Mirroring Evil: Auschwitz, Art and the “War on Terror”

  • Gene Ray
Part of the Studies in European Culture and History book series (SECH)


Two provocative statements: Adorno’s damning 1966 judgment, condensing two decades of sustained reflection on the implications of Auschwitz for critical theory and the ethics of aesthetic representation; and Finkelstein’s excoriating indictment of Jewish instrumentalization of the Nazi genocide at the end of the century. The confrontation of the first by the second—the painful exposure, that is, of a now dominant ethic of representation to a historical context much changed from that of its origin—would approximate the controversy ignited by “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art,” a 2002 exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York. Including works by thirteen artists—some Jewish, all in their 30s and 40s, from America, Israel, Germany, Poland, France, Austria, and the United Kingdom—the exhibition was bitterly attacked for legitimizing art that treats the Jewish genocide with irreverence and insensitivity.1 The first cries of protest began months before the exhibition opened. Holocaust survivors and regular supporters of the museum loudly expressed their pain and outrage, and a hundred protestors picketed the exhibition on the opening day. From then on until the close of the exhibition three and half months later, curator Norman Kleeblatt and the museum staff scrambled to limit and control the damage to the institution’s public image. The reception from the highbrow Manhattan press, usually quick to defend art from the philistines, was in this case notably sour.


Jewish Identity Holocaust Survivor Museum Staff Aesthetic Pleasure Negative Dialectic 
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  1. 2.
    Norman L. Kleeblatt, ed., Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art (New York: Jewish Museum; New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001), with texts by James E. Young, Norman L. Kleeblatt, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Ellen Handler Spitz, Lisa Saltzman, Ernst van Alphen, Reesa Greenberg, and Joanna Lindenbaum.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Edward Rothstein, “Artists Seeking Their Inner Nazi,” NY Times, February 2, 2002; Barbara Stewart, “Jewish Museum’s Exhibition To Include a Warning Label,” NY Times, March 2, 2002; Jack Hitt, “America’s Problem With Modern Art,” NY Times, March 17, 2002; Sarah Kershaw, “Exhibition With Nazi Imagery Opens Quietly at Jewish Museum,” NY Times, March 18, 2002; “The Art of Banality” (Editorial), NY Times, March 22, 2002; Deborah Solomon, “Designer Death Camp: Questions for Tom Sachs,” NY Times Magazine, March 10, 2002; Walter Reich, “Appropriating the Holocaust” (Op-Ed), NY Times, March 15, 2002; Michael Kimmelman, “Evil, the Nazis and Shock Value,” NY Times, March 15, 2002. See also, Jewish Museum director Joan Rosenbaum’s letter to the editor, protesting the newspaper’s treatment of the exhibition, published on March 22, 2002.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Hilton Kramer, “Jewish Museum Show Full of Vile Crap, Not to Be Forgiven,” New York Observer, April 1, 2002.Google Scholar
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    Peter Schjeldahl, “The Hitler Show,” The New Yorker, April 1, 2002, p. 87.Google Scholar
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    Barbara Pollack, “Mirroring Evil,” Art News (May 2002), p. 165.Google Scholar
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    Linda Nochlin, “ ‘Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art’,” Artforum (Summer 2002), pp. 167–8, 207.Google Scholar
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  8. 9.
    Olav Westphalen, “Veiled Controversy,” Parkett 65 (2002), pp. 178–85. Westphalen is presumably referring to John Cage’s epigraph to his 1973 book M, an implicit critique of American moral exceptionalism registered in the context of Vietnam that is indeed worth rereading today: “To us and all those who hate us, that the U.S.A. may become just another part of the world, no more, no less. (1967, repeated 1973)” Cage, M: Writings ’67–’72 (Middletown Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1973).Google Scholar
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    James E. Young, At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 1–11.Google Scholar
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    Deborah Solomon, “Designer Death Camp: Questions for Tom Sachs,” NY Times Magazine, March 10, 2002, p. 19: “It’s a pop-up death camp. It’s a sort of best-of-all-worlds composite, with the famous Gate of Death and Crematorium IV from Auschwitz. I made it entirely from a Prada hatbox…I’m using the iconography of the Holocaust to bring attention to fashion. Fashion, like fascism, is about a loss of identity. Fashion 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.”Google Scholar
  12. 18.
    Norman G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (London: Verso, 2000). For Finkelstein’s account of the comparative international reception of his The Holocaust Industry, see his foreword to the 2001 edition.Google Scholar
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    On Sharon’s policy, as carried out by the Israeli Defense Force in the Occupied Territories, see Stephen Graham, “Lessons in Urbicide,” New Left Review 19 (January/February 2003), pp. 63–77.Google Scholar
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    Edward Said, “America’s Last Taboo,” New Left Review 6 (November/December 2000), pp. 45–53.Google Scholar
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    Michael Massing, “The Israel Lobby,” The Nation, June 10, 2002, pp. 6, 24.Google Scholar

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© Gene Ray 2005

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  • Gene Ray

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