Whether art still has the power to disrupt, offend, and shock is a well-worn topic in the art world. Many of us take it for granted that, as Jennifer Schuessler wrote this past fall in the New York Times, “Shock long ago went mainstream.” At heart, though, the question concerns not just an artwork but also its context, and in our day and age, one sometimes gets the sense that context might be everything. Consider this: a statue of Hitler is currently on display in the former Warsaw Ghetto, courtesy of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan.
The sculpture, titled “HIM,” depicts Hitler praying on his knees. As part of a Cattelan retrospective at the Warsaw Center for Contemporary Art, it is installed on Prozna Street, in what was essentially the heart of the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest Nazi-organized Jewish ghetto of World War II. To give you an idea of what transpired there, here’s Wikipedia:
The death toll among the Jewish inhabitants of the Ghetto, between deportations to extermination camps, Großaktion Warschau, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the subsequent razing of the ghetto, is at least 300,000.
So yes, it’s not exactly a surprise that people are feeling offended by the placement of Cattelan’s sculpture, and knowing Cattelan’s history, that may even have been the point. The Associated Press puts it quite diplomatically, saying the installation is sparking “emotion,” a comically vague word choice. But what’s most interesting about the AP story is that the only entity quoted as being offended is the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which, despite its obvious ties to the Holocaust (its namesake was a survivor and Nazi hunter), has headquarters in LA and offices in a few countries around the world, but not Poland. Blogger Menachem Wecker at the Houston Chronicle points to another person expressing outrage at the installation: Ari Kohen, a professor of political science and the director of the program on human rights and humanitarian affairs at the University of Nebraska. On his blog, Kohen writes emphatically that the sculpture’s “placement suggests either a serious lack of judgement or outright anti-Semitism.”
In Warsaw itself, however, it’s not clear if the reaction is really that mixed. The AP writes, “On Friday, a stream of people walked by to view the work, and many praised it,” followed by a favorable quote from one of those people. And it turns out that the Center for Contemporary Art did its homework and consulted with Poland’s chief rabbi before installing the piece; he gave it his blessing and wrote an introduction for the exhibition catalogue.
So basically, from what I can tell, the people who are upset about the context of “HIM” are the ones who have not seen “HIM” currently in context. Somehow this isn’t surprising. Having not seen it myself, I can understand that initial reaction — the gut instinct to condemn something based on the quick reading of, “Some stupid artist put a statue of Hitler in the Warsaw Ghetto.” But here’s where the content of the work enters the picture: Hitler isn’t standing tall or making the Nazi salute; instead, he’s on his knees in a position of prayer. (On the other hand, you might say — and you might be right — that the real Hitler would have simply prayed for success in killing all the Jews and conquering the world.)
The way the work is installed is also key here: “HIM” is only visible at a distance, through a hole in a wooden gate. According to the AP, “Viewers only see the back of the small figure praying in a courtyard. Because of its small size, it appears to be a harmless schoolboy.” This distance and obscured view make its placement extremely safe, and they explain why only those who haven’t seen the work in situ seem to be upset; it’s not even clear how someone walking by would know that it was a representation of Hitler unless she was told.
In fact, I can’t help but wonder if the installation is too safe, to the point where it robs the sculpture of its power. Consider this passage, from Wecker:
When I saw HIM at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago a few years ago, the installation was set up in a labyrinthine configuration. As viewers made their way through the maze, they arrived behind a kneeling figure, which from a distance seemed to be a child dressed in a gray suit. Upon close inspection, however, that figure turned out to be Hitler.
In Warsaw, there’s no approach and revelation, no element of surprise or — dare I say it? — shock. Stefan Edlis, a Holocaust survivor and collector who owns an edition of “HIM,” told the Economist three years ago, “When people see this piece, they react with gasps, tears, disbelief. The impact is stunning. Politics aside, that is how you judge art.” Edlis and the Economist writer don’t make the explicit argument that the emotional power of the piece hinges on its surprise, but it’s hard not to assume that at least some of it does. And there’s none of that in Warsaw. You can’t even walk up to take a close look at this reduced, very human-looking Hitler.
In the end, that may be what some people are reacting to: Cattelan’s portrayal of Hitler as an approachable human being. Here’s one of Kohen’s tweets:
@mwecker And I think it’s an open question as to whether the kneeling Hitler intends to expose/explore his crimes or to humanize him.
— Ari Kohen (@kohenari) December 26, 2012
This is tricky and, I think, problematic. Refusing to see Hitler as a person means writing him off as a villain and assuming that he was just an exception to the rule. In many ways, he was an exception — thank goodness — but he was also human; part of his historical importance is in reminding us what flesh-and-blood people are capable of. Once you pretend that’s not the case, you’re basically living in denial.
Some part of me — presumably the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors part — remains uncomfortable with the placement of “HIM” in the ghetto. And that’s exacerbated by my knowledge of Cattelan’s work and that fact I often find it often lacking in substance. But then another part of me thinks that he may just have done something brilliant with this installation. The Warsaw Ghetto may have given his sculpture a conceptual power he never even knew it had.