“What is a Holocaust Memorial?” Panel at 2015 Conney Conference
Last month, a panel convened to discuss the central question of “What is a Holocaust Memorial?” in Southern California. Taking place on March 24th as part of the 2015 Conney Conference on Jewish Arts at the University of Southern California, the panel featured Robert Eisenman, Russell Thomsen, and Hernan Diaz Alonso. Moderated by Eric Owen Moss, the first question to be posed to the panel was an important meta-question: “Is this a discursive matter at all?” Moss expanded by saying that there is instinct and emotion wrapped up in the matter: “is this a subject that can be outlined as an intellectual exercise?” Furthermore, “is it discussible? How can we unravel it or explain it by talking about it?”
To this question, Eisenman responded (as the only Jew on the panel, he answered that question with another question), “Are we celebrating it in some way or are we reminding people?” Eisenman continued, “I’m not into Holocaust memorials as such, unless they’re teaching something.” However, for him, “the Jewish people in Israel are the memorial. That’s why something should be in Israel.”
Thomsen responded that “the larger subject of memorialization is something that has happened throughout history and, arguably, moreso today than before.” He continued, “The subject of memorialization, I think, is reaching a political tipping point.” He also mentioned the notion of a memorial as a mnemonic to recall an event. In German, he pointed out, there are two words…one as “memorial” and the other as “warning”. However, he also cautioned that he’s “hesitant to generalize about memorials, because they are all so site-specific.”
Moss, amongst many and good framing questions, asked: “Who is the constituency? For whom is it done? What’s the relationship between the past and the present?” and “Is the Holocaust a unique event?”
One has to look at what monuments and memorials do, pointed out Thomsen, since “every memorial, depending upon who deploys it,” has different aims. For instance, he mentioned, initially, Auschwitz had its stuff taken away and the Poles used it as a warning against Fascism – “Most memorials are a mnemonic for remembering something.” Thomsen continued, “the experience of the memorial is not about representing it, it’s about immersing the visitor in some kind of experience where they are no longer able to assimilate it.” Thomsen also felt strongly not to tell the visitors what the message is – that it’s really important where the idea is encountering an idea you can’t easily assimilate – it should be jarring to the visitor.
Alonso pointed out that, “At the end of the day, the intention of the artist doesn’t matter.” And Thomsen also wondered how much we should be thinking about the durability of the meaning of these memorials or museums (he had worked on a memorial at Birkenau, which was intentionally not made to last.
The questions asked by Moss were some great, helpful framing questions, although a rich discourse around his questions was not able to fully take root. While Thomsen had some good gems of insight, and, to some extent, so, too, did Alonso. However, Eisenman kept directing the conversation to nationalist purposes, which seemed out of step of the feeling of the panel and the room, in general. Furthermore, Eisenman began his remarks by suggesting that perhaps they had meant to invite his brother, who designed the Berlin Holocaust museum, since his specialty has nothing to do with the topic under discussion.
There were several other questions throughout the event, primarily raised in the room that were also of interest:
- Should we do a memorial or museum for the Spanish Inquisition?
- How much is the importance of a memorial versus the people inside?
- Do we need a form language for Holocaust memorials?
- What happens when we have a greater emotional distance from the Holocaust or what happens when we no longer have the same firsthand accounts or even secondhand or thirdhand accounts?
The 2015 Conney Conference on Jewish Arts was co-presented by The Mosse-Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at The University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Southern California Initiative for Israeli Arts and Humanities. The Conney Project is intended to be a far-reaching educational entity that supports and encourages new narratives of Jewish identity in all the arts, both traditional and contemporary, including literature, music, and the visual and performing arts. The mission of the Conney Project is both to raise awareness of the contributions of Jewish artists and scholars to the landscape and history of the arts in general and to encourage and support new scholarship and production in the field. The USC Initiative for Israeli Arts and Humanities promotes an interdisciplinary study of global art and culture.
The Conney Project posted a video of the entire panel, which may be watched here.