Exhibition challenges our ideas about evil

February 15, 2002|By Ellen Handler Spitz

SINCE WORLD War II ended in 1945, the images of atrocity that once shocked the world -- emaciated bodies with hollow eyes, piles of shoes, eyeglasses -- have, deplorably, over the intervening decades been assimilated into our popular culture of fiction, film, television, even the entertainment industry.

Repeated and mingled with other images, they have been subject to a wearing-away process so that some of their power to disquiet us has been eroded. Yet we must never become complacent; we must never forget what happened.

The Holocaust is a subject that cannot be treated at all without risk of offense. Yet it is a subject that must be treated, despite that hazard, and always in new ways as the years go by. To refuse to address it would be to blanket it with the silence of forgetfulness, and that would be unforgivable.

A new generation of artists growing up in this country, in Europe and in Israel -- the children and grandchildren of bystanders and perpetrators as well as victims -- has been marked by the aftermath of that period and continues to tremble from its seismic reverberations.

These artists have discovered ways of stunning us back into its horror.

Their methods are parody, irony and an ironic appropriation of Nazi images. They make use of grim analogies and force us against our will to look hard at aspects of our own contemporary life.

Mirroring Evil: Nazi Images/Recent Art is an exhibit that showcases the work of 13 of these artists, only four of them Jewish. It will open at the Jewish Museum in New York on March 17.

In advance of its opening, articles have appeared in the national press attacking the show and claiming that it insults survivors and their offspring. The Jewish Museum has been accused of a lapse of judgment in allowing the works to be shown. Critics have implied that, with anti-Semitism on the rise worldwide, the timing of the show is imprudent and offensive.

Critics of the show have complained that, unlike previous exhibits on the Holocaust, which have drawn attention to the innocent victims of terror and to all that was forever lost, these artworks turn to the persecutors -- to Nazi faces and symbols of power, to notoriously effective Nazi propaganda techniques.

Visitors to the exhibit, instead of experiencing empathy and a need to mourn, may well be appalled by such images and the disturbing questions they raise about our own complicity with forces of mass persuasion that operate in contemporary life, questions about what forms of moral ambiguity we tolerate.

The artworks in this show unnerve us because they vex our easy complacency and our sense of righteousness.

Yet the work chosen by the Jewish Museum is perhaps more timely now than before Sept. 11, for we are now directly concerned with the causes of violence.

By showing us the faces of handsome Hollywood actors who have played the part of Nazis, by making us notice how children's toys can be perverted into games of destruction, by compelling us to see that mass advertising can shade into propaganda, the art chosen for this exhibit offends us more than it does the survivors of the camps.

It holds up its unwelcome mirror to our faces and asks us to confront our own disavowed capacities for viciousness, hatred and indifference.

Take, for example, an installation work called "Hitler's Cabinet," in which a huge cross mounted on a table is turned into a swastika by light projections from above. This is a piece that evokes our own culpability with regard to racism, for it constitutes an inescapable reference not only to Nazi terror but also to the terror perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan.

For me, the Jewish Museum should be presenting this art, and, in fact, is the only safe space in which to do so. It is the only place where I could bear looking at it, where I could stand still and face the terrible questions it asks.

Curator Norman L. Kleeblatt (author of The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth and Justice); Joan Rosenbaum, the museum's highly respected director; as well as the distinguished group of scholars who have worked together for the past two years to create this show, deserve to be trusted, as do the artists.

Moreover, no museum exhibit is merely the sum of its parts. It is never just the works themselves but the ways in which they are exhibited, the context in which they are intended to be viewed, that constitute the educational experience.

Mirroring Evil is an exhibit that refuses to let us take the easy path of empathizing with the victims while externalizing our own aggression. It refuses to let us divide the world neatly into two camps. We all know where that kind of thinking leads.

Ellen Handler Spitz is professor of visual arts in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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