Art and Auschwitz: A Perspective on Sue Coe from a Jewish Trout Employee

Sam Waltman ’20, Guest Writer

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When I was 11, my family visited Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center. At the end of the museum was the Hall of Names, a large open room with bookshelves full of binders, each containing names and details of victims of the Holocaust. I did not know how to process it; I was too young to grasp the horror and scale of the atrocity. From 1939 to 1945, six million Jews were systematically murdered, not only by Hitler and the Nazi party, but also by everyday people “just carrying out orders.”  What I remember clearly, and what remains with me, was the look of intense sorrow and pain written on my father’s face. The Holocaust is a deep wound in the soul of Judaism, central to Jewish identity.  We are only a generation or two removed from the Holocaust. Some of us today have grandparents that were affected by the camps, or lost relatives to the camps. After the Holocaust, we promised we would “never again” let such horror befall our fellow human beings. Working at The Trout Gallery has exposed me to the important and often challenging task of stirring public discussion. The Civic Engagement Show attempts to do this, drawing from a wide variety of social issues to engage our community in discussion. One of the pieces, a black and white print by Sue Coe, depicts a scene of cows being guided into a slaughterhouse by workers. The cows and humans show intense emotion on their faces, and corporate imagery is rife throughout the piece. Above the scene, the line “Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks they are only animals” is written in block letters. Sue Coe portrays her opinion that the meat industry is not only unethical from the perspective of the animals, but also from human beings, who are psychologically damaged from working in slaughterhouses. The piece has stirred controversy over the use of Auschwitz, leading to question of whether Sue Coe’s work is appropriate to advance her own political beliefs, or whether it represents an Anti-Semitic and insensitive approach to the Holocaust.

The question becomes how do we respond to art that uses the Holocaust? Everyone has the right to their own response, including those offended by the piece. However, assigning an Anti-Semitic label to a museum for showing a piece of art is a failure to engage with the show, the piece and the community. Censorship can take many forms, and is not limited to simply demanding a piece not be shown. Censorship can also be hijacking a narrative, ignoring other interpretations or attacking those who do not agree with you. Art like Sue Coe’s that evokes the Holocaust is uncomfortable because it holds a mirror up to ourselves, asking if we are capable or culpable in engaging in that behavior. We must always be aware of our potential to be oppressors. The term “animal” has become synonymous to something without worth. Sue Coe’s piece asks us to reconsider our vocabulary, making us understand that like the everyday people involved in the Holocaust, we too are capable of assigning a position of worthlessness to living beings. Art allows for the discussion of these ideas, and museums like The Trout Gallery allow for public engagement. 

By shying away from these difficult conversations, museums would fail in their mission to promote artistic expression and public interaction. Demanding that art only be understood through one lens is not honoring or preserving the memory of the Holocaust, but rather preventing us from engaging in open conversation about an artist’s attempt to express her viewpoint.