Portraits & Passages

Chapter 38

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Belle Tolls: A Retake

I can understand that Linda Nochlin would feel that la belle peinture doesn’t work well in picturing the suffering and pain of the Holocaust, because unlike the invisible  hand of the cinematographer, the hand of the painter is so consciously evident in every stroke and mark, that if the painting in the painting is “delectable” in its  superficial mastery, then we may rightly feel that the artist is strutting his stuff at the expense of that horror, and Nochlin’s point is well raised.

 But one must ask how she is using the word “obscene”. Is it a moral charge or just a strong word for this failure in matching method with subject. For Nochlin would  not find fault with the invisible presence of the cinematographer, as for instance her avowed admiration of Steve Mcqueen’s “brilliance as a filmmaker” in showing ‘relentless suffering” in “Western Deep”.

Obviously Mcqueen, the artist, benefits and makes beautiful images from the suffering of these miners’ “descent into hell”. So, on moral ground Mcqueen is  either equally guilty of an obscene gesture as painters making beautiful images of the Holocaust, or the issue isn’t really a moral issue but an aesthetic one. Then the  word “obscene” is irrelevant, and it’s more about Nochlin’s preference of media along with, at least in this case, shunning emotional display in favor of a guarded sang froid.

In her review of “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art” Nochlin praises the work of a generation of artists that doesn’t deal with experience first hand but  confuses media immersion with reality and so lives life as if it were an intendo game. That they have chosen to focus on movies about the Holocaust instead of the  Holocaust itself shows just how far removed the young are from taking life seriously. It seems that they can’t distinguish the historical from media clich and need the sting of outrageous shocks to awaken to their subject.

That Nochlin thinks it’s fine and dandy instead of a curious and perhaps frightening phenomenon says a lot about Nochlin’s polemic perch at this cultural moment, for  she clearly agrees that the Holocaust “can now be presented – and thereby distanced – only through the visual apparatus of popular culture: the pop icon, the  fetish, most notably, the toy. To do otherwise would be, to put it bluntly, obscene.”

What a strange thought! Why would we distance ourselves in this manner “transforming insufferable reality into something normal, something sufferable” as  Ernst van Alphen, one of these artists, suggest. But the Holocaust is not sufferable, and as painful as the subject is, “to reduce menacing objects and situations to the  status of toys and miniatures” and to turn it into a joke, even a bitter one, is a form of denial.

But what I find most alarming in Nochlin’s above sentence “To do otherwise..” is that it smacks of censorship! That and her nasty spin on Zoran Music’s “attempt to  ennoble through nifty brushwork senseless suffering and waste” seems outright twisted in suggesting his attempt was anything other than to remember the souls of  the dead who were treated less than human. That Nochlin distains cautious humility as a critic when pinpointing artistic stumbling is her choice, but unnecessary  condescension of others’ motives seems to me an arrogance that spoils her game.

                                          -Richard Rappaport

 

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