Ideology & Aesthetics

Thursday, 7 July 2011

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.


Janae said...

This is such a brilliant post. As a person with an art history degree, I agree 100% that art is political, and its aesthetics cannot be separated from its context - well, it CAN, but that defeats the point of its existence. Thank you for bringing attention to this subject in general, for reminding the readers of Vogue that just because someone can design a dress does not mean that their hatred should be excused, and for giving 'Tower of Faces' the credit it deserves.

SJ said...

I was completely baffled by Lars von Trier and his rant. I also disliked both his and Galliano's apologies- that never seemed genuine, more like they were told to read something that was written by someone else in the hope that they can salvage their careers.

i think it's important to always be aware of what happened, not just for the memories of the millions who died under the nazis and the indignity they suffered but because genocide is still happening in countries to this day.

Pawling Print Studio said...

growing up, the holocaust always seemed so long ago and far away. as i've gotten older and time passes more quickly, i'm continually shocked by the revelation that it was SO recent. times have changed, but are we really so different today? thank you for talking not just about what HAS happened, but also about the power that words have to make things happen today and in the future. casual hate speech cannot be ignored. complacency is surely the appropriate word. thank you again for writing about this important topic.

Lyndall said...

Posts like this are why I love your blog. I can't put the words together to say what this makes me feel, so all I will say is- I agree. And the inclusion of the caption with the above picture is so important- it completely changes the story.

Katie said...

Dear Hila,

First and foremost, I need to spell out that I'm not going to pretend that I have any educated opinions on the Holocaust. I am, however, by nature, a person who recoils at the thought of any violence.

I have been recently following the World War Two: The Apocalypse series on National Geographic. I learned a lot. It is not only that people forget, like you said, the majority of people don't even know. And even if they do, there is also a huge difference knowing "what happened" and "what it was like".

I guess what I'm trying to say is that although there will always, always be people who defend Galliano because the work he does is more important to them than what happened in WWII, thank you for putting your thoughts forward so that - at the very least - they exist. They exist so that people who can be educated, who can be changed hears them and then goes on to make the correct choice.

The image you posted is beautiful because it speaks of remembrance.


Akvilina said...

Lithuania was very much Lithuania before and after 1890-1941. :) It's one of those sensitive similarities related to identity and abuse, you could say, we share in common. Do you by chance know what small town this photo was shot in? If it still exist I am surely going to visit it!

Christine said...

Beautifully said. It's important not to lose the true significance of what is said or what we see--something that unfortunately happens quite often these days with the overindulgence of social media. Thanks for sharing such an intelligent and thoughtful post.

Rebeccak said...

Yishar Koach!

Sally said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sally said...

You're right, it is disheartening how so much seems forgotten. The other 5 to 11 million victims from other groups who fell victim to genocide during the war.... the (continuing!) effects of the atom bombs... and most importantly, as you say, genocide today. While it's crucial to pay attention to past atrocities, what about the horrors going on one continent over, right now? :(

Tana said...

I agree that this topic should be repeated over and over again just because some people don`t know about it. though the time has changed and the true facts about these terrible events have been revealed (but still some archives are in secrecy) i think we`ll always find something to be re-thought/revised and told not to forget. thank you Hila for this thoughtful post

Susanna-Cole King said...


Have you seen the film "Baraka" perhaps? There's a segment in it, a couple minutes after the 1 hour mark, in which the camera pans through museums like the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and the Killing Fields of Cambodia ... the viewer is given no narration, but a subtly haunting piece of music, and face after face after face after face ... all victims of genocide. The magnitude is mind-blowing and upsetting, as it should be.

And we can't say racial hatred and genocide that's a sin of the past. A more recent example is the Darfur genocide.

In Baltimore (where I live), more people are murdered every day than anywhere else in the entire country. This is no small feat, as "at 3.79 million square miles (9.83 million km2) and with over 310 million people, the United States is the third or fourth largest country by total area, and the third largest both by land area and population". Sometimes I think this homicide is something of a slowly executed genocide ...

But I digress, I'm afraid I've gone wayward from your original topic and thoughts into a general discussion of genocide.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

Pawling Print Studio said...

Some more thoughts ... Currently reading The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby and thought these quotes were appropriate (p.7):

"Debased speech in the public square functions as a kind of low-level toxin, imperceptibly coarsening our concept of what is and is not acceptable until someone says something so revolting [she uses Don Imus as an example] ... that it produces a rare, and always brief, moment of public consciousness about the meaning and power of words."

"The awful reality is that all of these epithets, often accompanied by the F-word, are the common currency of public and private speech in today's America. They are used not only because many Americans are infected by various degrees of bigotry but because nearly all Americans are afflicted by a poverty of language that cheapens humor and serious discourse alike."

Felix Curds said...

hila, you're just really cool. this post was really very beautiful. i myself am no where near as informed on the event of the holocaust as i'd like to be but i do share your contempt towards people forgetting or debasing the seriousness and atocities that occurred during instances like wwii. it's saddening that people's sensitivity/ignorance on the topic has seen an image of a beautiful memorial to the holocaust float around the internet uncredited- and worse yet on tumblr (lawl jks). as you said, the aesthetics can't be separated from the ideology and context. it's kinda evil and shallow to do so- to both the artist and the muse... kid's these days;)

Olga said...

I support your decision to write this letter to Vogue. I also consider it important that such tragic subjects from our past as the Holocaust are not treated lightly. I'm very surprised that some people tried to justify Galliano by mentioning his talent. His talent and his moral qualities are unrelated in this context.

Sasha said...

First, I am very glad that I saw this image with the included caption on tumblr as it fully deserves such a caption.

Second, your words ring true on many counts. Art is political and cannot be separated from ideology. As for the Galliano controversy, I was appalled at his words and more so at the way people came to his defense. There is no defense for his behavior.

I find it rather disconcerting that people would even try to defend his behavior least of all with cries of 'beautiful work.' In no way do hateful words and beautiful designs balance each other out.

The entire issue leads me on such a tirade that I'd best stop now. I just want to say thank you for writing this post, for being amazing, and for having such eloquence.

The Hue Smiles said...

i learned a lot from your post, i would've never known the context of that photo without reading it. very interesting
Forever Chic,

naomemandeflores said...

Beautiful post Hila. It's so brave of you to speak about this tragedy with such an open heart. I recently re-watched Nuit et Brouillard (Nigh and Fog) by the brilliant Alain Resnais. So powerful and touching, have you seen it?

Camila Faria

Danielle P. said...

Hila, thank you for your words, your sensitivity, your thoughtfulness, your courage, and your determination to keep these memories alive.

P R I M O E Z A said...

my partner and i read a bit about lars von trier trying to understand what his outburst was about. i think (but don't quote me on it) he grew up believing he was jewish and then later found out his father was actually german - hence the nazi reference (and obviously some big unresolved issues). but yeah, there's no excuse.

Jasmine said...

You're right, there's no excuse. Meaningful entry!

anabela / fieldguided said...

Hila, never give up. You write with a depth of passion that is so moving. I agree with every word you have said and agree that it is so important to remind everyone, as often as possible. I grew up so removed from the Holocaust myself -- didn't have many Jewish friends while attending Catholic school! But the first time I saw numbers tattooed on the arm of an elderly lady in a grocery store lineup, it was so very real, and so very humbling.

Molly said...

Ideology & aesthetics… you carried out that theme masterfully Hila, this post is truly moving. Thank you for sharing these sentiments with us, it goes a long way to honoring the victims of such hatred.

On another note, I am constantly disgusted by Tumblr. It often feels like its sole purpose is to provide an outlet for rampant image plagiarism. I'm sick of those who find an image they like, save it, then re-upload it as their own with no image credit— as if to applaud their own cleverness to be the first to find such an image. Much like what happened to the mistreated and beautiful image you included here… UGH. What happened to celebrating the original creator of an image or piece of art?

Okaaay and I'm done. I loved this post, Hila :)

Sundari said...

This post, like many of your other posts, has been very eye opening and moving. What have said here is very important. Context is everything and history is everything.

In regards to art... Just last night I was speaking with a friend. She is a painter and is now studying to be a curator and we were discussing the 'anti-intellectual' stream of artists that we see in our own art school and how bizarre it seems that people don't want to know where their work is situated in the world. Art is a reflection of everything. As soon as someone dips their brush into paint to then point it at a canvas, they are already making a statement about thousands of years of art.

The mind that creates the work of art also creates other things, and in Gallianos case, it creates very sad and vile statements. We cannot ignore that two seemingly separate things were created by the one mind.

In regards to discrimination... We have come far from the year 1945, the end of WWII. And we have so far to go yet. Sadly discrimination and hatred towards 'the other' is everywhere. It is unfortunate that people still live a narrow-minded existence, and it is more disappointing when other people defend them. The excuses I most often hear for these inexcusable comments are things such as 'oh but they are old, it was different back then...', 'yes but they don't understand', 'he doesn't really mean it', 'I agree what he did was wrong, but it doesn't stop me from thinking how amazing his work is...'

The world is very closely connected. Art, science, economics... they are all connected to politics. It's something I am slowly learning everyday.

Thank you for your passionate and inspiring post.

Sundari said...

P.S. I had to google the Lars von Triers controversy after reading this post as I had no idea what it was about...and oh my, what an absolute idiot and imbecile.

The comment in the article I read is true, you cannot separate art from the artist. I feel sorry for the actors associated with the film.

andrea despot said...

very eloquently and intelligently spoken, hila!

hila said...

I really can't express how moved I am by all these comments - many, many thanks. I've read them numerous times by now. Thanks for taking the time to engage in a dialogue about such an important and difficult topic.

janae: I agree, I'm just baffled by the 'pretty dresses' excuse. Come on, are they actually serious?

sj: yes, that's a big part of the point too - not just remembering the dead, but also, reminding ourselves that such horror still goes on today, and we choose to ignore it a lot of the time. and I agree with you: I never believed their apologies either, they seemed so stage-managed and contrived.

lyndall: oh thank you, that's sweet of you to say.

katie: thank you katie - I sometimes wonder what the point is of me posting on such topics as my words don't really carry any weight, but as you said, at least I put it out there. Ignoring the issue and feeling powerless doesn't really seem like an option to me when it comes to topics such as these.

akvilina: I think I have it written down somewhere, but I'll have to search - if I find the name, I'll let you know. Sorry, things are a bit hectic and busy for me these days, and all my notes are a mess!

christine: yes, there is such a sense of overindulgence of inane banality via social media these days. I'm sometimes so aggravated by it.

rebeccak: !!

sally: agreed, that's part of the reason why I wrote this post.

tana: thank you, as always, for your thoughtful response.

susanna-cole: no I haven't seen it, I'll look for it now, thanks! and digression is necessary, because you are absolutely right in the points you make here.

pawling print studio: that quote is fantastic, thank you!

felix curds: eh, kids these days :) right back at you miss cool.

olga: I suppose there will always be superficial people, it's kind of sad really.

sasha: thank you, I think you expressed yourself rather well too!

amber: thank you, I'm glad.

camila: thank you, but I don't really see it as anything brave at all :) Some things just make me so angry. and yes I have seen it, and I totally agree with you.

danielle: thank you for always reading my words and offering your own intelligent, sensitive, response!

primoeza/elizabeth: that's really, really odd, hmm ...

jasmine: thanks!

anabela/fieldguided: oh something similar happened to me too - it's so shocking to see those numbers on flesh for the first time. It made me feel sick.

molly: I know exactly what you mean about tumblr! I often wonder whether I should just delete my tumblr blog.

sundari: you know, I think there is a general 'anti-intellectual' culture in Australia, full stop. Which is why it's so difficult to even begin talking about such issues. It makes me feel so disheartened, because there are so many intelligent and talented people in Australia who actually do want to engage in meaningful discourse. Sigh, ...

andrea: thank you!

katie said...

hila your letter {with accompanying post} is more elegant and artful than any frock galliano could design.
some of these fashion parasites think they're above any kind of moral judge and jury. an industry, for the most part, fueled on narcissism and cocaine {most of them don't eat, men included}, compassion and decency is as foreign as plus-size and banana-clips.
bravo to you my dear.

hila said...

thank you katie.

Ameesha Lee said...

Well said Hila.