Some Notes towards an Aesthetic of Monuments and Memorials. Yishai Jusidman

. . . The visitor to Yad Vashem will now receive a comprehensive picture of the Holocaust–Dr. Yitzhak Arad, chairman of Yad Vashem’s directorate (Yad Vashem News, Autumn 1992)

The Jewish portable culture, suited to the Diaspora’s wanderings, is witnessing its own ending. No longer limited to perpetrating itself through communal rites, a new Jewish culture is being generated—cemented by way of monuments and museums—to remain permanently in one place. The initial Jewish monuments and museums have been specifically dedicated to the Holocaust, thanks to the belief—or at least the hope—that the preservation of its moral lesson will prevent future anti-Semitic onslaught. A symbiotic cultural metabolism secures and is secured by these memorials: while striving to ward off the causes of future fleeing by perpetuating the Holocaust’s testimony, they also constitute the material foundation for the development of a sedentary culture. How is a Holocaust memorial, the memory’s lifeline to the public domain, supposed to fulfill these moral and cultural responsibilities? Memorials, more often than not, come to be perceived as demagogic artifices, since most sustain the cosmetics of indoctrinating regimes. What is a Holocaust memorial to do to truly become part of the culture?

In addressing these questions, I will not limit myself to analytical considerations but will develop them around a critique of the mother of all Holocaust memorials, Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem. My concern is the rectification of what is to me an unfortunate development in the memorial’s fate: Yad Vashem’s directorate, having unveiled the last of its constituent monuments, has declared it “completed” (Yad Vashem News, Autumn 1992). My argument will be that Yad Vashem should never—as far as might be possible—be completed.

Yad Vashem (literally, “a monument and a name”) was initiated in 1953 on Jerusalem’s Har Hazikaron (Mount of Remembrance) following the establishment of the “Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority” by the Israeli government, which summoned the creation of a shrine to preserve the memory of the millions of Jews annihilated by the Nazis. Today the site consists of an ad hoc accumulation of monuments, sculptures, archives, token objects, an historical museum, and an art museum, each of which is more or less supposed to fulfill particulars inscribed in the above-mentioned law. Tourists and local schoolchildren are diligently bused to these overwhelmingly solemn grounds for obvious didactic purposes—for Yad Vashem both defines and is defined by the land of Never Again, just as Disneyland defines and is defined the land of Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. (In form and function these landmarks emblematize their country’s raison d’être.) Perhaps to the average visitor Yad Vashem is as poignant and persuading as it’s been intended to be, the weight of recent history still warranting its effect. Be that as it may, Yad Vashem’s official aesthetics are hardly as convincing. I will argue that its exemplary success as a memorial is an ironic—but also effective—consequence of persistent aesthetic failures. These failures provide the footing for a tentative theory of monumentality and memorials which may eventually embrace them in a positive light.

I. Elusive memories / Illusive memories.

For our voyage into the realm of aestheticized memory, we must rid ourselves of the simpleminded but nevertheless alluring belief about memorials which suggests that the content of a memorial amounts to the content of the memorialized event. (A similar belief about the meanings of artworks is also pervasive—it holds that the content of an artwork amounts to whatever it stands for.)

The pair of recently established Holocaust museums in L.A. and Washington, D.C., illustrate the above assumption. While they have been duly scrutinized by public opinion, the normally decorous discourse is in this case colored by contrasting responses to the museums’ unprecedented exploitation of the latest interactive technology. Washington’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, reportedly the more sober of the two, offers the personal touch in assigning the visitor an ID card by which he/she may retrieve data from the museum’s computer and thus pursue the real story of a personalized “Shoah pal” (a victim of anti-Semitic persecution who in 1939 had the same age and gender as the visitor’s own). At the other end of the spectrum— and a paramount of politically correct sermonizing—the Museum of Tolerance in Beverly Hills (of all places) submerges you into flatulent environments of mock oppression so as to “make you aware” of how awful bigots are and of how it feels to be on the side of the oppressed.

While the educational content of such exercises can be justifiably examined, I suspect that their configuration undermines them from the outset. In aspiring to engender surrogate experiences of the horrors of the concentration camps so that we who were born after the fact might be mesmerized into following virtuous ways, the people who shaped these museums are bound to see that their noble intentions remain just that. Their conviction that virtual realism will bestow a sense of presentness to a nearly inconceivable event like the Holocaust may well, for practical purposes, have the very opposite effect. (It’s not incidental that the same technology has been developed and implemented by the entertainment industry with fantastically banal results.) As it turns out, a virtual Auschwitz is no more tangible or less surreal than Tomorrowland’s 3-D extravaganza starring Michael Jackson on an intergalactic mission.

Illusion is not the purpose of a memorial. As Kant suggests in the “Analytic of the Sublime,” horror—truly life-threatening horror—cannot be experienced secondhand, however true to life the representation might be. It follows that if the moral (and the practical) imperative never to forget the Holocaust must be reinforced by works that publicly commemorate it, a suitable aesthetics of memorials—one clearly divorced from crass prosthetics—is called for. Yad Vashem, I believe, is very close to exemplifying an aesthetics of the sort I think is needed (albeit unintentionally).

II. What art has to do with it.

As if the documents gathered in its archives over the past forty years do not suffice to demonstrate the magnitude of the Nazi genocide, Yad Vashem has been flooded with evocative art which, conjuring up mystifying artistic rites, is supposed to surmount the Holocaust’s ungraspability and convey its moral sense. Evidence of the all-too-common illusion that artworks have some sort of intrinsic spiritually healing power, a permanent display of artworks produced by inmates of the camps wishes to show the rise of the human spirit (creating art) even against the most humiliating circumstances. Disappointingly, the works displayed are as sad due to their content as they are for their unremarkable mannerisms. Further, the quack art monuments commissioned explicitly for the memorial are likewise supposed to embody a dignified spiritual overcoming of destiny. Instead, they demonstrate the capability of modern art styles to arbitrarily allegorize just about anything, and they challenge many eminent art historians who’ve been under the impression that style itself creates meaning.

A large-scale bronze relief from the 1950s portraying a group of brave muscular men and women in arms under the title The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising has been carved in the same epic mode that would have filled the bill for Mussolini or Stalin. Another relief, a composition of Picasso-esque clunkiness, somehow signifies From Holocaust to Rebirth, (its iconography comes conveniently translated from inspired-artist language into layman-language in a courtesy pamphlet). Standard minimalism becomes curiously handy for extorting such tropes; an elongated convex slab of stainless steel is no other than The Pillar of Heroism. Such allegories are well meant, but really to no effect. Mistakenly assuming that the works’ certification as art would by itself carry their edifying messages through, their monumentally ambitious makers and the bureaucrats who supported them display an all-too-common misunderstanding of the languages of art, and more relevant for our purposes, of the aspects that relate and differentiate monuments and artworks. I beg the reader to bear with me through a bit of theory before continuing our analysis of the memorial, in order to break through this conceptual fog.

III. Monuments themselves.

Our conceptions of both artworks and monuments are so closely related that their respective uses and applications often address the same object—usually in the form of large-scale sculpture or allegorical architecture. By force of habit, then, we come to confuse artworks and monuments. In order to disentangle these two conceptual families, we may be inclined to pinpoint the aspects of the aesthetic object that are pertinent to artworks as well as those pertinent to monuments. We would quickly realize that these aspects are not altogether perceptually evident—when they are perceptual at all—but that they presuppose our understanding of established and distinct grammars. Competence in these languages requires our awareness of the particular conditions through which these objects are infused with public meaning, as well as an understanding of the spectator’s task in public meaning’s retrieval. For instance, the public meaning of a monument is pretty much clear-cut (at least on the surface): It is officially established and refers to facts in the world. In contrast, an artwork originates within the artist’s subjectivity, and its malleable significations are forged through complex relationships to the public domain. The grammars of artworks and —respectively— of monuments articulate an aesthetics when the object’s meanings are deployed by way of their audience’s responses and do not simply refer denotatively to their creators’ intentions. In what follows I will sketch the outline of an aesthetics of monumentality by looking into the miscellaneous links of monuments and their meanings.

A. Allegory
The monuments that first come to mind—such as the Statue of Liberty, L’Arc de Triomphe, the monument to Vittorio-Emanuelle—are straightforwardly allegorical, as are most of Yad Vashem’s monuments. All of these are intended to perform as “stand-ins” for the professed greatness of a principle, an achievement, or an individual; such monuments strive to glorify, whether or not the glorification is deserved. Their subjects may be monumental in the sense of being worthy of a monument (their monumental condition preceding the concretizing of the actual monuments, whereby the monument does not monumentalize that which is already monumental but only “honors” it). On the other hand, the subject may be contrived to attain that same monumental condition retroactively through having the monument built (i.e., Saddam Hussein’s monuments to Iraq’s performance in the Gulf War). In this sense, “to monumentalize” means to distort and exaggerate for undue glorification. Of course, whether allegorical monuments do justice in their glorifying or else fraudulently monumentalize is largely a matter of interpretation of historical events and ideologies. Insofar as allegorical meaning is explicitly given by means of denotation, plainly allegorical monuments seldom make for aesthetically convincing experiences.

B. Metonymy
An object represents metonymically when its subject is referred to, as if by extension, through a spatial or close causal association. Metonymic monuments are places, artifacts, or buildings that are directly related to particular historical events and are officially safeguarded as tokens of history. Any evocative effect produced by such a monument is due to its direct historical links. And, as with religious relics, this effect depends in turn on a leap of faith—the purported links must be believed to be real. Metonymic monuments thus gather an aura, an intrinsic power to evoke their contents, yet for this very reason they do not normally lend themselves to the complex readings of intentionality that are inherent in artworks.

C. Instantiation
There is a more aesthetically involving type of monumentality that incorporates both intentionality and metonymy, and which monumentalizes—in a contrastingly positive sense to which I will heretofore refer when I use the term—by instantiating that which it represents. Such a monument is not just an instrument of political or cultural advertising. Beyond being a tool, as it were, it is the end product itself. Let me explain myself through an example: Pharaoh Cheops’s unparalleled powers and the technological advancements of ancient Egyptian civilization are not just symbolized by but also practically embodied—and thus monumentalized—in the massiveness and sophisticated engineering of the Great Pyramid of Giza. In its presence, the awe- inspiring effect, like that of an artistic masterpiece, is engendered both by its aesthetic proportions and by the awareness that mere mortals were able to bring about such a feat. Hence, independent of whatever denotative or metaphoric meaning we might subsequently want to project onto the pyramid, the monumentalizing agent was itself the monumental event of building it. In contrast to purely allegorical monuments, these instantiating monuments monumentalize by way of their inherent monumentality. And in contrast to the purely metonymical, instantiating monuments are not just tokens of history—they’re also intentional exemplifications of what is monumentalized by them, and thus they close the gap between the representation and the represented. (Not all of the conditions that made the pyramid possible are monumentalized by it—which ones are and aren’t is decided through a grammar of monumentality, an amalgam of aesthetics and ethics. Only a disturbed culture that considered the use of slave labor virtuous would read into the pyramid a monumentalization of slavery.)

D. The Artwork-Monument Composite
When a monument is also an artwork, its significance qua monument is further complicated, as one would wish to differentiate it from the aesthetic and symbolic modes that pertain to its being an artwork. Monuments are often devised to articulate their references through “artistic” properties, so whether and what such a monument monumentalizes (or monumentalizes in the first sense) needs to be individually interpreted.

Michelangelo’s David is a good case in point. Having discarded the Renaissance’s standards of idealized classical proportion in favor of distortions that allow for expressive tensions in the work’s configuration, the David was a revolutionary sculpture. The Medici declared it a monument to Florence as they sympathized with its calculated balance of pragmatic strength and cultivated delicacy (or so the story goes). But while the huge arms and head of the David juxtaposed with his boyish body may well symbolize the Florentines’ fancies, the sculpture in fact monumentalizes their progressive and independent spirit, instantiated in their adoption of Michelangelo’s unprecedented aesthetics. Thus we may distinguish in the David qualities—physical as well as circumstantial—that are, due to its being an artwork, expressive of Michelangelo’s intentions, and due to its being a monument, expressive of Florence’s culture.

Hence, the David is particularly interesting as a monument because it is simultaneously allegorical (of Florence’s self-image) instantiating (of Florence’s progressive spirit), and even metonymic (as an extension of Florence’s most glorious epoch).

IV. Monuments and Memory.

By monument . . . we understand a work produced by human hands and created specifically to keep individual doings and destinies . . . always alive and present in the consciousness of future generations.

—Alois Riegl in The Modern Cult of Monuments (1903)

Monuments are intended to serve in one way or another as memorials; indeed, one definition of the word “monument” refers to tombs or gravestones. Still, one must bear in mind that not all memorials are meant to be monumental, as is the case with most gravestones. Memorials such as these are not only meant to call to mind the individuals commemorated by them: memorials generally attempt to anchor their subject’s memory to the public domain by concretely conveying some aspect of their bygone presence. A conventional gravestone metaphorizes (metaphorically symbolizes) an individual by recalling, albeit subtly, his/her body’s organically unified mass. (This may partly explain the otherwise senseless vandalism that targets cemeteries.) More elaborate memorials seek to materialize a richer gamut of the deceased’s attributes. In Ptolemaic Egypt, a coffin would be adorned with a faithful portrait of its inmate. In sixteenth-century Italy, a true aristocrat wouldn’t have any less than his noble physique, his virtues, and his achievements properly represented by his tomb—not as mere symbols, but as indisputable testimony to his taste and sophistication. By way of direct instantiation, memorials can get to be much more assertive than their metaphors are. Red Square’s Lenin’s Mausoleum does not limit itself to instantiating aspects of the deceased: it instantiates the deceased. Aseptically embalmed, his bodily presence is regaled in skin and bone for us forgetful and skeptical mortals. (Sadly for the aesthetically conniving, current events in Russia will apparently lead to the dismantling of this spectacular and overswaying reliquary—for once, the body will undoubtedly take its spirit to the grave. RIP.)

V. Monuments of the Sublime.

Given what I’ve said so far about the aesthetics of monuments, it might be hard to picture a nonallegorical monument designed to effectively and collectively memorialize the Holocaust’s six million dead (apart from the metonymic monuments that the ruins of the concentration camps now constitute). An instantiating monument seems to have to be simultaneously formed with its subject (as with Cheops’s pyramid), or its aesthetic properties correlate intimately with its monumentalizing (the David). Further, an aesthetically effective memorial should at least forcefully metaphorize the commemorated subject. But when it comes to the Holocaust, the already monumental void Hitler’s perverse design produced can hardly be convincingly suggested, let alone instantiated by a concrete aesthetic form. Yad Vashem corroborates these strictures by offering fresh evidence of the evocative limitations of monuments.

A recent addition to Yad Vashem’s roster of failed monuments, the Children’s Memorial is a darkened underground hall entirely covered with mirrors. Five burning memorial candles at the center are reflected into an infinite number of flickers, symbolizing the souls of children who perished in the war. Completing the theatrics, names of victims and their ages are recited through a sound system against spooky yet “meditative” New Age sounds. This patently manipulative and sentimentalizing technique is enough to ward off any mildly developed sensibility in any context, and it is particularly repulsive when applied to a subject which, being so monstrously tragic in itself, demands the utmost solemnity in its commemoration. More significantly for our purposes, the installation is also deficient in regards to its pursued metaphorical force. The unfolding reflections are meant to concretize the idea of infinity, or of a very large number, in order to implement an effect like the one Kant (again) calls “the mathematical sublime”—a morally edifying cognitive condition triggered by our confrontations with phenomenal and conceptual infinity. Although the infinite is indeed conveyed by the Children’s Memorial, its evocation of millions of souls through virtual reflections flops because we are always aware that—except for five of them—these are not real flames but only mirror images, and as such we only derive from them the illusion of millions of souls. This is an effect the “revisionists” who bark that the Holocaust is a fabrication might sympathize with.

The Valley of the Communities is Yad Vashem’s latest—and officially, its last— attraction. Spread over six acres and built like a high-walled labyrinth from Minoan-sized blocks of rock (which are actually only overlays carefully mounted on a poured concrete base), it gives an impression of being manicured ancient ruins. Placed sporadically among them are the names of the five thousand Jewish communities annihilated by the Nazis. While the Valley attempts to concretely convey the magnitude of the atrocity through the monument’s massiveness, and the devastation through its ruin likeness, we are unavoidably taken much more by its creators’ monumental showmanship and their aesthetizing exploits.

Understandably, then, the most overpowering display at Yad Vashem is not a monument or an artwork, not an allegory or a metaphor, however suggestive. Amid the sea of aesthetically diluting multimedia shows at the historical museum stands an unpretentious glass case containing five or six yellow stars, actual remnants and paradigms of Nazi stigmatizing. These almost ephemeral objects are so completely infused with the Holocaust that they radiate all the pain Yad Vashem’s grandiose concoctions would have wished to convey. The effect of these stars is entirely dependent on our believing their authenticity—it is metonymic in the most direct sense.

VI. Memorials and ritual.

Should Yad Vashem be saved from the purgatory of aesthetic inconsequence, we must put aside considerations as to what its monuments represent, symbolize, or mean. We will instead look into what this monumental collage actually does.

An effective memorial needs to be supported by a ritual that members of a community enact in order to assure the public survival of the intended memory. While this ritualized “sharing” projects the memory into the public domain, the “sharing” does not refer to the partaking in the use of a tangible stand-in for the memory (such as the “passports” in the moralizing make-believe game at the American Holocaust museum) but to a communal action performed in earnest. Religion has long provided the framework for the deployment of these rituals. However, memorials such as Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial can actually serve the same purpose. This memorial portrays the amount of the bloodshed and simultaneously acknowledges each individual life by listing the names of the fallen on an otherwise austere black granite wall. It is particularly notable for having been able to generate a peculiar response: Because its layout is limited to stating a sorrowful fact without resorting to allegorizing or metaphorizing fanfare, people feel unintimidated and free to perform their own passions and leave offerings in front of it—a new kind of wailing wall. The honest displays of grief infect those who didn’t lose a relative or an acquaintance in that war, or those who aren’t even American, for that matter. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial demonstrates how the forcefulness of a collective memorial depends on a lot more than its representational references to the memorialized. As quality artworks do, an effective memorial must fashion a relationship with the participating audience, and it must perpetrate through this audience—in Wittgenstein’s jargon—a “form of life.”

Inverting the memorial-to-ritual process, a dynamic and appropriate “form of life” may itself produce a compelling memorial, as is the case with the tragically spreading AIDS quilt. Its monumental size is directly proportional to the growing number of victims, and thus it concretely conveys the epidemic’s magnitude.

Curiously, in Yad Vashem there is a little-visited mini-memorial that works in much the same way, the Memorial Cave. At the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1981, participants brought a few hundred memorial stones in honor of their murdered relatives. Of diverse materials and sizes, the slabs are inscribed in different languages: they sometimes austerely state a name or two, at times indicating a country of origin, sometimes providing a more elaborated text or dedication. Haphazardly mounted on the walls of a small cave, these stones express the individuality of the commemorated as well as the separate acts of remembrance by those who placed them. Their contrasts invite us to inspect each one and to participate in their memorializing as we do so. It’s somewhat disappointing that Yad Vashem’s supervisors underestimated this project’s potential.

Ultimately, however, and in spite of all its shortcomings, Yad Vashem manages to function as a “quilt” of sorts, each of its constituting patches being a monument that perpetuates the self-imposed ritual of planning, building, and eulogizing Holocaust monuments and memorials. While its individual monuments are for the most part aesthetically wanting, as a composite Yad Vashem persistently articulates the desire to convey what cannot be conveyed, to imagine what couldn’t be imagined even as it was taking place, to memorialize what cannot in itself be properly memorialized. Even though Yad Vashem’s original aesthetic goals may be, as I have suggested, fundamentally impossible to achieve, there remains an ever present moral imperative to fuel its persistence. In this persistence Yad Vashem monumentalizes its mission: Keeping the memory alive. Hence, in spite of having been (mis)conceived as “the monument to the victims of the Holocaust,” Yad Vashem monumentalizes (instantiatingly) our memory of them. It will do so for as long as the project endures. Self-satisfaction or giving up will undermine this “form of life” whose sustenance is indeed the proliferation of memorials. Declaring it “completed” is therefore as immoral as it is aesthetically wrong. In fact, Yad Vashem’s “completion” is immoral because it is aesthetically wrong—a corollary that isn’t arrived at often enough.

Insofar as it would consolidate the reinstatement of sedentary Jewishness, liturgy teaches Jews to look forward to the building of the Temple, where regular sacrifices may again be consecrated to God. The new Temple may come true as a secular one, dedicated to the remembrance, rather than the performance, of sacrifice.

©Yishai Jusidman, 1994