Does evil make good art?

A photographic exhibition of Nazis in the movies - a work of post- modern irony or another attempt by a gallery to get shock headlines and punters through the door? By Tom Lubbock
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The Independent Culture
A letter from the Photographer's Gallery, earlier this month: "Dear Gallery Supporter, You may have come across some news reports regarding our forthcoming exhibition, The Nazis, by Piotr Uklanski. I am writing to reassure you of the Gallery's considered position and that we are not mounting this exhibition to cause a sensation, or to cause any offence to any part of the community, in particular the Jewish community. The Gallery has no intention of glamourising the evils of Nazism or becoming a magnet for neo-Nazis."

Oh dear. But you get the picture at once. It's one of those situations galleries find themselves in. Protests arrive which might have been foreseen and everyone groans - naturally, no one's seen the show - then public statements are issued making such extravagant declarations of innocence that reassurance is the last thing achieved, and the wording always goes away. Their "considered position"? What could their unconsidered position conceivably have been? Was there a moment of madness when becoming a magnet for neo-Nazism was on the agenda?

True, there was a case to answer. Lord Janner and the Jewish Board of Deputies had voiced serious concerns. Uklanski, a New York-based Polish artist, assembles a gallery of film-images, 100 headshots of famous actors, each one portraying a Nazi in costume. Sounds dodgy. But about this show, more later. We've been here before.

A year ago, a similar statement was circulated by the Royal Academy. The cause then was Marcus Harvey's painting, Myra. Of course, it would have been difficult for the organisers of Sensation to have claimed persuasively that they were "not mounting this exhibition to cause a sensation".

Nevertheless, they too managed an awkwardly ringing affirmation of what ought to have gone without saying: "The Royal Academy shares the universal public revulsion at, and abhorrence for, the crimes committed by Myra Hindley and Ian Brady" - though going on to add, by way of defence, with a phrasing that was remarkably negligent or mischievous: "The painting, Myra, is a terrible reminder of the horrors of which human beings are capable."

Still, the painting was displayed - and picketed, attacked, repaired and displayed again behind security glass and under guard. At the time, many were reminded of a yet earlier incident. In the 1994 Whitechapel Open, Jamie Wagg had shown an enormous photographic blow-up, Shopping Mall, derived from the video images of James Bulger being led along by the boys who killed him. That also, despite protest, stayed on view.

Contemporary art rows abound, but this is a class apart, quite distinct from human-body-part rows, or religion rows, or I-don't-call-that-art rows. The protection of moral landmarks is involved. Some established evil seems to be being glorified or trivialised by art. Outrage. Naturally, on these occasions one tries to stay calm. But often the only alternative to outrage is weary irritation.

I mean, those art galleries, what do they want? They're always up for being confrontational, provocative, challenging and disturbing. But at the first sign of trouble, they immediately run off, saying: "didn't mean it, not really, you got us all wrong."

Or then, those artists - they just don't think the world exists, do they? They only think the art world exists. It's not so much that they're out to outrage. It's more that they simply don't imagine that there are people who really could feel outraged. They find the reaction in its normal form unreal. They only experience it as a kind of spicy aesthetic resource; a bit of hot stuff to toy with and be cool about.

These are fair enough points to make . But actually, the distinctive element of this particular art row is media imagery and how we take it. That's where minds divide. Some look at Myra and see a famous murderer magnified, and are disgusted. But others, more ready with media studies' savvy, look at it and see something quite else: a famous representation of an iconic image of female evil periodically trundled out by the press for knee-jerk moral fits.

So when people called Harvey's use of this image insensitive or exploitational, there was an obvious reply: and what about the tabloids, has their use of it been so sensitive then? Haven't they been mercilessly trifling with your affections for the last 30 years, and did you ever bother to complain about that? You react as if this police mugshot were a holy image being stolen by profane hands, and as if Hindley were a madonna. And so she is, really; an anti-madonna.

Seen like that, I think the painting becomes potentially more than just provocative. The point of rendering the dreadful icon using kids' handprints could have been to redeem the reality of a crime from its heady mythologisation. But I don't think it worked that way. The painting's enormous size - "terrifyingly powerful" as was stupidly remarked - made it too ironic about, too complicit in and too enthralled by the lamentable power of the mythic mugshot. Incidentally, it's startling how the current Adidas ad-posters make a straight visual steal from Myra: black and white heads rendered in foot-prints. Surely they don't want the connection? Or maybe they do? Maybe contemporary art controversy plus horrifying crime has a certain chic.

And The Nazis? The publicity seemed to promise a show of very cool irony, dubious moral brinkmanship and a dose of what Susan Sontag called "Fascinating Fascism". Indeed, the catalogue quite quivers at the thought of these handsome, masculine stars, all wearing a uniform that "has attained a certain dark glamour, a look which has been sexualised, fetishised, Nazi chic... They are looking their very best. They are dressed to kill. The effect is uncanny, provoking in the viewer an uneasy sense both of repulsion and attraction".

Good grief - but also, it's quite off the mark. Doubtless it was this excited language that mainly provoked the protest, and perhaps the writer hadn't yet seen the work either, because the show's nothing like that. It may be insensitive, but not in that way.

It's a joke, obviously funny. It's hardly about Nazism at all except as stagy villainy in war films. It's a joke about cinema and acting. Here, in rows, are 100 large stills of top actors - Brando, Mason, Burton, everyone - straining to personify evil: monocles, scars, cigarette-holders, brutish rage, icy sadism - no cliche is missed. Half are black and white, but half are in garish colour, which de-cools it further. It's all exhibited in the Gallery's busy cafe. I don't see neo-Nazis, sadomasochists, or anyone finding dark glamour there.

Culture-buffs, however, may be drawn. The show sheds curious sidelights on post-war cinema: at one time, no male actor could have a Hollywood career without playing a Nazi, including notable nice guys and comics such as Sinatra, Roger Moore, Terry Thomas and Buster Keaton); stars may play Allied grunts, but they only ever play Nazi officers.

But, of course, behind it all there's a blasphemous bathos joke - a laugh at the absurd gulf between these movie portrayals and what they pretend to portray, but also at the very enormity they so signally fail to imagine. Insensitive? Sensitive? Blasphemy is always both. What it mocks, good or evil, it recognises too. It's certainly a more sensitive response than any "uneasy sense of attraction and repulsion" - though it's curious that no gallery would offer it as an artistic justification. The question about The Nazis should be how seriously it blasphemes. The worst thing would be if, through forgetting, such blasphemy couldn't be aroused at all.

Piotr Uklanski - `The Nazis': Photographer's Gallery, 5 Great Newport Street, London WC2; until 12 Sept; free admission.