> Columns > Boston Globe > Shock art -- it doesn't shock and it isn't art
Shock art -- it doesn't shock and it isn't art
By Cathy Young | April 1, 2002
THE LATEST outcry over offensive art has to do with an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, ''Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art.'' The exhibition, featuring works that use Holocaust themes in a postmodernist context of irony and kitsch -- e.g., an arrangement of boxes labeled as containing a build-it-yourself Lego concentration camp set - sparked protests even before it opened.
Museum officials have refused to withdraw any of the controversial displays, but they did post a warning that ''some Holocaust survivors have been disturbed by the works of art shown'' in a particular section of the exhibit and that visitors may choose to avoid them.
The debate over modern art versus public sensibilities is often framed in terms of censorship and freedom of expression. But that isn't the real issue. The Jewish Museum has every right to mount an exhibition which many people regard (correctly, in my view) as trivializing the Holocaust. People who are offended have every right to protest and to withdraw their support from the museum. There are few topics as sensitive as Nazism and the Holocaust. Popular works of art dealing with these issues, such as the films ''Schindler's List'' and ''Life is Beautiful'' or the Broadway musical ''The Producers,'' have been acclaimed by some and denounced by others.
The real questions raised by ''Mirroring Evil'' are less about attitudes toward the Holocaust than about the state of contemporary art. And the answers aren't pretty.
The controversial artworks in the exhibit represent so-called conceptual art, intended primarily not to create an esthetic effect but to ''make a point'' -- or, more often than not, dazzle the audience with a clever gimmick. A ''sculpture'' by Tom Sachs, for example, consists of a gift box with three canisters of poison gas, bearing the designer logos of Chanel, Hermes, and Tiffany. The point, apparently, is that there are similarities between Nazism and consumerism.
Most of this stuff has all the artistic merit of a pink flamingo on a lawn. (In fact, you could probably take that flamingo and put it in a modern art museum as an ironic comment on suburban vulgarity). It's also not particularly new. In the catalogue for ''Mirroring Evil,'' the creators of the exhibit congratulate themselves relentlessly for their ''daring.'' But in fact, they follow the rigid orthodoxy of the modern art establishment, which scorns such old-fashioned values as technical skill and beauty and puts a premium on provocation, political sloganeering, and superficial cleverness.
Art can be disturbing and provocative, like Goya's ''Capriccios''; it can engage in social commentary, like Picasso's ''Guernica.'' But a work whose sole purpose is to provoke or make a statement is either a stunt or agitprop.
The politics of contemporary art are almost invariably of the left-wing, politically correct, radical-chic variety, and ''Mirroring Evil'' is no exception.
The main message of the exhibition seems to be that we cannot regard Nazism as something at a safe distance from ourselves -- that its evils are mirrored by certain aspects of contemporary life. This is not such a bad idea, actually.
But where do the artists see parallels to Nazi evil? In the Taliban? In Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia? In the atrocities of other extremist regimes, left and right? No, in modern capitalism.
According to the museum program, ''Drawing unnerving connections between the imagery of the Third Reich and today's consumer culture, the artists sharpen our awareness of present day techniques of persuasion and symbols of oppression.'' The catalogue essay about a work in which a picture of the artist holding a Coca-Cola can is superimposed on a photo of emaciated concentration camp survivors preaches, ''Just as much of Europe succumbed to Nazi culture ... so does our contemporary culture succumb to consumerism.'' As commentator Ron Rosenbaum sarcastically points out in The New York Observer, ''Right: Drink Coke; Kill Jews -- same thing.''
This isn't just offensive, it's also stupid.
Another catalogue essay suggests that in the context of the Palestinian uprising, Israeli Jews are engaging in ''impersonations'' of the Nazis, thus blurring the ''Nazi-Jew divide.''
On other occasions, ''cutting-edge'' artists have relied on sexual exhibitionism and desecration of religious symbols for shock. Now, they've moved on to trivializing the great tragedy of the 20th century.
Peddlers of shock art invariably claim that their purpose is to make the viewer think. Well, ''Mirroring Evil'' makes me think all right. It makes me think that trendy contemporary art is intellectually and morally bankrupt.