Boundaries of Representation: Holocaust Manipulation, Digital Imaging and the Real
Alessandro Imperato


Alan Schechner's Self Portrait at Buchenwald: It's the Real Thing (1993) was shown at the exhibition Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art (March 17th - June 30th, 2002).[1] Following the publication of the Mirroring Evil exhibition catalogue in January 2002, newspapers, Jewish organizations as well as other groups singled out Schechner's image for criticism and leveled accusations of 'obscenity', Holocaust manipulation and moral indignation. The Real Thing is a digital photomontage in which Schechner inserted an image of himself into a photo by Margaret Bourke-White (1945) of emaciated survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Schechner looks like a well-fed fashion model as he holds a can of Diet Coke with a sparkling highlight lens flare.[2] Other works in the exhibition by the artist included Bar Code to Concentration Camp Morph (1993), taken from the computer animation Taste of a Generation (1993), in which a bar code morphs into inmates of a concentration camp. The formal similarities between the striped uniforms of the Jewish prisoners and bar codes is drawn out to indicate the commodification and objectification of Jews in the Nazi death machine. Another image from a series entitled Obscenity Study No.2 (1997), is a three frame animation series that rotates to reveal a digital collage of photographs of naked Jewish women from Nazi concentration camps surrounded by soldiers of the Einsatzgruppen in Latvia, 1941. This image changes into another similar version only the female prisoners are clothed, and in the third and final frame of the mini animation, the same group of women were erased to become white spaces or ghostly white figures.

Alan Schechner, Self Portrait at Buchenwald:It's the Real Thing

Digitally manipulated Photograph, 1991-1993

Responses to Schechner's work in the Mirroring Evil exhibition raised issues concerning Realism and the politically coded reading of images in terms of signs as sites of social conflicts. [3] The Real Thing is one example of how history, politics and art intersect in terms of the artist, gallery, audience and the media. Schechner's artwork makes references to consumerism and media imagery and these are formally associated with the spread of modern corporations and the expansion of the spectacle of capital. Schechner's work, although indirectly, also raises questions concerning the place of Israel in the political and economic New World Order, as well as drawing out some of the similarities between corporate advertising and Nazi propaganda. [4] Many of his works involve complex and challenging messages and raise issues concerning the Holocaust, Nazi Germany as well as late-Capitalist society. Does Schechner's work trivialize the murder of six million Jews as critics of Mirroring Evil have claimed? Or does it reinvigorate debates about an issue that has been analyzed and debated almost to saturation and which could be argued to have lost its capacity to shock and horrify?[5]

In many ways Schechner has reworked the Holocaust into a new set of interpretative paradigms and this re-signification relates to the crime of the Holocaust, though it enters into an unstable process of interpretation, re-contextualization and semiotic disorder.

The alteration in the forms of representation and circulation of the Holocaust as media imagery affected the responses of the public and the press to the work. The fact that the artist uses the Holocaust and its representations taken from the mass media is important to understanding the conflictual readings of his work, especially the values that have been added in the process of transformation from a historical photograph to digital image. The dominant reading by the press and the Jewish community of The Real Thing leading up to the Mirroring Evil exhibition fixed Schechner's signifying intention, which was actually marked by semiotic flux and open-endedness.[6] Schechner re-appropriates signs of the Holocaust in order to intervene in the ownership of the signification of reality by the mass media.[7] Taking back from society and re-using these fragments is an important principle of the montagist's strategy. Who owns and controls representations of the world is determined by who is prepared to fight and struggle against the control of dominant representational systems. Texts exist in shared systems of signification and a dispersed inter-textual transaction of culture and history. Attempts to limit this interaction of information whether via the censorship of an exhibition or individual works has consequences for practices involved in critiquing dominant Capitalist media representations of the world in general and interpretations of history and the Holocaust specifically.

One of the ways The Real Thing functions is through the rupture of the Diet Coke can. The can acts like a punctum and does not allow a settled reading of the image to take place.[8] The Coke can marks a rupture between the moment in 1945 in which Bourke-White took the original photograph and Schechner's contemporary presence in the image. The differences between the present and the past are divided by this ideological and historical gap. In this sense Schechner's image works like an allegorical ruin. As Walter Benjamin stated in 'Allegory and Traurspiel' in The Origin of German Tragic Drama: 'Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.'[9]

The Real Thing references and features similar representational devices and strategies used by John Heartfield, the pioneer of the photomontage technique. Heartfield employed montage and modern imaging technology in the 1930s to reveal imagery as being not just a mirror of society, which photography was thought to be, but as mediated products of society. Mediation takes place between surface and structure, therefore - as mediations - images are not reflective mirrors, but are products of the direct efflux of processes and conflicts in society, and the way these conflicts are materially embedded in cultural artifacts.[10] John Heartfield's political and artistic interventions combined social commentary and a critique of Nazism as a means to raise political consciousness. Heartfield intervened in the spaces of the mass media using public zones as arenas to combat dominant capitalist representations of the world, particularly the Nazi propaganda machine. For Heartfield, Realism was a struggle for the ownership and control of the representation of reality, for Schechner, Realism is a battle for the subsequent use and distortion of the real meaning of the Holocaust for both Jews and Palestinians. The Real Thing penetrates the real and attempts a critical understanding of the world within the dialectical contradictions of the ideological and historical production of the real itself. John Berger in an essay entitled The Political Uses of Photomontage, wrote that the power of photomontage is in the surprise or shock of the viewer, and that this is due to the apparent seamlessness of the image. [11] The viewer is convinced that they are looking at a seamless and accurate depiction of 'reality', and that the shock involved is in the realization that this is not so. This is the political power of photomontage according to Berger. As Schechner says: 'I never thought of not working with the real, images that depict something that exists in the real world... I Attempt to demythologize, to make explicit that it is the 'real thing' when it wasn't the real thing. Using the seamlessness and then exposing it.'[12]

This 'shocking' aspect of the 1930s photomontage technique also has similarities to Bertolt Brecht's techniques of 'Estrangement' from the same historical context. 'Estrangement' was Brecht's aesthetic strategy, which he used in 'epic theatre' for making the audience of his work aware of their relation to theatre and bourgeois aesthetic illusions of naturalism as well as political issues. By making strange the means and theatrical techniques of narrative illusion, the audience would also be reminded of the social world they inhabited, so that the viewer would watch with critical detachment. He achieved this through making strange or defamiliarizing fragments of the world he represented and by acknowledging in his work the discursive nature of art by calling attention to the dialectical process of its construction via productivity. Brecht employed a number of devices that were intended to remind the spectator that they were being presented with conventions that represent a naturalistic illusion of reality and not the world in-itself. One technique used was the highlighting of class and other social conflicts and the representing of social structures in his characterizations of people, which Brecht did by exposing the means of production of the artwork. Other techniques included: non-linear narratives; non-identification by the audience with the emotions of the actor, actors addressed the audience, the use of back projection, the introduction of songs and other parts of narrative in unconventional ways.[13] Brecht defined Realism as being a discovery of the causal complexes of society; unmasking the prevailing view of things as the view of those who are in power; writing from the standpoint of the class which offers the broadest solutions for the pressing difficulties in which human society is caught up; emphasizing the element of development and change and making possible the concrete, whilst making possible the abstract from it.[14]

Materialism and the Digital Image

The Marxist theorist of liguistics, Valentine Voloshinov in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, theorized language as having two levels of materiality.[15] The first level is the immediate materiality of the material signifier, which is the carrier of meaning as the immediate material properties of the word on a page. [16] This can also be applied to the combinations and relationships of pixels in computer technology. The second level of language is a mediated one. Here the material world is mediated and re-presented. The immediate conditions of the utterance of language are a fundamental and specific determining context of meaning production and interpretation.[17] Utterances differ from other representational signs, because as speech acts they are engaged in a reciprocal dialogue between the addresser and addressee.

Photographs share both immediate and mediated aspects of the sign in distinct terms, in that the material relation between the image and what it represents - between the marks on the emulsion coated paper and the object that these marks represents - is an immediate and unreconstructed one. A photograph is also a sign, and is therefore also a mediated and constructed product of social and stylistic conventions. Digital imagery is a complex fusion of photography, painting, and the textual and is better considered in the general terms of digital sign systems of production in which signs become material at the level of the pixel, whether on the computer screen or as a hard copy print. Voloshinov's distinction between the 'immediate' material of the form of signs and the 'mediation' of the material world through signs is important for an understanding of how representations are both discursive and extra-discursive material. From this we can begin to view systems of representation and semiotic signs such as electronic pixels and texts as material phenomena.

Computer imaging is being viewed through former paradigms relating to photography. This also happened to photography when it first became a common tool for artists in the early Twentieth century, as the comments on montage by Lewis Mumford, the philosopher of technology illustrates:

As for the various kinds of montage photography, they are in reality not photography at all but a kind of painting, in which the photograph is used - as patches of textiles are used in crazy-quilts - to form a mosaic. Whatever value the montage may have derives from painting rather than the camera.[18]

The fusion of photography (referent related images) and painting (imaginative and relatively more mediated constructions) and the unification of the virtual and the real in digital imaging is considered by Jeremy Welsh to be another stage in a Hegelian dialectical synthesis of thesis (painting) and its antithesis (photography), which has evolved as a synthesis in digital reproduction:

Photography was to be the death of painting, which somehow survived, mutated, incorporated its assassin and is now slipping out of its material skin to be reincarnated once again into a digital form...The living death of photography, beyond the digital process, is another stage of evolution.[19]

The technology of digital imaging can be considered a dialectical relation between a fixed singular 'truth' and plural or relative unfixed representational practices.[20] As the process of image production changed in the late-1980s and early 1990s, to an increasing digital mode of fabrication so the opportunity arose for computer artists such as Schechner to utilize this technology for political montages and question the apparent truthfulness of representations of history, politics and consumer culture.

Photography, Digital Imagery and the Real

Some of the reactions to The Real Thing are predicated on the idea that photography is a direct and unmediated product of reality, that he has corrupted the 'truth' value of Bourke-White's photograph.[21] The historical genesis of photography is commonly viewed in terms of science - as proof or evidence of the world in-itself.[22] Photography is still a highly problematic means of representation, and this is based on the ideological underpinnings concerning photography and the real and the notion of photography as a scientific record of the world. Many theorists who have written on photography from Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, to John Berger have expounded on the ability of photography to 'capture' appearances as evidence of the world. These theorists have agreed that there is a common misconception relating to the camera which views it as a 'truth machine,'[23] an innocent and neutral recorder of an 'actual event'[24] or 'real moment'.[25] Photographs look real; they present us with the 'appearances' of things.[26] For John Berger, photographs are evidence of surface appearances, they are, like facts, weak in meaning and can be interpreted in a multitude of ways.[27]

Photography 'captures' fragments of reality, and it constructs the real with representational conventions, John Tagg calls this the 'burden of representation.' [28] As Carol Vance argues 'any photographic image reflects choice, perspective, intention, and conventions of production...rather than innocently reflecting some reality.'[29] Vision is framed and time and place both captured and constructed. Photographs synthesize a chemical order - the action of light on certain substances, which reveals the object via light rays captured by chemicals; and a physical order - in which the image is formed via an optical lens device. In other words the light emanating from an object passes through the camera's lens and forms an image on the chemicals of the film. Photography's basis as a conceptual tool, means it is a repository of mental fragments and a tool for a socially constructed way of looking at the world. This dialectic between construction and reflection as a 'truth-telling' or evidence machine, is a complexity that informs the way that Schechner's digital image is perceived. This view is supported by William Mitchell in The Reconfigured Eye:

The early years of this decade marked the moment when the apparently truthful silver based photographic emulsion gave way to the apparently deceptive computer-processed image.[30]

Theorizing photographs, as moments taken from the flux of time, means the factual and fictional polarities can be understood. History and the flux of time give phenomena its changing meanings. John Berger claims that photographs are slices of time 'arresting the flow of time in which the event photographed once existed.'[31] Taken as singular elements, as static slices of time or surface facts, the comprehension of a photograph is made problematical. Many positions taken by censors over an image do not take into account the dialectical relationship between text and context, between the positivist nature of a photo as factual evidence and the image's temporal existence within and between contexts of reading. To take a photograph, is to freeze and take out of its context a moment from lived, changing experience. The anchorage of a photograph's meaning is therefore dependent upon the subsequent contexts of an image's readership. The accounts that we construct around photographs are dependent on the intervention of time, between photographing and the moment of reading. The abstracting of an event or 'time slice' means the viewer can easily misread the event, and misinterpret by constructing stories around images.

In digital signification, the virtual (computer data code) and real (photographically mediated referent) are unified. This also includes the original and the copy, in which the master or original image (photo-evidence) and copy (cloned data) are synthesized. The electronic composition may be a collage of image and text, a montage of ideas taken from the real, as William Mitchell claims in Reconfigured Eye:

There is no doubt that extensive reworking of photographic images to produce seamless transformations and combinations is technically difficult, time-consuming, and outside the mainstream of photographic practice.[32]

In terms of computer imaging, the physical marks of the brush found within painting become data. The pixel as data is easily manipulable, and can be reproduced endlessly without loss of quality. William Mitchell likens this to the 'workability' of painting and the 'closure' of photography. According to Mitchell, a photograph is causally connected to its referent, it is 'fossilized light', which implies a witness: 'We view its image through the eyes of the person who took the picture.'[33] Unlike the digital and electronically assembled event - where no one verifies the image - there are 'no shoes in which we can step.'[34] Therefore the referent becomes disconnected from its signifier.

The essential characteristic of digital information is that it can be manipulated, easily and very rapidly by computer. It is simply a matter of substituting new digits for dots...Digital images are, in fact much more susceptible to alteration than photographs, drawing, paintings, or any other kinds of images.[35]

This problem is complicated further by digital technology and the ease that this medium allows for fabrication or fakery. Digital imagery has been uncritically viewed as a photographic medium, and as William Mitchell maintains:

Although a digital image may look just like a photograph when it is published in a newspaper, it actually differs as profoundly from a traditional photograph as does a photograph from a painting...The difference is grounded in fundamental physical characteristics that have logical and cultural consequences.[36]

Digital images are a synthesis of characteristics common to traditional painting and photography. Computer images share the invented and imaginative qualities that painting has, they also refashion photo-images, processing photo-facts and fragmentary information into textual signs. William Mitchell's analysis inter-weaves photography and painting in order to clarify the synthesized nature of the digital image. Schechner resists this aspect of the relationship between digital images and photography as well as the epistemology of the digital image.

It seems that the dialogue and meditation on the issue of 'truth' is unavoidable when using digital technology with the manipulation of photography. Interestingly, Schechner's account of the genesis of the creation of The Real Thing preceded debates and theoretical reflections on digital images, also indicates that theory can lag behind art practice in many cases.

The Real Thing and Documentary Photography

The digitized image by Margaret Bourke-White was once a real photo-object. As John Tagg theorized in The Burden of Representation:

What is real is not just the material item but also the discursive system of which the image bears its part. It is to the reality not of the past, but of the present meanings and of changing discursive systems that we must therefore turn our attention...The photograph is not a magical 'emanation' but a material product of a material apparatus set to work in specific contexts.[37]

Tagg is claiming here that photographs are part of a system of social relations. They enter into a discursive economy and therefore enter into circuits of meaning exchanges. The digitized image by Margaret Bourke-White was once a real photo-object, Schechner has de-contextualized this image. In the case of photography, the meanings of a work may be deliberately made ambiguous by the artist, or may be intentionally manipulated to create uncertainties. Schechner's digital montage raises issues of how a photograph which captured a moment at Buchenwald concentration camp can have an extra-discursive and documentary value when it has been computer manipulated. When Schechner used this photograph he de-contextualized and problematized it in terms of the material production of images at the level of the real, and the basis of imagery as giving evidence to the criminal act of the Holocaust. In Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Voloshinov posits that all signs have a materiality to them:

A sign does not simply exist as a part of reality - it reflects and refracts another reality...Every ideological sign in not only a reflection, a shadow, or reality, but is also itself a material segment of that very reality...A sign is a phenomenon of the external world. Both the sign itself and all the effects it produces (all those actions, reactions, and new signs it elicits in the surrounding social milieu) occur in outer experience.[38

Voloshinov's theory also posits that language is a zone of social engagement and as such it is also a zone of conflict and contestation: 'The immediate social situation and the broader social milieu wholly determine - and determine from within, so to speak - the structure of an utterance.'[39] According to Voloshinov, consciousness is the effect of the production of signs in social interaction. This means that ideology does not exist in an individual consciousness, which can be opposed to the real, as inner and outer spheres, ideology both mediates and partakes of the real:

An ideological product is not only itself a part of reality (natural or social), just as is any physical body, any instrument of production, or any product for consumption. It is also, in contradistinction to these other phenomenon, reflects and refracts another reality outside itself.[40]

This is language's unique double role, it is a part of reality and reflects and refracts reality, which is outside it, but with which it is indissolubly linked - the extra-linguistic or discursive material world. As a result of this double-function the sign is an effect of the competing social interests in society, which according to Voloshinov is a product of wider social conflicts, such as class, and we can add gender and race. This conflict of the sign is, as Voloshinov posits, the 'social multiaccentuality of the ideological sign.' Voloshinov continues:

Class does not coincide with the sign (community), i.e. with the community, which is the totality of users of the same set of signs for ideological communications. Thus various different classes will use one and the same language. As a result, differently orientated accents intersect in every ideological sign. The sign becomes an arena of the class struggle.[41]

In this sense the sign is never the thing to which it refers, but is thus always contested, accented, stressed and evaluated in differing contexts and contests of meaning. The attempt at censorship by dominant ideologies and social agencies aims to fix signs as eternal immutable sites of meaning, as in this case of the Holocaust or accusations of 'obscenity'. These struggles in value judgments and the political positions taken over images are the products of multiaccentuality, and the attempts of censure and an authoritarian control of signs. The theory of multiaccentuality recognizes the dialectical quality of signs, in one context a curse can become a praise or the Holocaust can be seen as an absolute crime in one instance and a relative atrocity in another, as sacred in one view and manipulated, and therefore, degraded in another. This antithetical aspect of the sign intensifies when social conflicts intensify, and these conflicts are caught within ideological contradictions at work in hegemonic processes, whether in the Israeli-Palestinian, or the Balkans conflict.

One of the accusations aimed at Schechner and The Real Thing is the 'crime' of Holocaust manipulation. Schechner claims his manipulation of imagery is a response to the manipulation of the Holocaust by the Yad Vasheem museum in Jerusalem and the use of the Holocaust to legitimize the Israeli annexation of Palestinian territory and Zionism. The use of the holocaust has now extended beyond Israel and the Middle East and has become a major theme of the Western media narratives since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Stalinism in 1989. One example of this can be seen during the Balkans war. In 1992, the UK newspaper, The Daily Mirror as well as other tabloids pictured on their front pages a photograph of Fikret Alic in an apparent concentration camp in Trnopolje, Bosnia. The headline read: 'The Picture That Shames the World: Belsen '92'.[42] The image depicted prisoners of war at a camp in Trnopolje, and a publication called LM magazine claimed that the image of the emaciated Fikret Alic, on 5th August 1992 had no parallel to the Nazi death camps. This led to a legal battle between LM magazine and ITN over the image. LM magazine claimed that the image was a fictitious attempt to present an image of a new Holocaust at the beginning of the Balkans conflict. They also claimed that two ITN journalists deliberately distorted the truth of the camp, changing its function from an open military detention camp to a Nazi style death camp, a sign of the Holocaust, in order to provoke Western and U.N. intervention.[43] ITN sued the magazine with a libel writ and the case lasted for three years. LM magazine eventually lost the case and was ordered to pay costs of 250,000 on the 15th April 2000. The case raised the dangers of press censorship, and the threat to journalistic freedom in the UK. Presenting an alternative view of the Trnopolje image bankrupted the magazine and has widespread consequences for those wanting to contest dominant media versions of history in the future. The argument that LM magazine presented was that this image relativized the Holocaust by turning an open transit camp in Bosnia into an image which referenced the one atrocity of the twentieth century, and the danger was to lessen or diminish the significance of the one real Holocaust as a unique event. The argument that Schechner manipulated the Holocaust in his digital image is spurious if we consider the constant use of the Holocaust by the Western media to justify military actions against their constructed enemies.

The skepticism towards the truth and accuracy of media images could be interpreted as a universal rejection of accuracy and realism in lens based photographic and filmic representations. If we reject the ITN images of Fikret Alic, then why should we accept Margaret Bourke-White's photograph of Buchenwald as true? This could also apply to the famous images depicting piles of Holocaust victims such as George Roger's Bergen-Belsen, Concentration Camp, (April, 1945). This can be considered one of the dangers of radical skepticism, relativism and critiques of photo technology as an access to truth. Much has been written on the impossibility of objectivity within non-fiction film. Susan Hayward is one exponent of this view: 'Reality can only, when referring to film, be used in conjunction with 'reality effect': it erases the idea of illusion...Nothing in the camera-work, the use of lighting, color, sound or editing draws attention to the illusionistic nature of the reality effect.'[44] Documentaries mediate information on 'real' complex social problems to large audiences. Notions regarding realism in film confuse convention with reality. Reality is not transferred to the medium of film, or later to television, but is transformed by the characteristics of the medium. Film and photographic conventions are tools and methods of rhetoric, which naturalize the illusion of film and the lens as 'reality'. These tools are used by filmmakers to evoke responses in audiences and these conventions consist of the selection of shots, editing, lighting, camera angles and this involves a series of choices made by the director/filmmaker or photographer. The claim by documentary filmmakers of objectivity and independence from political or governmental agencies is evident in works such as 'true-life' police documentaries and other 'fly-on-the wall' documentaries or 'Reality TV' programs. Evidence may be manipulated to convey a pre-determined viewpoint or withhold certain pieces of information and overexpose others. Bill Stott argues that there is a subjective definition of documents that are 'human documents: 'A document, when human, is the opposite of the official kind; it is not objective but thoroughly personal...We understand a historical document intellectually, but we understand a human document emotionally.'[45] Documentary films and photojournalism are indeterminate forms of documentary that give meaning to recorded images of reality. How these images are presented and used and the context in which they are made and read, are important issues in critiquing non-fiction films. As Bill Nichols says: 'Something of reality seems to pass through the lens and remains bedded in the photographic emulsion [however] the bond of the image to the object will not...certify the historical status of the object.'[46] This bond between image and object and historical accuracy or distortion is thoroughly dependent on the political and social contexts of reading as the image continues to signify though history. Schechner's The Real Thing requires us to consider this question of the relationship between history, reality and political manipulation.

Holocaust Wars

The relationship between the real and its discursive construction and the demands for interpretation of photography as an indexical 'truth-effect' is what informs The Real Thing and the problematical relationship of the Jewish community and Holocaust survivors to it. This is also the root of the political and social conflicts over the image. The reactions to Schechner's work can be better understood if the work is contextualized within the arguments and positions taken over the Holocaust. On one side of the debate is the position that the Holocaust was a unique horror, a unique event, which defies comparison with other events, in this view the Nazis are considered transcendentally evil, as sub-human. The Holocaust remains so beyond our understanding that it seems to possess a sacred quality, this is the sacral view of the Holocaust. As Menachem Rosensaft said: 'Any desecration or trivialization of the Holocaust is abhorrent. For me, this is an absolute article of faith.'[47] The counter argument to this is that the Holocaust is a relative horror; it is seen as one horrific event among others. One example is how racism and injustice have left millions in unmarked graves, such as in Rwanda. In this view, the Nazis are no different from anyone else who is capable of such crimes. Peter Novick in The Holocaust in American Life argues that a 'perverse sacralization' of the Holocaust had taken place; he found it 'deeply offensive' that the Holocaust had been regarded as a unique, Jewish event.[48] This position holds that the Holocaust is not unique, but also that in our capitalist world we are, all of us, potential and actual perpetrators if not collaborators.[49]

As the historical moment of the Holocaust recedes into the past, the polarization of these two positions widens and a contradiction has developed between these two sides. The Holocaust is a unique event and there are some things about it that are incomparable to other atrocities, but freezing this unique event and taking it out of its historical context makes it vulnerable to be used as a moral absolute. From this, the Holocaust has been used to justify political causes from anti-abortionist pro-life campaigners in the US in the late 1990s, the carpet bombing of Iraq to stop the 'New Hitler' Saddam Hussein in 1991 and the NATO bombing of Serbia to stop the 'Newer Hitler' Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. In recent manifestations of the New World Order, the event of September the 11th, 2001 has also been used as a moral absolute to justify the Israeli bombing of Ramallah and innocent Palestinians in the fight against terrorism. This use of the Holocaust to justify further atrocities is based on the belief that military intervention can stop another Holocaust happening. In the same vein, September 11th has now become a sacred moral absolute for the perpetration of more atrocities, whether in the Middle East, Iraq or Afghanistan.

The flip side to the moral absolutism of the Holocaust is its relativization. Then it becomes just another atrocity and the lessons of history are lost. The lessons of imperialism, racial politics, capitalist super-exploitation and systematic mass murder of Jews are diminished. If we relativize the Holocaust, we then risk the possibility of it being repeated. The extreme and prurient position of Holocaust denial is another view which is entirely distinct from the two sides of the debate discussed so far, the recent UK libel case between the Holocaust denier and historian, David Irving who wrote Hitler's War in 1977, sued Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust which leveled accusations against Irving. The Historian claimed that this book had ruined his publishing career. One of the issues implied by the absolutist position is that the uniqueness of the Holocaust means the significance of other contemporary genocides are lessened. If we widen the discussion of the Holocaust to include all kinds of modern atrocities and anxieties, we then use the Holocaust as an emblem of despair. In this view the lessons to be learned from the Holocaust are that people are sub-human and weak, which is contemptuous of the masses in society. This type of relativism de-politicizes the causes and uses of the Holocaust.

There are many instances since the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the rise of the New World Order, where the violent mechanism of the capitalist nation state has used the Holocaust as a moral weapon in order to pursue military crusades. The Holocaust has become an ideological lever as enemies of the West are branded as 'Hitler' like dictators in the media. It can be argued that the lesson of the Holocaust is to leave it alone and let the murder of six millions Jews speak for itself. In this way we do not diminish its unique significance - if we understand the continuing dangers of imperialism and the politics of racism. Unfortunately, it will not be left alone. Unless the social conditions in which Fascism and social injustice can grow are changed, the Holocaust will continue to be used for political and military ends. If we brand Nazism an ahistorical 'evil', we strip it of its historical significance. As a result, this repugnant product of capitalism, imperialism and racial politics loses its specificity. Mystifying Nazism as pure 'evil' means the uses of the Holocaust for political and imperialist ends remains invisible.

Through his work, Schechner is telling us to re-examine capitalism as well as atrocities other than the Holocaust. He asks us to look at the causes of the Holocaust not in terms of mysticism, nor just to focus on the symptoms of the Holocaust and the culture industry but also on history and politics and media industries. Reactions to The Real Thing in Mirroring Evil indicate that this single image hit a raw nerve in the body politic of both the US and Israel. Like all effective political art and history work, it has momentarily, opened up a crack, a fissure in the deep fault lines of ideology. The contradictions the image has revealed are many. These range between historical reality and falsification; history and modern consumer society; manipulation of images and the Holocaust; the Jewish-Palestinian problem; the relative and absolute meaning of the Holocaust; the differences between past victims and current perpetrators of atrocities in Israeli occupied territories; memorialization as industry and the manufactured US/Israeli political alliance.

Schechner proposes in his artwork that through a culture of victim hood, the survivors of the Holocaust have now become heroes and that the historical suffering of Jews has become a badge of distinction. The Holocaust was seldom discussed until decades after the war when it proved useful for Israel in 1967 and its American backers. Since then, this morality tale has helped America feel good and obscure its own chequered past. The memory of the Holocaust has also been used to promote and fortify US support for Israel and stigmatize and deflect criticisms of the treatment of Palestinians by Jews as anti-Semitism.

Ironically, if we argue that to protect the significance of the Holocaust is to censor representations associated with it, we take on the very policies that the Nazi's promoted. As Noam Chomsky has warned in response to threats on freedom of speech concerning the Holocaust:

It is a poor service to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust to adopt the central beliefs of their murderers.[50]

There is a political irony and tragedy at the heart of Holocaust debates. The Holocaust was a product of imperialism and the politics of race and it is now used to justify further imperialist 'humanitarian' interventions around the planet in the quest for a New World Order. The Holocaust was a result of blindness to racial ideology, now we are blind to its uses for further ideological purposes. Schechner is telling us to look harder, to search beyond the apparently 'real' surface of our political and media representations and to question whether images are real or not? Why and what are these images used for? Instead of calling for an end to discussion, for closure and censorship, we should do what these images teach us, to ask more questions about what the Holocaust means. It is trivializing the Holocaust to reference its cause in 'human nature'. Schechner does the opposite, he places it in history and politics and asks us to consider the society in which the Holocaust happened and in which it is now being used to justify further atrocities. His work does not let the Nazis off the hook but asks us to re-examine power and responsibility in terms of modern politics and to question everything we assume and consume about the Holocaust be it the news media, Hollywood representations or state museums and memorials.

[1] The exhibition was organized by The Jewish Museum in New York, and curated by Norman Kleeblatt in conjunction with Joan Rosenbaum the museum's director. For an edited QuickTime Movie clip of The Taste of a Generation (1993) See See also Norman L. Kleeblatt (ed.), Mirroring Evil: Imagery/Recent Art (New York and London: Rutgers University Press, 2001).
[2] See
[3] See Marsha Kranes, 'Jewish Museum in Holocaust - 'Art' Flap', New York Post: See also Peter Plagens, A 'Sensation' About Nazis: Jewish Museum's Forthcoming Show Causes a Stir', Newsweek, January 28, 2002, 59. Also:
[4] Callinicos, Alex, Rees, John, Harman, Chris, and Haynes, Mark, Marxism and the New Imperialism, (London, Bookmarks Press, 1994) 9. Alex Callinicos, John Rees, Chris Harman and Mark Haynes in Marxism and the New Imperialism have defined the post-Stalinist period of capitalist triumphalism as a New World Order of Imperialist conflicts, rivalries and wars, characterized for instance by the Gulf War (1991) and the Balkans conflict during the early 1990s.
[5] Daniel Belasco, 'Jewish Museum's 'Nazi Art' Fracas: Survivor Groups Consider Protests of 'Lego Auschwitz,' Other Works in Show', The Jewish Post - Opinions, 01/18/, Peter Ephross, 'Holocaust Exhibit With Nazi Images Draws Protests', Jewish Community, January 15,, Marilyn Penn, 'Letter to Editor: Nazi Images at Museum', New York, January 29, 2002. Sarah Boxer, 'A Curator Defends His Show Exploring Nazi Imagery', New York, February 6, 2002. See: Tara Burghart, 'Pop Culture Icons Giving Holocaust Exhibit an Edge',, 2/10/02, also:,1626,ECP_737_961353,00.html, Edward Rothstein, 'Artists Seeking Their Inner Nazi', New York Times, February 2, 2002,, Elie Wiesel, 'Holocaust Exhibit Betrays History', February 1, 2002. and: Michael Berenbaum, Former Director of the Holocaust Research Institute at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Sent on Wednesday /2/2002:
[6] Responses to the exhibition are numerous, these include: Marsha Kranes, 'Jewish Museum in Holocaust - 'Art' Flap', New York Post: Lisa Gubernick, 'Coming Show With Nazi Theme Stirs New York's Art World', The Wall Street Journal, Thursday, January 10, 2002, B1 and B4. Marsha Kranes, 'Jewish Museum in Holocaust -'Art' Flap', New York Post, January 11, 2002: Joyce Purnick, 'Leaving Art to Critics, Not Mayors', New York, January 14, 2002: Also:, Adam Dickter, 'Nazi Imagery', 01/18/2002,, Peter Plagens, A 'Sensation' About Nazis: Jewish Museum's Forthcoming Show Causes a Stir', Newsweek, January 28, 2002, 59. See: Scott Shifrel, 'B'klyn Pol Wants To Boot Artist', New York Daily News Online, Monday, January 28, 2002. See: Tara Burghart, 'Holocaust Exhibit's Kitsch Expression, Featuring Faux Lego, Tiffany, Chanel, Hermes and Diet Coke', Associated Press, January 29, 2002. See: Michael Kimmelman, 'Jewish Museum Show Looks Nazis in The Face and Creates a Fuss', The New York Times, January 29, 2002. See: Stephen Feinstein, ''Nazi' Art Exhibit: Taste Is in Eye of Beholder: Exhibition Is Opportunity for Dialogue',, February 1, 2002. Also: Tara Burghart, 'The Holocaust as the Next Generation Imagines It: The Jewish Museum Stages a Show by Contemporary Artists', February 1, 2002. See: Also:
[7] Squiers, Carol, 'The Monopoly of Appearances', Flash Art, No.132, February-March, 1987, 98-100.
[8] According to Roland Barthes, the Punctum has the potential of metonymic expansion, it is the signification not seen by a photographer, the hidden, mythical and invisible aspect that requires decoding. It is for Barthes the 'point of effect'or 'addition', like a 'sting, cut, little hole', or 'full stop.'Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida (London: Verso 1993) 54-57.
[9] Benjamin, Walter, 'Allegory and Traurspiel', in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Trans. John Osborne, (First English Edition NLB 1977) (London: Verso, 1985) 178.
[10] See the chapter 'Mediation' in Williams, Raymond, Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays (London: New Left Books, 1980).
[11] John Berger, 'The Political Uses of Photomontage', The Moment of Cubism and Other Essays (London: Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, 1969).
[12] Imperato, Alessandro, 2002.
[13] Estrangement was commonly known as 'Alienation effect', which was a mis-translation into English by John Willet in Willet in John (translator and editor), Bertolt Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964) 36-37. Willet wrote: 'Epic Theatre turns the spectator into an observer, but arouses his capacity for action, forces him to take decisions...the spectator stands outside, studies...Die Verfremdungseffekt (The Alienation Effect) performs this function. It provides a 'bond' of alienation between performer and audience. Its purpose is to...alienate the social gest underlying every incident - the mimetic and gestural expression of the social relationships prevailing between people.' Ibid., 36-37. Brecht's notion of Distanciation was developed in an essay called 'Estrangement effects in Chinese Acting'. Cited in Tatlow, Anthony, Mask of Evil: Brecht's Response to the Poetry and Thought of China and Japan - A Comparative and Critical Evaluation (Berne: Lang, 1977) 347-475. As Frederic Jameson claims in Brecht and Method: 'The Marxian concept we identify as 'alienation' is, however, Entfremdung in German, so that this one had better be rendered 'estrangement' in keeping with its Russian ancestor (Ostraneia - a 'making strange'). In this, the V-effect will be thus translated throughout, despite some support for the more aesthetic term "Defamiliarisation"'. Jameson, Frederic, Brecht and Method (London and New York: Verso, 1998) 85-86.
[14] Brecht, Bertolt, 'Brecht Against Lukacs', in Jameson, F. (Ed), Aesthetics and Politics, (London: Verso, 1977) 81-82.
[15] Voloshinov, Valentine, V. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (London and New York: Seminar Press, [Original 1929] 1977).
[16] Ibid., 11.
[17] 'From whichever way we consider it, expression - utterance is determined by the actual conditions of the given utterance - above all by its immediate social situation.' (Ibid., 85) Voloshinov concludes: 'The immediate social situation and its immediate social participants determine the 'occasional' form and style of an utterance.' Ibid., 87.
[18] Mumford, Lewis, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1934) 339. Quoted in Strand, Paul, 'Photography' (Sven Arts, 1917) 524-26. Reprinted in Trachtenberg, Alan (ed.), Classic Essays on Photography (New Haven: Leete's Island Books) 1980.
[19] Welsh, Jeremy, 'Mechanical Reproduction to Endless Replication', in Wombwell, 1991, 5:78.
[20] Robins, Kevin, 'Into the Image: Visual Technologies and Vision Cultures', in Wombwell, 1991, 4:58.
[21] Menachem Z. Rosensaft, 'How Pseudo-Artists Desecrate the Holocaust', in 'Demystifying Nazism, or Trivializing Its Victims? A Debate',, January 18, 2002. Darren Marks, 'YAF Calls for Jewish Museum to Cancel "Mirroring Evil", January 21, 2002, Young Americans for, www.nyyaf.com Menachem Z. Rosensaft, 'The 'Art' Of Desecration', Opinions, February 4, Steven Edwards, 'Artists Under Attack For Modern Take on Holocaust', February 7, 2002. James Bone, 'Jewish Museum Show 'A Betrayal'' London Times, February 09,,,1-3-203444,00.html
[22] According to Susan Sontag, one early use of photography was its role as 'evidence' by the French State as a surveillance device to round up the Communards in June of 1871. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 2001, orig. 1977) 5.
[23] Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida, (London: Verso, 1993) 30.
[24] Ibid., 30.
[25] Ibid., 30.
[26] Berger, John, 'Appearances', Berger, John, and Mohr, Jean, Another Way of Telling (London: Writing and Reading Press, 1982). 'Photographs are quotations of the World, 'mimetic objects' or records of what is 'out there'.' Ibid., 6.
[27] Berger, 1982, 86. Berger's analysis is indebted to both Sontag's, 2001, and Barthes, 1993, 86.
[28] 'What characterized the regime in which photographic evidence emerged, therefore, was a complex administrative and discursive restructuring, turning on a social division between the power and privilege of producing and possessing and the burden of being meaning.' Tagg, John, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (London, MacMillan Education Press, 1988) 7.
[29] Vance, Carol, 'The Pleasure of Looking: The Attorney General's Commission on Pornography Versus Visual Images', Squiers, Carol (ed.), The Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1990) 219.
[30] Mitchell, 1992, 3.
[31] Berger, 1982, 86.
[32] Mitchell, William, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (Cam /Mass: MIT, 1994) 3.
[33] Ibid., 3. See also Ritchin, Fred, In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Digital Technology (Aperture, New York, 1990), for an analysis of how digital images are faked in newspapers.
[34] Ibid., 3.
[35] Ibid., 7.
[36] Mitchell, 1992, 3.
[37] Tagg, John, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photography and History (London: MacMillan Education, 1988) 3 and 4.
[38] Voloshinov, 1977, 10 and 11.
[39] Ibid., 86.
[40] Ibid., 46.
[41] Ibid., 23.
[42] Front page, The Daily Mirror, August 7th, 1992. Also see: and:
[43] See Vulliamy, Ed, 'The Truth Will Out', The Guardian Weekend, 15/3/2000, 2-3. Also see: www.
[44] Hayward, Susan, Key Concepts in Cinema Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 1996) 299.
[45] Stott, Bill, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) 8.
[46] Nichols, Bill, Representing Reality - Issues and Concepts in Democracy (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991) 5.
[47]Menachem Z. Rosensaft, 'How Pseudo-Artists Desecrate the Holocaust', in 'Demystifying Nazism, or Trivializing Its Victims? A Debate',, January 18,
[48] Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Houghton Miffin, 2000). See also Norman G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (London: Verso 2001) and Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (London: Verso, Second Edition, 2001). Also see:
[49] See Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda (London: Picador, 1999).
[50] Peter Wintonick and Mark Ackbar, Manufacturing Consent: Thought Control in a Democratic Society (New York: Zeitgeist Films 1994).


Alessandro Imperato is a theorist and artist. He is a professor of computer art in the School of Film and Digital Media at the Savannah College of Art and Design.


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