By Sharon Goldberg
Dear Art Collector:
Congratulations! The art world is all abuzz over your winning bid for Maurizio Cattelan’s “Him” at Christie’s recent “Bound to Fail” sale, a record-breaking sum for work by the famous artist. I personally wouldn’t spend $17.2 million for a nearly life-sized, wax and polyester resin effigy of Adolph Hitler, but I can see how a dictator or two might add to your caché among those folks who like art that pushes conventional boundaries.
I appreciate that taste is individual, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and as Andy Warhol said, “Art is what you can get away with.” (I own some much, much, much cheaper art myself and purchase whatever appeals to my particular aesthetic sensibilities. Those choices, however, such as an abstract sculpture made of twisted wood painted orange, purple, fuchsia, and emerald green, often make me smile rather than think of The Holocaust.) I wonder, however, once you install “Him” in your living room or parlor or wherever one typically displays three-dimensional, totally realistic renditions of historical psychopaths, if you’ll really enjoy gazing at it every day. Sure, from the back the piece appears to be a small child in knickers and stockings kneeling in prayer. But from the front, the deferential dude is unmistakably Der Führer dressed in a grey tweed suit, complete with human hair and that ugly, truncated moustache. Frankly, if I were going to purchase a homicidal maniac, I’d go with Stalin—much more distinguished, much better looking, and a glorious moustache.
I’m guessing that your art collection gravitates toward the controversial and provocative. Nothing wrong with that. “Him” will probably rub elbows with work by other artists known for disrupting the status quo, like Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin, and Chris Ofili. But I suggest even Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary,” which incorporates porn clippings smeared with elephant dung, would feel a tad uncomfortable next to Hitler.
Okay, you might contend that “Him” is no more offensive than Cattelan’s “La Nona Ora” which depicts Pope John Paul II struck by a meteor. Certainly, that piece is irreverent; but still, it’s satirical. And Cattelan’s giant 36-foot-high middle finger “fuck you” sculpture erected in front of the stock exchange building in Milan—that’s just plain funny. I’d install it in my yard if I had an extra nine or ten million. But “Him?” Do you think, perhaps, it crosses a line, like Hitler did in Poland? The guy just doesn’t make me chuckle.
I realize that I may be overly sensitive because I’m Jewish and named after my two great aunts who died in Auschwitz. I’m sure the sculpture will provoke profound moral questions and stimulate spirited conversation when you host your friends for cocktails, caviar, and fois gras, and marvel, as Christie’s curator Lois Gauzer said, how Cattelan “defied the taboos of representation by disguising evil incarnate under a cloak of innocence.” Very clever. But $17.2 million worth of cleverness? Call me a cretin, but I think not.
That said, perhaps “Him” is merely one part of your diversified investment portfolio; you’re thinking long term and have no real affection for the kneeling Nazi. In that case, you can bide your time with “Him” until Cattalan dies, thereby creating a more vibrant market for his work. Just give Christie’s a call and re-auction your Hitler! Perhaps next time he’ll fetch $25 million. Then you could reinvest your proceeds in an attractive sculpture of Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Muammar al-Gaddafi, or Kim Jong-Il.
Sharon Goldberg lives in the Seattle area and was once an advertising copywriter. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, The Louisville Review, Cold Mountain Review, Under the Sun, Chicago Quarterly Review, The Antigonish Review, Gold Man Review, three fiction anthologies, and elsewhere. Sharon was the second place winner of the 2012 On the Premises Humor Contest and Fiction Attic Press’s 2013 Flash in the Attic Contest. Three of her stories were nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize and an essay was nominated in 2015. Sharon is an avid but cautious skier and enthusiastic world traveler.