A year ago, James Young, professor of English and Holocaust studies, warned at a conference that artists were starting to become seduced by the Holocaust as a subject for art.
“My concern is that some of this new art is more interested in its own style than the actual event,” he said, talking about both literary and fine arts. “Is the Holocaust only a source of energy, perhaps, for the artists’ own work?” And if so, he continued, “Is such attraction to the Holocaust part of a desire to remember the event, or is it a kind of extension of it?”
Young is at one end of the spectrum perhaps. As is Cynthia Ozick, who believes that artists shouldn’t take on the Holocaust at all, although she herself has famously — and brilliantly — broken this rule.
At the other end of the spectrum are the artists in the upcoming, already infamous Jewish Museum show “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art,” as well as the Swiss gentile author of the Holocaust “memoir” “Fragments,” whom Blake Eskin has just unmade in his riveting book “A Life in Pieces: The Making and Unmaking of Binjamin Wilkomirski” (Norton).
What strikes me having read “Fragments” and Eskin’s biography, and having read about the show and seen photographs of The Jewish Museum work, is that Young’s comment is probably correct, but also probably irrelevant. For as survivors die out, and as the Holocaust becomes part of the collective unconscious of the world at large, artists will continue to strip the Holocaust of its moorings in time and place.
The Jewish Museum show may hasten this development. The exhibit presents recent Holocaust-related art that crosses many moral “red lines.” Some of the art suggests the glamour of being a Nazi, as in a montage of photographs of famous actors playing Nazis in the movies. Other works, like a famous picture of prisoners at Buchenwald with the artist’s face and a Coke can airbrushed in, suggest the glamour of being a victim. While there is certainly a much more sophisticated intent for the art, its power is less about making us think, and more about making us feel. Art about the Holocaust that is too arch will mostly inspire and anger, as opposed to presenting a cogent, nuanced argument.
I make this distinction, and come down hard on what I’ve seen of the show so far, in part because of a strangely complementary show opening elsewhere in New York of the photographs from Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
In her landmark film about the Nuremberg rally in 1934, “Triumph of the Will,” Riefenstahl, Hitler’s filmmaker, created an image of German power, style and cultural and spiritual superiority that, even today, can momentarily excite a viewer as to the Nazis’ project. This is art of genius, and the response to it has nothing to do with morality or politics.
Let’s not forget the Wilkomirski case. In 1995 Binjamin Wilkomirski published a short memoir called “Fragments,” which won the National Jewish Book Award and many international literary prizes. It was the story of a non-Jewish Swiss clarinetist, adopted as a child, who had “recovered” memories of being born in Riga and having been deported to Auschwitz. It turns out that he more or less made the whole thing up, although Bruno Doessekker continues to maintain he is Binjamin Wilkomirski.
If Doessekker is sincere, then he is an example of how the Holocaust has clearly penetrated into people’s fantasy lives. Here is a Swiss kid who grew up in a dysfunctional home, but finds his artistic voice only when superimposing his life on a Holocaust paradigm. He creates an autobiographical work of art in which he truly believes himself to be a holy victim, Christ-like perhaps, suffering for the rest of humanity, and perhaps deserving the same degree of adulation. To have been a young boy during all this adds another layer, since to be an unspeaking, uncomprehending child survivor of Auschwitz has become the archetype of the disjointed, brutalized, nationless identity of the modern age.
If Doessekker made the story up, it still reflects the connection he feels to the Holocaust as the key to his literary vision — else why go through all of that trouble?
Eskin quotes another author and active member of a child survivor network who, like Wilkomirski, completely reinvented herself as a camp survivor: “For myself, the Holocaust is about individual suffering. I think only the individual can decide if he/she is a survivor.”
As Eskin explains, her argument suggests that the Holocaust is, or could become, an entirely subjective experience. This might be OK for a survivor writing a novel. But for a writer pretending to be a survivor? If so, then there are no more red lines for artists to cross.
Things go better with Coke? Distortion of Buchenwald photo suggests glamour of victimhood.
Daniel Schifrin’s column appears the fourth week of the month.