Managing the Unmanageable

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

In the '70s, it was easy to critique pop fascism—almost as easy as it was to enjoy it. What's more, as Laura Frost notes in her revelatory new book, Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism, postwar Nazi chic had less to do with the real thing than with liberalism's "powerful investments in . . . defining proper and deviant desire." The connection between fascism and perversity is itself a fantasy, Frost explains, since the actual Nazis were puritanical and radically detached. Their relationship to their victims was not at all like the intimate possibilities that can exist in s/m. Ascribing the bond between sexual master and slave to this emblem of evil was a very effective way to condemn sadomasochistic impulses (and for that matter, to make them even hotter). No wonder the '70s, with their deeply ambivalent fixation on transgressive sexuality, were also the heyday of Nazi chic.

That was then and this is now. The first thing you notice about the images in the Jewish Museum show is how few of them are erotic. It's even more remarkable when you consider that fascist imagery is still heavily sexualized in pop culture. The latest round of Hitler books—speculating that he was gay, impotent, or a child molester—shows how enduring the connection between kinkiness and Nazism remains. But not, for the most part, in this art.

"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

That may reflect the particular choices Kleeblatt made, but it's also true that art is far more regulated than entertainment, certainly when it comes to major museum shows. As Kleeblatt says, we've declared galleries "sacred spaces." That's a very consequential designation, since it means that the arena of complex visual thought is heavily policed while the flatter terrain of pop culture is wide open. The result is its own banality of evil. The Producers passes for transgressive when it's actually comforting, allowing its audience to laugh at the Nazis. In "Mirroring Evil," we laugh with the Nazis.

But the most radical aspect of this show is its aura. "It's cold art," says Frost. "A lot of the work in the '70s was meant to evoke a strong response, but these are very distant, in a sense. And you can say that their detachment is even more frightening. Over and over again in the catalog it says that Nazism is the ultimate signifier of evil, but if we say that, we also have to acknowledge that there's a space between the signifier and reality—and I think that's increasingly true as time passes. Maybe that's what scares us: The signifier of fascism is becoming so mobile that it's getting connected to logos and Legos."

This is a more complex reading of "Mirroring Evil" than the simple claim that it warns us about the totalitarian potential of commercial culture. To see an image of concentration camp inmates graced with bar codes is to confront the fleeting nature of our knowledge about evil. So perhaps the true affect of this show is melancholy. But to conclude that is to assume there is a single attitude in these works, and a constructive one at that. In fact, their power lies in their ability to sustain multiple interpretations, some much darker than the Jewish Museum would like. What's the difference between a toy concentration camp and a video game that invites the player to slaughter Jews? Only the fact that one carries the progressive credentials of art while the other is being sold online by a neo-Nazi group. But this distinction is not inherent in the things themselves.

The mark of postmodernism is its production of objects that shimmer with ambiguity. They transgress even as they critique transgression; they delight even as they disturb because they please. These works can't be said to have a moral meaning, so when their therapeutic purpose is proclaimed by artist and critic alike, that official reading is only one of many. Take the Lego concentration camp. It can be read as a trivialization of the Holocaust or "a critique of how Hitler came to power," as Frost suggests. But there's a third possibility, one that often applies to pomo art: The work is sadistic. Indeed, the best pieces in this show can be seen as a laugh at the expense of pain, and their impact may well depend on the existence of horrified witnesses to the event they represent.

What about the fact that many of these artists are Jewish and in some cases descendants of Holocaust survivors? Doesn't that preclude the possibility of a sadistic intent? Hardly. Any student of oedipal psychology can grasp the thrill of "killing" your father by identifying with the perpetrators of the crime that shaped his generation. To consider this is not to condemn the Jewish Museum or deny the legitimacy of the art in "Mirroring Evil." But it does put the spectacle of the offended in a different light. Perhaps the tears, the threats, and even the door through which a fragile viewer can escape are built into these works.

The response to the show also seems built in: The media sponsor a debate between enraged protesters and enlightened champions who insist that transgressive art is good for us. But what if we disrupt this all too pat duality? What if we honor the people who can't bear this show even as we rush to see it? What if we violate the central rule of postmodernism by collapsing the distance it commands? If "Mirroring Evil" is what its champions claim, that's precisely what will occur. The art will force us to feel the victim's pain.

Research: Stephen Desroches

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