History's Burden

Is the horror of the Holocaust beyond the reach of art?

From artists who take as their subject the Holocaust, viewers demand a great deal. We demand that the Holocaust not be trivialized, universalized, aestheticized or used as a metaphor. Because the Holocaust is not simply another tragedy, it cannot be treated like one. And because the trivial, the universal, the metaphorical and especially the aesthetic are broadly defined, artists who deal with the Holocaust are almost always under suspicion.

That may be why "Witness and Legacy: Contemporary Art About the Holocaust," now on view at the Blaffer Gallery, takes shelter in accepted modes of Holocaust art. However, discussion of the Holocaust in both art and scholarship has progressed far beyond what's seen in this unwieldy exhibit, which originated at the Minnesota Museum of American Art. To deal with one of the most particular examples of horror in human history, the installations, paintings, photographs, sculptures and videos use only the most orthodox responses -- responses that have become cliches. "Witness and Legacy" is mostly made up of the worst kind of victim art: third-rate victim art. "Sorry," I felt like saying after a lengthy browse at the Blaffer, "I gave at the office."

The most egregious example of didacticism is Edith Altman's Reclaiming the Symbol/The Art of Memory. Looking rather like a large science fair project, Altman's installation includes a number of large placards detailing the "History," "Definition," "Occult Meaning" and other aspects of the swastika. Next to a nine-foot swastika (with its arms pointing in the traditional, pre-Nazi direction), she reproduces several pages from an 1894 report on the symbol. The next wall is devoted to a regimented display of the triangular badges that the Nazis used to categorize what they considered society's undesirables. Even if by some small miracle I were moved to read all the text in this dryly indulgent display, I suspect I would hardly be enlightened -- particularly not when it contains such observations as "The shadow or dark side of our ego is exposed to COLLECTIVE INFECTIONS to a much greater extent than is the conscious personality...."

Still other installations, such as Gerda Meyer-Bernstein's barbed-wire-lined "Shrine" and Pearl Hirshfield's dark corridor featuring "authentic" tattoo numbers painted on mirrors so that they (gasp!) look like they're on your own skin, fail miserably at approximating the experience of "being there." In fact, the artists would probably admit that such a simulation is impossible to achieve -- part of making art about the Holocaust is declaring its inadequacy -- though if that's the case, then neither installation has much point.

There isn't much in the show that a history museum couldn't do more effectively. After all, what is seeing a painting of a pile of confiscated eyeglasses compared with seeing a roomful of the actual shoes of dead Jews? Still, at the Blaffer the need to report and record is pumped to a high pitch. Perhaps in response to revisionists who have denied the Holocaust ever happened, artist Gabrielle Rossmer supplements her stiffened-gauze sculptures of empty clothes with a "Document Wall" of 66 papers documenting her family (with a tape-recorded, airline stewardessstyle description of each) and photographs transferred onto rectangles of plaster to make them look more like art and less like what they are -- evidence.

Such proof is deemed important, because by its very nature victim art privileges experience above ability, and at this exhibit it's no different. The show has three tiers of artists: Holocaust survivors above the rest, then children of Holocaust survivors and, at the bottom, interested third parties. In a tacit admission of this hierarchy, the catalog essay dutifully devotes two lengthy paragraphs to members of the first category, slightly shorter paragraphs to members of the second and measly one-paragraph notes to members of the third. Predictably, the degree of Holocaust experience has no bearing on the quality of the art produced -- in fact, the work of survivors such as Netty Vanderpol, for whom "every stitch" of her needlepoints of barbed wire and Jewish stars "is a memory," is far more therapeutic for the artist than it is interesting to the viewer. And despite the historical significance of the subject, art about the Holocaust is not excused from having to be interesting.

The only artist for whom the catalog's formula deviates is Art Spiegelman, whose comic-book opus Maus, which takes the Holocaust as its theme and depicts Jews as mice and S.S. men as cats, has been widely praised. A few original drawings from Maus are on display, and the catalog allots a little extra space to the question of whether or not Spiegelman's work -- the most interesting in the show -- is actually art. Sadly, the catalog essay ultimately fails to defend it as such.

One of the reason's Spiegelman's work is so successful is that he presents the story of the Holocaust with both specificity -- he traces his father's story in unrelenting detail -- and distance. In contrast, much of the art in this show is leaden with a weighty moral tone, and though that's certainly justified, it's not particularly effective at provoking a genuine response from viewers. The work that does produce a response does so through its documentary, not artistic, strength; Jeffery Wolin's photographs of survivors with their stories superimposed on them, or Pier Marton's videotaped interviews with children of survivors, shown in a cattle-car-like environment, are two examples.

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