“Mirroring Evil”: It’s Only Nazis

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

One sure sign
that things have returned to normal after Sept. 11 is the newest, distressingly
repetitive installment of the culture wars being played out over yet another
"scandalous" art show. In the fractious vein of "The Perfect
Moment," Robert Mapplethorpe’s raunchy 1989 retrospective, the Brooklyn
Museum’s "Sensation" and Hans Haacke’s Republican-bashing
installation at the 2000 Whitney Biennial, the Jewish Museum’s exhibition
"Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art" has piqued the ire of a
vocal minority while replaying, once again, the central misunderstanding
that dogs relations between artists, museums and the American public. Namely,
the notion that people should be morally ennobled–as opposed to pleased,
prodded, amused or even annoyed–by contact with works of art.

"The enjoyment
of beauty is dependent on, and in ratio with, the moral excellence of the individual,"
wrote the editor of The Crayon, New York’s main art magazine of
the 1850s. "We have assumed that Art is an elevating power, that it has
in itself a spirit of morality." One hundred and fifty years later,
some of the same straitlaced logic determines public discourse on the arts in
this country. Growing out of America’s founding Puritanism and taking taciturn,
pious shape throughout the different eras of our history–from the age of
the Romantic Sublime to the canonization of the European avant-garde by the
Museum of Modern Art and beyond–the nation’s moralizing streak casts
a long, priestly shadow over art and its public reception. The recent exhibition
at the Jewish Museum is only the latest case in point.

Savaged months
before its inauguration in places like the op-ed section of The New York
, "Mirroring Evil," an exhibition of 13 youngish conceptual
artists who use imagery taken from the Nazi era in their works, opened to the
public to surprisingly temperate reviews. Except for a curmudgeonly diatribe
by the Times’ Michael Kimmelman, critical reception following the
show was composed, oddly tame; one might even say it was nonplussed. A large
journalistic question mark hovered over the entire affair. What, after all,
was the fuss really about?

On viewing
it, one could only conclude the following: that the controversy surrounding
this exhibition, like that of other scandal-ridden shows, was engineered mostly
by folks who had not stepped foot inside the museum. How else to account for
the gaping disconnect between the outrage the show provoked and its earnest,
polite display? How to make sense of the accusation that the museum made a "joke
of the Holocaust" when it covered 19 largely straightforward works with
a virtual prophylaxis of embarrassingly apologetic text? To paraphrase the words
of Thomas Beecham when the elephant crapped on the stage during Aida:
What critics!

Despite the
shrill notes surrounding "Mirroring Evil," art related to Nazism and
the Holocaust is always on exhibit at the Jewish Museum. In fact it makes
up a sizable part of the institution’s permanent collection. Classicist,
memorializing and focused exclusively on the victims of the Nazis, such art
does little except repeat the usual breast-beating pieties in the language of
monsters and innocents, leading to what one critic has called "an often
facile Holocaust victimology."

Evil" curator Norman L. Kleeblatt saw the obvious limitations of this approach
and tried an end-run past the mostly tired documentary exhibitions of death-camp
photographs and the kitschy George Segal sculpture the museum permanently houses
on its third floor (it is titled, predictably enough, The Holocaust).
Intrigued by the works of several younger artists, Kleeblatt adopted a curatorial
tack that featured a not-so-new yet comparatively fresher development in contemporary
art: fin-de-siecle postmodern conceptualism.

on works that engage not the horrors of the Nazi era itself but the equivocal
and often exploitative cultural production that is part of its 50-some-year
legacy, the artists in this exhibition chose, in the immortal words of Captain
Kirk, to go precisely where billions of the globe’s consumers have gone
before. Kleeblatt’s crew riffs on comics, Hollywood films, tv programs
and scads of commercial images begotten by the memory of some of the most sinister
events in human history, sticking close to material so familiar it should by
all lights be considered as safe as a cover of The Saturday Evening Post.

Take Piotr
Uklanski’s installation The Nazis, for example. Consisting of a
room-sized array of 147 color prints of actors like Errol Flynn, Michael Caine,
Brando and Ronald Reagan striking glamorous ubermenschian poses in Nazi suits,
the work pits our fascination with celebrity sex appeal against a cumulative
recognition of the photos’ clear reference to Nazism. Another work, Boaz
Arad’s Hebrew Lesson, re-edits Hitler’s filmed tirades to yield
a few basic, impossible, but nonetheless moving Hebrew words: "Hello, Jerusalem,
I apologize." A third piece, Alain Séchas’ Spoiled Children,
features a series of porcelain cat dolls with floppy hair and Hitler’s
computer-chip mustache. Inoffensive and containing about as much shock value
as a black Ken doll, the work merely prompts the none-too-racy observation that
the toy resembles the pesky feline in Art Spiegelman’s overrated comic
"novel" Maus.

But if harmlessness
is a hallmark of "Mirroring Evil," so, unfortunately, is simplemindedness
and the sort of preachy didacticism for which the art world deserves real criticism.
Consider Maciej Toporowicz’s five-minute video Obsession, which
combines images from the Calvin Klein perfume ads with Leni Riefenstahl’s
body worship. The connections it makes are not only superficial, but self-evident
and stupid. Tom Sachs, another artist in the exhibition apparently fascinated
by the facile connection between fashion and fascism, turned a Prada hatbox
into a miniature death camp, complete with the famous Gate of Death and crematorium
found in the real Auschwitz. ("Fashion," Sachs told the Times
Deborah Solomon with a straight face, "is good when it helps you to look
sexy, but it’s bad when it makes you feel stupid or fat because you don’t
have a Gucci dog bowl and your best friend has one.") Take away the prep-school
cleverness and these works reveal themselves to be the typical artsy stuff made
for the smug, self-congratulating set–the same set that once set stock
by the permanence of graffiti art and the transgressiveness of Madonna’s
bustiers. Yet, as bad as it is, it is not at all immoral. Just compare it to
the flagrant and trivializing Nazi-themed entertainment playing to packed theater
houses some 50 blocks away.

The Producers, an adaptation of Mel Brooks’ original Hollywood gag,
offers far more cause for offense to the memory of the Holocaust than any art
show could (remember the lyrics, "Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come
and join the Nazi party"). Yet it and the countless other brazenly commercial
properties that the movies and television churn out–Hogan’s Heroes,
the sappy Life Is Beautiful, the kitschy Schindler’s List
and much better but truly perverse films like Liliana Cavani’s The Night
and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s excruciating Salo: 120 Days of
–enjoy a sort of moral detente with the public brokered by its
mutually accepted entertainment value. Why should that not happen with art,
one wonders, on the basis of a mutually accepted visuality? The phrase, "It’s
only a movie," uttered by mothers to highly impressionable children, should
be adapted for visits by the thin-skinned to the nation’s art museums.
That simple statement, "It’s only art," is probably the most
balanced and moral response to a long spate of false scandals that continue
to make of art, unfortunately, the preferred whipping boy for opportunists,
opinionated shut-ins and moralizers.

Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," through June 30 at the Jewish Museum, 1109
5th Ave. (92nd St.), 423-3200.