Auschwitz + Camp (The Holocaust in American Life in the New York Times Friday Weekend Arts II Section)

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Nobody reads print anymore, but these things matter. About the new and important exhibition of artifacts from Auschwitz now on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the editors at the New York Times Friday Weekend Arts section made bad and bizarre editorial decisions.

The first was the prominent and jarring juxtaposition of “Auschwitz” and “camp” on the front page of the section of the review of Auschwitz. Sitting side by side are reviews of Not Long Ago. Not Far Away at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and Camp: Notes on Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One would have thought that the very words do not belong together, unless one meant to be deliberately provocative as is sometimes the case about Holocaust related art. But that’s not what’s going on here. The juxtaposition is gross, and insensitive.

Then there was the decision to give the lion’s share of the page to Camp, pushing Auschwitz off to a single column on the left hand side of the page. Visually, the page is dominated by the block of large bright color photographs on the right. In doing so, the editors made a clear if unintended judgment as to what, in their minds, is a matter of more and what is a matter of less importance.

The third bad decision was not to assign the review to one of the regular art critics who could review the exhibition professionally on its merits as an exhibition relating to things of great moment regarding trauma, historical  memory, and the exhibition of object-artifacts. Was it the case that the regular art critics refused to review the exhibition? Or for Jewish things the editors call in Jewish ringers? You can read the review here, which is overwhelmed by a history facts mixed in with data and statistics that are meant to grab the reader’s attention. The review tells the reader nothing about what is actually “on view.”

Possible takeaways: This is a Diaspora phenomenon. As a general rule, Jewish things like Israel and American Jewish culture get a lot of attention at the New York Times. This reflects the New York location of the New York Times. But in this case, lacking a certain cultural tact and discretion, the editors at the New York Times, here being at Weekend Arts, do not know what to do with Jewish things like the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. The page layout should have caught someone’s notice. That it did not suggests that the editors do not have an eye for these things and they lack critical judgment. It might be the case that the Holocaust and maybe Jewish life along with it do not matter anymore at the New York Times, or in liberal America, that these things belong to the margins of the culture and are of little general interest.

As colleague and friend Gail Hamner reminds me, this is both a general and a particular phenomenon in mass media aesthetics. This kind of “ugly juxtaposition is standard. John Berger in classic Ways of Seeing notes stories/pics of famine next to ads for diamonds and furs.” In fine arts, one could point to Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma. These reflect formal
“facts of life” of our brutal media landscape where multiple and contradictory things are brought into view simultaneously. I would add that the difference here is between a so-called “generic” look where the figures only function as icons for other people, but there are no vested parties on hand to note the juxtaposition. Unlike the generic juxtaposition, the case at hand touches upon the lived and local concerns of particular social actors who are actually there to identify the ugly juxtaposition and call it out in something close to real time.

 

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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