Beliefnet
The New York Jewish Museum's "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art" exhibit, which opened March 17, is causing a stir over its presentation of artworks that many deem insensitive to Holocaust survivors. One of the show's most vocal opponents is Thane Rosenbaum, a prominent Jewish novelist and son of Holocaust survivors. Beliefnet's Jonathan Lowet spoke with Rosenbaum about the Holocaust and artistic license, sensitivity to survivors, and the distortion of Holocaust memory.

In the past, you've said that the tragedy of the Holocaust, if it belongs to anyone, belongs to the survivors and victims. What does ownership of the Holocaust imply? What responsibilities come with such ownership?

There's a kind of hierarchical proprietary interest. Let's just look at the World Trade Center, for instance. Clearly, it's more personal to firemen and to bond traders. And for people like me, living on the Upper West Side [of Manhattan], I respect that. While it happened on this island, it claimed the lives of a particular kind of people, and I have much more respect for the feelings of the wives of firemen and of bond traders than for my own opinion.

The Holocaust claimed 11 million lives, 6 million of which were Jews, and when it comes to making art out of this atrocity, really so soon, 50 years later, while there are still survivors alive, their feelings ought to matter more.

Even though we typically grant artists creative license to take aesthetic liberties, there are some places, because they are simply unimaginable, that an artist simply can't take someone to. It's sheer arrogance to think otherwise. Some acts of atrocity are on such an enormous scale that they are like Mount Sinai experiences. They're moments of revelation that you treat like a sacred fire.

The Holocaust and other events of genocide -- the Middle Passage, for example, the delivery of Africans to the West -- these are things that, when subjected to artistic treatment, have to be done with great faithfulness, fidelity, respect, and humility. The people for whom these events are most personal -- the people who have the most intimate knowledge of these tragedies -- their feelings should simply matter more.

Is it that the exhibit is simply ahead of its time? In another 20 or 30 years, when the last Holocaust survivor has died, will it be more acceptable then?

"Ahead of its time" assumes that this exhibit has value that we just can't see right now. But even the Jewish museum isn't saying this exhibit has aesthetic value, which to me is the most appalling position of all. They say they're displaying something that has found its way into the culture somehow and that this stuff conveys some kind of important political message. Who knows what the message is? The commercialization of the Holocaust? I thought art museums, by definition, were in the business of promoting art, not purely political messages.

Even if we could take the position that there is aesthetic value here -- which I don't think we can if even the museum doesn't see it -- then this political message being expressed by these artists is just indecently premature. [Simple human decency demands that they wait] until survivors die out -- and that's still 20 years away. And, look, there are people who say the children of survivors shouldn't be subjected to this.

I'm sort of surprised -- maybe I shouldn't be given the rapidness and fluidness of our culture -- that these images are with us so soon. I thought you'd need 100 years before these kinds of desecrating acts would be seen as appropriate.

Is the whole exhibit insensitive or is it just specific pieces that you think cross a line?

Well, I making pretty much a full indictment of the show, because the specific pieces are just so transgressive that they essentially contaminate everything in the museum. I'm thinking about the LEGO Concentration Camp Set, the Giftgas Giftset that features Zyklon-B canisters , the Prada Deathcamp, the doctored photo at Buchenwald..

What each of these pieces do is take the very instruments of death -- the death camps, Zyklon-B -- themselves very unambiguous morally, and somehow re-imagines, reconfigures them in a way that attempts to make some other, morally-ambiguous statement.

But the Nazis had no ambiguity to what they were about. There's no nuance to what the camps were for. So to trivialize them and reduce them to a children's building blocks game -- "After all, how horrific could it be if a kid could make it?" It seems to mislead, distort, trivialize, desecrate a place that really should have a much holier, sacrosanct position in our moral universe.

It's not that I don't think you can make Holocaust art. All I'm saying is this: If you're going to make it, I don't think you should ever desecrate instruments of death or desecrate symbols or try to make art out of what is otherwise unimaginable, like the death camps or the gas chambers. And if you have to make art, if you can separate yourself so that you don't do the acts of desecration, make sure that the message is unambiguous, that you really have some fidelity to the moment.

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