Artist’s message obscured by toy medium

Good taste and artistic expression have once again collided; this time on the University campus. The Katherine E. Nash Gallery in the lower level of Willey Hall is hosting “Absence/Presence: The Artistic Memory of the Holocaust and Contemporary Genocide” until Feb. 25. Although many of the pieces on display convey a powerful message, one in particular has caused more discussion outside art circles than any other. Zbigniew Libera’s “Correcting Device: Lego Concentration Camp” demonstrates that even an important message can be clouded behind the irresponsibility of an artist.
Libera, a Polish artist, had contacted the LEGO company in 1996, requesting bricks to be used in a piece involving “houses and maybe a hospital.” Bringing together LEGO blocks from several sets, including skeletons and black-clad military officials, Libera built a Nazi-esque concentration camp. Using photos of the models, the artist constructed authentic appearing LEGO sets complete with LEGO logos and production numbers — intended for children ages 5 to 10.
Although the LEGO company originally agreed to provide Libera with supplies, it has subsequently divorced itself from the project, maintaining that this use of its products is “unconscionable” and goes against the company’s reputation of fostering creativity and imagination in children.
Libera’s deception might leave a bad taste in the mouths of many, but we cannot deny that one of our favorite childhood toys can be used to display some very disturbing images. Imagine the child who is given sets 6706, Frontier Patrol, and 6718, Rain Dance Ridge, for Christmas. How far would this child’s imagination have to stretch to recreate a Native American massacre?
The simple fact of the matter is that Libera’s LEGO concentration camp is on display in the Nash gallery. What should we, the art viewing public, take away from it?
One student viewer perceived a juxtaposition of childhood and the deepest horrors adults can reach. “Not even children can be innocent,” he said. If this is true, the world has become a very sad place indeed. Libera has, if anything, contributed to this state of affairs, not merely commented on it. The innocence of children should be preserved, not demolished by expressing tragedy with toys.
Dr. Stephen Feinstein, director of the University’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, finds protests against the LEGO concentration camp more disturbing than the work itself. “Many people who are outraged about a toy concentration camp would not bother to protest real genocide,” he said. Attacks on the disputants’ personalities, however, are argumentatively defective. Simply because someone has a warped view of one topic does not mean he or she is likewise wrong on the topic we are really debating. There is something wrong with a LEGO concentration camp, but that does not make displaying it wrong.
Genocide is bad. Concentration camps are bad. And yes, portraying them with LEGO toys is in bad taste. Libera probably should not have created his piece of art, and he certainly should not have deceived the LEGO company. Yet the piece remains, and should remain, in public view if only to remind us of the Holocaust and to show us that an artist can go too far.