At a recent festival of Russian culture, some of the art stayed in the closet.
Several images slated for exhibit during the Russian Nights Festival, which passed through New York last month, were removed by proprietors of the exhibition space, a luxury retail and residential complex across from the New York Stock Exchange, because of antisemitic content.
The pieces, which are part of a privately owned collection of pre-revolutionary and Soviet-era propaganda posters, deploy the well-worn iconography of anti-Zionist propaganda: An Israeli soldier holds a bayonet to a bowed Arab inside a detention camp; the exhaust from two Israeli warplanes forms a swastika as murdered Arabs lay sprawled on the sand below; a gloating functionary wearing a Star of David collects donations from a debauched coterie of fat cats above the quatrain: “The Tel Aviv ambassador’s song/tripled the zeal of
the expansionist throng/They give without counting, but no matter how much/the land of the Arabs they won’t ever touch.”
“It wasn’t our intention to upset, offend or provoke anyone, so of course I agreed” to take them down, said Stas Namin, a popular Russian musician and event producer who organized the festival.
The contretemps didn’t surprise the dealers and collectors of anti-Jewish art who heard about the removal or have taken an interest in the poster collection, which is for sale. Accustomed to seeking out their wares in the margins of the art world, they are devotees of a controversial habit that brings together the unlikeliest of bedfellows.
“There are two kinds of collectors for this kind of stuff,” explained Stuart Pivar, a renowned collector who, along with Andy Warhol, started the New York Academy of Art, “neo-Nazis and Jews.”
Although neo-Nazi ardor for antisemitica seems easier to explain, Pivar insists that anti-Jewish art is enormously compelling for Jews who have first-hand experience with the slander depicted. “There’s nothing more powerful today than antisemitic or Nazi images, because they hit home,” he said. “They hit home for any Jew, and certainly for those who were around during the war, such as myself. It’s not just history when as a kid you heard other kids say, ‘When Hitler comes here, he’s going to kill all the Jews.’”
Pivar, who grew up “collecting bottle caps on Kings Highway” in Brooklyn, N.Y., and still speaks Yiddish, cuts an unlikely figure as an aficionado of antisemitica, even if he owns a Nazi-era double-life-size bronze bust of Adolf Hitler. His collection, however, is only one of many.
There is no open market for anti-Jewish art, and its dealers don’t advertise, except by word of mouth. Collectors scour flea markets, antiquarian book fairs, ephemera shows and specialty outlets such as war-paraphernalia stores. Most frequently, their loot consists of postcards and posters depicting racist caricatures vilifying Jews or celebrating anti-Jewish culture. Although traffic in Nazi materials is banned in Germany (it’s legal in the United States), a large portion of the material originates there. The Internet, through Web sites like eBay, has increased circulation of antisemitica as well.
“Right after the Holocaust, stuff like this was basically considered pornography,” said Jerry Faivish, a Toronto attorney who collects anti-Jewish art. “The attitude from many people was, ‘How can you keep these? They should be burned.’”
In the time it took for more critical perspectives to develop, such imagery became more rare — as did survivors — amplifying the resonance of Nazi-era anti-Jewish artifacts, especially in the face of Holocaust denials.
“You have to collect it just to show it’s real,” Faivish said. “To show that it really happened.”
The genre has a provocative and seminal landmark in the Wolfsonian, a grandly named collection of several hundred thousand artifacts, some of them antisemitic, from 1885 to 1945, gathered by former diplomat Mitchell Wolfson Jr. and housed at Florida International University. Wolfson, who believes that objects supply a more truthful narrative of world events than do historians, has challenged the notion that the Nazi machine was an aberration of human evolution by placing its artifacts in the context of the Western culture being produced in the same period.
“It’s interesting to see how artists create images which are so inhuman, wrong and fanciful,” he said. “Who adheres to it, and who is repelled, and why? I’m into the psychology of the transaction.”
Although Wolfson takes an abstract, intellectualized view of his possessions — in itself a charged position — his collection has served as a legitimizing force and furnished an early forum for scholarship on the subject.
“Here you have a Jewish American guy whose father founded the synagogue in Key West and was a colonel in the American army of occupation in Germany,” said Gregory Maertz, an associate professor of English at St. John’s University who partly credits Wolfson with kindling his interest in “the afterlife of Nazi culture,” about which he is writing two books. “So what’s this nice Jewish boy from Miami and Key West doing collecting this stuff? But it’s not a fetish of some sort. He wants better to understand the monster.”
The increasing animosity toward Israel — and, frequently, Jews outside it — provoked by the Palestinian intifada has prompted some to deploy antisemitica in an attempt to ward off more modern calumny.
“I’m so concerned by the antisemtic material being published by the liberal press,” said Simon Cohen, a London physician, referring to the proliferation of political cartoons exploiting centuries-old antisemitic stereotypes, such as the blood libel, that have appeared in mainstream newspapers. “It’s very important to realize that this publication of degrading material can lead to what it led to previously.”
Believing that a display of antisemitica can force viewers to confront this reality, Cohen has been gathering materials for an exhibit for the past several years. (He plans to dispose of the contents immediately afterward.) Though a number of Jewish organizations such as New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee have, according to Cohen, appreciated the idea, the only venue that has agreed to host the exhibit is London’s Political Cartoon Society. Last year, the Society awarded its annual prize for the top English political cartoon to an image of Ariel Sharon devouring a baby, suggesting its agenda in featuring the exhibit might diverge from Cohen’s.
Cohen isn’t discouraged, though, nor is he worried that an exhibit may backfire by inciting anti-Jewish feeling or legitimizing the art displayed. “I want to show how absurd the images are,” he said. “A lot of Jews have a very poor self-image. I understand kids in school are afraid to self-identify as Jews. There’s a lot of negative vibes around.”
For all its pretensions to educational nourishment, however, such collectorship can’t help its morbid shadow.
“There is a concern with preservation of Jewish memory, of course, but also there is a kind of fascination,” said Joel Kotek, a director of education at the Holocaust Museum in Paris and the author of a book on modern antisemitic imagery. “I’m a collector, so I’m fascinated by the image than an anti-Semite could have about us. It’s so strange for me. In a sense, the more terrible it is, the happier I am, because it’s my study. It’s really perverse.”
Jewish collectors of antisemitica devote themselves to a schizophrenic habit. Eager to disempower the message of anti-Jewish art, they feel they must perpetuate its existence as a form of remembrance, and to prevent its “falling into the wrong hands.”
“This kind of art has a certain terrifying emotional aspect to it,” Pivar said. “Most art doesn’t. You don’t crawl on your behind when you go into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and see Monet’s ‘Water Lilies,’ no matter how good it is. When you’ve collected every damn thing there is, and you suddenly come across a form of art that has that kind of power…. The [anti-Zionist] posters are like that. Everybody stood in terror of what they represent.”