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Arts & Culture Two Months Before Opening, Holocaust Exhibit Raises Hackles

January 18, 2002
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Even before it opens, an upcoming exhibit on the Holocaust at the local Jewish museum is causing controversy in the Jewish community.

“Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art,” to be shown at the Jewish Museum starting March 17, seeks to present Nazi horrors in a thought-provoking manner.

But critics say the exhibit is an affront to the Jewish community in general and Holocaust survivors specifically.

“It’s one of the most incomprehensible lapses of judgment I have seen,”said Menachem Rosensaft, a member of the council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “I can’t think of any reason for the Jewish Museum to put on this show.”

Anne Scher, a spokeswoman for the museum, says the exhibit presents a trend in the artistic world — work by younger artists that uses Nazi imagery.

“The artists ask us to examine how images of the Nazi era shape our understanding of evil in our lives today. These works lead us to question how we understand the appalling forces that produced the Holocaust,” Scher said.

Rosensaft said he would help organize a boycott of the museum if it did not reconsider the exhibit.

A catalogue, says the exhibit features works by “13 internationally recognized artists,” including two Israelis.

It includes some pieces that seem unlikely to offend, including one that depicts how several Hollywood actors have played Nazis though the years.

The show also includes a Lego concentration camp kit and another showing the image of an artist holding a Diet Coke can digitally superimposed over a photo of Buchenwald inmates.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he would not be interested in a boycott. But he added, “As long as there are survivors who will be hurt and offended” by such images, exhibits like this one are “premature.”

Scher said the museum, which had spirited discussions about the exhibit with its advisory committee, took survivors’ feelings into account.

An interpretive video at the entrance to the exhibition will include a survivor talking about his experience, and another video will feature survivors talking about their responses to the exhibit. The museum also will host a series of forums to encourage public discussion of the exhibit.

The exhibit is raising comparisons to a controversial 1999 exhibit, “Sensation,” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that included an artwork with the Virgin Mary dotted in dung.

The exhibit so infuriated New York’s then-mayor, Rudy Giuliani, that he withheld the city subsidy to the museum until he was overruled by a judge.

New York’s new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, appears to be trying to avoid his predecessor’s penchant for controversy.

“I don’t think the government should be in the business of telling museums what is art or what they should exhibit,” he told The New York Times.

The Jewish Museum receives far fewer funds from the city than does the Brooklyn Museum, according to the Times. The two exhibits are different in other ways, the museum says in a statement, most notably because “Sensation” simply presented new works by London artists without raising specific questions about a historical event like the Holocaust.

For his part, Rosensaft said the proposed boycott is not a free speech issue.

“This is a not a First Amendment issue. I’m not challenging their legal or constitutional right to show whatever it wants,” he said. “However, with the right comes an obligation and a responsibility, including the responsibility not to be offensive to Holocaust survivors, to families of Holocaust victims and the Jewish community generally.”

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