Managing the Unmanageable


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.”

“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.

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.

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