Review: Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art, The Jewish Museum, NYC, March 17-June 30, 2002.

Jennifer Cotter


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The resurgence of Eurofascism has caused shock and alarm among liberal European politicians and commentators. While many French liberals breathed a sigh of relief when Le Pen was ultimately defeated by Chirac, rising support for Le Pen and successes of the far-right in Italy, Austria, Belgium, Denmark,... and now Burnley, England show that the threat of fascism is not simply a passing fluke. Denmark, which is next to occupy the European Union presidency and will begin to negotiate an EU policy on immigration and asylum, is led by self-proclaimed "housewife-leader" Pia Kjaersgaard who sees the model of a "good society" in "friendly and smiling people who simply don't want a multi-ethnic society" ("Denmark Mulls Image in EU Leadership", The Associated Press, June 29, 2002). This sugar coating, however, is a cover for brutal racism and the rise of fascism. It is no coincidence that on the same day Denmark takes over EU leadership it is also scheduled to pass anti-immigration laws so harsh toward the life conditions of immigrants and refugees that the United Nations is questioning their legality under international law ("Danes justify harshest asylum laws in Europe" The Guardian, June 29, 2002). Other European fascists are even more revealing: such as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who proclaims the superiority of western over Islamic civilization, and Italy's Northern League leader Umberto Bossi (part of Berlusconi's government) who warns against "Muslim Invaders". Moreover, Chirac, along with other neo-liberal representatives of EU countries, such as Tony Blair, are themselves proposing crackdowns on asylum and restrictions on immigrants that appease the far right's understanding that "immigrants" are the source of economic crises and, at the same time, insure a steady stream of unprotected international labor which transnational capital can more easily exploit to make a profit.

However, the fact that the resurgence of fascism in Europe is not an "isolated event" but evidence of fundamental contradictions in "democracy" under capitalism is most directly manifested in the deliberate dismantling of democracy by the leaders of the "free world" as soon as the rule of capital is threatened. From the "disappearing" of hundreds of "ethnically suspicious" immigrants (and now citizens) by the U.S. government with no public or legal accountability, to the criminalizing (as "anti-Semitic" and "terroristic") by Sharon (regarded in the U.S. as a "model leader" of "democracy") of any political dissenters (Israeli or Palestinian) who dare to question the imperialist practices of the Israeli state, to Bush's proposal for achieving "democracy" in the Middle East through state sanctioned bribery (in the form of threats to cut international aid) to force Palestinian voters to oust a democratically elected leader and intimidate them at the polls to vote in a leader more favorable to transnational business… it is painfully clear that "democracy" itself has become a ruse for protecting the interests of transnational capital.

The parties of the "far right" in Europe have been able to successfully make use of "patriotism" and the "war on terror" to demonize and criminalize "foreigners" and have gained ground as bourgeois democracy fails to resolve deepening economic crisis and poverty. Such conditions are also being fostered in the U.S. While billions of dollars are being shifted away from social resources in education, health care, etc, and toward profit for military industry, unemployment and economic insecurity continue. What some analysts call a "jobless recovery" is actually recovery for big business with continued impoverishment for workers as, according to a New York Times report, only 40,000 of the 1.5 million jobs lost since March 2002 have been recovered ("Job Cuts Take Heavy Toll on Telecom Industry", New York Times, June 29, 2002). Moreover, the National Guard recently demonstrated that the crisis in the practices of corporate executives, (who have, one after another, illegally bilked millions of dollars from the pensions of workers), is not limited to corporations but, is systemic of all institutions in capitalism ("National Guard Numbers Inflated", Albany NY Times Union, 6/29/02). The dismantling of democracy by "democratic" world leaders, the increase of institutionalized racism against persons of Middle Eastern and Central and South Asian descent in the wake of Sept. 11, combined with deepening economic crisis and the growing desperation of the majority whose labor is exploited, is helping to strengthen conditions for the growth of fascism.

In the face of this crisis of capitalism and the dismantling of democracy what is urgently needed is a coherent analysis that can explain the connections between the deterioration of "democracy" by its world leaders, the imperialist wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, the "breakdown" in the practices of transnational corporations and other institutions, and the resurgence of fascism across Europe... and enable a decisive struggle against fascism and the fundamental economic and social contradictions in capitalism that enable it. But what is offered by the "left" as a "radical alternative" to fascism and the class contradictions on which it is based is more of the same infantile culturalism which serves as an ideological mask for economic neo-liberalism: the doctrine that the only way in which to fight economic exploitation and restore social justice is "resistance within" using the tools of oppression to dismantle oppression. The "left" has basically come to embrace Anthony Giddens' cynical argument that the left can defeat the far-right only by moving further right (Giddens, "The Third Way Can Beat the Far Right: By Modernising, Liberalising and Being Tough on Immigration", The Guardian, May 3, 2002).

Such is the logic of Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art, an exhibit of the work of 13 international artists at the Jewish Museum in New York City (March 17, 2002 – June 30, 2002), which puts forward the understanding that fascism can only by defeated from "within". The exhibit is represented by the museum's curator, Norman L. Kleeblatt, as a "bold" and "dangerous" investigation into the "power" of Nazi imagery by a "new generation" of artists for a new "post-survivor" generation. Taking a point of departure from what it regards as "traditional" memorialist artistic representations of the holocaust which center around the mourning for and remembrance of its victims and identification with the "Jewish experience", the exhibit claims to offer new insight into fascism which places "Nazi imagery" and the conditions that enable it under critical examination by using this imagery to explore the roots of Nazi power. By placing the focus on Nazi images and power, it is claimed that the exhibit enables viewers to interrogate the ways in which fascist culture operates within and seduces them in their everyday lives. Using such devices as irreverence, humor, a "cool cerebral" style, and "ambiguity" the various contributions to the exhibit make use of Nazi imagery, often juxtaposed with images from contemporary commodity culture, in order to put forward the understanding that we are "seduced" and drawn to fascism through our own desires, finding pleasure in it, at the same time we "resist" it. In doing so, it claims to expose how we are all participants in fascism in our everyday lives.

However, what the exhibit takes to be an account of the "connection" is a "blurring the boundaries" between fascist and consumer. For instance, in Alain Séchas' installation piece Enfants Gâtes, which includes four perfectly aligned posts upon which sit toy cats (with Hitler hairstyles and mustaches and swastika baby rattles), one is surrounded by mirrors to the left and the right of the cats creating the illusion of an "infinite" army of Hitler cats and, at the same time, "mirroring" one's own "infinite" participation among the ranks of the army. Many of the exhibits are devoted to this parody of "fascism" and "everyday consumptions" and our participation in it: such as Mischa Kubball's Hitler's Cabinet, an installation of 144 glamorous headshots of Hollywood actors (e.g., Gregory Peck, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Kurt Russell, and others) playing Nazi soldiers and leaders or Zbigniew Libera's LEGO Concentration Camp Set both of which aim to uncover how seemingly "harmless" and "entertaining" activities can be sites for indoctrination. Moreover, the exhibit supports the understanding that fascism is brought about by our "desires" and "how desire betrays us". Thus, pieces like Macieji Toporowicz's video Obsession, which places the Nazi imagery of "perfection", "the body", and "sado-masochism" next to the reproduction of these same images in Calvin Klein advertisements or Tom Sachs' Giftgas Giftset ("designer" Xyklon B gas cans decorated with Chanel, H­­­ermès, and Tiffany & Company logos), present fascism as a product of "desires" by drawing the parallel between images that endorse fascism and images that promote a "love of consumer goods".

This is a source of objection by many conservative critics who see any connection between "fascism" and contemporary commodity culture as a "trivialization" of the holocaust and an anti-Semitic "betrayal" of the millions of Jews massacred under the Third Reich. But what is a scandalous disservice to this legacy is not an inquiry into the relationship between fascism and capitalism; rather, it is that the material conditions for fascism are being reproduced again today, in some cases in the very name of "protection" against Anti-Semitism, as Ariel Sharon and George Bush are proving by working to dismantle democracy in the Middle East. Such efforts will only harm the life conditions of Israeli workers in the long run, whose conditions of life will be deteriorated if the State of Israel is able to continue to keep Palestinians captive as a cheaper and exploitable workforce. What is at stake in criticisms of the exhibit that work to conceal the relation between capitalism and fascism, is a "privatizing" of the holocaust by erasing the material conditions in capitalism that produced it and a suppression of the knowledges necessary to identify, understand, and fight the resurgence of fascism today.

These criticisms not only work to suppress any open inquiry into the connection between fascism and capitalism, they also obscure the actual assumptions and consequences of the exhibit and its mystification of the relationship between fascism and capitalism. It is what the exhibit actually regards to be the "roots" of Nazi power, fascism, and commodification that is most urgent to examine for a generation that must confront the contemporary resurgence of fascism and learn to fight it. Underneath its self-proclaimed "bold" and "radical" break from what it regards as "victim" analysis and its so called "daring" exploration of Nazi power and commodity culture is a deeply cynical and politically conservative position on the historical roots of fascism: the understanding that fascism is, in essence, an "evil", "mass psychology" motivated by a transhistorical desire for power that exists "within us all" and that is at the basis of all society and culture. The exhibit's analysis makes purely cultural connections between "fascism" and the commodity culture of late capitalism. In this culturalist analysis what matters is HOW we consume and whether or not, as the exhibit states, "we desire designer labels so much that we are willing to accept anything at all that comes in them". The dismantling of democracy and the rise of fascism, on the terms of the exhibit, is ultimately understood as an eternal and mass psychopathology of desire that always threatens to take over. For this position, "fascism" is something that can be "negotiated within" but never transformed. It is ultimately a fundamental part of human behavior and, thus, natural.

Fascism is not an eternal "mass psychology" but a product of concrete historical conditions in class society. It is a historical reaction to capitalism in decline that attempts to maintain capitalist society and its increasingly outdated relations of production when bourgeois democracy fails to do so. At root, it is founded on imperialism and the phase of capitalist decline when productive forces have come into irreconcilable contradiction with the relations of production, throwing them into deepening crisis. In such a historical situation, "bourgeois democracy" becomes increasingly incapable of stabilizing capitalist society. Amid the weakening of bourgeois democracy's capacity to manage the contradiction and increasing crises within capitalism, and in the absence of a strong, unrelenting revolutionary workers' movement to transform the social relations of production, fascism is able to take hold of masses of the "declassed" petit-bourgeoisie (and of other workers) not owing to a transhistorical desire for power or "evil psychology" that exists within human nature, but owing to the desperate need of the masses brought on by exploitation and intensified by the falling rate of profit.

Fascism in Europe has re-emerged as a reactionary response to increasing economic crisis, high unemployment, and the failure of bourgeois democracy to address the increasing impoverishment of the majority. Moreover, this reactionary response to economic crisis has been aided and abetted by the deterioration of democracy under capitalism and the rise of security states in the U.S., Europe, and Israel for defending the interests of transnational capital. These security states, which hold indefinitely persons on no other grounds except ethnicity, criminalize the activities of persons exercising basic democratic rights of debate and dissent, and, as a consequence, work to channel outrage at economic inequality and social injustice for the majority against other workers instead of capital, mark the fact that the health of "bourgeois democracy" is in serious crisis and that "democracy" is increasingly not useful to the ruling class to maintain profit. Although fascism relies on "mass support" it is, to be clear, a ruling class solution to the contradictions of capitalism and the failures of bourgeois democracy. Its historical role is to destroy revolutionary workers struggle to transform the social relations of production and abolish production for profit. It specifically works to destroy revolutionary organizations and the material conditions for its development, and suppress political liberties and basic human rights when the ruling class is unable to govern and dominate workers by means of democratic institutions.

But the frame of understanding that the exhibit offers as to why we can find parallels to the culture promoted under fascism and the commodity culture of capitalism, works to erase the historical conditions that produce "desire", the consumptive subject and, moreover, that soften a public to fascism. The real consequence of the exhibit's "anxiety" about representation as participation in fascism is not to challenge fascism, commodity culture and the class contradictions that produce it. Instead, by representing fascism as the product of an evil, "mass psychology" that exists within us all as a fundamental human behavioral problem, the exhibit works to naturalize the "pathologizing" of and spying on the "masses" that is now being revived by capitalist oligarchies in order to demonize and criminalize dissent from the imperatives of transnational capital and imperialist warfare. This logic is what helps to criminalize the public at large and is used as justification for increases in e-mail and mail monitoring and wiretapping and the call by U.S. officials such as Condoleeza Rice for Americans to "be vigilant" and keep an eye out for "suspicious activity" on the part of others on July 4 (Meet the Press, June 30, 2002). The logic that the "threat" to democracy is lurking around in the "masses" not only serves to legitimate the dismantling of democracy to protect profit, but also to divert attention away from the systemic crisis in all institutions of capitalism that can make workers vulnerable to fascism. This view also helps to demonize all modes of collective struggle for social transformation—including those based not on maintaining capitalism and the exploitation of labor for profit but on abolishing these conditions. On the terms of the exhibit's culturalism, there is no difference between "mass participation" in building a fascist dictatorship and "mass participation" based on the very conditions of revolutionary class struggle that fascist dictatorships are set up to dismantle.

In reality, the "mass participation" by the "middle class" that is necessary for fascism to gain political power, is not, ultimately, founded on the economic and social interests of the masses rather, it is founded on the economic interests of big business. The principal tendency of fascism, as the history of fascism in Nazi Germany proves, is not actually toward nationalization of resources but toward "reprivatization" of wealth into the hands of a few. For instance, even during the height of severe labor shortages during the Nazi regime, it was able to keep wages for workers at an unprecedented low. Moreover the concentration of wealth into fewer hands increased dramatically under fascism in Germany, despite the base of "mass" and seemingly "anti-capitalist" support by middle class persons thrown into economic crisis and confronted by the deep crises in bourgeois parliamentary democracy. The total capital of German corporations rose from 18.75 billion Reichmarks in 1938 to more than 29 billion at the end of 1942, while at the same time the number of corporations decreased by over 100. These gains for big business were not a product of transhistorical desires that exist within us all but, among other things, part of fascism's decisive attack on and dismantling of workers organizations and deliberate support of the interests of big business. The fact that fascism cannot at root be explained by a transhistorical and "mass" psychology is further demonstrated by the fact the fascist dictatorship in Germany repetitively departed from its claims to "total nationalization" and against all "private interests" to serve the interests of big business. For instance in May 1940, a Flick owned bazooka shell production company was able to negotiate a contract with the Nazi regime that raised the state's offer of 24 Reichmarks per shell (which already accounted for a standard profit margin) to 39.25 per shell. In another instance in March 1942, the Nazi government allowed the Flick company to take over a production plant established by the army using public funds and equipped with the most modern machinery at over 6 million Reichmarks less than its market value. (For further discussion of this historical evidence see: Ernest Mandel's "Introduction" to Leon Trotsky's The Struggle Against Fascism In Germany, Pathfinder, 1971).

This goes to show that fascism is directly connected to the brutal subordination of all interests to those of production for profit and the class interests of the bourgeoisie. The Mirroring Evil exhibit, however, suppresses the relationship of fascism and Nazi power to class contradictions, capitalism, and imperialism. Echoing the consciousness that softened the public to fascism rather than critiquing it, the exhibit puts forward a position that is politically and ethically opposed to the effects of capitalist society and its commodity culture but not economically opposed to its relations of production (private ownership of the means of production) based on production for profit not needs. Its understanding that the "representation" of the historical conditions of fascism as "always already" a mode of participation within fascism, merely serves here as a means to naturalize and represent as "inevitable" the exhibit's own contribution to re-producing a consciousness favorable to fascism.

The exhibit is in fact anxiously self-conscious about these effects. On one level it is presented as an "innovative" inquiry into the "power" of images in the contemporary world and, specifically, the way in which "representations" of fascism and the holocaust can serve as further participation in their effects. On another level, it justifies its own limits by putting forward the understanding that there is no way out of this process and that we are destined to "negotiate" with fascism forever. Take, for instance, British artist Alan Schechner's two contributions to the exhibit which aim to explore the "troubling association" of commodification, concentration camps, and contemporary image technology. In his Self-Portrait at Buchenwald: It's the Real Thing (1993), Schechner uses digital technology to import a black and white image of himself holding a gleaming colorful Diet Coke can into Margaret Bourke-White's photograph of emaciated concentration camp prisoners, Prisoners at Buchenwald (1945). In his Barcode to Concentration Camp Morph (1994), he uses digital technology to produce a moving image in which the numbers on a barcode morph into the faces of concentration camp prisoners while the bars themselves turn into their bodies in striped uniform.

Schechner who (like all other artists included in the exhibit) is informed by the understanding that in the contemporary world, the "image" is at the root of all social reality—that is, that it does not represent but "constitutes" and produces social reality—tries to expose the "ideological bias" of images of fascism and the act of representing its effects through manipulating holocaust images and juxtaposing them next to images from contemporary commodity culture. Yet, this inquiry into the social conditions of "images", commodification, and "ideology" turns out to be a thin guise for understanding the holocaust as "unknowable" outside of direct experience of it. Schechner himself argues that the "key" issue at stake is whether one can "know" the holocaust without experience of it. His "importation" of himself (as a contemporary) back into Buchenwald is in part a story of "melancholia" and "mourning" for the lost experience of his ancestors. In the absence of "authentic experience" of the holocaust, a new generation is only able to work with the "images" of fascism, which have now become the "reality" of fascism.

At best what such a view offers is the simplistic understanding that fascism can be defeated merely through the manipulation of images—through a resistance from "within". This is, in fact, what informs Israeli artist Boaz Arad's video Hebrew Lessons (2000). In this piece, Arad splices together segments of film and sound bites from some of Hitler's public speeches, the end result of which is a video of Hitler saying "Shalom Yerushalayim, ani mitnatzel" (Hebrew for "Hello Jerusalem, I apologize"). Moreover, at worst, this understanding of culture, which abstracts culture (and specifically fascist culture) from the economic and social conditions that produce it, puts forward the understanding that fascism is an ambiguous, ever-present and, ultimately, eternal cultural and psychological conflict that must be "negotiated" because there are no definite conditions that can be transformed in order to eradicate it.

This culturalism is, in fact, a direct rearticulation of the ideological spin by which the leaders of the "free world" mask the ruling class interests behind the rise of security states. The partner of fighting fascism by embracing fascism is "preserving democracy by dismantling democracy". Under the pretext of defending "civilization" and "democracy against terror", world leaders are increasing the security state and its practices: spying on citizens, criminalizing dissent and debate, suspending due process,... But what kind of "democratic, civil society" is it that defends itself by destroying the civilian and democratic infrastructure (schools, hospitals, public welfare offices) of others and bulldozes or barbwires off whole communities of people?  What kind of democracy looks for "protection" from dictators in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan?  Moreover, in what kind of democracy is it possible for a court appointed President to illegally suspend, by Executive order, the Presidential Records Act, thus indefinitely denying citizens public access to Presidential and Vice Presidential records and the right to investigate the interests that their (non-elected) government serves?  It is "democracy" and "security" for transnational capital. In actuality, the interest of the imperialist wars in the Middle East and Central Asia are not about "preserving democracy" and "civilization" but about who will control the surplus-labor of the international proletariat, and specifically of those workers of the Middle East and Central Asia.

Far from offering a bold and daring response for a new generation that must confront increasing economic crisis and impoverishment for the majority, the deterioration of basic social freedoms, the rise of state-sanctioned racism, and a resurgence of fascism and conditions that support it, the Mirroring Evil exhibit offers a weak culturalism of "resistance within" and "embracing the right to defeat the right" that is now part of justifying the massive assault on the life conditions of the international proletariat. A massive assault in which all workers, across the world, are having their life conditions eroded and social resources reprivatized in a war for transnational capital, thus making them more easily subordinated to exploitation.

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