The impious piety of the Jewish Museum's Nazi art show.

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March 15 2002 12:21 PM

Swastika School

The impious piety of the Jewish Museum's Nazi art show.

The new exhibit at the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York, "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," stirred so many heated polemics even before opening that, when my chance to take a look finally arrived, I hardly knew what to expect. Can foolish art be allowed to blaspheme the Holocaust? Or, conversely, can't the philistines shut up and allow artists to be artists? I was prepared to ponder those questions. And yet, as I entered the exhibition, I was instantly overwhelmed with powerful feelings that I would never have predicted. Great art does have that effect. Sometimes not great art, too. In this case, I experienced a keen sense of being 12 years old, faithfully attending Jewish Sunday school at a Reform temple in the suburbs.

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I loathed that school. The unctuous rabbi, the earnest teachers, the cheerful textbook filled with brightly colored Bible pictures of ancient Hebrews and fluffy sheep, the preachy atmosphere, the ammonia odors of goodness, virtue, and uplift—all the black terrors of my 12th year came back at me. I stood in the anteroom of the Jewish Museum exhibition studying a large-type statement on the wall from the museum director and curator. It expounded on the purposes of the show—the lessons to be learned. "The art is cautionary rather than memorial," I read. "It warns us not to take for granted the symbols of oppression that pervade our outlets of news and entertainment. It conveys a sense of wariness," and so forth.

Merely to gaze on those admonitions was to feel the hectoring forces of moral and intellectual improvement at work. The sign thoughtfully defines the philosophical issues at stake. "How has art used Nazi imagery to represent evil?" "What are the limits of irreverence?" "Why must we confront evil?" I recognized instantly  that those questions would reappear on the final exam. A voice was meanwhile screaming from a TV monitor. It was an actor's voice, from a TV show of some years ago, haranguing in a Yiddish accent, "Can you know what really happened? Can you know what a swastika was?" The voice rose. "Can you know what is"—the slightly off-beat syntax exuded an aroma of onion bread, of horse radish, of pickles—"a Nazi?"

"Mirroring Evil" consists of the work of 13 young artists from several countries, all of it having to do with Nazis and the Holocaust. One artist has collected more than a hundred photographs of movie actors who look handsome in their Nazi costumes. Someone else has assembled Lego boxes designed to make one's very own Auschwitz. Someone else has decorated canisters of Zyklon gas with the logos of Chanel, Hermes, and Tiffany & Co. One artist has sculpted Jeff Koons-like pussy cats dressed in Hitler costumes. Another artist has inserted a picture of himself holding a Diet Coke into a famous photograph of inmates at Buchenwald. Someone else has assembled film clips to show that some faintly sadomasochistic images from modern advertising resemble the faintly sadomasochistic images from Nazi propaganda of the past. And thus through all 13 presentations in the show.

Each of the works is accompanied by further statements on posters mounted on the walls, defining the precise moral issues at stake, followed in each case by a one-sentence quotation from a famous author, e.g., Susan Sontag, making a profound and pertinent observation. The great merit of this kind of exhibition is to present famous authors in illustrated versions to people who don't have the time—and who has time, these days?—to read serious books.

It is true that, as I made my way through the exhibition, an elderly couple was reeling in shock at the Zyklon gas canisters decorated with fashionable labels. Fortunately, there were many signs thoughtfully spaced throughout the exhibit hall, reminding the viewers that artistic provocations do sometimes serve the purposes of moral uplift and self-improvement. The apparently impious may well be piety itself. That was definitely the case at the Jewish Museum.

I did appreciate the prints and other works on paper of an Israeli artist named Roee Rosen. The grainy strokes of his charcoal stick and pencil on the even grainier cream-colored paper suggested to me, for the briefest of seconds, the sensual pleasures to be had in seeing certain kinds of art—though even in Rosen's case, the experience was undone by an accompanying text about Hitler's mistress, Eva Braun, and how she and Hitler had sex in their bunker, and how he killed her.

I can understand why state assemblymen and city councilors enjoy getting upset about this kind of exhibition and why other people enjoy getting upset about state assemblymen and city councilors. I can understand why still other people enjoy wandering through the halls lecturing each other on the postmodernist techniques of irony and transgression (though in this case, owing to the helpful signs and the generally reassuring atmosphere of the exhibition, these techniques have been elevated into "irony" and "transgression."). But these pleasures are not for me.

Upstairs from "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art" happens to be a less-celebrated exhibition of paintings by a man named Zoran Music, who spent two years in Dachau. His paintings, on a repeated theme of corpses, use the same brown and gray tones and, in their acrylic ferocity, have the same rough feel as some of the creepy and horrific drawings and prints of Victor Hugo, who was a master of the creepily horrific. More emotion and more thoughtfulness can be found in Zoran Music's repetitive images than in the work of all 13 artists in the featured exhibition down below.

Is that because Music experienced Nazism directly, and the young people of "Mirroring Evil" did not? Or is it because, for reasons of talent and training, Music knows how to think and feel with lines and texture and mass on canvas? The Jewish Museum does not list that question among the deep matters to consider, but the question does seem apropos, and its answer obvious.

Paul Berman, a writer in residence at New York University, is the author of Power and the Idealists.