Early in the twentieth century, the Jewish philanthropist baron Maurice De Hirsch urged Jews to stop striving for excellence. In his view, the very success of his co-religionists had provoked anti-Semitism. “We have too much brains,” declared the baron. “All the hatred against us stems from this.” Were De Hirsch alive today, one visit to the Jewish Museum’s new exhibit would allay his concerns.
“Mirroring Evil” caused a ruckus even before the March 17 opening, when Holocaust survivors got hold of its catalog and learned that among the “artwork” displayed would be a Lego set of a concentration camp; a trick photograph of a well-fed young man holding up a Diet Coke, surrounded by the emaciated Jews of Buchenwald; flattering busts of Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who performed notorious medical experiments on the “racially inferior”; and a work entitled “GiftGas Giftset” portraying cans of Xyklon B gas stamped with Chanel and Hermès labels.
When the exhibit finally opened, the response was furious. Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, called it “a betrayal.” Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a lawyer whose family members Mengele murdered, charged: “It gives the imprimatur of the Jewish Museum to this exhibition and thereby legitimizes all future trivializations of the Holocaust by others.” The harsh words from these leading Jewish figures (and others) haven’t stopped the museum from pasting out-of-context supportive quotations from Wiesel and Rosensaft on its walls, in the same way an unscrupulous film producer takes a reviewer’s negative comments (“What might have been intriguing winds up a waste of excellent scenery”) and edits them for use in an ad (“Intriguing!” “Excellent!”).
Nor has the criticism caused curator Norman Kleeblatt to reconsider the sophomoric pronouncements that adorn the displays. “Nazi criminal Josef Mengele was known to his colleagues for his good looks and charm, and is infamous to us for his unspeakable deeds,” says one. “To explore this contradiction Christine Borland gave blurry photographs. . . to six sculptors.” Comely people can do monstrous things! Who knew? The artist holding a Coke proves that “Just as much of Europe succumbed to Nazi culture . . . so does our contemporary culture succumb to consumerism.” Genocide and shopping are morally equivalent! What a revelation! Artist Tom Sachs, who used a hatbox from the trendy Italian designer Prada to build a pop-up concentration camp, makes a similar “transgressive” point. “I’m using the iconography of the Holocaust to bring attention to fashion,” he opines. “Fashion, like fascism, is about a loss of identity.”
Sachs’s asininity matches that of the preening, self-congratulatory, jargon-saturated academic essays of the show’s catalog. “Mirroring Evil is a dangerous exhibition,” proclaims one. Things have changed, warns another: “Mothers can’t guarantee safety, nor can museums. Danger is often unforeseen.” In fact, museums can guarantee safety—to artists. Cosseted by headline-hungry curators, bankrolled by clueless foundations, they enjoy a liberty and license unparalleled in American—make that world—history. Those who object to their work find themselves castigated as anti-intellectual prudes.
Yet, make no mistake: “Mirroring Evil” may differ in backing and purpose but it’s nearly as abhorrent as an art exhibit last year in Nablus, sponsored by the terrorist group Hamas, that portrayed the grisly effects of the suicide bombing of Sbarro, complete with faux body parts strewn about the floor and blood-splattered walls. On his first mission to the Middle East for the Bush administration, envoy General Anthony Zinni helped get the ugly exhibition shuttered. Since we’re lucky enough to live in a free society, no one will force this one to close. And perhaps some good can come from the exhibit after all. For it shows that there are plenty of us Jews—artists, curators, trustees—severely lacking in sensitivity, taste, and wit, giving the lie to the notion of an International Jewish Conspiracy of wily Levantines. “Mirroring Evil” at the Jewish Museum is by far the dumbest show in town.