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Joe Bob's America: Nazi schmazi art

By JOE BOB BRIGGS   |   March 25, 2002 at 11:33 AM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, March 25 (UPI) -- You've got to clean out your pockets and go through a metal detector to get into the Jewish Museum these days, because everybody's been going berserk over the new art show with the impossible-to-remember name: "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art."

Does it really need three names, a semicolon and a slash? It must be really, really modern with that much punctuation going on. The whole point of the show is that they take Nazi symbols and use 'em in funny cockeyed ways, so couldn't they just call it Nazi Schmatzi? (I got your Swastika right here, Adolf.)

If you live west of the Hudson or east of the East, you may not know what I'm talking about, but basically the Jewish Museum decided to put on an art show featuring young artists who were born when World War II was only a memory and so they don't feel that reverent about it. The example everyone uses is the piece in the show called "LEGO Concentration Camp Set," which was condemned in the newspapers as trivilizing the Holocaust by building an Auschwitz out of LEGO blocks.

But we've also got your gas canisters emblazoned with Chanel, Hermes and Prada logos, your six busts of Josef Mengele to show how handsome he was, and a photo of the Buchenwald camp superimposed with the image of a young artist holding up a Diet Coke can.

I think you get the idea.

So the buzz on this thing has been going on for weeks, and by the time it opened there were 125 protesters out front screaming "Shame! Shame!" and "Don't go in!" to everyone who lined up to see the Nazi toys. The newspapers were full of shock and outrage and revulsion and other nouns implying bug-eyed disbelief. I'll spare you the quotes.

Oh hell, I'll use one. Here's Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum, director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America: "How can a Jewish house of treasures hurt Jews, stab Jews, pierce their hearts and defame the memory of the Holocaust? This is something that we cannot believe, we cannot abide -- and we will not stand by silently."

I think you get the idea.

So, of course, I hustled my hiney over to Fifth Avenue to see what the brouhaha was all about, because I'm the kind of guy who only goes to art shows when there's a brouhaha. Of course, I'm also one of the few people who thinks that "Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS" is one of the finest movies of the '70s, so maybe I'm not the best guy to be deciding whether Nazi imagery is tasteless or not.

Anyhow, I looked at all the art, I watched the videos, I bought the book and I have a few observations.

Numero Uno: Why do you spend more time at a contemporary art show reading the posters on the wall describing the art than you spend actually looking at the art?

This thing had so many essays, warnings, explanations and convoluted art-criticism purple prose on the wall it gave me a headache. If you have to explain it this much, it must suck, right? After a while, I stopped reading the stuff because there's only so many times you can see phrases like "spiritual ambiguity" and "encounters with evil" and "the moral division between victim and victimizer" before your eyes glaze over.

Sometimes they even put essay questions at the end of the wall novel. Next to Alan Schechner's "(Self-Portrait at Buchenwald) It's the Real Thing" -- the one where the guy is holding up the Coke can at Buchenwald -- it says, "Does a Jew of his generation have the right to imagine himself caught up in the Holocaust?"

You almost expect it to say "Discuss" or "Compare and contrast" like your creepy fifth grade teacher used to do. But if you really want an answer: hell yes, he has the right to put up any image he wants. We don't have Art Prison. It's kind of a silly question. If you want to ask a question, how about, "Does this guy have anything interesting to say?"

My answer: Not anything that wasn't already said in the '60s, which is where the Coke-can-with-emaciated-bodies motif was born.

Numero Two-o: If you thought George Bush overused the word "evil," hang around the Jewish Museum for 5 minutes and you'll think the curator is Donald Pleasence talking about Michael Myers -- "He is eeeeeeeeuhviiiiilll".

They've got roundtables on evil, panel discussions on evil, public dialogues on evil, lectures on evil, movies about evil -- or at least what they call evil. They're showing Luchino Visconti's "The Damned," for example, and it's just a little simple-minded to say, "It's about evil."

In fact, I think we oughta just retire the word "evil." It doesn't denote anything. All you're saying when you use the word is, "I don't like it." It's not like there are people running around saying, "Yes, Hitler was right" and if there are, they're not going to art shows. So to constantly harangue us with the word or to insist no artist has a right to exhibit unless he says, "This is an attack on evil," is to reduce everything to a kindergarten hand-slapping session.

I would say the word "evil" is used about 97,000 times in the posters, essays, videos and catalog accompanying this exhibit. So we get the point, OK?

Numero Three-o: After you get past the first three exhibits -- including an extremely cool collection of photographs of famous actors in Nazi uniforms -- remember Brando as "the good Nazi"? -- you encounter the following sign:

"Some Holocaust survivors have been disturbed by the works of art shown beyond this point. Visitors may choose to avoid these works by exiting the door to the left."

Isn't this just a little melodramatic? Do we really need an Emotional Emergency Exit? If you were really all that upset, couldn't you just retrace your steps?

Actually, I was struck by just how subdued the crowd was. Everyone was in rapt silent attention, lingering over works that really don't have that much depth and can be understood in about, oh, 5 seconds. There wasn't even much whispering, much less bolting for the street.

Numero Four-o: The LEGO concentration camp is a bait-and-switch.

The newspapers made it sound like there was an actual concentration camp built out of LEGO blocks. Actually there are just LEGO-set boxes with pictures of an imaginary LEGO concentration camp, complete with a guard beating a plastic inmate with a truncheon and plenty of smokestacks. It would be one thing if they were selling concentration camp LEGOs in the gift shop -- they could put a sign on the wall: "Does a person like you have a right to play with concentration camp LEGOs?" -- but this is obviously a fairly heavy-handed statement about consumerism, marketing to children, and the trivialization of history.

There is, however, a toy death camp. It's the Prada Death Camp -- these guys are big on corporate logos -- by an artist named Tom Sachs. Once again, big corporate advertising equals Nazi propaganda. We get it.

Numero Five-o: The Mengele busts are outstanding.

The whole premise of this exhibit is there are no good photographs of Mengele and so no one knows what he really looked like, but there are all kinds of descriptions of him, most of them describing him as handsome. So these various descriptions were sent to six different artists, and each artist created an idea of what he might have looked like. It actually makes him creepier. Instead of thinking of him as Igor, the hunchbacked mad scientist, you start thinking of him as Ted Bundy.

Numero Six-o: The best piece in the whole show is the one nobody ever writes about.

It's called "Live and Die as Eva Braun," and it's a 10-scene installation that asks the viewer to imagine himself or herself as Eva Braun on her last day on earth, when she and Hitler have agreed that, after they have sex, he'll shoot her and then kill himself. And so there are these 10 pretty well-written panels talking about what Eva is thinking and feeling, and each one is illustrated by childish etchings that make a sort of cockeyed sense in context.

But here's the strange thing. You get all ready for the sex part -- what kind of sex do you have under the circumstances? -- and the panels skip from Scene 4 to Scene 6. There is no Scene 5 -- the actual sex. Now. OK. It is avant-garde art so maybe this is some kind of lame trick on the viewer. Maybe we're supposed to imagine what kind of sex they had. Or maybe it's a censored version of the work. I don't know. But don't suck me in like that and then leave me hanging! Which brings me to . . .

Numero Seven-o: WHERE'S THE SEX?

If you're doing a show based on the use of Nazi paraphernalia, shouldn't there be a few leather-bar creepos around here somewhere? Perverts in Nazi uniforms that are supposed to be erotic is one of the most common uses of Naziism in popular culture, and that really does raise a lot of disturbing questions. There is one piece in which an artist puts a nude photo of herself in a Nazi collage, but it's so confusing it's sort of like those Karen Findley all-nude performance-art pieces where you wanna say, "Put your clothes back on."

I give up. Either I don't get it or there's very little to get. Nazi propaganda equals modern American marketing. That's the theme of half the pieces in the show. This is a cold show, a distanced show, an emotional zero. It doesn't make you mad, and it doesn't make you happy. It's just there.

I'm gonna go rent "Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS." Now Dyanne Thorne -- there's a hot pop-culture Nazi.

*

Joe Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at joebob@upi.com or through his website at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, TX 75221.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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