On Mountains and Molehills

On Saturday, The Guardian published a story about the 1994 Turner Prize quoting British artist Antony Gormley.

“Any of us could have won,” Antony Gormley says of the artists shortlisted in 1994. “All of us have made important contributions to contemporary art.” He dislikes the “gladiatorial” way in which artists are pitted one against another, and feels “embarrassed and guilty to have won – it’s like being a Holocaust survivor. In the moment of winning there is a sense the others have been diminished. I know artists who’ve been seriously knocked off their perches through disappointment.”

A recently discovered blogger, the Attic Fantasist took exception to Gormley’s simile, calling his choice “tasteless” and “wholly inaccurate.” In fact, the issue riled him/her enough to write two whole posts about it. Attic does not include contact information or comments on the blog, so Miss Mussel was not able to ask for clarification. To this bivalve, Gormley just seems to be saying that winning is bittersweet because it means that friends and colleagues didn’t win. Simple as that. End of story.

Frankly, Attic’s reaction was a bit puzzling and got Miss Mussel to wondering at what point do events stop being taboo and what is an artist’s role in pushing those boundaries?

The Spanish Inquisition went on for nearly 400 years and is now part of a common idiomatic expression and a famous Monty Python sketch. It’s true, there isn’t anyone left with a memory of these events, so they are really devoid of any emotional attachment. Nevertheless, it was a highly vicious reign of terror that caused the death of over 5,000 people.

Comedians joked about the September 11th bombings almost immediately afterwards to prove that America’s spirit wasn’t crushed, yet six years later merchants are peddling a coin made from Ground Zero gold with a pop-up silver WTC “rising from the ashes.

Miss Mussel doesn’t know anyone who was directly affected by the Holocaust and although she can intellectually recognize that it was a horrible thing, emotionally it is as significant as the Crusades or Salem witch trials.

Does reducing something as loaded as the Holocaust to an idiom or comedy sketch trivialize it or encourage healing?


  1. “Comedians joked about the September 11th bombings almost immediately afterwards to prove that America’s spirit wasn’t crushed….”

    Oh? Not in this country they didn’t. 9/11 is still not a matter for comic treatment here. And quite right, too.

    “Does reducing something as loaded as the Holocaust to an idiom or comedy sketch trivialize it or encourage healing?”

    The answer to that question is this brilliant insight from Herr Nietzsche: “A joke is the epigraph on the death of a feeling.”


  2. Similes are not the end of a story. Why must everything that goes on in life end up at the end of a comic microphone? Is this the logical conclusion to dealing with trauma? My two whole posts on Gormley (why the disbelief at my writing two posts on the use of a simile?) do not even apply to the example of the comic treatment of history. Gormley made that comment in the serious and reflective context of being asked about what it means to ‘win’ a prize like the Turner and having to be a member of the international art community after it. My point was that the abuse of simile is linked to a certain laziness of mind; in reaching for a supposedly thought-provoking comparison, the person doing the reflecting dips for something like a ready-made object of precedence. (You can almost hear the ‘That’ll do’.) Call me whatever you want (I’m anticipating the charge of piety, for one), but I would stay clear of constructing parallels between my situation and that of a Holocaust survivor, or a survivor of 9/11, or a survivor of a tyrannical regime, and so on. My posts on Gormley were not only about the abuse of simile – they were about the abuse of language, as well: to say that there is some equivalence in the feelings of Gormley the Turner winner and Holocaust survivors in being ‘bittersweet’ is beyond reason. To reduce post-trauma to an adjective like ‘bittersweet’ makes me think that some should remain silent on a subject that clearly tests the boundaries of their use of language and how language relates to reality.

  3. Miss Mussel

    The comic microphone may not be the logical way to deal with trauma but it goes a long way towards healing the gaping holes the event has left. The comic’s gift is timing, meaning the ability to discern when a joke is in poor taste or a brilliant satire.

    No charges of piety here. There are a good many things that irk Miss Mussel that would not cause you to bat an eye. Disbelief regarding the two posts is merely a function of the latter. Had you not drawn attention to it, Miss Mussel would not have given the simile a second thought.

    Of course bittersweet does not wholly describe post-Holocaust trauma, but what vocabulary does? What could possibly written that doesn’t sound trite or pat? That is one of the ironies of language. So many words but yet at the time we really need something, it seems the right one is never available. Even if an appropriate one can be found to reflect one’s own thoughts and feelings, chances are good that it won’t work so well for another.

    The main thing Miss Mussel took away from your posts was the idea of boundaries. Should there be any? If so, temporary or indefinite?

  4. Hello there OM

    The idea of boundaries is a complex one. Perhaps this could be discussed better not by referring to Gormley’s comment, but to such things as Roberto Benigni’s ‘Life is Beautiful’, a film that deals with history in a way that confounded a great many critics at the time of the film’s release. Most criticism had to do with the film’s generic boundaries.

    Maybe we’re picking on Gormley too much. I expected better of him to respect boundaries. And respecting boundaries doesn’t mean that the resulting work is unchallenging. It means that we observe the need to respect boundaries of taste. Surely this forms part of the approach to formulating a response to certain experiences that militate against the use of language?

    I just think Gormley could’ve thought up a more fitting simile to describe what he was talking about. As I said in my post, as an artist, you would think Gormley would want to search for a much more technical and well turned-out phrase. As it stands, his comment is a real clanger.

    To argue that there isn’t an adequate language in which to go about describing post-Holocaust trauma does not mean that we should go about describing it in any way that we see fit, or that comes to mind before adequate levels of reflection in which the demand to consider language on balance is the primary one – are practised. What you say, though, about the language used being intrinsically inadequate, subsequent even to careful consideration, rings true. There is an entire debate about this in the field of Holocaust Studies, particularly in the case of literary representations.

    In any case, one could argue whether it is up to those who have not suffered the traumatic event itself to go about deciding what the boundaries are. Which is precisely why Gormley is not our spokesperson. (I’m not saying that he was claiming to be a spokesperson in this sense, but since his simile generated this debate..) Something like a language which describes the traumatic experiences of others but not through the first person of the victim is in evidence in the work of W. G. Sebald. In his work, a certain timidity expresses itself in the confrontation with and retrospective reflection on traumatic histories, managing to be supremely challenging at the same time as it respects boundaries.

    All best wishes
    Attic Fantasist

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