Mystical Nazi Sex Gods, p.2

Piotr Uklanski's "The Nazis," a series of 123 publicity photographs of actors in Nazi costumes, is closer to what I find interesting. The work drives home the point that we keep replicating the Nazis, as if to draw down some of their mystical power and capture it for ourselves. The moralizers do this when they invoke the Evil One's name in their own crusades; the artists in Mirroring Evil do this when they make mediocre art about the Holocaust and demand some sort of reverential attitude from the viewer. But, then again, Uklanski is part of the phenomenon which his art seems to call into question. He, too, is trying to take our breath away by making reference to the Nazis. Uklanski, too, uses the Nazis as talismans. At the same time as he seems to problematize the replication of Nazi imagery, he participates in it.

Moreover, work like Uklanski's is undermined by the apologetic program notes accompanying every work. Such as: "The photographs demonstrate how images of the Nazis pervade our popular culture and point up the contradiction between the horror of the roles being played and the allure of the movie stars' faces." The Jewish Museum is terribly afraid of being misunderstood. They want to remind us that they understand the Holocaust is horrible. They are not making light of the Holocaust. The Holocaust was horrible. It was horrible. Yes.

I think what makes Uklanski's work interesting is that there is, as Susan Sontag has observed, an element of eroticism in representation of Nazis. I don't see anything conventionally horrible about the Nazis played by Harrison Ford, Yul Brynner, et al; I see something sexual. They are so amoral, so evil. And they wear uniforms. The complicated dialectic of repulsion and arousal is at its most intense in the case of the Nazis: we are repulsed by them, and yet fascinated by them. Exhibits like Mirroring Evil, and the controversy surrounding them, are all part of fetishizing Nazism. And we are all accomplices in it, from the artists to the viewers to the righteous-indignation-spouting moralizers outside. Everyone wants to channel the libidinous charge of fascism.

The protesters appear to demand a univocal response to the Holocaust: outrage at evil, reverent respect to the whole affair. But I wonder if they aren't implicated in trying to channel the power of the Nazis as well. Is it really respect for the lives of the dead that the protesters want - or is it not also respect for themselves as righteous arbiters of moral taste? Being a survivor is a position of privilege -- We, those of us who are too young to have been born for World War II, have to just sit obediently and listen. And being self-righteous about the Holocaust gives the protesters a tinge of authority. They can speak, and we cannot.

In this way, the Holocaust acts for these people the way the word "nigger" acts for African-Americans: as exclusive property. I cannot use the word "nigger" without scarequotes; it's racist. But a Hip-Hop artist can say "nigger" fifty times a day. The word has become property of African-Americans, and I'm not allowed to use it. This is fine - hip-hop culture is all about appropriation and inversion of racist culture. But the Holocaust works the same way - only some people can talk about it, and only in a certain way. And this exclusivity undermines the potential of the Holocaust to convey universal meaning.

Kudos to the Jewish Museum, one of the gatekeepers of What You Can Say About the Holocaust, for daring to at least claim to endorse an alternative vocabulary of Nazism. I don't think the exhibit succeeds - in their own way, most of the works inside were just as reverential and pious as the protesters. But at least the museum is making the statement that different people can comment in their own ways on the meaning of the Holocaust, without having to check first with the powers that be. It would seem like one of the "lessons of the Holocaust" ought to be that thought police, in general, do more harm than good.

Just one last bit: I don't want to pretend that I am not entranced and enmeshed in the Nazi Buzz too.

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April 2002

jay's head