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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. 

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3 Responses to “Art and Auschwitz: A Perspective on Sue Coe from a Jewish Trout Employee”

  1. Rabbi Jacob Herber on April 4th, 2019 3:06 pm

    Sam, I’ve been to Yad VaShem many times. I’ve been to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum several times, most recently last week. I’ve been to several Nazi death camps in Germany and Poland. Many members of my family were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. In my over 20 years in the rabbinate I’ve spoken and taught about the Shoah to countless groups of adults, teens, and children. I know antisemitism when I see and experience it. To appropriate Holocaust imagery and symbols in a context related to the slaughtering of animals and claiming that it is equivalent to the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews and their attempt to annihilate us from the face of the earth is – at a minimum – insulting to the memory of those who were murdered and to those who were lucky enough to survive. To exhibit the artist’s work without any context – and to have docent’s minimize the unique character of the Holocaust as an attempt at genocide against the Jewish People – at a time when antisemitic attacks against Jews and the Jewish community is at an all-time high in our country is nothing short of irresponsible.

  2. Mychal on April 4th, 2019 3:21 pm

    Sam, I appreciate your perspective as an employee of the Trout Gallery. What concerns me, however, is how you describe students’ very real concerns about these specific pieces as censorship and accusing the Trout of anti-Semitism. As a Jewish student, I am of course appalled by the analogy in Sue Coe’s art. The points that other Jewish students raised at the discussion last night, and with which I agree, however, concerned the seeming lack of context provided by the exhibit or any roadmap for how students should engage with Coe’s art. Of course, we are not demanding that the pieces be taken down. Rather, what we wanted to see was a better incorporation of other perspectives, most notably Jewish scholars, either in tour guides’ training or as a small addition to the didactic materials. I, and many of my other Jewish friends, have never accused the Trout of anti-Semitism. We simply wanted to bring Coe’s insensitive, and, frankly, offensive, use of this analogy to the museum’s attention. I hope you can understand our perspective.

  3. Mia on April 7th, 2019 8:53 pm

    I can only speak for myself, but as the student who approached Trout staff after speaking to other Jewish students about concerns with the presentation of the exhibit: I never advocated censorship, silencing, or taking down art. I advocated responsible scholarship and respectable community engagement in a learning environment. If someone told you that I demanded art be taken down, they are inaccurate, or perhaps they are lying to you. If you read an article I wrote for a Jewish website I work for, you will understand that I then had an anti-Semitic encounter with a college staff member while trying to handle this issue. I don’t deny anyone their experiences — perhaps you have never had an anti-Semitic encounter with any staff. That’s good. I have, and I didn’t shy away from writing about it. To recap: 1) I never advocated censorship; 2) I responded to a specific person’s anti-Semitic comments to me, not to the gallery as a whole; 3) I’m not going to say anything more on this.

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