Forward and backward, abyss on abyss. In danger like this, pause at first and wait. Otherwise you will fall into the pit in the abyss. Do not act in this way.
The Censor Heedless on the Throne of Judgment
The Case Against Linda Nochlin
When I placed the pair of portraits of Larry facing each other on a spread of pages in the November 2000 issue of “Artforum” I explained to Knight Landesman, then the executive publisher, that aside from showing the readership painting as a material process inseparable from its image, what I wanted to place in juxtaposition to the slapstick agendas of Paul McCarthy and company that were featured in “Artforum” was traditional portraiture as direct observation on life and death – on real life and death.
Furthermore, issues were raised, as in the case of Larry Blauvelt, of the subject allowing himself to be “used” and “objectified” for others’ scrutiny: here then is a man dying, who knows he’s dying, and who will be dead soon! Is this strictly speaking ethical? Had I taken advantage of Larry’s vulnerability? Was there a relinquishing of his rights and humanity even though he participated willingly? Because it is a little macabre. But does that mean it was wrong to do as Larry was finally and clearly playing the role of his life. He was leaving a farewell salute to the living.
Does this then justify why this would be different from other issues of voyeurism? Is it only in sexual exploitation that a person is dehumanized? Then the issues start to touch upon artists using the tragedies of others as their vehicle.
I remember in Paris in 1994 what all the survivors from the Holocaust said to me: “Please don’t forget about us. Whatever you do, God bless you. Just don’t let this be forgotten.” - RR
I have already mentioned briefly my difference of opinion from the critic Linda Nochlin on the subject concerning the censoring of expression over the Holocaust. It had all come about because in the summer 2002 issue of “Artforum”, in her review of the exhibition “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art” which was shown at the Jewish Museum, she had thrown around the word “obscene” to which I objected in a short letter to the editor published in the September issue.
But perhaps it is reasonable to print here my more complete response to Ms Nochlin that never got published. It had crystallized after her defiant reply and her simultaneous review on a different but related subject published in that same September issue.
Always disarmingly gentle and rational, Knight had explicitly refused to publish the second letter as a matter of magazine policy of not engaging in ongoing disputes. I had to acquiesce to his determination on the matter, and to be fair, Knight had advised me from the very beginning to say all that I wished on the first round. But that was before Linda Nochlin’s intransigent stand followed by the inconsistencies of her argument brought forth later in the same issue in her review of “Western Deep”.
Knight had wanted it to seem that I concurred with his judgment when he was both letting me down personally and also dropping the serious debate at hand. For I believe Knight was mistaken as there were many important issues raised that went well beyond the subject directly addressed. The most alarming was the topic of censorship tied to a subtle form of iconoclasm pervasive at the time and evident in the work shown in “Mirroring Evil” that had been enthusiastically supported by Ms. Nochlin.
Furthermore, there was associated with the above topics the issue of the critic as demagogue. It was the danger of which I had tried to warn Ms Nochlin to be wary. I had hoped to convince her of the need to be circumspect in matters of extreme opinion that would only inflame antagonism. This in a world of post 9/11 already awash in the violence that I had alluded to and that was the result of cultural differences uncompromising on issues of freedom of expression and iconoclasm, you would think she might have gotten my point!
My first letter was trying to convey that this dangerous situation was at hand. Perhaps I could have done a better job. I had tried to restrain my indignation and hoped to advance a cautionary appeal for cooperative dialogue instead of recrimination and counter-suit.
That door was slammed shut by Ms Nochlin’s response. I had thought the occasion required vastly more discrimination on her part. I can only suppose that her past role as provocateur for the feminist movement, which has brought possibly as much harm as the wrongs it addressed, has made her immune to advice and reconciliation.
The flippancy of her reply, unresponsive to the delicacy of the issues, suggests possibly an acute self-satisfaction mistaking intransigence for integrity. Perhaps she has misunderstood that one never “arrives” but is always “arriving” both as a person and in one’s understanding. To be seen with reverence by others is a situation prone with dangers. One must be constantly vigilant. Then, and only then, can one bring order out of chaos. I believe Linda Nochlin failed to do that. There was and still is a great deal at stake.
Moreover, once Ms Nochlin opened the credibility of her criticism to a second look with a gaping contradiction in her arguments for what she indorses as artistic expression on the subject of victimization, I had to follow with a new appraisal of her as a critic. For what I found showed her to be frivolous to such an embarrassing degree that I believe it tarnished her standing.
For an artist struggling with my own conscience over expressing the subject of the Holocaust, I see Linda Nochlin’s attitude appallingly intolerant against what she doesn’t like when it was she who appealed for tolerance for artistic expression no matter how seemingly outrageous. I think she has consequently relinquished her position of objectivity as a critic and a spokesperson for diversity and become the closest incarnation I have seen of a censor in the art world.
That kind of self-righteousness I tried to warn her was the arena of the Nazis! For without humility guarding against the arrogance of authority, abuse will follow. That was exactly Derrida’s warning message in deconstructive criticism.
In her enthusiasm for her convictions Linda Nochlin thought she had the answers. She believed she had the right to sit in judgment on others as if she were the high priestess of morality. I think she was very much mistaken.
I must take exception to Linda Nochlin’s repeated use of the word “obscene” in her review of “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art”, a review that derides all attitudes of expression concerning the Holocaust other than the ironic distance employed in the postmodern works she so admires. Nochlin is entitled to her own opinion, but I don’t see that it is fitting to make moral judgments when from any vantage point one faces paradox and the chance to offend.
Perhaps a wiser choice would have been to offer an overview of the deeper, more fundamental historical differences between iconography and iconoclasm, of which the ironic stance is the present-day de(con)structive version. But as self-righteous intolerance on this issue has violently divided whole populations over the last millennium, I would think it would make one cautious about assuming superior clarity when humility best serves everyone involved.
Linda Nochlin responds:
I never “derided all attitudes.. other than the ironic distance employed in ... postmodern work.” On the contrary, I admire Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (far from ironic), Barnett Newman’s Stations ofthe Cross (inspired by the Holocaust, in my opinion). Olga Bernal’s powerful sculpture Train to Auschwitz. None of these is either ironic or postmodern. It is a particular category of Holocaust art that I dislike, an art that aestheticizes suffering and makes delectable belle peinture out of horror and pain. Far from “self-righteous intolerance,” I believe that my position is a critical one. As a critic, I don’t feel cautious humility is a fruitful or meaningful stance.