- The Sense of Semblance: Philosophical Analyses of Holocaust Art by Henry W. Pickford
I am trained as a historian and art historian rather than as a philosopher. Nevertheless, I found Henry Pickford’s discussion of the dialectical tensions between the immorality [End Page 302] of the Holocaust and the aesthetic need to depict it very compelling. It is also remarkably free of the disciplinary jargon that would have proved a barrier in elucidating this important topic for those outside the field of philosophy. The volume is truly interdisciplinary in that the author examines a wide range of artworks—memorials, a documentary film, poetry, and a graphic novel—linking them to both Continental and Anglophone philosophical traditions.
The moral dilemma of Holocaust art that succeeds as art, capturing the enormity and, at the same time, the impossibility of reproducing the horrific events, has been and continues to be an ethical and artistic conundrum—as was famously suggested by philosopher Theodor Adorno. As many of this journal’s readers know, Adorno asserted that following the horrors of Auschwitz, writing poetry was barbaric and therefore impossible. In the conclusion to The Sense of Semblance Pickford quotes Adorno’s later qualifications of his own statement: “I once said that after Auschwitz one could no longer write poetry, and that gave rise to a discussion I did not anticipate. . . . Just as I said that after Auschwitz one could not write poems—by which I meant to point to the hollowness of the resurrected culture of that time—it could equally well be said, on the other hand that one must write poems” (p. 207). This excerpt of Adorno’s extremely powerful rumination on aesthetics after Auschwitz obviously engaged Pickford as he selected art works across genres and attempted to ascertain whether they fulfilled Adorno’s and other philosophers’ understanding of the relationship of aesthetics to truth.
Pickford marshals a surprisingly diverse, yet relevant group of arguments. The primary claim in his book, he suggests, is that “theoretical resources from contemporary philosophy can provide lucid and illuminating explications of how specific Holocaustart-works succeed in fulfilling their dual desiderata” (p. 12). His lengthy chapters include analyses of the aesthetic failure of Berlin’s Neue Wache memorial to victims of war and fascism, Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and other controversial memorials. To these failures he contrasts the aesthetic success of Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock’s “Places of Remembrance” in the Bavarian Quarter, also in Berlin. (Note: I am a friend of Stih and Schnock, though like Pickford, I long admired the memorial before making their acquaintance). Pickford’s central argument in this chapter is that the plethora of monuments that do not measure up to the philosophical injunctions of aesthetic importance and truth-telling were built on conflicting narratives or even counter-narratives. The matter-of-fact street signage in the Bavarian Quarter lives up to Walter Benjamin’s injunction: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger” (quoted p. 124). Stih and Schnock’s street signs, similar in appearance to the current contemporary signs and advertisements in the Bavarian Quarter, display Nazi-era quotations such as: “Henceforth, Jewish doctors are not allowed to practice—25.7.1938” (p. 125). Thus, as passersby stroll the Bavarian Quarter, they are confronted with the uneasy realization that discriminatory laws existed [End Page 303] in plain sight of ordinary Berliners and ordinary Germans. Unlike some of the massive “counter-monuments” erected in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany, Pickford argues, the Bavarian Quarter signage enumerating Nazi antisemitic legislation succeeds because it produces “a recognition of the history embedded within the material structures . . . by means of the nonsensible similarity between their past and present incarnations” (p. 135).
Pickford reflects on the works of two poets: Paul Celan in his first chapter, and the Austrian poet Heimrad Bäcker in the third. He elaborates...