In My Own Write: Artistic provocation

It would be good, if von Hausswolff’s guilt is proved and he is punished, for other would-be “Holocaust artists” to take note.

Carl Michael von Hausswolff 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Carl Michael von Hausswolff 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Did he, or didn’t he? Did Swedish artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff use ashes stolen from the crematoria in Majdanek in a painting, as he wrote on the website of the Bryder Gallery in Lund, Sweden? Or was his claim just a publicity stunt, a bid for notoriety? The matter is under investigation by Polish prosecutors.
The artist says he took the ash back in 1989 when he visited the concentration camp in Lublin and kept it in a jar “because it was too heavily loaded with the atrocities that took place at the site.”
Time, however, apparently lightened these atrocities for von Hausswolff because he says that in 2010 he opened the jar, mixed the ash with water and produced a series of vertical brushstrokes on acrylic paper suggesting a group of people standing closely together. The title of the painting: “Memory Works.”
Thankfully, memory worked well, prompting massive local protests against the exhibit, which was shut down last month after being on display for three weeks.
Officials at the Majdanek museum in Poland declared themselves “deeply shocked and outraged by the information that the painting allegedly was made with the ashes of Majdanek victims.” An estimated 80,000 people, three-quarters of them Polish Jews, were murdered by the Nazis in the camp between 1941 and 1944.
“This action is an artistic provocation deserving only to be condemned,” the officials said in a statement.
If theft of the ashes is proved, von Hausswolff could serve several years in prison under the Polish criminal code pertaining to looting from graves and desecrating human remains. Perhaps not too many hearts, Jewish and other, would bleed were that to happen.
GIVEN THE revolutionary and anti-establishment nature of art and of artists, it bears asking: What are the limits of “artistic provocation”? Many would likely ridicule the question, pointing out that it is the job and, indeed, raison d’etre of the artist to push the boundaries of convention out as far as possible, overturning norms, casting what was formerly accepted in a new light. And they would be right.
But it seems to me that it is the equal and no less important task of a sane society to push back when it perceives an artist to have betrayed his own – and by extension, that society’s – basic humanity. As von Hausswolff allegedly did when he pillaged a mass grave-site – Majdanek – and used the human remains as raw material to produce an artwork.
However emotionally affecting that work may in theory be – and perhaps some of those who viewed it were affected – this is clearly a case where the end, to put it mildly, categorically cannot in any way justify the means.
The lampshades that some Nazis ordered fashioned out of human skin might well have appeared functional and attractive to anyone ignorant of their origins; but would a person with any humanity have accepted such an item, much less admired it, once he knew where it came from? Salomon Schulman, a leading voice in Sweden’s Jewish community, described von Hausswolff’s work as “repulsive in the extreme.” Writing in the Sydsvenskan newspaper, he said: “Who knows, some of the ashes might have come from some of my relatives.”
A FRENCH phrase that sticks in my mind from my school days is the late-19th-century “épater la bourgeoisie,” meaning “to shock the bourgeoisie.” That rallying cry, calling for an in-your-face embrace of what the hidebound middle classes would regard as unnatural or excessive, became an artistic convention. It spawned generations of avant-garde artists, leading up to the present, who have shocked by pushing the boundaries of perceived “good taste.”
Pablo Picasso’s 1907 “Demoiselles d'Avignon,” portraying five nude and somewhat menacing female prostitutes rendered with angular and disjointed body shapes, signaled a radical departure from traditional European painting. Revolutionary and controversial, the work sparked widespread hostility and disagreement, even among Picasso’s close friends.
Was Marcel Duchamp’s model porcelain urinal, submitted in Paris for the New York exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, a sleek and shiny piece of art in its own right; a brilliant statement about the beauty of the ready-made item by a profound philosopher-artist, or a highly successful practical joke – or perhaps all three? No matter; the urinal, renamed “Fountain,” caused a scandal and stopped conventional notions of art dead in their tracks. According to Wikipedia, in December 2004, it was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 British art world professionals – though back in 1917, exhibition officials hid it from view.
CLOSER TO our own time, there’s the American Andres Serrano, whose 1987 photograph showing a plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of yellow liquid described by the artist as being his own urine provoked hate mail and death threats.
Then there’s British artist Damien Hirst, whose most famous works feature dead animals, often dissected. A bloody cow’s head (title: “A Thousand Years”) has a cloud of flies buzzing around it inside the transparent enclosure, many caught by a hanging “insecto-cutor.”
Hirst’s comprehensive exhibit at London’s Tate Modern last year was reportedly the most-visited solo exhibition in the gallery’s history.
OUR SHRINKING and electronic global world suffers from sensory overload. With bloody wars and other gruesome “news” graphically flashed across our screens 24/7, plus all manner of horrors just a computer click away, there is, sadly, less and less that the average Westerner finds really shocking.
Mix in the post-religious nature of Western society, where almost anything goes, and it becomes clear that today’s artists have a problem: How to push boundaries where so few boundaries remain? How to shock the increasingly shock-proof 21st-century consumer? The Huffington Post’s Art & Culture section has an answer of sorts: “For a work of art to be intensely riveting and truly controversial… the grotesque has to be shown in a new light, in a way that can’t be shaken off… If the image leaves your stomach reeling, it should do the same thing to your mind.”
Art & Culture wasn’t commenting on von Hausswolff’s artistic escapade, but the words “grotesque” and “reeling stomach and mind” aren’t a bad way to describe the effect of his alleged carrying off and subsequent use of burnt human remains from a site made sacred by human suffering.
Did he do it (if indeed he did) casually and cavalierly, or mindfully and with care? It doesn’t matter. The act itself demonstrated an appalling lack of respect for the site of one of the most inhumane episodes in Jewish and all history, and for those once-human beings who rest there.
For art and artists to thrive, it is necessary for them to disregard cultural norms. But if there are areas into which even they should not venture, surely grave-robbing is high on the list.
It would be good, if von Hausswolff’s guilt is proved and he is punished, for other would-be “Holocaust artists” to take note.
RESPECT FOR the human body is paramount in Jewish tradition, according to which we have all been created in the image (betzelem) of the One Supreme Being.
And that body, however faintly the divine spark glows therein, must be treated appropriately, in death no less than in life.
Instead of desecrating those human remains at rest, von Hausswolff would have done better to first visit the Jewish state, walk through the halls of Yad Vashem and absorb their message, then finally scoop up a measure of Israeli soil and leave it reverently behind him, at Majdanek.