Mystical Nazi Sex Gods
Jay Michaelson

The hysterical protests surrounding the Jewish Museum's small and unassuming "Mirroring Evil" exhibit remind me of when I first got into a taxicab after my car accident. The symptoms of trauma are universal, it seems: irrational associations, visceral reactions to stimuli that remind us of our pain, a sense of panic.

Surely this is a generous assessment of the motivations of the Mirroring Evil protesters, many of whom were there to posture. The Holocaust is a useful backdrop for pandering to the simple-minded; though the reductio at hitlerum argument is a joke to critical thinkers, it still works wonders at political rallies. You, too, can learn how to turn the Holocaust to your advantage. First, you pause for a moment, transitioning from whatever mundane topic you were discussing. Then you speak slowly, summoning a familiar phrase of moral indignation. We.. must.. never.. forget.. the lessons of the Holocaust. Never again shall the world remain silent. Never again shall we be complacent in the face of evil. And never shall we tolerate the outrageous disrespect of cultural snobs who trivialize the holocaust in the name of "art"!

It's pretty simple, really. If you're really hard up, get a Professional Holocaust Person -- you know, not Elie Wiesel but an amazing simulation - to orate on the "resonance of memory," the "imperative to remember," that sort of thing. Nod respectfully. Try to muster a tear or two. And feel the power.

I'm sure plenty of the protesters really were offended by the innocuous art inside. I just got back from the exhibit, myself. My first impression: it was small. Took me about twenty minutes, and that was walking slowly, in that deliberate, vaguely mournful pace that you're supposed to adopt at such things. But I guess when it comes to mustering trauma-stoked outrage, it's quality, not quantity, and the subtlety of a Lego concentration camp is probably lost on people who, let's face it, don't really know anything about art.

Traumatized victims don't want art, don't want subtlety or irony - they want kitsch. They want us to be told how to feel, and they want us to obey. A work can be graphic, as long as it is reverential -- Schindler's List and the D.C. Holocaust Museum come to mind, both of which have far more graphic imagery than anything in Mirroring Evil. But if, following Clement Greenberg, art is about independent thought, and kitsch is about fascistic manipulation, don't we trivialize the Holocaust if we insist that it only be depicted in the right, manipulative way?

If anything, I found Mirroring Evil too conservative. I went to the exhibit hoping that the artworks would capture some of the ambiguity of the Holocaust as Artifact, an artifact routinely appropriated for political and social use by survivors, children of survivors, and people who want to pander to survivors. I was hoping there would be works that seriously challenged the notion of Holocaust as sacred cow, as touchstone for all things evil.

But in fact, contrary to the hype, Mirroring Evil mostly left unchallenged the entire notion and iconic status of the Holocaust. This was, to be fair to the Jewish Museum, exactly what the program materials said. The first text the viewer sees is a short essay on the wall stating, flat-out, "This art is not about the Holocaust." Instead, the art is said to be about "how images shape our perception of evil today."

That assessment is accurate, as far as it goes. One of the more pleasant-to-view installations in Mirroring Evil is a video collage by Maciej Toporowicz entitled "Obsession," which juxtaposes Leni Riefenstahl images with those of Calvin Klein commercials from the 1990s. If that work sounds simplistic, it is. Yes, Calvin Klein ads look a bit like Triumph of the Will. Of course, both pay homage to Classical sculpture; CK owes as much to the Parthenon as to the Munich Olympics, if not more. But it's a simple enough statement. Fairly lousy art, I think - it's much more art criticism, or commentary, than actual art - but pretty easy to digest. And, yes, it belongs in an exhibit about how images of evil are echoed or mirrored in art - here, art which makes a glib, superficial comparison between fashion and fascism.

But "Obsession" doesn't touch the Holocaust at all. Like another work, in which a UPC bar code morphs into the stripes of concentration camp uniforms, "Obsession" uses the Nazis as a reference point for evil, the same way Raiders of the Lost Ark did, to make a banal point about commercialism or fashion. Rather than say something interesting about the Nazis' use of beauty, and the complexity of evil married to aestheticism, "Obsession" makes a far simpler point: Fashion is problematic, the work says, because some of its images are eerily reminiscent of the iconography of Evil. Okay. But it is "Obsession" (the artwork) that I want to criticize, because it relies on such a simplistic reduction of the Holocaust. Fashion and fascism fine. Billy Bragg made the point better in a pop song ("Dedicated Follower of Fascism"). I wish "Obsession" would dig deeper, try to express something about what it is that makes the Nazis so alluring, why it is that people can't stop talking about them, or replicating them. Why Jews like to get off on their victimhood, and make everyone else stand around and watch.

image: jon levin
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April 2002

jay's head