Popular Culture and Jewish Realism: The Jewish Museum in New York City. (Arts and Letters)

By Thaler, Henri Lustiger | Midstream, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Popular Culture and Jewish Realism: The Jewish Museum in New York City. (Arts and Letters)


Thaler, Henri Lustiger, Midstream


Jewish history and representation are dangerous things to tinker with. Intellectuals and artists who address them walk a thin line between a broad spectrum of claims to truth and a precipitous descent into the annals of popular culture. Those gravitating to the latter are mostly interested in breaking new ground: combining prevailing fashions, trends, and identities (in this case Jewish ethnicity) with cultural critique. These pop cultural attempts become either banal (see the Whitney Biennial 2002 retrospective), unimportant, or culturally relevant.

The Jewish Museum in New York City chose, some months ago, a controversial approach to the pivotal event in modern Jewish history and representation, The Final Solution. The exhibition was called Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art. The pieces involved were entitled, "Prada Death Camp," "Lego Concentration Camp Set," and the list goes on. No limits to irreverence here. The reaction from the Jewish and larger community was immediate and critical. The response from Jewish scholars and others was generally mixed, depending on their analytical schools of thought, and, interestingly, new generational adherence. Many of the commentators in the controversial catalogue came from the latter group, for example, the Holocaust literary scholar James Young. The controversy that began almost two months before the actual opening of the show in New York on March 17, 2002, proved to be the most memorable component of the exhibit, which has in contrast become somewhat of a sleeper.

Since the opening, few reviews have appeared in the American or European press. Those that have reviewed the show mostly signaled to their readers: mediocre art for a complex subject. The debate, however, was most instructive. It exposed a broad audience to a conflict--in the "new history" and other literary fields--regarding narrative and visual claims to representation that have found their way into artful representation. The Holocaust is a tempting subject for these genres, because of its absolute extremity in the actual living testimony. The problem with this exhibit was not so much its revealing the moral bankruptcy of the new interpretative crafts--though it is suggestive of it--as to demonstrate that when mixed with curatorial ambivalence, the results can be ethically lethal.

It is most ironic that an exhibit of this sort, in a Jewish museum, arrives at a time of renewed antisemitic attacks in Europe. The juxtaposition of the relativism of the exhibit--conflating representations of perpetrators and Jews--and Jewish realism is an eye-opener within the totality of current events. The lesson is: let us not discard the representation of the victims of antisemitism too quickly. Recent occurrences in Germany and France highlight the continuing volatility of the Jewish relationship to the modern world. In the universe of cause and effect, Jews have proven once again to be the quintessential "other." Islamic fundamentalism has merely globalized an old European habit.

Representational symbols of Jews and Nazis, the subject of the exhibit, are never far from our collective consciousness. They have become cemented as opposing archetypes. So much so, that in many recent pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Europe and abroad, Ariel Sharon is often depicted as a Nazi, hence using the innate power of the Nazi/Jewish archetype against the depiction of the original victim. Nazism has come to symbolize the deepest descent of Europe, the negation of community. These symbols have left in their detritus a complex cultural option about the rules of civilization, at least in Europe, with which the cultural and political treatment of Jews is very much associated.

Since the post-war period, this has expressed itself through a ritualistic dual approach. There is a European consensus surrounding the treatment of Jewish sensitivities. Much of this resides within the state, particularly the German state. …

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