By: Matt Gautier
Thane Rosenbaum thinks “atrocity is different” and that artistic license hits its bounds when confronted with events it just can’t handle, such as the Holocaust. The first reaction is the old saw, “We need to know our history to avoid repeating the past . . . in the future,” but Rosenbaum has an antidote to that. He thinks the Holocaust’s victims own their story and that it’s a moral crime to misappropriate that story to create art. And even worse, he worries that the Holocaust story will be tweaked during the fictionalization process in a way that necessarily trivializes the horror of the actual events. In novels, short attention spans require tales of heroism and redemption. In film, logistics alone require the facsimile be sanitized. Even Steven Spielberg’s cast of thousands were helpless to portray the nightmare-scape of half-living Muselmanner and shit-smeared corpses. So, representing the Holocaust, in any format, inoculates future
generations against repeating, not the historical atrocity, but a fictional one made palatable for the purpose of entertainment.
But, come on. Do artists really have a duty to stand silent? I would think not, and two reasons spring to mind. First, artists don’t operate with the filtering mechanism that Rosenbaum’s philosophy requires.. Although he’s a novelist as well as an academic, the latter must be governing because he overlooks the emotional spontaneity that births much art. It’s up to academics and politicians to ponder the societal impact of a work, while the artist creates based on internal impulses that he often can’t even formulate into words. Wassily Kandinsky describes the artistic process as a “difficult task,” and a “cross to bear” since “every one of [the artist’s] actions and thoughts and feelings constitutes the subtle, intangible, and yet firm material out of which his works are created . . . .” It’s one thing to advocate state sponsored censorship, but it’s simply antithetical to the artistic process to propose that artists have a
duty to limit themselves. An artist’s duty is to his work, not society, and to deny the pure artistic impulse is to sully the authenticity of the work.
Second, the fact that “atrocity is different” should elevate the importance of art. Art operates on an emotional level that cold, hard facts and primary historical documents can’t attain. It’s true that Hollywood blockbusters fail in this regard, but then again, it’s reasonable to adopt a definition of ‘art’ that doesn’t encompass, ‘The Reader,’ ‘Atonement,’ and ‘Valkyrie.’ The story of the Holocaust wasn’t heroism and redemption, but neither was it six million dead and video of mass graves. The Holocaust was desperation, pain, and terror in the face of absolute evil, but nothing I’ve read by Des Pres or Primo Levi brought me to the tearful recognition I experienced on hearing Jeff Magnum, haunted by Anne Frank’s fate, singing, “I know they buried her body with others. Her sister and mother and five-hundred families,” on Neutral Milk Hotel’s Aeroplane Over the Sea. A childhood of history lessons, and the distance of decades, has numbed my generation to the atrocity of the Holocaust. Thank God we have art, not to distort, but to rouse.