The Art of the Empathizer: Witness and Legacy Revisited

With the coming of the 68th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I was thinking about the Center’s first art exhibition, Witness and Legacy, curated by founding director Stephen Feinstein, with the American Museum of Art in St. Paul Minnesota in 1995.  CHGS did not physically exist until 1997, but the roots of what it would accomplish were planted years earlier with this exhibition.

The artwork exhibited in Witness and Legacy traveled throughout the country until 2002 and is now available on the CHGS website in our virtual museum. The pages have been updated so that visitors can see the original exhibition and utilize the hyper links (where available) to visit the artist’s sites to see how their work has developed over the last 18 years.  Many have continued to explore the Holocaust-some have moved on to other themes.

Witness and Legacy was created as a commemorative exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and was conceived to examine a spectrum of Holocaust-related art from various mediums, as well as different perspectives:  that of the survivor-artist, the second-generation artist, and the empathizer.

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Memorial (1986) Samuel Bak

This generational approach allowed the viewer to see how various artists handled the subject matter based on their relationship to the Holocaust.  The survivor artist is a professional artist who was an actual witness to the event:  a victim of the Nazi regime. This art is considered “authentic” as it was created by those with actual memories of the event. The problem for all survivors in terms of creating art is how to translate the experience that cannot truly be understood by those who were not there.  This art tends to be about visual and metaphorical representations of the event. It is also can be a cathartic act, able to help heal the artist of the wounds created by their Holocaust experience. An example of a survivor-artist is Samuel Bak, a professional artist whose career began at the age of nine in the Vilna ghetto. Bak’s work is steeped in memory, fragments and the need to repair what was destroyed by the Holocaust.

Second generation artists also carry the burden of the Holocaust.  As children of survivors they deal with their parents’ traumatic experiences, either directly or indirectly conveyed.  Children of Holocaust survivors deal with their parents’ memories and that which cannot be forgotten or lives that cannot be recovered.  As descendants they continue to feel a direct connection to the trauma they did not actually experience. Examples of these artworks can be seen on the Witness and Legacy page under art by second-generation artists.

The art of the empathizer is more complex and carries not only esthetic, but new certain moral and ethical implications. As we get farther and farther away from the actual event and the first-hand witnesses are gone, we will see more of these artists dealing with the Holocaust as a theme.  These artists are those who have no direct connection or memory of the event, but have been moved by it in such a way that they feel a responsibility to include it in their work.  The empathetic artists in Witness and Legacy use the Holocaust as a theme to connect to their Judaism or to current human rights issues. Some also use it to raise awareness of other traumatic events or genocides.  Whatever the intentions of the empathetic artist there have been times that their efforts have been seen as disrespectful and trivializing based on the fact they have no direct connection to the Holocaust.

Abstract art has been used on many occasions to respond to the Holocaust.  Many artists have chosen to work with it in order to convey the horror of the Nazi crimes from a safe distance. For survivor artists it is to place a barrier between their experiences and the memory of those experiences. For others, especially the empathetic artist it can be a way of approaching a subject that they have no relationship with, conveying that distance through the abstraction.

Most recently a Swedish artist, Carl Michael von Hausswolff created great controversy over his abstract painting “Memory Works” which he claims he created using ashes that he collected (illegally) from the Majdenek death camp in Poland during a visit in 1989.  The abstract painting (he claims) represents all Holocaust victims suffering.  There are several issues with Hausswolff’s intentions and motives, since the idea of using human ashes is ghoulish, disrespectful and unnecessary.  It makes the work seem false by sensationalizing the crime by use of actual human remains.

The most troubling aspect and greatest objection to the work is the “stealing” of the ashes themselves.  Hausswollf’s actions have been seen as no better than grave robbers, as every space of an extermination camp contains the remains of the dead. (At this time the state of Poland is considering an investigation.)

Is Hausswollf, who usually works with electronic recording equipment, truly interested in the Holocaust and paying tribute to its victims? Is he trying to make a statement about society’s fascination with sensationalistic violence or the trend of using the Holocaust as a metaphor and symbol for everything we consider bad or evil in this world? What if he was a survivor-artist or second generation would we still question his motives or would he have a right to incorporate the ashes into his work because he had a direct connection to the event?

The question of artistic representations in connection to atrocities, and the Holocaust in particular, is not new. It began soon after World War II with Ardorno’s often quoted dictum about “writing poetry after Auschwitz.” This question is something we continue to wrestle with as the Holocaust continues to be represented in artistic ways that on many levels fail to satisfy us.  How often have we heard critics remark on representations that are not real enough, or as in the case of Hauswolff (whose use of what might be actual ashes) is too crude and disrespectful to be considered art? What Witness and Legacy did was to begin a conversation and an exploration of the Holocaust as a subject in art.  With the rise of the empathetic artist these questions will be something we will continue to ask, and explore.

Jodi Elowitz is the Outreach Coordinator for CHGS and the Program Coordinator for the European Studies Consortium. She began her career at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in 1997 as an intern and graduate student under the tutelage of former director Dr. Stephen Feinstein.  She was the Director of Holocaust Education at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas and the Executive Director of the Tennessee Holocaust Commission. Jodi received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Humanities and her Master Liberal Studies degree at the University of Minnesota.

 

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