Ideology & Aesthetics

Tower of Faces

Tower of Faces: This three-story tower displays photographs from the Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection. Taken between 1890 and 1941 in Eishishok, a small town in what is now Lithuania, they describe a vibrant Jewish community that existed for 900 years. In 1941, an SS mobile killing squad entered the village and within two days massacred the Jewish population.

Image Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Every once in a while, when I read an article in a magazine that I find particularly important or interesting, I'll write a letter to the magazine. And every once in a while, this letter gets published. This is usually not something I bother to comment on as it's hardly a big deal. But I do want to mention a particular letter of mine that was recently published in the August 2011 copy of Vogue Australia magazine. This is not because of me, but because of the topic I wrote about: an article that responded to Galliano's anti-Semitic outburst. This is what I wrote in response to the article:

I'm writing with regard to your article on the John Galliano controversy, 'Dangerous Liaisons', in the June 2011 issue. As the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, and as someone who has interviewed countless Holocaust survivors, this article hit close to home. Reading the article made me think of the German writer and linguist, Victor Klemperer, who in 1933 began recording how the Nazis' simple use of everyday language helped them to dehumanise the Jews, ultimately resulting in their mass slaughter. There is no such thing as a 'small' indiscretion when it comes to uttering words of hate, I don't care how drunk someone happens to be. There is also no separation between aesthetic and ideology; the Nazis' carefully composed aesthetic in mass parades was part of the fascist ideology that led to six million people being killed; beautiful music was played in concentration camps over the ashes of gassed flesh and starving bodies. Art is always political. It's incredibly naive and historically ignorant to suggest that Galliano's anti-Semitic words are just words: they represent an entire history of hatred and death. In the sentiments of Tim Blanks, who wrote the article, may I suggest that it's not only Galliano who needs to grow up, but also, his defenders.

I know I've talked about this topic before, and I also know that I discuss the Holocaust quite a bit on this blog. But this is necessary, because it's a topic that needs to be repeated over and over again to counter forgetfulness, ignorance and complacency. Agnes Heller once wrote that preserving the memory of the Holocaust and keeping it within continual public discourse is something we owe to the dead, and to present victims of similar hatred and genocide, so that everyone "will know with certainty that on this earth, no one dies in silence" (Agnes Heller, "Preserving the Silences", The Age Monthly Review, April 1990, p. 10).

And that's just it: the enormous amount of silence that surrounds this topic. It's not just that people find it hard to talk about the Holocaust, something which I can definitely understand. But more disturbing is the complacency which surrounds it. If a well-known figure or artist makes a stupid anti-Semitic remark or expresses sympathy with Hitler, a common "defence" is to cite his/her creative "genius" and artistic accomplishments, as if aesthetics can be separated from ideology. This a rather naive line of thought: nothing is created in a social or cultural vacuum, aesthetics are a product of a context. And yet, there seems to be an ever-growing catch-cry of "but his work is beautiful, who cares what he says". This does not simply apply to Galliano, but others, like Lars von Trier.

So, why have I posted the above image, and what does it have to do with what I'm saying here? Well, I've seen this image floating around tumblr and the net without the credit description that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum requests be included alongside it when the image is shared online. Instead of the credit caption, I've seen comments about how "beautiful" the image is and how "cool" it would be to decorate a room like this, as if it's just any other room featured in interior decorating blogs, rather than a touching historical gesture.

I'm not trying to be mean here, I do realise that such responses are innocent comments about the aesthetics of the image. I'm also fully aware that it's not my job to be the moral police here. Maybe I've just listened to too many Holocaust stories from Holocaust survivors to be able to let this issue slide. I'd like to think this is not moralising, but a passionate plea on their behalf. The point is, the image has a context and separating it from its historical description is like hiding behind a wall of brittle aesthetics. Whenever I have stumbled upon this image in the past few weeks, it felt like I was encountering a metaphor for the way we are starting to approach the Holocaust in our culture: as a series of decontextualised images existing behind a wall of aesthetic forgetfulness. This is why I felt compelled to write the letter that I did, and I'm grateful to Vogue for publishing it. Every time I hear someone mention what beautiful dresses Galliano made as a form of defence, I also remember what ugly words he said, and the mind that created those dresses is also the mind that formed those words. You can't separate them.

Image Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Any reproduction of the image must include the above full caption and credit information.