03 December 2006

Media and the Real

I’ve just listened to an interesting NPR story about a prisoner at Auschwitz who was assigned to paint watercolor portraits of her fellow prisoners because (according to the Nazi commander there) photographs simply weren’t satisfactorily capturing the degenerate qualities of the gypsies.

Here is one such image. It was painted by Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, who is now 83 years old and wants ownership of her work. The Auschwitz museum claims ownership of anything that serves as evidence of the place's history.

NPR’s story wasn’t about the merits of photos vs. paintings, but I can't help thinking about that. I’ve been wondering if artists choose to do what they do. My guess is that it is rarely a case where a person weighed the options and chose one medium over the other. More often than not, people go with the medium they happened to learn before they really thought about being an “artist”, be it drawing, photography, or even the new technology-media. There's usually a predisposition. But here, it was a clear choice, and a completely backward seeming one.

Nobody today, except in closed court rooms, would turn to a painting for evidence. Photographs, which make the most credible appeal to reality of any of art’s expressive forms, were thought “not real enough” in this case. It seems like proof enough to me that what the Nazi’s saw in these lesser races was a projection of their inner horrors. Why else would a subjective art, like painting, be seen as more accurate than a documentary photography?


Dad said...

Yes, a photograph might miss the actual horror of a moment but the artist can put it in the painting so the moment is remembered as the artist intends. This stuff is really too much for me to comprehend first thing in the morning, I guess I will need to read it again when my body and mind are functioning on more than reserve power.

Matthew said...

Man, I'll remember that for days when I hate my job...