.”

The battle has been great fodder for the international media. There were nearly as many reporters as demonstrators at Sunday’s protest.

The organized Jewish community has been relatively silent on the matter, perhaps reluctant to criticize one of its own institutions or perhaps torn between its support for free speech and its sensitivity to survivors’ feelings.

“Holocaust survivors, and in some cases their children, cannot be intellectual about these matters,” said Eva Fogelman, a psychologist who specializes in historical traumas. “It evokes for them anxiety, paranoia, it brings back nightmares, it brings back sleeplessness.”

For its part, museum officials say they hope the exhibit will do what art does at its best — create dialogues. That certainly has been the intention, as a bevy of public lectures, discussions and films are planned, and the exhibit itself is highly contextualized.

At the entrance to the exhibit, a series of questions about the relationship between art and evil are provided to guide the viewer.

A short, continuously running video at the beginning of the exhibit shows how the Holocaust has been depicted in popular culture.

There are other thought-provoking features at the end of the exhibit. Another video briefly shows an artwork, and then shows sound bites of the artist, a Jewish leader and — in some cases — a survivor discussing the particular piece. These snippets are among the most gratifying parts of the exhibit because dialogue itself is on display.

In the video, artist Maciej Toporowicz reminds us of how the Nazis used devices that have become hallmarks of contemporary society.

“Nazi propaganda used an extraordinary advertising campaign, which was flawless,” Toporowicz says.

The museum also is not shy about showing criticism in the video.

“Why would I want to look at the perpetrators?” survivor Jack Ahrens says in the video. “I saw enough of them. It’s still glorifying them.”

On a wall near the video are reprinted quotes — some of them critical — that have been made about the exhibit.

“With its appearance in the art world, the kitsch and vulgarization of the Holocaust has taken a big step forward,” Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel is quoted as having written recently.

Although some commentators feel the meaning of the Holocaust has been cheapened over time, there are differing opinions about how this has occurred.

For some, it has been the way groups and nations exploit the Holocaust for their own means.

For others — including some of these artists, perhaps — it’s the way the Holocaust has been portrayed in popular culture, such as the Oscar-winning film “Life Is Beautiful.”

For others like Wiesel, the Jewish Museum exhibit represents a giant leap backward.

In contemporary Western society, after all, kitschification happens quickly. Even Communist icons — Lenin statues, for example, or nesting dolls of Soviet leaders — became kitsch in the West almost immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991.

The only question regarding Holocaust kitsch seems to be: Why has it taken so long — and what will be next?

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