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.

What about the location of the exhibit? Does showing these works at the Jewish Museum put it into a more meaningful context?

It makes it worse. The reality is that the Jewish Museum's moral obligation ought to be higher, because they should have a much more profound sensitivity to the pain that their own community has suffered.

I'm not questioning an artist's ability to challenge or question somebody's beliefs or to get into the area of what is otherwise profane. This exhibit isn't even like the Brooklyn Museum's Sensation show. To me, it's strikingly different; it isn't challenging someone's political or spiritual beliefs.

This is really, simply causing pain to a community that has suffered enough. It is mocking their pain. This is just very different. In some ways, I agreed with Catholics in the Sensation show. But the Jewish Museum show is morally so much worse because this isn't a question of arguing abstract beliefs.

If tomorrow a performance artist went to the site of Ground Zero and did a performance piece in which he mocks the last-moment suffering of firemen and bond traders just as the building were about to collapse, everyone in America would repudiate it on moral grounds and subject it to moral censure. If we simply mocked someone's pain, if we trivialized it, we took something that is otherwise unimaginable and turned it into something, changed its character so that it was confusing, distorting, trivializing, everybody -- not just the widows of firemen and bond traders -- everybody would be disgusted and up at arms.

If it can't be authentically reproduced as what it is -- which it can't. Why? It's unimaginable -- then leave it alone. Subject it to documentary evidence. Subject it to memoir testimony. But to reinvent, reconstruct, re-imagine it into something that is distorting, misleading, trivializing is immoral.

The people who wrote the essays in the exhibit catalogue obviously believe this exhibit has merit.

You know, these people who wrote, many of who are Ph.D.s, highly versed in the concept of genocide, tremendously otherwise sensitive to Holocaust issues, they're not survivors. These are people who are academics, in many ways extremely intelligent and well-intentioned. You're referring to scholars who know everything that's happened. For them this is a luxury. But museums aren't about the .001 percent of the population that knows the Holocaust cold, who have read everything.

The vast majority of people are simply not as steeped in this kind of material. They only have a very peripheral, surface, shallow understanding of what happened. They'll only look at this. And "this" -- what the museum is leading them to -- is a desecration. The one thing they'll learn is this.

You're putting a very high level of educational responsibility on the Jewish Museum. It seems like a higher level than you'd place on a different art museum.

Damn right. The Holocaust is simply different. Genocide is simply different.

If you walk out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and you're clueless about what that was all about, it's not in any way an immoral act. You can walk away without a proper grounding in, say, surrealism and go off and have lunch some place.

On the other hand, if you were to walk out of the Jewish Museum and say, "So that was the Holocaust? Huh! I got it. Now let's go downtown and have lunch in the Village. Now that I've figured out the Holocaust. You know, I didn't really know much about it. I'd read 'Anne Frank' when I was in school. And thank you, Jewish Museum. Let's go downtown now. Let's go check out a movie." That's a moral crime.

Are you planning on going to see the exhibit?

Absolutely not. That only plays into the presumptions of what the museum is asking. "Come. Engage. Look at it on the wall. It'll change your mind." All I'm interested in is this: This is alleged art that will cause pain in a community that has already suffered enough. That's it. There's nothing that, if I look at the wall, I'll say, "Oh, I see. It doesn't cause as much pain." I won't honor that moment, because I know that it causes pain.

How do you respond to those who say that this exhibit will serve to reinvigorate discussion about a topic that is growing increasingly distant?

Nonsense. The Holocaust has never been more front and center in the cultural imagination. There have been more books written about it in recent years, more magazine articles, more documentaries. There is a long record of distinguished creation of art, history, philosophy, theology.. We certainly don't need this show to reinvigorate discussion.

This is perhaps the third major pop culture depiction of the Holocaust to hit New York in recent years: The film "Life is Beautiful," the Broadway show "The Producers," and now the Jewish Museum exhibit. Are any of these things more dangerous than the other?

"Life is Beautiful" and the Jewish Museum show are Chang and Eng; they are Siamese twins, sprung from the same womb. "The Producers," on the other hand, is an altogether different experience that I have much more mixed feelings about.

"The Producers" is a post-Holocaust experience in which the very conceit says that trivializing the Nazis and what they were about is prima facie offensive and morally repugnant.and therefore no one will come to see the show. That's Mel Brooks' conceit, right? You want to piss people off? Want to give them something revolting? Do a musical about Nazis.

And it works [in the show within the show] because there's nothing musical about Nazis. They're serious, lethal characters. Evil, in George Bush terms of evil: unredemptive evil, no complexity. I think that The Producers movie made this point more strongly and that the musical has less of the political edge -- it's more of a gay romp.and funny and cute -- and that's a little distressing. But the show's conceit is not changing the character of the Holocaust and that, to me, is a very different message.

"Life is Beautiful" is unbelievably transgressive because it actually takes the camp itself in real time -- it's not a post-Holocaust moment -- and turns it into a place called Life is Beautiful. There's nothing beautiful about camps; they were simply places of mass murder. These were not places where fathers could protect children by reinventing the experience as a game. These were not places where 9-year-old children were stupid enough to believe they were in a game. Believe me, the kids went up in smoke pretty quick. They didn't have any sense of "Oh, yeah, this is all about getting a tank at the end." These were not places where people hijacked a microphone to send a birthday message to their wives. Nothing like that happened. So for people to go to a movie like that -- and get such an altogether different impression of what the camps were about -- is a moral desecration.

The Jewish Museum exhibit, different in tone, is largely the same. It takes the very instruments of death -- items of such lethal character -- and transforms them for the smug amusement of aesthetes and intelligentsia.

When "Life Is Beautiful" was released, you wrote: "The fear that I have is no longer from Holocaust deniers. It's from those who will intellectually dilute the event."

That prophecy has become painfully true. And it's getting worse. This [exhibit] is a good example of it. You think I'm worried about some kids in Montana who are neo-Nazis? I'm not worried about them. Those guys were always clowns. Who I'm worried about is people like [exhibit curator Norman] Kleeblatt. To me, he's dangerous.

I guess it's inevitable that society would do an exhibit like this 100 years from now, 200 years from now.and then we would put it into the category of historical amnesia. I'm just surprised that it's happening so soon. I thought that moral desecrations happen hundreds of years later, when people are just so inert. You know what it is then? There's no tissue, no texture -- because there's nobody alive. There's not even any fourth generation or fifth generation or sixth generation. It's so remote. But the idea that these things are happening within the lives of these survivors is mind-boggling to me. That the Jewish Museum would be complicit in this is completely mind-boggling.

If this exhibit had to be mounted sometime in the next 30 years, isn't it better that it gets mounted now? It's hard to imagine people going to the museum without knowing about the controversy -- seeing articles in newspapers and magazine, talking about it at temple and the dinner table. The exhibit is in a context. There is a more likely rebuttal to come out now than if the exhibition was delayed.

That's really the most original thing I've heard. It's the only thing that makes me go, "Hmmm.that makes sense." The reason for that is, there are really intelligent, thoughtful people who know what to say about it, against it. And that may not be true in 30 years.

I think that what you do have now are very articulate people who have thought a lot about Holocaust art, who can challenge and, ultimately, make the case for what's wrong with this stuff. And maybe 30 years from now that may not be true. I don't know.

But that line of reasoning also plays into what the museum wants: "Come in and let's have this debate."

And it opens up the floodgates, right? Because if the Jewish Museum can do it...

Absolutely. It opens the door for all kinds of desecrations. It basically says this is ok. That recent experience with the guy who was making Mengele dolls? In my opinion, the best thing that he can ever say is, "How is this really different from what the Jewish Museum is doing? Why are you after me?"

How does your being an essayist and a novelist fit you into this whole debate?

I travel around the country talking about Anne Frank and Schindler's List and people always asked me what do these images mean and what should they mean to us as symbols and how are we to interpret them. And so I have a kind of credibility in this way. But I think the deeper credibility -- it's not just that I've become an essayist on post-Holocaust art; it's that I'm a novelist who writes about the post-Holocaust. It's not like I'm someone who doesn't understand art or doesn't really understand what it is to live in the world of the creative process and the imagination.

I should be on the side with these so-called artists. But I'm not.because I just see this as something that's worthy of something more respectful and holy than my imagination. As a novelist, I still think that artists have obligations to show judgment and respect and discretion.

It goes back to the question of who owns the Holocaust. Don't we have an obligation to 11 million people who were killed, 6 million of whom were Jews, and all the survivors, that if we have to tell the story through art, we'll actually tell the story? That's a moral obligation: keeping stories alive; making sure people's pain is acknowledged. That's a moral obligation we have for all people -- that we don't ignore their pain or suffering and we don't neglect them. And we don't alter or trivialize what happened to them.

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