Artistic Deficiency and the Holocaust

In January, 2016, I received an invitation from Maria Anna Potocka, Director of the Museum of Contemporary art in Kraków (MOCAK), inviting me to contribute to the forthcoming book "Voices on the Holocaust."  What follows is her statement on behalf of the museum, her list of questions, and then my own response.

From Maria Anna Potocka:

The Holocaust is the most traumatic of all the issues that our civilisation has had to face. Globally, there are a number of important institutions that deal with the Holocaust from the historical point of view. This approach, however, is not sufficient to preserve the memory of what human beings are capable of and to affect their behaviour today. That requires the imagination to be stimulated and sensitivity to be stirred. Painterly presentations, imbued with pathos, of sadistic scenes from concentration camps do not fulfil this requirement, achieving indeed the opposite result: they reinforce the notion that it is others who have committed atrocities that we ourselves would not be capable of.

Contemporary art has engaged with the Holocaust. In dealing with the theme, artists have no ambition to record historical events faithfully or realistically. Instead, they set out to observe – in themselves, above all – the scope of human empathy and to come to grips with the imperfection of our imagination and with our duty towards the memory. Rather than building a monument to the victims, they tackle human evil. Since contemporary art does not make a point of being diplomatic nor does it shy away from pain, these works often upset viewers.

On 14 May 2015, we opened at MOCAK a multi-part exhibition entitled 
Poland – Israel – Germany: The Experience of Auschwitz (https://en.mocak.pl/poland-israel-germany-the-experience-of-auschwitz). Its core consists of works by a dozen or so contemporary artists who attempt to probe the present state of sensitivity to, and imagination and comprehension of the Holocaust. Without a doubt, none of these works fits into the traditional mode of depicting the Holocaust.

As a result, a number of independent protests sprang up, which were based on second-hand rumours that at MOCAK some work or other was being shown that dealt with the theme in question ‘disrespectfully’. There were demands for an immediate closing down of the exhibition – demands not backed by any intellectual arguments, the only argument put forward being the ‘suffering’. Naturally, one must not take these lightly; however, neither must one accept a situation where – after decades of censorship and cultural diktat – individuals or institutions that have been upset by artistic commentary wish to decide on what programme the Museum may offer.

This difficult situation – having to find ourselves in opposition to institutions that we respect – has made us realise to what extent the topic of the Holocaust has not been worked through, to what extent it remains ‘off limits’.

For this reason, we have decided to open up a broader discussion of this issue, asking our respondents a number of questions that seem to us the most urgent today. We hope that the result will be a publication in four languages: English, German, Hebrew, and Polish. Without a doubt, this will be the start of a discussion on this difficult issue, which surfaces usually at times of conflict between history and contemporaneity.

The publication will be a continuation of the Holocaust-related activities at MOCAK. We published – also in the three languages – the book Photographer1940-1945, containing an interview with and a video recording of Wilhelm Brasse, a prisoner and the chief photographer at Auschwitz. Currently we are working on the book Szrajberka [Writer] which records an interview with the author Zofia Posmysz, and a film about this Auschwitz survivor. We have also recorded the recollections of other former prisoners of Auschwitz – Józef Paczyński and Tadeusz Smreczyński. We recently published the Polish edition of the book Death Did Not Have the Last Word, to date the most comprehensive catalogue of art created in concentration camps, and the catalogue of the exhibition Poland – Israel – Germany: The Experience of Auschwitz, which also includes a film recording of a drawing performance by Michel Kichka, the son of an Auschwitz prisoner.

Maria Anna Potocka, PhD
Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow MOCAK


1.    What matters more for the memory of the Holocaust: the past, and remembering the victims; or the present, and coming to understand the evil that man is capable of?
2.    How should the Holocaust be described and interpreted?
3.    How can the memory of the Holocaust be insulted?
4.    Should we – out of consideration for those who suffered an ‘experience overload’ – give up attempts to stimulate the sensitivity of others?
5.    Should pathos be the only acceptable convention for talking about the Holocaust?
6.    Today, is putting the blame for the Holocaust solely on the Germans an attempt to escape our collective guilt?
7.    Should the responsibility for the Holocaust extend to culture and religion?
8.    Is therapy through detachment, irony and humour permissible in reference to the Holocaust?

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Artistic Deficiency and the Holocaust
Jason Francisco


Soon after MOCAK opened its 2015 exhibition Poland – Israel – Germany: The Experience of Auschwitz, I wrote a detailed review which criticized the show on a number of grounds (jasonfrancisco.net/the-experience-of-auschwitz).  I was not among those who called for the show to be closed or censored.  On the contrary, I vigorously defended the museum’s right to show controversial work, to take risks, to offend people.  As I saw it, most pieces in the exhibition were uncompelling as works of art, but none were the equivalent of hate speech.  Likewise, the curatorial thinking struck me as significantly flawed, but in no way historically revisionist or anti-Jewish.  Artists have the right to fail, and so do museums.  These rights are essential to a free society and open debate.

My fundamental criticism of the exhibition was the use of the Holocaust for what I saw as art games, and the incapacity of 1990s-vintage postmodernism to address questions of evil.  In fact my criticism runs deeper.  To use the words of Shoshana Felman, writing originally about Polish bystanders in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, the artists represented in MOCAK’s exhibition see the Holocaust, but “...do not quite look, they avoid looking directly, and thus they overlook...their responsibility.”   In this sense, these artists unwittingly reproduce the complications of Polish civilians who were onlookers to the Jewish genocide, but not witnesses to it––bystanders who did not define themselves as deponents.  Should we not expect, at the least, an art of witness from those with the benefit of retrospection?  Should we have to state that art about the Holocaust entails moral responsibility from the outset?

I ask as an artist who has made many works about the Holocaust, and who does not underestimate the perils of accepting that responsibility.  The voices of the murdered are, after all, in darkness, and our voices––the voices of the inheritors––are also in darkness.  Theirs is the darkness of the abyss, of having been condemned and murdered simply for existing as human beings, and ours is the darkness of incomprehension, which only grows as we learn more and more about how and where it happened.  Perhaps, in time, these two darknesses will converge.  For now they are not the same darkness, and so pose extraordinarily difficult problems:  how to render the Holocaust on its own terms, how to honor the murdered without using them as instruments of our own preoccupations, how to remember without substituting memory for the thing remembered, how to interpret crimes against humanity without flattening or simplifying or sanitizing them, how to say something at all when words and images come to nothing, and how to say nothing in the face of that which will not tolerate our silence?

It seems to me that when it comes to making art about the Holocaust, an artist’s ethical seriousness consists in an awareness that the genocide’s losses are beyond redemption, that ignorance is the point of departure, and that the work will ultimately fail.  The best the artist can hope for is that it fails well.  If I were to enumerate it, art that fails well communicates three things:

1.   The internal logic or comprehensibility of the artwork gives itself away to the Holocaust’s own volatility, rupture, terror, bereftness of meaning.  The work’s ethical integrity depends on meaningfully delivering the viewer to the brink of the Holocaust’s own entropy.  

2.  The Holocaust itself retains agency in the artwork, speaks back from inside it, as it were, and in speaking back, it insults all of us for our poverty of understanding.  Speaking back to us, the Holocaust maligns memory, maligns the artist, maligns the best intentions of those who would derive from it lessons, principles, resolutions.  

3.  The Holocaust itself is without figure.  For the artist to give it figure is either to render it negatively, by way of what it is not, or to make it present in such a way that we understand how it itself exceeds that form of presence.  In its apartness, uniqueness and sheer resistance to word and image, the Holocaust paradoxically most resembles God.

There is no prescription, no recipe for how to make such work.  One can only speak of it post-facto.  However, work that fails the Holocaust badly, so to speak, suffers from a predictable, if peculiar combination of cowardice––often a sanctimonious attitude toward loss, which objectifies the Holocaust and distances us from its presence––and hubris, specifically the conviction that its audience should be protected from the Holocaust’s realities.  This ersatz protection can take all manner of forms, from the lachrymose to the mordant, the laconic to the ironic.

For the artist who would work on the twentieth century’s defining crime, the most important thing is that the work set forth a space of receptivity in which grieving can occur, inasmuch as collective grieving is the process through which civilization matures, as Jonathan Webber has remarked.  By inventing forms for renewed grieving––forms that manage to delineate their own deficiencies, and succeed by means of well-wrought failure––the artist stands to contribute something meaningful both to the memory of the dead, and the predicament of those who would share in the remembering.  


March 2016
Atlanta