The Dilemma of Nazi Art

Vanessa Place on Heimrad Bäcker: Landscape M, Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, September 2013 – January 2014


Landscape M is an art exhibition. This much is irrefutable, given its gallery position in the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art. Landscape M is also an exhibition of Nazi artifacts and photographic documentation. The photographs, all taken by the Austrian artist and writer Heimrad Bäcker (1925–2003), move clockwise in sequence, in real and documentary time. Beginning with photographs of Hitler’s Germans, both idealized and bombed, moving to images of the Third Reich as taken from postwar German television, which then segue into a series of photographs of the ruins of an Austrian concentration camp, and ending with a coda of pictures of a donated camp memorial, fallen into disrepair. Rotting wooden trestles, a frayed coiled steel cable, and rusting metal scraps are grouped by type in the center of the room, all taken from the abandoned camp.


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Given content and placement, Landscape M is thus an exhibition of Nazi art. But what does it mean to be Nazi art? It cannot simply be art so nominated by the Reich, any more than American art means only that art anointed by our government, though grants are grants in more than one sense. If art is considered nationalistically, do we look to the origin of the artist? And if so, who is the artist in this regard? On the one hand, we have this artist’s name, Heimrad Bäcker, and his biography: born in Hitler’s beloved Linz, joined the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) at 13, became a propaganda officer; was an enthusiastic member of the Nazi Party at 18, then was roundly disillusioned by the revelations of the Nuremberg Trials. Bäcker wrote his philosophy dissertation on community and communication in Karl Jaspers,(1) founded neue texte, a journal of conceptual art and poetry, and, in 1968, began visiting and photographing nearby Mauthausen, Austria’s largest concentration camp, and its neighboring sub-camp, Gusen. Half of the 275,000 detainees in Mauthausen were killed there, a number that reads strangely small in Shoah terms. And it was Nazism and the Shoah that became Bäcker’s life’s work.(2)


Bäcker showed little as an artist during his life, though he curated an exhibition of text art at the Vienna Museum of Modern Art, kunst aus sprache, which included his own work and work by Ernst Schmidt and Peter Weibel. In neue texte, he published Friederike Mayröcker and Valie Export, as well as Seascape (1985), one of his three books of concrete poetry. There were two volumes titled Nachschrift (Transcript) (1986/97); Seascape was sandwiched between. Nachschrift directly appropriated texts from the Shoah’s victims and perpetrators, a matter-of-fact rendering of guilt and innocence, featuring poems such as: you will find my body before you get to the school, it’s by the street watchman’s house, where albegno is, before the bridge, and, I need more freight trains if I’m going to take care of things quickly.(3) Seascape was more ambiguous, an appropriation from an exhibit used at Nuremberg: a U-boat captain’s log noting his refusal to take shipwrecked Norwegian sailors aboard, knowing they would perish. This was, and remains, an entirely legitimate response for submarine captains, and the Großadmiral was acquitted of the specific charge. Which is a matter of not guilty, though perhaps not innocent. Bäcker had intended Landscape M to be a book of photography, and to remain unpublished. He died in 2003, shortly after the opening of his only retrospective, at the Landesgalerie in Linz. Bäcker once deemed his work a sublation (Aufhebung) of his past, a preservation and negation that would end only with his death. But the death of the artist, like the author, is hardly the terminus of anything as ongoing as a work of art.


And here, Bäcker poses a further problem: he referred to his work as Fundstücke, which best translates to “find,” as in archeological. So while there’s the obvious reference to the aesthetics of the readymade, there is an equally obvious ambivalent relationship toward the ethics of the signature. The signature is the sign of the artist that is the sign of the art that is also the sign of authenticity that is the sign, as well, of testimony, which is the truth-sign.(4) So Duchamp meets Riefenstahl, the other most significant artist of the twentieth century, the one who proved Wittgenstein right, that every ethics has its aesthetic, every aesthetic, its ethic. To make an image of something now is to make something in its own image. And the exhibition’s photographs mirror this move. The early photographs are visually lush, foregrounding their warm composition: a dappled sea of brown-shirted boys face away from the camera, looking forward to some future or Führer, a washerwoman works on the Traunsee, two swans gracing her chore. The later photos are fuzzier and flatter, feel snapped, often remain as cut contact prints, and are resolutely unpeopled, except for one picture of the faded photos of some Italian victims in the donated memorial. The photographs from the camp have titles like Iron Remnants in Foundations in the Great Hall of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp (n.d.), three images of bent nails and metal works standing in the weeds, and Crematorium and Cooling System in Mauthausen (n.d.), which consists of two small images of what looks like the top of a key hanging on a wall and something that could be a drain, caked in alkaline, but smacks of a shower head. By withholding his signature, and by making sure his images after 1968 bore none of the art-markers of their predecessors, Bäcker played the part of an after-art artist—one who keeps the place of art’s redemption only by asserting the power of image as such.(5)


In this sense, Bäcker affirms Roland Barthes’s belief that we can only believe in history as a myth, as well as his sense of “that rather terrible thing which is every photograph: the return of the dead.”(6) Barthes also wrote, “History is hysterical,”(7) and with this Bäcker might also agree, but not in the way Barthes intended. Barthes dedicated Camera Lucida in homage to L’Imaginaire by Sartre, a work that argues for the liberatory capacity of the imaginary, the power of the analogon, or the equivalent of perception, to truly represent. Bäcker’s work recognizes the sovereign hold of the symbolic on and in the image as imagined. The hysteria, in other words, being the constant call for meaning. A call that has no response, and certainly none that can be furnished by Nazi art.


For if we agree that the artist-author is dead, and if art is anything that participates in the dispositif of art, then Landscape M is an exhibition of art that participates in the dispositif of the Nazi. By dispositif, I mean in the expanded Foucauldian sense, where disquisitions of juridical and philosophical propositions are seamlessly confounded with the apparatuses of literature and language, i.e., art.(8) The beauty of a totalitarian régime is that this infusion is quite explicit, and ideologically coherent: the dispositif inheres unmistakably in the material object. Like in today’s social media. In this sense, then, the artist that matters in this exhibition is the Nazi proper: Landscape M is not an exhibition of one artist’s photographs and readymades, but a display of Nazi sculpture and land art.


According to Hitler: “No people lives longer than the monuments of its culture.” Albert Speer took this up as a formal proposition in his Ruinenwerttheorie (“theory of ruin value”), which held that “anonymous” materials like girders should be avoided in monumental Party buildings, so the inevitable ruins would remain aesthetically acceptable.(9) The Allies more or less eliminated many official monuments, but left the rest, the real works, to rot and ruin, e.g., Landscape M. A work of art by the Nazi Collective, as it were, versus the Party. And if, as Boris Groys has noted, we know Bin Laden primarily as a video artist,(10) the proposition that the Nazi Collective was one of history’s great land artists, a sculptor in the most expanded field, is not untenable. And if Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) is the great postmodern site-sculpture of effacement and renewal authored by an artist working with a contractor, then Landscape M documents the great modernist site-sculpture of defacement and refusal, authored by a contractor working with an artist. But again, what does it mean to be Nazi art? And what does it mean now?


One friend hated the exhibition because she found the images trite and touristic, i.e., bad art. Another damned it for being nothing more than Shoah-porn, i.e., never art, asking, quite reasonably, “Why not put a pile of crematoria ashes in the middle of the floor and call it an installation?” Why not indeed? One of the greatnesses of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial (The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) is that it is both an abyssal isolating maze of rough and uncertain terrain and a perfectly smooth picnic platform—tourist’s choice. One of the strengths of Landscape M is that it occupies the same position of indigestion, that is to say, it permits consumption in several forms but always at a cost. The cost, so to speak, is precisely the aura that makes it art.


Closing Ceremonies

By way of comparison, a recent New York Times review of Generation War (2014), a German television miniseries turned feature film,(11) noted that the movie reflected a larger shift in the cultural significance of the war, “an attempt to normalize German history,” in which “ordinary Germans…were not so different from anyone else, and deserve the empathy and understanding of their grandchildren.” (While it is true that we love our grandparents much more than our parents, which is their and our revenge, it is also true that this is one way of reformulating Arendt’s 1963 observation about the banality of evil, itself banally observed in the 2012 film, Hannah Arendt.) The Times reviewer critiqued the film’s use of “the conventions of popular entertainment” for a questionable relativism that finally suggests the good Aryan has “earned the world’s forgiveness.”(12) Landscape M does not do this. What Landscape M does is far more difficult than providing yet another example of how not to portray the Shoah (or, as in the case of the German miniseries, how not to not portray the Shoah)—it retraces its traces.


By way of extension, there was a debate in the United States this past holiday season about the skin color of Santa Claus, which was, ex silentio, a debate about the race of St. Nick. A Guardian headline called the argument a “festive spat” and, along with Jon Stewart, largely dismissed the episode while duly noting its cultural/political markers.(13) But the imaginary, once imaged, becomes part of the real. There are unicorns, after all, even if they don’t sport heaving flanks and snort great hot breaths into the cool morning air. Thus, the question becomes not so much is Santa white or why white to whom, but what kind of a man is this white Santa to those who so imagine him? One who sees what you are doing, of course, and summarily punishes and rewards, a god, in short, and in season. Which is why the Fox anchor who sparked the Claus controversy had to add that Christ was also Caucasian, for if one god might be of color, so might another. But if we can agree that neither guilt nor goodness can really run along bloodlines—or else the Aryans win—then what is the need to mark and preserve, or rehabilitate, any repository of race? And how does race differ from raced history?


The desire for one’s own exculpation is rivaled only by the desire for another’s inculpation. Landscape M is not a problem of representation, or even of representing the unrepresentable. If Bäcker’s work is nothing else, it is the most accurate representation of the Shoah to date. The very real challenge posited by Landscape M is where to locate one’s desire relative to this representation: these are obscene objects. As Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) was a female receptacle, pristine yet profane, another gaping curve to be filled and caressed by the member’s gaze, the Fundstück is the rapist’s penis, the Thing that is the Real thing.(14)


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But first, the return of the unreal: if it’s in a gallery, it’s not the thing itself, regardless of its ontological properties. It is the art-image of the thing. As Groys points out, “The less an artwork differs visually from a profane object, the more necessary it becomes to draw a clear distinction between the art context and the profane, everyday, nonmuseological context of its occurrence. It is when an artwork looks like a ‘normal thing’ that it requires the contextualization and protection of the museum.” I take Groys to mean that museumification serves as the cordon sanitaire that permits aesthetic distinction and thus, aesthetic and ethical judgment. However, Groys is concerned with the art viewer’s ability to aesthetically differentiate and appreciate “something ordinary, something banal,”(15) not something whose ordinariness and banality are marks of the quotidian capacity for monstrosity. In 1936, Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, forbade art criticism as such: “The reporting of art should not be concerned with values, but should confine itself to description. Such reporting should give the public a chance to make its own judgments, should stimulate it to form an opinion about artistic achievements through its own attitudes and feelings.”(16) And one of the mottos of the National Socialist Nuremberg rallies was “No spectators, only actors.”(17) Landscape M, “M” for Mauthausen, “M” for morden (murder), “M” for Peter Lorre’s M (dir. Fritz Lang, 1931), enacts this demand for full participation in the present tense, which is the only tense in which witnessing exists. What this cordon sanitaire does is not differentiate the ordinary from the extraordinary, but segregate past from present, that is, turn questions of fact to questions of feeling. It’s art because—and this is its promise— it has (thus far) the formal property of phenomenology.(18)


Form follows history. In The Future of the Image, Jacques Rancière argues that under Lyotard by way of Rancière, Shoah art is sublime art as it “attests to the unthinkability of the initial shock and the unthinkable project of eliminating this unthinkability. It does it by testifying not to the naked horror of the camps, but to the original terror of the mind which the terror of the camps wishes to erase.”(19) Rancière goes on to argue that this is a zero sum game: to appropriately attest in the realm of art to a truly unthinkable event, the event must be already thought, already necessary.(20) This, however, may be the difference between Shoah art and Nazi art: whereas the Shoah can never be thinkable or necessary as a causal effect, the Nazi is entirely so. And so, Landscape M is the Nazi sublime, an anamorphic exhibition in which the image acts as the thing that is its image. The metaphor, in other words, lies in its radical mimesis, the equivalence of identity in identical properties. And yet there is the impossibly redemptive fact of the gallery. Rancière writes, “Counter-posed to the Eucharistic sacrifice is the pure gesture of the elevation, the consecration of human artifice and human imagining as such.”(21) A pile of crematoria ashes in a gallery, snapshots of a concentration camp, steel twisted into a spiral, rust crumbling and wood chipping onto the museum floor, there is no counter-position of symbolic sacrifice to elevation in this, only the understanding that one eternally presupposes its other, that a holocaust is a burnt offering, and that there is no resolution but to remain unresolved to the dilemma of Nazi art.


Originally published in X-tra Contemporary Art Quarterly, Summer 2014, Volume 16, Number 4


Installation views Heimrad Bäcker, Landscape M, Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, September 2013 – January 2014
Photo 2: Heimrad Bäcker, Closing Ceremonies, 1943/44, 7 × 5 inches, Courtesy Michael Merighi


1. Karl Jaspers developed a theistically inflected existentialism that held consciousness to be transcendent, though not transcendental: absolute awareness of the lack of metaphysical knowledge is itself a conscious apprehension of transcendence. Jaspers famously fell out with Martin Heidegger over the latter’s public embrace of National Socialism and was author of Die Schuldfrage (The Question of German Guilt, 1946), which argued for the implicit complicity of all Germans in the Shoah and called for communal critical self-reflection. Jaspers once wrote: “My own being can be judged by the depths I reach in making these historical origins my own.” Karl Jaspers, “On My Philosophy,” Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufmann, trans. Felix Kaufmann (New York: Penguin, 1975), 161.
2. It is interesting to compare Bäcker’s ethical forbearance with Joseph Beuys’s (another Hitler Youth member) continued Nazi associations, both real and aesthetic. Equally productive is to contrast the former’s asceticism with the latter’s corporeal celebrations. Unlike Bäcker, “Beuys never seemed inclined to problematize [his] subjective experience” of the Hitler Youth as “not manipulated” and “free and independent” (Sven Lütticken, “Cleves and Tartars: On H.P. Riegel’s new biography of Joseph Beuys,” Texte Zur Kunst [December 2013]). This permitted both Beuys’s perpetuation of a form of German Romanticism, famously critiqued by Benjamin Buchloh, and, more to the problem, its embrace by a 1960s and 1970s Western audience that also wanted to believe in an utopian naturalism, even (or especially) on pan-national spiritual grounds.
3. These are two of the poems in their entireties. In keeping with Bäcker’s framing of the work as concrete poetry, the poems are typically spare, emphasizing their visual and linguistic immediacy.
4. The signature itself, of course, is a visual, containing “les notions de symbole, signe régi par une loi, d’icone, signe doté d’un ‘qualité représentative’, et d’indice, signe lié à l’existence réelle de son objet…” (“the concepts of a symbol, a sign governed by a law, a sign with a ‘representative capacity,’ and an index, a sign to the actual existence of its object”). Béatrice Fraenkel, La signature: Genèse d’un signe (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1992), 13.
5. Here I am lifting from David Joselit’s argument that images should not be dismissed as “derivative, dumb, and deceptive,” but rather that their power lies in the operation of their distribution coupled with “the potency of images on their own terms.” Joselit, After Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), xiv–vi.
6. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981), 87, 9.
7. Barthes, 65.
8. “Further expanding the already large class of Foucauldian apparatuses, I call an apparatus literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings… To recapitulate, we have two great classes: living beings (or substances) and apparatuses. And, between these two, as a third class, subjects.” Giorgio Agamben, What Is an Apparatus? and Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 14. Michel Foucault, “The Confession of the Flesh,” Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings, 1972–1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Vintage, 1980), 194–228.
9. Inscribed on the walls of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Münich, the Reich’s first monumental propaganda building, was the maxim: “Art is the only immortal result of human labour.” As of this writing, the museum, now simply the Haus der Kunst, is hosting a Lorna Simpson exhibition, another artist who engages with photography, text, and the arguably immortal difficulties of realness and the Real.
10. Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 121.
11. Originally a 2013 miniseries titled “Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter” (“Our Mothers, Our Fathers”). An article in Der Spiegel applauded the series as opening up the possibility of responsibility without atonement: “We must put an end to guilt, not remembrance” (Romain Leick, “’Our Mothers, Our Fathers’: Next-Generation WWII Atonement,” trans. Christopher Sultan, Der Spiegel, March 28, 2013, [accessed February 14, 2014]).
12. A. O. Scott, “A History Lesson, Airbrushed,” The New York Times, January 14, 2014, (accessed February 14, 2014).
13. For an overview of the debate, see Hadley Freeman, “Black, White or Imaginary?” The Guardian, December 17, 2013, (accessed February 14, 2014). The debate began when Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly responded to an article critiquing the white Santa standard in part by reassuring young listeners that, like Christ, Santa was Caucasian.
14. Answering Hal Foster’s inquiry as to whether there could be an obscene representation, “a representation without a scene that stages the object for the viewer.” The obscene object, in Foster’s view, “comes too close to the viewer,” as opposed to the pornographic, which is staged at an adequate distance from the viewer/voyeur. Hal Foster, The Return of the Real (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 153. For Barthes, this would make history itself a kind of pornography versus an obscenity—as history is constituted “only if we consider it, only if we look at it—and in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it” (Barthes, 65).
15. Groys, 32–33.
16. From now on, the reporting of art will take the place of art criticism which has set itself up as the judge of art…The critic is to be superseded by the art editor.” From Der Deutsche Schriftsteller, as reprinted in George L. Mosse, Nazi Culture (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966), 162–63.
17. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012), 74.
18. A claim that calls out for a series of disclaimers: it would be stupid to altogether act as if past can be separated from future, or affect from effect, or consciousness from what is better termed l’inconscient. What is more modestly claimed here is that immanent to the work of art is its immanence, which is a matter of an encounter, which is a phenomenological proposition, which can only be had in the present.
19. Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image, trans. Gregory Elliott (New York: Verso, 2009), 133–34. Rancière maintains Shoah art is the proper conflation of the sublime, which is by definition concerned with the unrepresentable, and the avant garde, charged with bearing witness to unrepresentablity “that seizes hold of thought” and “inscribes the shock of the material, and testify to the original gap” (132). Rancière critiques Lyotard for assigning the task to a representative people, and of thus rendering the indeterminate determinate. I think the first charge is the one that sticks.
20. Rancière, 138.
21. Ibid., 97.