The Artist and the Holocaust
excerpts from a lecture


The Holocaust is not a subject like any other - still life, landscape or the nirvana of abstraction. Perhaps, it is no fit subject at all. The sight of human degradation and slaughter is, perhaps, too much for the delicate constitution of a young artist. Throughout history the artist's depiction of war has always been one of glory, heroics and manliness. It was only in the last century, when Goya came face to face with the atrocities of Napoleon's war in Spain, that the true face of war and horror finally became revealed and faced with revulsion.

You enter the world of Holocaust against your better judgment, reluctantly, even afraid of what you may face, where it might lead. You do not feel in charge of your own decision or direction; you feel that you're being led - by what? Dante, 700 years ago, at the beginning of his literary journey, The Devine Comedy, first comes to the gates of Hell where he meets Virgil, that ancient Roman poet, who will guide Dante through his Inferno. No matter how reluctantly you enter - to journey through that special Hell, the Holocaust, you need the steadying presence of a guide, a companion, call it your Muse. Without her you can get lost. But even guided by Virgil, Dante could not imagine this most depraved of all hells, we have come to call the Holocaust. It is the ultimate hell, the "Final Solution", a hell not of some nether world, but of our world, not for any sinners, but for the innocent, even for children.

On this journey - as a visiting artist into the Holocaust - you can not come loaded down with any baggage carried over from this world of easy comfort, inflated ego and expectations of worldly rewards. On this pilgrimage you enter into the hell of the martyred dead on your knees, as a naked beggar. Begging for what? For forgiveness, to have been spared, to have escaped and survived? No, you beg for revelation. Only when ready to confront the Holocaust stripped of all certainties, preconceptions, pretensions and ulterior motives, only then do you have a chance to catch an intimation of what lies behind the gate, within the ashes and underneath the piles of rags.

Forget about career. What you dredge out of the bowels of this hell are not meant to be art objects; they are not commodities to be traded or auctioned. The mementoes you bring back are beyond price or profit, and be prepared for the unexpected: To face the Holocaust is to see not only what "they, the enemy" has perpetrated, but what man, we, perhaps any of us, may be capable of. To look into the face of the Holocaust, ultimately, is to confront yourself - to see you own reflection, and this reflection is unsettling. Deep within that reflection may lie a monstrosity, dormant, but too easily aroused by the first shrill bugle call.

No matter what the subject, even one as mundane as a still life, or a beach at sunset, the artist cannot be a mere bystander, an observer. You must become the very subject you wish to describe. When Cezanne painted apples, he, I am sure, had to literally worm himself into the very core, the nature of "apple". Van Gogh, painting his sunflowers, must have identified with "sunflower". Shakespeare, composing Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet, must have become, momentarily, each one of his characters, even Juliet. There is no other way to get to know the innermost secret of your subject. What you discover inside may reveal things you never imagined.

But, how do you fix to paper and canvass a subject as unique as the Holocaust for which there is no real precedent, no guidelines. Still, there is Goya and the etchings for his Disasters of War; there are the works of the Expressionists I grew up with in Germany - Beckmann, Grozs, Munch and the graphics of Kathe Kollwitz. And there is Picasso and his Guernica, as well as the haunting figures of Giacometti - inspiring examples and signposts all. But, having studied all of them, you realize that you can follow only what you have seen with your own eyes, the authentic vision of your own experience and the tonalities and colors which reflect that experience.

Color, for instance. What color? With the start you remember - there was no color in Buchenwald. And during the worst moments of that war, color or the perception of color seemed to have disappeared. The sky which a moment ago was blue is washed out into a bony whiteness and all else appears as an almost monochrome range between black and white. Even the color of blood is not red but black. Color, I used to advise my students, is not only objective but also subjective, filtered through each individual's state of mind.

As for medium, you discover that there exists no substance that can portray the true dimension of the Holocaust. Collage or assemblage appears most appropriate - piecing together bits and fragments, torn out of another existence and then resurrected. "Resurrection" may indeed be a fitting metaphor. But no matter what the means, any medium may be as good as any other, though none can reflect the true nature of the Holocaust. Not even the camera.

Picasso once said, perhaps a bit arrogantly: "I do not seek; I find". But what if you find nothing but a restless searching, a journey without guideposts? On this journey even intellect or reason is not a reliable guide; ideas, theories and popular concepts turn out to be no more than predigested clichés. You rely on intuition, call it inspiration, guided, goaded and abetted by some enticing muse. With all due respect to Picasso, what you find is mostly a groping through darkness.

Groping into the Holocaust, down into its darkest recesses becomes not only an artistic journey, but also one of questions that loom and demand answers: "Why, how, who and what now? Innumerable questions, one leading only to the next and on and on with few definite answers. And then the ultimate question: "And where was God?" With all due respect to the faithful, I have found the seeking and questioning more challenging than finding God, any god of no matter what absolute form. If absolute certainty - inevitably leading to intolerance - brings about Final Solutions, I would rather face universal uncertainty composed of infinite question marks.

It is the inevitable and infernal groping which should differentiate the art of the Holocaust from all others - raising questions which are too troublesome to stay within the prescribed boundaries of art, but spilling over into every other area of consciousness and conscience. The questions that the Holocaust raises - even as an artistic subject - touch on politics, history, the origins of hate and fanaticism, nationalism, militarism, philosophy, especially existentialism and, ultimately, the question of morality. "Could there be a connection between ethics and esthetics" might perhaps trouble any 20th Century artist.

Finally, after all that you may have dredged out of the Holocaust, yet another question nags: "Did you succeed? Can others now see what you saw?" The answer is "no". There is no way, no media, no words that can convey the full meaning of the word or image of "horror" for instance. No matter how well articulated or skillfully recreated, "horror" means little except to one who has also experienced it. How, for instance, do you describe the color purple to the blind, to someone who has never seen color? What is outside human experience cannot be conveyed in its full dimension. There remains this wall, this divide, separating the initiated from those who did not come that way. Indeed, there may be some things which may be too awful and awesome to be turned into any meaningful form of art.

But just when you think that you have descended into the darkest reach of abyss, when no color appears dark enough, you must return to the world of the living, back into the full spectrum of color. It may be the blinding contrast, but the world you now reenter could not appear brighter or more colorful. Reemerging from the bleakest blackness your world not only appears glorious, but transformed.

Transformation, transfiguration beckons as the keynote of your work - a constant shifting from light to dark, and back from dark to light, and all the tonalities between. It is this dimension of change which appears to give meaning to an otherwise incomprehensible moment. The Holocaust remains as a constant reminder not only of what happened but what can happen again. One should however resist making a career or production of the Holocaust; it should not become the centerpiece of your entire universe.

The artist may then be the most fortunate - to witness, to record and to compare the most abysmal horror as well as the most glorious beauty, and to be moved by the wonder of it all. If the artist can be moved and even transformed, perhaps with sufficient skill others might be moved as well. This might well be the artist's ultimate dream and possible his salvation.

"Salvation is inherent already in Dante's insistence to move on - out of his Inferno and on through Purgatorio and finally into his Paradiso. Its itinerary proceeds not in this world, not on earth, but in the hereafter. We, however, have witnessed the worst of Inferno right here on earth and must try to find our Paradise on earth as well, in the here and now. Dante could still see divine design and purpose; we seem to have lost our bearings.

It may be this sense of loss - beyond belief and divine order and now left alone to our own devices - which has stamped this,. our modern age and, most visibly, Modern Art. It is a world where the center no longer holds, but spinning off a shower of often brilliant sparks and fragments. In its restless unease, its fragmentation, its surreal disjointed imagery, Modern Art reflects the age of the Holocaust, even as it attempts to escape into trivia.

However, there is this wonderful sculpture by Giacometti - a gaunt figure pointing a long bony arm. At what? This haunting apparition appears to have emerged out of some hell perhaps. Is this what the figure is pointing to? Or away from? A warning? The artist here becomes what the Germans call a "Wegweiser", one who points or shows the way. It may well reflect what the function of art should be - to point the way.

It has been said that art performs some kind of therapeutic function. It may indeed have a healing effect, a catharsis - certainly for the artist, perhaps also for a society willing to follow on this journey into its darkest abyss and out again. Perhaps, the main function of art is not merely to reflect reality but to transcend it, and in this transcendence, even defiance, redeem the worst of reality.

Going beyond reality - try to imagine the unlikely miracle of a baby born in one of the concentration camps and actually surviving into childhood. Never having seen the outside world, growing up amidst nothing but what we have learned to be horror and misery, would such a child know the meaning of horror and misery? Unable to make comparisons, never having known the joys, pleasures and beauty of the outside world, would not its own world appear normal?

This is not only an existential question, but one for which the artist seeks an answer: In spite of the reality of the concentration camp, could there have been color, perhaps a glimmer of blue in a dark or bone white sky? Could a child have seen, or even imagined a many-colored butterfly, in spite of everything? It is a question which transcends the Holocaust; it touches the very heart of human nature: Can we see beauty in spite of ugliness?

"In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good. . . ", so wrote Anne Frank into her Diary before she was hauled away to die in Bergen Belsen. But, would Anne Frank have persisted in her innocent dream had she survived Bergen Belsen and emerged from that nightmare scared and wounded? Would she, could she still proclaim "people good in spite of everything"?

Had I come to Buchenwald not as an American soldier, but as one of the condemned, could I have emerged proclaiming the world beautiful and glorious? A fair question and we need an answer: "Is the world still beautiful in spite of everything?" "Yes". Answers the child, the artist - dreamers all. "We are such stuff as dreams are made of", proclaims Shakespeare. We persist in our dreams - call them delusions or illusions. But without dreams, what are we?

If we cannot see the beauty, the goodness, the light despite all darkness, then, and only then, do we condemn ourselves to remain in darkness. Eventually, we may succeed in transforming ourselves into the image of our dreams. In the meantime, we, of the generation of the Holocaust, must still find it difficult to fully imagine, comprehend or convey the full form or meaning of this disaster. Hopefully, it will mark the lowest point of human depravity and ingenuity. But, it will continue to haunt not only the artist.