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Unwanted Beauty

Aesthetic Pleasure in Holocaust Representation

Getting to the bottom of controversial debates over artistic depictions of the Holocaust

Portrayals of the Holocaust in literature, paintings, and architecture have aroused many ethical debates. How can we admire, much less enjoy, art that deals with such a horrific event? Does finding beauty in Holocaust representation amount to a betrayal of its victims?

Brett Ashley Kaplan's Unwanted Beauty meets these difficult questions directly, analyzing a wide range of Holocaust representations to argue that a more careful understanding of aesthetics and its relation to history can best address the anxieties raised by beauty in Holocaust art.

Kaplan approaches this art from multiple perspectives, including the works by Holocaust survivors, and analyzes how art contributes to survival and how it functions within memory and history. Unwanted Beauty addresses the literary work of Paul Celan, Charlotte Delbo, Jorge Semprun, and Edmond Jabs; the visual art of Christian Boltanski and Anselm Kiefer; and the monuments and museums of Peter Eisenman, Jochen Gerz, Esther Shalev-Gerz, and James Ingo Freed and finds that the aesthetic pleasures in these complex and multivalent texts can transform memory in enlivening ways and open these traumatic historical events to deeper understanding.


"This book is a gracefully written addition to the growing discourse on aesthetic anxiety in relation to the representation of atrocity and traumatic events such as war, genocide, famine, hurricanes, and other forms of natural disaster or man-made violence. . . . Kaplan's text tackles a large and ambitious subject that has broad and important implications today."--H-German "Confronted with the enormity of the questions posed by the Holocaust it is inevitable that we experience the difficulty of understanding. . . . Kaplan confronts the inevitable difficulty of understanding and reminds us that should we ever cease trying, then indeed we would be lost."--Art and Christianity

"Unwanted Beauty is a significant contribution not only for scholars of the Holocaust, but also for those interested in the interplay between aesthetics, witnessing, and historical violence."--Women's Study Quarterly

"A provocative meditation on a fraught subject . . . essential reading for scholars and artists searching for the impossible line between what Susan Sontag has termed an 'easy delight' in the contemplation of atrocity, and the illuminating potential of the aesthetic. Kaplan goes beyond what Holocaust scholars have named the 'crisis of representation,' and beyond the prevalent demonization of beauty in art about the Holocaust, to show that an 'unwanted' or disturbing beauty can ward off forgetting and that pleasure need not preclude understanding." --Marianne Hirsch, Columbia University

"Plumbs more profoundly, more insightfully than any single work I know, the questions of aesthetics that have simultaneously frustrated and shaped our study of Holocaust art and literature. Informed deeply by age-old philosophical debates of mimetic pleasure, Kaplan also brings a fresh and keen eye to contemporary art and literature. Gracefully and lucidly written in its own right, her argument for more representation and beauty, not less, pushes the entire conversation to a higher, more challenging level still. I recommend it wholeheartedly." --James E. Young, author of The Texture of Memory

"Addresses head-on the vexing problem of how to represent historical trauma in art. Kaplan's five lucidly written chapters on canonical Holocaust writers, artists, and key debates about Holocaust representation are provocative and meticulously executed." --Ulrich Baer, author of Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma


Brett Ashley Kaplan is an assistant professor in the Programs in Comparative and World Literature and Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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