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Capturing the Enormity of the Shoah

June 5, 2008 By:
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About a month ago, while discussing Jerome Rothenberg's ambitious three-part poem called Tryptych, which touches on numerous and sundry Jewish themes, I asked what I think is still one of the central aesthetic questions of our time: Can art of any kind encompass the enormity of the Holocaust?

Now that we're well into the new millennium, you would think this particular argument might have been settled definitively. There are critics who've argued that Holocaust art is not only viable but highly successful, aesthetically speaking. But just as many have taken the opposite position.

Perhaps at the head of this latter group stands the British critic and polymath George Steiner, who has contended that there is no way of critically assessing works on the subject, that they cannot be "reviewed" in any traditional sense, that the only "decent" review "would be to recopy the book, line by line." Other critics have spoken of the impossibility of approaching the Holocaust except through silence.

Reinhard Baumgart, a German writer, pinpointed one of the major obstacles -- that writing about the Holocaust "imposes an artificial meaning on mass suffering and, by removing some of the horror, commits a grave injustice against the victims."

So if one accepts the unsettled nature that still dwells at the heart of the argument, how do we best approach art that deals with the mass murder of Jews? The critics quoted above were generally speaking of an approach to written creativity -- poetry and novels. The argument gets far more complex when faced with paintings or sculpture, especially in abstract expressionist and postmodernist styles, which not only attempt to interpret this still traumatic event in Jewish history, but sometimes edge toward -- or fully embrace -- beauty in their representations.

That was the subject of a recent book, titled Unwanted Beauty: Aesthetic Pleasure in Holocaust Representation by Brett Ashley Kaplan, which was published by University of Illinois Press. At one point, the author notes that her study "collapses [the] opposition between the beneficial and the beautiful by arguing that the unwanted beauty offered by some Holocaust representations transforms Holocaust memory in important, enlivening and indeed beneficial ways. I have been struck repeatedly by the fact that much prose, poetry, visual art and architecture representing the Holocaust is beautiful, even though remaining mournful. While it may be counterintuitive to understand some Holocaust representation as beautiful, I argue that thinking about the role of aesthetic pleasure in complex and multivalent texts opens this traumatic historical event to deeper understanding."

An even more recent book, Abstraction and the Holocaust by Mark Godfrey, considers the same issue, with a discussion similarly focused on abstract art. Eight of Godfrey's nine chapters consider a specific artist and work: Morris Louis's Charred Journal: Firewrittenpaintings, 1951; Barnett Newman's The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani, 1958-1966; Frank Stella's Polish Village series, 1970-1974; Louis Kahn's Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs, 1966-1972; Beryl Korot's Dachau 1974, 1974; Mel Bochner's Via Tasso project, 1993; art commissioned for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., 1993; and a concluding discussion of Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, 1997-2005, and Susan Hiller's The J.Street Project, 2002-2005.

In his opening chapter, Godfrey not only discusses whether abstraction can deal properly with the enormity of the Shoah, but also considers how the term Holocaust itself has evolved, and that some of these artists -- the earlier ones in the book, especially -- were often responding in their work to the mass death of Jews before the term even existed. Some were even responding to a single event in the long, tragic march of death that was World War II.

Godfrey's book, at least visually, breaks into two neat parts, with Abstract Expressionists on one side and postmodernist artists on the other. One's acceptance for the work as a whole will likely depend on one's tolerance for minimalism and highly conceptual art (to say nothing of abstract and seemingly emotionless video installations). Many pieces reproduced in the first half -- like the Louis, the Newman and the Stella -- comprise some of the most ravishing artworks created in the 20th century, which doesn't make the argument any easier to settle.

But Godfrey's work, though by no means your traditional coffee-table volume, despite its shape and size, is always challenging, sometimes a bit opaque, but never dull, and to have his extensive chapter on the Louis Kahn memorial -- another of those astonishing concepts by this great architect which were never built -- is to be much in the author's debt.

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