Discussions on Holocaust Appropriation in Art at the Trout Gallery

Jules Struck, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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At a Wednesday night forum, close to 50 students and professors discussed appropriation of Holocaust imagery by one artist featured in the Trout Gallery.

The forum was organized by the Asbell Center for Jewish Life and the Trout Gallery after students raised concerns about Sue Coe’s paintings, which use Holocaust imagery to depict animal cruelty at the slaughterhouse.

Sam Waltman ’20 works at the Trout Gallery and said as a Jewish person, “obviously when you’re growing up there’s a lot of pain about the Holocaust.”

“What Sue Coe’s piece asks us to do is consider whether we are capable of being the slaughterhouse,” said Waltman.

“Emotionally there’s something about her work that [made it so] I couldn’t get to that question” about the morality of the meat industry, said Devin Simonson ’19.

Stephanie Levin ’22 said when Holocaust imagery is used as a casual metaphor, especially in politics, “it almost loses its power.”

Sam Halpern ’22 echoed the same point: “Putting it more in a political sense, a lot of people appropriate the term ‘Nazi’ or ‘Gestapo’ to describe a trivial action sometimes, and it’s used in politics to attack people on the other side.”

“That speaks to a broader narrative,” Halpern said, and “even though [Coe’s] piece was created outside of that… where we are as a society is forced to be in the middle of that.”

Other students spoke to Coe’s commentary on animal rights: “Sometimes it’s as if we forget… that we are animals,” said Talya Lubit ’22, “and we kind of set ourselves above as if we are this higher creature.”

“I take her work more as a warning that when you don’t examine cruelty to other beings, you are on a slippery path,” said Ward Davenny, professor of art.

Andrea Lieber, professor of religion and Sophia Ava Asbell Chair in Judaic studies, served on a panel for the event. She spoke about the limits of using the Holocaust as an analogy for animal cruelty, and said “the reality of anti-Semitism is completely different” today than in 2013, when Coe’s work was first displayed in the Trout Gallery.

“We had a whole gallery full of this stuff and… just a few people said ‘boo,’” said Lieber, but today “is more fraught.”

“When we’re processing this, I think we really have to listen with empathy to those who are offended by the art and those who are inspired,” she said.

“One of the problems is that with anti-Semitism rising, [Coe’s art] very much makes me uncomfortable,” said Jake Saltzberg ’20.

Another member of the panel, Amy Wlodarski, associate professor of music and author of Musical Witness and Holocaust Representation, addressed a quotation printed in one of Coe’s works, which reads “Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they are only animals.”

The quote is widely and wrongly attributed to German philosopher Theodor Adorno, said Wlodarski. She said it is actually a distortion of Adorno’s essay, “People are looking at me,” printed in full below.

Excerpt from Theodor Adorno’s “Minima Moralia.” Photo courtesy of Kyoolee.net

“What are the limits of representation?” asked Wlodarski in reference to Coe’s art, “They are not defined by an academic… they are defined by each of you.”

“When you look at Sue Coe’s work, is that a limit for you?” said Wlodarski.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy Amy McKiernan was part of the panel and said, “I would wonder about the effectiveness long-term of using an analogy,” like Coe’s. “You risk backfiring and… undermining your own argument,” said McKiernan.

Rabbi and Asbell Director Ilyse Kramer closed the hour-long event with an appeal to “civil discourse.”

“How do we ask good, productive questions and respond to questions in a way that… opens us up and elucidates us to a variety of perspectives?” Kramer asked.

Saltzberg said he thought the event was “productive” and “just the beginning.”

“It opens the door to talking about this for a long time,” he said.

Director of the Trout Gallery and Associate Professor of Art and Art History Phillip Earenfight gave opening remarks at the discussion and Gary Kirk, the executive director of the Center for Civic Learning & Action, moderated. “Sue Coe’s Appropriation of Holocaust Imagery: An Evening of Shared Inquiry” was held in the Weiss Center for the Arts, room 235, at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 3.

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