Volker März

by Prof. em. Georg Bussmann, Gesamthochschule Kassel

(Translated from the German by Kathrin Nussbaumer)

"May man be noble…"

Comment on a piece of sculpture entitled 'Eichmann Raum' by Volker März

"Auschwitz is human." [1] This sentence accompanies a piece of art created by Volker März. What does this sentence do to us? My first reaction was, "Oh my God, no!" The second, with a delay, was "but unfortunately, of course." I call the first reaction normal. The statement both attacks certain underlying ideas concerning the norms of humanity that are supported by art- namely, the humaneness of human beings and the belief that one can build a world based upon the rational ideas growing out of that humaneness - and seeks to avert the attack by contradicting the very statement "May man be noble, helpful and good." ("Edel sei der Mensch, hilfreich und gut.") presupposed by it. Our benign use of the word human is so innate that we never employ it to mean all human aspects, but only the good ones. The entirety of human beings frightens us, and we therefore mask it. The second reaction comprehends the idealism contained in the statement as overexerted and unreal. Diogenes pops his head out of his barrel and discovers that humanity is a deeply ambiguous concept. It contains both belief and wishful thinking that may or may not come true. Human actions in their entirety have something rather evil about them. It seems to make sense therefore, in the name of actual reality, meaning the true possibilities inherent in human nature, to use Auschwitz in such a way as to negate any hasty beliefs in man. But here is the catch: education assumes its addressees to be rather unknowing and far from independent thinkers; therefore, it imagines its enlightenment to be something like a "solution" to a problem or, in any case, something that promotes its concern. I do not think that this contradiction is of the kind that immediately needs to be considered social in nature. That would seem to be diminutive. The debate caused by Volker März's art may reveal positions we would like to assign to conflicting 'sides', but that would be too easy. As soon as we start taking seriously any two sides standing next to each other or any two sides standing opposite each other, they immediately lose their rhetorical dimension and we find ourselves caught in the middle of a contradiction. We experience it for ourselves. Both answers become a part of our own history, and therefore our own life. Thanks to the work of Volker März and the way he speaks about the fact of Auschwitz, we have arrived at this split and this schizophrenic state of the viewer's/reader's own mind. We are both. Now it is up to us to come to terms with it.

In the debates concerning his work, the term "blasphemy" has come up. Or it is about to. It would make sense. Because what is happening here may strike us as blasphemous, not in the conventional sense as an insult to God, but rather as blasphemy uttered against the Humanistic idea of what it means to be human, a blasphemy of the so-called spiritual mind ("Geistnatur") of human beings, which occupies a blank space and whose degradation it is now our obligation to avert. As with the case of God, the only certainty regarding the general idea of human nature lies in symbols, signs, and words which therefore have to be defended vehemently. It is mainly about one word: the adjective 'human'. Blasphemy as a concept tries to bring about the interruption, or even destruction, of whatever embodies those ideals, that is, their signs and thinking structures. Its means are obscenity and/or a kind of biting humor. Volker März had intended to put a painted clay replica of Adolf Eichmann (20 cm in height) in front of the letters Auschwitz. The figure was meant to look at a comb carved out of a piece of a folding rule - an artifact Volker März had planned to borrow from the memorial at Buchenwald. Since we have a tendency to want to assign dignity to things, the composition of Eichmann as gnome (ein Eichmännlein?) with an authentic remnant from a concentration camp (a relic?) can really get on our nerves. And that is exactly what it is supposed to do. The deadly seriousness of our anti-fascist cultural attitude now gets turned into a subject of irony. But the resulting laughter does not sound like real laughter. Rather, blasphemy makes its attack in order to cause a new or repeated definition of what it is that is being attacked, or to cause us to reflect on what it is (for example, "Mona Lisa" as "Mona Lisa" with Duchamp's moustache). Blasphemy remains provocative to the point of disturbance, but it seems to be necessary at the same time. Images require anti-images in order for us to keep confronting reality through art. Blasphemy, however, suggests that it is more than anti-art that is being integrated. Blasphemy is a systematic attack on whatever counts as being politically correct or-from a psychological perspective-a kind of cultural masochism that insults again and again, and which therefore can never simply be accepted or explained away.

Sacrilege of what is human ("Menschenlästerung") is how Volker März succinctly describes it and he adds somewhat paradoxically [for Hannah Arendt's sake], sacrilege of the devil ("Teufelslästerung"). Blasphemy thought through shows us that both blaspheme and believer are fixated on God in the same way. What does that mean? If we want to imagine a second Auschwitz, then those who count on 'the humanity of humans' to prevent such a thing from happening, suddenly appear as the "believers" and those who question them now appear as the "blasphemers." But both would agree that they want to prevent a second Auschwitz from ever occurring. (Therefore, I would not talk about censorship in these debates. Not everything that looks like censorship really is censorship.) I wonder, is it possible to assume a position of indifference within such an argument, a 'standing by the wayside' with respect to it, and if so, what could be the possible purpose of such an indifference? What remains forever indigestible to me about the topic of Auschwitz is Hannah Arendt's term the "banality of evil." Not only because it withdraws any basis from hasty moral judgments -it has to do this, or because it involves putting oneself above something or someone else-but rather because this term immediately becomes part of any further reflections the moment that we try to realize everything that follows as a kind of theater of indignation; because it is not only Evil that is banal when one conceives of life, above all else, as something that demands to be staged. To say this does not in any way bring the matter of the reality of Evil into question, or even less so, end it. (And why? After all, the question of the meaning of life and our identity lies within it.) Rather, it inevitably brings out the symbolism of these discussions as their primary reality, which is a matter that concerns each and every one of us. Hence, there is also this: Hannah Arendt's laughter.


[1] "Auschwitz ist menschlich" ("Auschwitz is Human"), Interview with Volker März by Matthias Reichelt in "Kunstforum International", Vol. 179, 2006, p. 227ff.