James E. Young: The Holocaust as Vicarious Past

In James E. Young’s The Holocaust as Vicarious Past he explores the way that this generation of artists is engaging with the Holocuast. Because these artists never directly experienced the Holocaust, they draw upon the collective memory to create their art. Instead of drawing upon memories of survivors, contemporary artists are drawing on their own personal relationship to the Holocaust and not trying to repeat the memories that belong to someone else. These artists are still connected to the Holocaust, however they portray the Holocaust as a “vicarious past”.

Young looks specifically at the work of David Levinthal in this context. Levinthal uses vintage nazi era toys and arranges them in different battle scenes. Instead of photographing the historical realities, Levinthal arranges his toys into tableaux because that is the only reality of the Holocaust he knows. Levintahl chooses to limit his work to his knowledge from textbooks and history lessons, and thus creates a new conversation about the Holocaust and the relation it has to people today.

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Young also addresses the issue that these artworks are “self indulgent by a generation more absorbed in its own vicarious experiences of memory than by the survivors experiences of real events.” While it is a fair argument to make that these artists should be making art about the Holocaust, rather than about themselves. These artists draw entirely off collective memory and thus don’t know anything directly about the Holocaust. Personally creating art about the Holocaust despite having a direct connection to it enters into the territory of an inauthentic representation. While this can be it’s own valid artists expression, I argue that it is far more powerful to create art from personal experience. By continuing to make work about a “vicarious past” the connection to the Holocaust lives and continues to affect modern people.


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