Other Voices, v.2, n.2 (March 2002)
Copyright © 2002, the below named, all rights reserved
To the Editors:
A response to the "mirroring evil" debate from an artist/child of survivors
The world has made an incredible effort to memorialize the holocaust. In books, documentaries, monuments, education programs, tours, and museums, the holocaust has been preserved in a multitude of ways. This is a great achievement. It seals the facts in concrete and genuine retellings of history—some temporary, and some permanent. The majority of these worthy projects have two significant things in common: Firstly, they are mostly told from the perspective of survivors, victims or various witnesses to the atrocities. Secondly, they rarely address the most common question relating to the holocaust: "What made human beings capable of such barbaric and murderous behaviour?"
The controversial exhibition at Manhattan's Jewish Museum entitled Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art (March 17, 2002—June 30, 2002) is an attempt to "lead us to question how we understand the appalling forces that produced the holocaust". The various works reveal young artists who are "obsessed with a history that they seem impelled to overcome."
In the recent debate raging around this exhibition, Elie Wiesel speaks of holocaust survivors after the war who "motivated by a desire and need to bear witness for the dead, tried to speak but people refused to listen, opting instead to turn the page." How ironic that it is now subsequent generations, who are finally feeling comfortable enough to express their manifestations of the holocaust in the only ways they can (artistically), who are being refused an audience for these very expressions—if the objectors had their way.
Disappointing is Elie Wiesel's claim that "to turn a tragedy unparalleled in history into a grotesque caricature is not only to rob it of its meaning, but also to turn it into a lie." Surely Elie Wiesel would be the first to accept that the "meaning" of anything, whether it be a piece of art or an historical tragedy, cannot be standardized as a universal rule. Meaning is personal. It is ever changing. And more importantly, meaning is interpretive. As for his comments regarding "a lie," how can a piece of art be a lie unless it overtly proposes a contradictory version of history as fact? It seems that what these artists are attempting to do is put forward their own personal responses to the holocaust, NOT TO DISMISS OR DISRESPECT THE SURVIVORS EXPERIENCE OF IT.
From what I understand regarding this exhibition, none of the works are guilty of this. The older generation has reacted to the concept of a Lego Concentration Camp Set with horror: "it relegates Auschwitz to a game" say some. Amazing how different for example, my initial reaction was to the Lego set. To say the least, I totally related to it. It does not relegate Auschwitz to anything. It has nothing to do with Auschwitz. A Lego Concentration Camp Set is one of the most logical and understandable imaginings of a child who has grown up from the age of six or seven hearing stories of ghettos, mass graves, death camps, and other assorted nasties. I am not profiling the artist here. I am describing myself. And to be honest, I doesn not what the motivation of the actual artist was who created the Lego piece. My reaction to and interpretation of it is what creates the meaning of the work. The beauty of the Lego set is that I do not even have to ever physically see the work or even a pictorial representation of it. The concept, described in four words with absolutely no elaboration, speaks deafening volumes to me.
I have to admit that none of the works that have been described in the current debate have offended my sensibilities—as an artist or as a child of survivors. Why wouldn't the most twisted, hideous, barbaric, unimaginable event of recent human history produce some twisted, hideous, surreal, offensive, misunderstandable, f----- up artistic responses to it.
What Elie Wiesel must face is that he cannot be the creative arbiter of the holocaust when there is a whole new generation of artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers with a whole new holocaust dialogue waiting to be off-loaded onto a whole new public. He cannot dictate what the acceptable creative manifestations of the holocaust should be. There are new voices and hopefully there is a new audience. In an ideal world, even the old audience could come around.
Perhaps the older generation should be grateful that the younger generations are expressing anything remotely or intensely related to the holocaust. Albeit via this "difficult" art exhibition. I wonder if the older generation would prefer another more likely scenario—one where the younger generation do their best to repress, bury, forget, neglect or simply dismiss the holocaust and all its side effects.
Remembrance and respect are not being violated by this exhibition. They are being adhered to more than most survivors care to notice—perhaps will ever be capable of noticing. In order for survivors to accept these types of artistic expressions of the holocaust, they need to first accept something else—something that scares and disturbs them. Namely that their experiences in the ghettos and camps did not end with them. Those experiences carried through to their children and grandchildren and have manifested in all sorts of strange and shocking ways. What the survivors should also understand is that they are not to blame for all this. It is just the way it is.
As a videographer for the Shoah Foundation, I videotaped over 250 survivor testimonies. Having done this work, I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for all survivors. I also understand their difficulty with an exhibition like this. I would hope that this difficulty could be combined with a mutual respect for younger generations, for whom the holocaust has triggered a whole other world of complex reactions and interpretations.
Dear Mr. Raber:
It may of special note to you that during the early stages of this exhibtion's organization, we published a short commentary by Stephen C. Feinstein on Zbigniew Libera's Lego Concentration Camp as part of our February 2000 special issue on genocide. We have taken note of the controversy surrounding this exhibit and have decided to publish a brief set of responses to the show from several artists, critics, and academics. We hope to have this material together and available by the close of the exhibition on June 30, 2002.