"Mirroring Evil": It's Only Nazis

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One sure sign that things have returned to normal after Sept. 11 is the newest, distressingly repetitive installment of the culture wars being played out over yet another "scandalous" art show. In the fractious vein of "The Perfect Moment," Robert Mapplethorpe's raunchy 1989 retrospective, the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" and Hans Haacke's Republican-bashing installation at the 2000 Whitney Biennial, the Jewish Museum's exhibition "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art" has piqued the ire of a vocal minority while replaying, once again, the central misunderstanding that dogs relations between artists, museums and the American public. Namely, the notion that people should be morally ennobled?as opposed to pleased, prodded, amused or even annoyed?by contact with works of art.

"The enjoyment of beauty is dependent on, and in ratio with, the moral excellence of the individual," wrote the editor of The Crayon, New York's main art magazine of the 1850s. "We have assumed that Art is an elevating power, that it has in itself a spirit of morality." One hundred and fifty years later, some of the same straitlaced logic determines public discourse on the arts in this country. Growing out of America's founding Puritanism and taking taciturn, pious shape throughout the different eras of our history?from the age of the Romantic Sublime to the canonization of the European avant-garde by the Museum of Modern Art and beyond?the nation's moralizing streak casts a long, priestly shadow over art and its public reception. The recent exhibition at the Jewish Museum is only the latest case in point.

Savaged months before its inauguration in places like the op-ed section of The New York Times, "Mirroring Evil," an exhibition of 13 youngish conceptual artists who use imagery taken from the Nazi era in their works, opened to the public to surprisingly temperate reviews. Except for a curmudgeonly diatribe by the Times' Michael Kimmelman, critical reception following the show was composed, oddly tame; one might even say it was nonplussed. A large journalistic question mark hovered over the entire affair. What, after all, was the fuss really about?

On viewing it, one could only conclude the following: that the controversy surrounding this exhibition, like that of other scandal-ridden shows, was engineered mostly by folks who had not stepped foot inside the museum. How else to account for the gaping disconnect between the outrage the show provoked and its earnest, polite display? How to make sense of the accusation that the museum made a "joke of the Holocaust" when it covered 19 largely straightforward works with a virtual prophylaxis of embarrassingly apologetic text? To paraphrase the words of Thomas Beecham when the elephant crapped on the stage during Aida: What critics!

Despite the shrill notes surrounding "Mirroring Evil," art related to Nazism and the Holocaust is always on exhibit at the Jewish Museum. In fact it makes up a sizable part of the institution's permanent collection. Classicist, memorializing and focused exclusively on the victims of the Nazis, such art does little except repeat the usual breast-beating pieties in the language of monsters and innocents, leading to what one critic has called "an often facile Holocaust victimology."

"Mirroring Evil" curator Norman L. Kleeblatt saw the obvious limitations of this approach and tried an end-run past the mostly tired documentary exhibitions of death-camp photographs and the kitschy George Segal sculpture the museum permanently houses on its third floor (it is titled, predictably enough, The Holocaust). Intrigued by the works of several younger artists, Kleeblatt adopted a curatorial tack that featured a not-so-new yet comparatively fresher development in contemporary art: fin-de-siecle postmodern conceptualism.

Concentrating on works that engage not the horrors of the Nazi era itself but the equivocal and often exploitative cultural production that is part of its 50-some-year legacy, the artists in this exhibition chose, in the immortal words of Captain Kirk, to go precisely where billions of the globe's consumers have gone before. Kleeblatt's crew riffs on comics, Hollywood films, tv programs and scads of commercial images begotten by the memory of some of the most sinister events in human history, sticking close to material so familiar it should by all lights be considered as safe as a cover of The Saturday Evening Post.

Take Piotr Uklanski's installation The Nazis, for example. Consisting of a room-sized array of 147 color prints of actors like Errol Flynn, Michael Caine, Brando and Ronald Reagan striking glamorous ubermenschian poses in Nazi suits, the work pits our fascination with celebrity sex appeal against a cumulative recognition of the photos' clear reference to Nazism. Another work, Boaz Arad's Hebrew Lesson, re-edits Hitler's filmed tirades to yield a few basic, impossible, but nonetheless moving Hebrew words: "Hello, Jerusalem, I apologize." A third piece, Alain Séchas' Spoiled Children, features a series of porcelain cat dolls with floppy hair and Hitler's computer-chip mustache. Inoffensive and containing about as much shock value as a black Ken doll, the work merely prompts the none-too-racy observation that the toy resembles the pesky feline in Art Spiegelman's overrated comic "novel" Maus.

But if harmlessness is a hallmark of "Mirroring Evil," so, unfortunately, is simplemindedness and the sort of preachy didacticism for which the art world deserves real criticism. Consider Maciej Toporowicz's five-minute video Obsession, which combines images from the Calvin Klein perfume ads with Leni Riefenstahl's body worship. The connections it makes are not only superficial, but self-evident and stupid. Tom Sachs, another artist in the exhibition apparently fascinated by the facile connection between fashion and fascism, turned a Prada hatbox into a miniature death camp, complete with the famous Gate of Death and crematorium found in the real Auschwitz. ("Fashion," Sachs told the Times' Deborah Solomon with a straight face, "is good when it helps you to look sexy, but it's bad when it makes you feel stupid or fat because you don't have a Gucci dog bowl and your best friend has one.") Take away the prep-school cleverness and these works reveal themselves to be the typical artsy stuff made for the smug, self-congratulating set?the same set that once set stock by the permanence of graffiti art and the transgressiveness of Madonna's bustiers. Yet, as bad as it is, it is not at all immoral. Just compare it to the flagrant and trivializing Nazi-themed entertainment playing to packed theater houses some 50 blocks away.

Broadway's The Producers, an adaptation of Mel Brooks' original Hollywood gag, offers far more cause for offense to the memory of the Holocaust than any art show could (remember the lyrics, "Don't be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party"). Yet it and the countless other brazenly commercial properties that the movies and television churn out?Hogan's Heroes, the sappy Life Is Beautiful, the kitschy Schindler's List and much better but truly perverse films like Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter and Pier Paolo Pasolini's excruciating Salo: 120 Days of Sodom?enjoy a sort of moral detente with the public brokered by its mutually accepted entertainment value. Why should that not happen with art, one wonders, on the basis of a mutually accepted visuality? The phrase, "It's only a movie," uttered by mothers to highly impressionable children, should be adapted for visits by the thin-skinned to the nation's art museums. That simple statement, "It's only art," is probably the most balanced and moral response to a long spate of false scandals that continue to make of art, unfortunately, the preferred whipping boy for opportunists, opinionated shut-ins and moralizers.

"Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," through June 30 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Ave. (92nd St.), 423-3200.

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