Managing the Unmanageable

The Jewish Museum Puts a Therapeutic Frame Around Transgressive Art About the Holocaust

For Norman Kleeblatt, the thought of Holocaust survivors weeping at the Jewish Museum last week must be one of the most painful in his 20-year curatorial career. Kleeblatt won't discuss his feelings about the incident, but after all he's the grandson of people who perished in the Holocaust, and now a delegation of their peers was pleading with him to take down several works in the museum's next show. Though the exhibition doesn't open until March 17, after weeks of ceaseless controversy its subject is well known. "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art" documents the latest shift in one of contemporary culture's most enduring themes: our fascination with fascism.

Ever since the 1970s, critics have noted this fixation on what Susan Sontag famously called "fascinating fascism." She was talking about the sexual allure of Nazi iconography, especially in the '70s, a decade that made sadomasochism chic. The SS pinup was the perfect emblem of pop s/m, and Sontag deduced from this connection that fascism is far more effective at tapping into the darker currents of desire than Communism, which, she concluded, just isn't sexy. That may be one of its virtues.

But by now, accessorized swastikas seem, well, quaint. We're so inured to Nazi imagery that it no longer rivets our attention to a lingerie ad. Still, as The Producers attests, we can't let go of such a loaded motif. Every generation sticks its fingers in this irresistible pie, and the cohort of artists who came of age in the 1990s is no exception. "They have a new way of representing evil," Kleeblatt maintains. "These artists make themselves almost childlike, or they make the viewer become a child to look at the work."

"It's the Real Thing: Self Portrait at Buchenwald," part of a Web-based installation by Alan Schechner
photo: Alan Schechner/courtesy the Jewish Museum
"It's the Real Thing: Self Portrait at Buchenwald," part of a Web-based installation by Alan Schechner

"Mirroring Evil" is most notable for its Hitlerian kittens and concentration-camp Lego sets. These toy-like installations, which produce what Kleeblatt calls "a warm and fuzzy feeling," are quite unlike the lurid look of '70s Naziana. That old-school stuff cast the viewer as a desiring victim of dazzling masters, but these new pieces "shift identification from the victim to the perpetrator." What's more, they make the transposition feel playful. Their whimsical attitude is at the heart of the current controversy. It's as if the Studio Museum in Harlem were showing cuddly lynching art—or so it seems to many Holocaust survivors.

"A betrayal" is how Elie Wiesel described the show, and his was one of the more measured responses. "If 'Mirroring Evil' opens as scheduled," wrote Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a founder of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, "loud demonstrations and pickets may be the least of the museum's problems." Militant Jewish groups, along with the Catholic League—which objects to a cross that turns into a swastika (despite the fact that the German term for this infamous symbol is "hooked cross")—may turn America's leading Jewish cultural institution into a battleground. The fallout could linger long after the show closes, since Dov Hikind, the golem of the Jewish right, has entered the fray.

No wonder Kleeblatt and his colleagues have been careful to provide what they call "a frame" for this art. An ambitious series of public events is only one way the museum plans to convey the context of pieces that, Kleeblatt maintains, "work critically in a repulsion-fascination way." The show's catalog contains no fewer than 20 essays explaining the therapeutic and hortatory intentions of this work. According to the authorities, it warns us of evil's presence in our midst, forces us to examine the connections between fascism and commercial culture, and helps us to master an awful event the way children do: by toying with it.

In response to last week's meeting, the museum will sequester the offending pieces and display a sign alongside them denoting the Holocaust survivors' distress. A newly constructed doorway will allow viewers to bypass the Lego lager boxes, the gas canisters inscribed with Chanel, Hermès, and Tiffany logos, and the digitalized photo by a young artist who has inserted himself in the famous photo of emaciated inmates at Buchenwald, holding a glowing can of Diet Coke. This last image is the work of Alan Schechner, who describes it as a response to his experience in the occupying Israeli army. "I wanted to make people aware of the way Holocaust images were being manipulated," he has said, "by manipulating them myself in a way that was blatant and unmistakable."

Schechner also regards his piece as an attempt to convey the futility of imagining himself in the Holocaust. (He lost relatives in the Shoah.) These interpretations echo Kleeblatt's description of such work as "political art." That label lends it a progressive imprimatur, as do the catalog essays. In its need to manage this work, the museum instructs us to regard it as essentially benign. Yet to gaze at the pieces (at least in the catalog) is to encounter a set of intentions that are not at all clear.

There's no way the Jewish Museum could have presented this show without rehabilitating it as shock therapy. But by pinning down the meaning of the art, the museum denies the source of its power. Moral ambiguity is what this aesthetic is all about.

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