Art about Nazis: insight, buzz, hurtfulness

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Boxes of Lego blocks labeled as suitable for building miniature concentration camps. Simulated poison-gas canisters adorned with Tiffany and Chanel logos, dubbed the "Giftgas Giftset." A digitally manipulated photo of the artist holding a can of Diet Coke inserted into a historical photo of gaunt prisoners at the Buchenwald death camp.

What's going on here? Mass murder turned into children's toys and chic luxury goods? Are such works of art beyond the bounds of decency?

With these questions, the art world is again embroiled in a free-speech versus public-decency debate - this time over an exhibition that uses symbols of Nazism opening March 17 at The Jewish Museum here. "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Work," with works by 13 contemporary artists from the US, Europe, and Israel, has led some, including Holocaust survivors, to berate the museum for showcasing these potentially offensive works. So far, the arguments mirror those widely aired when the controversial show "Sensation" opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999.

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It's also driven a wedge into the Jewish community between those who say fresh approaches are needed to reveal new insights into Nazi atrocities, and those who say the works bring unnecessary pain to Holocaust survivors and their families.

Defenders of the show rationally argue for the need to show art that is hard to view. Protests have come from prominent figures, such as Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. But they have emanated mainly from survivors and their families, who react with raw emotion.

"I cannot understand why the Jewish Museum would show such art. It's demeaning to us survivors...," says Ernest Michel, executive vice president emeritus of United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York.

In organizing the show, the museum staff consulted scholars, some Holocaust survivors, and Jewish leaders, mostly in upper-crust Manhattan. They overlooked the largest concentration of Holocaust survivors and their children outside Israel, who live in the humble Brooklyn neighborhoods of Midwood and Borough Park. Though the show has been announced for months, and the catalog of images has been available, it wasn't until a Feb. 27 meeting that the museum staff first heard the survivors' anguish.

They "hadn't talked to real people like these from the outer boroughs, just to intellectuals," says State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, whose parents survived the Nazi concentration camps. "Holocaust survivors in their 70s and 80s are truly pained by this exhibit. These people went through hell. Why cause them additional pain?"

City Councilman Simcha Felder, who represents a heavily Jewish district in Brooklyn, says the Holocaust survivors wept and pled their case at the meeting.

"This wasn't an intellectual discussion," Mr. Felder says. "It wasn't about 'What is art?' but about human beings and the hurt they felt."

The survivors called on the museum to remove the most offensive works from the show. On March 1, museum director Joan Rosenbaum announced that "the museum will restrict access to some artworks in the exhibition" and will post a warning to visitors that some Holocaust survivors find the works disturbing.

The compromise does not seem likely to satisfy opponents. The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors unanimously has approved a resolution to boycott the show, and a conservative youth organization, Young Americans for Freedom, advocates canceling it.

"There's such a thing as intellectual anthrax," says Menachem Rosensaft, founder of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. "The exhibition ridicules the Holocaust and desecrates Holocaust imagery."

But asking viewers to see through Nazi eyes, to find their "inner Nazi," in a sense, also "raises issues about the seductive appeal of Nazi ideology and aesthetics then and now," counters museum consultant Reesa Greenberg. "It's frightening to acknowledge [the appeal] was there and might still be here."

"The show deals with absolute obscenities, [but] in the interest of understanding," says Shelley Hornstein, associate professor of art and architectural history at York University in Toronto, who has seen the works.

Ironically, says Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, "The artists involved and those most opposed actually agree." The protesters do not grasp that the artists are just as aghast at the misuse of Holocaust imagery as they, he says.

"Both are obsessed with the trivialization of the Holocaust...," he says. "The artists are terrified at how Nazi imagery is so powerfully charged and profoundly attractive today, when it's used in Hollywood, commercials, and video games."

The artists are also disturbed by how desensitized we've become, says Stephen Feinstein, director of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, who also has seen the works in the show. Traditional images that should provoke us to horror have become banal, commercialized, and commodified. "If it's everywhere, it's nowhere," Professor Feinstein says.

But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, says it is a desire for box-office receipts that has brought about the controversial show. It's a kind of "Son of the Brooklyn Museum," he says, referring to the 1999 "Sensation" show that generated large crowds and national publicity.

One lesson of the Holocaust, says James Young, an expert on Holocaust memorials at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is that there's "no final solution" to the questions surrounding the Holocaust.

"It's better to address [the] questions, even though they make us uncomfortable, than for them to lie hidden," he says.

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