Monday, November 24, 2008

On Holocaust Art

A.O. Scott, writes about the deluge of Holocaust/Third Reich films lately:

Shortly after the war the German critic T. W. Adorno declared that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This observation has frequently been interpreted, aphoristically, as a fiat of silence, a prohibition against the use of the ordinary tools of culture to address the extraordinary, inassimilable fact of genocide. But those tools, however crude, are what we have to work with. And if Adorno intended a warning against representations of the Holocaust, it has been more quoted than heeded.

The perception that this catastrophe overwhelms conventional aesthetic strategies and traditions has led to the creation of a remarkable range of formally innovative work, including the lyric poetry of Paul Celan, the early prose works of Elie Wiesel, Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary “Shoah,” Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and Peter Eisenmann’s Berlin memorial to the Jewish victims of Nazism.

To describe these as masterpieces is not especially controversial, but it is also, as Adorno perhaps anticipated, somehow unseemly. If the Holocaust can inspire a great work of art, then it can also incubate the ambition to achieve such greatness, and thus open itself up, like everything else, to exploitation, pretense and vulgarity. Worse, the aura that still surrounds this topic — the sense that it must be treated with a special measure of tact and awe — can be appropriated by clumsy, sentimental and meretricious films or books, which protect themselves from criticism by a cloak of seriousness and piety.

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