Following the 2002 Mirroring Evil exhibit at the Jewish Museum, I felt compelled to write the following text.
– From Absence/Presence: Critical Essays On The Artistic Memory Of The Holocaust, Stephen Feinstein Ed., Published by Syracuse Press (2004) –

If there is one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames. Artaud, 1938.
To me violence is a totally aesthetic subject…
I find violence very funny.
Quentin Tarentino
No one can look… and live. The (edited) Torah.
I realized very soon the dangers of repeating indiscriminately this form of expression (‘readymades’) and decided to limit the production of ‘readymades’ to a small number yearly. I was aware at that time, that for the spectator even more than for the artist, art is a habit forming drug, and I wanted to protect my readymades from such a contamination. Marcel Duchamp (his underlining) 1961

Disaster Art: A Plea against the Peripheral Stuff

by Pier Marton

To rigor and fervor, in memory of my friend Judy Doneson.

Art, if it were to withstand a partial definition, could be characterized as stretching its own boundaries, those of perception and those of “the human realm.” So why would I want to impose any limit onto an activity where freedom seems so integral to the medium? First one needs to recognize that creativity without restrictions is an empty word: no art has ever evolved without some type of constraint, be it formal or conceptual. Life is by nature full of limits and art, unlike raw data, reflects some governing principle, its boundaries.

But the restriction I am aiming at stems from what I inherited: the aftershock of my parents and grandparents’ lives at a time when any kind of Jewish identity meant being wanted, dead more than alive. What I want to focus upon is the type of art that, like my life as a whole, forms a response to the Holocaust, the Shoah.

While some revel, like some guilty pleasure, in the “end of history” (celebrating the victory of global markets?) and the joy of postmodern-anything-goes collages, some of us are chained to events that hit our families more than fifty years ago. In other words, facile intellectual, academic or artistic exercises in relation to any extreme political oppression have very little chance of charming us. It is not that we cannot juggle words and concepts, but the pleasure seeking activity that pervades much creativity is not so simple for us.

We owe our dead relatives an accuracy that holds us hostage to finding the clearest way of addressing the various monstrosities – and to know and understand them better with time, if we can.

As we live in the 21st (Christian)/58th (Jewish) century, even if we were never “there” (the camps), we are here and there: simple words like ovens, gas, train tracks, crowds, selections, food rations, tattoos, government directives, tied since the 1940’s to the killing of our families, have forever a tainted ring. We are missing the playground of innocent associations and I am sure that this psychic engraving is as common within other groups similarly targeted by discrimination.

We remain thus linked to another time and look suspiciously at works that do not confront horror in the face, deny the specificity of the anti-Semitism, or seem to relegate the crimes to some kind of “footnote in history.”

There never seems to be enough knowledge about what we appear unable to comprehend: in my case, the desire to exterminate my people, my family. Yes there are debates whether cattle-cars were actually used and other similar trivia, but the core information, that my grandparents along with millions of others were killed after multiple humiliations, is not an academic debate. It is something that is felt within my family body.

From the shores of an ever-receding distance from that disaster, I search the messages in the bottles, the projects that would offer solace in my comprehension of those events. As a documentary videomaker, an orientation probably related to my debt towards my (dead) relatives, I am partial to fact-oriented works and thus two types of expression appease my hunger.

1. What happened, what is happening. The documentaries that describe as clearly as possible the extent of the disaster with a particular strategy: – terrible things did happen – the perpetuators denied them – and nothing separates us from those times.

The best example is Alain Resnais’ still unsurpassed Night and Fog; while regrettably bypassing the fact that the victims of the concentration camps were primarily Jewish, the film presents us some of the dread, its denial, and how the disaster has no end in sight. In its search for culprits the film digs deeper into the mystery and like Lévinas’ Talmudic Lectures, never claims to resolve the issue (new faces today…). Another landmark, the documentary Shoah by Claude Lanzmann follows the same structure, albeit in a less obvious way.

2. Saturated like survivors. As the facts surrounding the disaster get repeated, the risks of trivialization and anesthetization pose a serious danger This other type of effort, for those already in the know (the extent of the tragedy not the elusive why) works through mementos and artifacts. Here less is more: only by showing parts of the catastrophe can one attempt to convey its immensity. In that sense, the installations of Christian Boltanski with its faded photographs bring up the frailty of those lost lives. In my view though, that work is now eclipsed by the publication and exhibition of the photographs of the “disappeared” children, as collected by Serge Klarsfeld, French Children of the Holocaust (published by NYU Press 1996). At this level of information saturation one responds most acutely, like the survivors and their children, to the smallest elements.

The filmmaker Robert Bresson in his remarkable book Notes on Cinematography defines and refines the power of sound and images. His aphorisms point to an intricate symphony of hints and silences. It is this complex coding, infused by the “we know too much” (possibly the necessary prerequisite for creating a masterwork) that evokes brilliantly the tremendum in Emmanuel Finkiel’s Voyages. Here like growing up in a survivor family, what is not said carries almost more weight than what is said. A work of fiction that functions primarily through reference; nobody is acknowledging the elephant in the middle of the room, but there is plenty of talk!

On a lighter note, I would like to offer some humorous options. Done at a time when the picture of disaster was not clear yet, two comedies imply that comic relief through character assassination may be a healthy alternative: To Be or Not To Be by Ernst Lubitsch and The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin.

Shoah as background to any argument, visual or otherwise does not represent a tribute. The easiest thing to do right now is not to have rigor: for that we have to let most media images and their commentaries, whether art or articles, just reign.

As the distance that separates us from the events becomes greater, the survivors disappear, and the wildest theories appear. Could it be that, unlike classical scientific research where the observer is in the way, here just like in history, what we need more of is a presence, the presence of real mensch, real people? In that sense the personal testimonies, even if often laced with rage, those of Lanzmann and Klarsfeld, are the most enlightening. What happens or does not happen in/to Israel could be another form.

Great works of art let the infinite in through its various guises; the Holocaust is one facet of that unfathomable aspect of life. If its periphery, its suburbia is most approachable, for a tangible future, it is only its peaks that are worth the chiseling.

Copyright Marton & Syracuse University Press, 2004