by Joyelle McSweeney on Jun.29, 2012
I believe this Beauty Pageant for Holocaust Survivors, held in Haifa, Israel, goes to the heart of the Montevidayan aesthetic, and why/how it is political. First of all, there’s the political event of grotesque beauty. This article is presented on the BBC under as News from the Middle East. The mention of the six million is regulated to a kind of footnote in the story. The event of the beauty pageant becomes the event to which that other historical event (the Holocaust) becomes satellite, adjacent.
So the pageant is a kind of political event in that it disturbs, distorts, interacts with what is more conventionally termed History or Politics, ‘The Holocaust’, the singular event which is recognized politically to be so singular that it must happen never again. The grotesque is an aesthetic that admits that history always has a small h, and is always happening, again and again and again…
Fourteen women, aged 74 to 97, walked along a red carpet in the city of Haifa and described their personal sufferings from the Nazis during World War II.
Hava Hershkovitz, 79, who had to flee her native Romania, was later crowned the winner of the pageant.
The 14 finalists had been chosen from hundreds of applicants based on their personal stories of survival and their later contributions to local communities across Israel. Physical appearance contributed only about 10% of the criteria
Moreover there’s the event of beauty itself, beauty and decay saturating the same instance, beauty as what holds decay to a body, and vice versa, beauty as decay’s vice versa, and vice versa, beauty queens in their 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s who are judged 10% on their looks, who might be thus seen to be 90% decayed. The 90% of them which is not their looks is not their beauty, but is their story of escaping the Nazis. That is the part of them occupied by their decay. Their decay is their triumph. They lived long enough to decay while still living. Moreover, these women walk the red carpet and tell their tales of surviving the 20th century. Witness becomes performed, exteriorized, something that can be judged for its quantity/quality against other bodies of witness.
The Nazis fought an political, militarized, aestheticized battle, predicated on physical power and beauty, the intact body of blood and soil, and golden youth. The Reich was ancient and undecayed; the Jews and other undesirables introduce decay/contamination into the otherwise permanently youthful body of the state. This anachronism of the Nazis can of course itself be claimed by other parties, like Dorian Gray, for example, who had his portrait do his aging for him. Perhaps the Nazi effort can be seen this way too: they had their victims do the decay and dirty death for them. They themselves would remain clean and magnificent and have only ennobling deaths.
But in this beauty pageant, we see a merging and mixing of the categories which the Nazis would try obsessively to hold separate: degeneration, beauty, decay, weakness, the victim, the victor. I bring this up not to suggest that the pageant is a triumph over the Nazis or their aesthetic, a ‘celebration of life’ vs the culture of death, but in fact the opposite: to suggest that aesthetics are politics, that the grotesque is a politics, the aesthetic of the grotesque is as forcefully political as the aesthetics of health, sanity, and beauty which the Nazis made their standard, and that the mixing of these terms is perhaps the most politically frightful of all. This pageant is a true pageant because it mixes the macabre and the beautiful. It is the mixing of categories, the hybridity of instances, the supersaturation of any moment, text, or body with paradoxical components, which is the aesthetic and political force of the grotesque.
[And now rereading this post, I realize that just as the pageant holds the Holocaust in its orbit but DOES NOT exclude or ignore it, instead inviting it to the stage on its own terms, so the Nazis obviously could not exclude contamination and degeneration from their aesthetic. Instead they held these terms in orbit. There was the degenerate art show, and then there was their own art show at the House of German Art. There was the beautiful male strong German soldier, and then there was the wasting degenerate Jew. What makes the Nazi aesthetic grotesque is that they could not decouple these terms (and did not want to, as disgust with one produced veneration of the other). There were even two deaths. The Death of the Soldier, and the death of the vermin. This Miss Holocaust Survivor beauty pageant in some way inverts, amplifies, and revivifies the grotesquerie of Nazi aesthetics, squeezing its vision through another aperture, like a spyglass held up backwards.]