Cartoon Ethics, Part II: There…

AleXsandro Palombo, an edgy Italian artist who often uses pop culture images to make serious points, was hired to paint appropriate murals around Milan’s Holocaust memorial, which is located at Platform 21 inside the city’s main train station from which approximately  1,200 Jews were sent to Nazi death camps in 1943. Shortly before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Shoah Memorial Foundation discovered what the artist felt was appropriate art: characters from “The Simpsons” dressed as Jews at various stages of the Final Solution.


Moreover. the artist never sought approval or informed his patrons before making his statement—whatever it is—by showing  Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa Simpson in concentration camp garb. “We were not involved in the decision process, and found the painting yesterday morning along with everybody else,” a spokesperson for the Foundation said.  Roberto Jarach, president of the foundation, added, “We appreciate the intention behind it, and don’t find it particularly harmful.”

I wonder what Palombo was paid to come up with an addition to a solemn memorial that is not “particularly harmful.” Talk about a low bar! Here is the problem, and it is the same that raised its ugly head in Boston’s Public Gardens this month: artists are weird, almost be definition. They don’t see the world like everyone else, and while they insist on creative freedom and artistic integrity, when they are paid to create art that needs to inspire, appeal to and communicate with the largely unartistic public, they cannot ethically be self-indulgent. They need guidance and supervision, or you end up with emaciated Simpsons on a Holocaust memorial, or a giant bronze phallus honoring Martin Luther King. Artists are untrustworthy.

Making the point himself, Palombo replied with Authentic Frontier Gibberish when asked to explain his choice:

“These works are a visual stumble that allows us to see what we no longer see. The most terrible things can become reality and Art has the duty to remember them because it is a powerful antidote against oblivion. The horror of the Jewish genocide must be transmitted without filters to the new generations to protect humanity from other horrors such as the Shoah.”


At least Palombo didn’t use Porky Pig….

38 thoughts on “Cartoon Ethics, Part II: There…

  1. I’ll defend using the Simpsons in that rendering for that project.

    I think Jews killed in the Industrial Organized Murder of Millions of Entire Families, Including Elderly Grandmothers and Young Children for an Entirely Specious Reason (which is hideously referred to has a large, naturally occurring fire) are too often thought of as different or, frankly, less than human or somehow deserving of their fate. They’re just those skinny people in those creepy photographs. But they were, until the NAZI’s arrival on the scene, just normal people going about their lives. They were neighbors and friends and store owners and customers. They were as much of our lives as … the Simpsons! Bart and Homer may not be everyone’s cup of tea (they are mine) but who doesn’t love Marge and Lisa? And just think, the Jews, ordinary people like the Simpsons, were hauled off in freight cars and exterminated, murdered. In the millions.

    I say, “Bravo! Signore Palumbo.”

    • My thoughts are close, but a little different.

      The Simpsons were supposed to represent the average nuclear family at the time, working dad, mom keeps the house up, 2.5 kids and a dog. It was almost a stereotype of a stereotype. Stereotypception.

      The Simpsons was supposed to be relatable. We were supposed to see reflections of ourselves in it. I kind of see what Palumbo was trying to do. It involved empathy. That family was just like yours, this is what happened to them, it could have happened to you, and for no better reason, it was evil, and you should care.

      It might not be for everyone, it might not have been particularly smart, especially considering how it’s 2023 and it seems like literally everyone is tripping over themselves looking to be offended at something, but I see the attempt.

  2. Palombo wrote:

    “These works are a visual stumble that allows us to see what we no longer see. The most terrible things can become reality and Art has the duty to remember them because it is a powerful antidote against oblivion. The horror of the Jewish genocide must be transmitted without filters to the new generations to protect humanity from other horrors such as the Shoah.”

    1. Umm… “Visual stumble?” I think you mean, “Ethical and moral stumble.”

    2. “Art” isn’t capitalized inside a sentence. Even the AP Manual of Style knows that. But then again, you are an artist, so …

    3. “…powerful antidote against oblivion,” huh? This work should be consigned to oblivion, sir.

    4. In what way does this depiction transmit “the horror of the Jewish genocide … unfiltered?” It is filtered through the work of the Simpson’s creator, whose work you adapted in derivative, and yourself. Nothing wrong with that, but your remark is clearly nonsense. An unfiltered depiction would be, for example, a picture, and using a comedy program’s characters to depict one of the great horrors of history is, to say the least, in questionable taste.

    5. As attempts to communicate emotion of a historical event goes, this falls under the heading of “epic fail.”

  3. I had a post making a similar argument to OB’s and it appears to be missing in the ether somewhere.

    But, yes, I think it’s hard for the artist to convey that the Jews were “just like us” so painting regular emaciated figures in striped uniforms wouldn’t do it as, visually, one can’t just paint non-Jewish figures in Holocaust apparel to address the universality of mankind without acknowledging stereotypical Jewish caricatures. So, since he uses pop culture in his art, he painted recognizable figures so that his audience would think of the victims as people “just like us.”

    • It has been pointed out that Marge and Lisa would have had their heads shaved. So much for artistic integrity.

      I’ll accept that that was his “thinking,” but he gets a “Sidney Wang” for that theory. Cartoon characters are not, by definition, “like us,” and the Simpsons aren’t Jewish. At least he could have used Krusty the Clown, who is Jewish.

      • Good point on Krusty. While I do agree that cartoon characters aren’t real people, sometimes fictional characters seem real to viewers which is why using fictional characters to bring issues to the minds of audiences can have a powerful impact on their thinking. Otherwise, we wouldn’t laugh or cry or become angry at the actions of TV or movie characters.

        • The NAZIs industrially murdered lots of Gentiles as well. I may be confusing my industrial murder anecdotes but wasn’t the professor of Sophie, of “Sophie’s Choice’ killed by having concrete poured down his gullet for being a professor at a Polish university? And weren’t Sophie and her family Catholics? In any event, there were lots of way you could win a one-way ticket to an industrial murder facility. (Like “holocaust,” I refuse to use the hideous NAZI euphemism “concentration camp.” What a joke. A camp where people are “concentrated.” You know, living out in the fresh air and sleeping beneath the stars and singing songs around the campfire.) Being gay or an academic could get your ticket punched just as well as being Jewish.

          • Certainly true, but the genocide was focused on Jews, as was “The Final Solution.” using a non-Jewish cartoon family as stand-ins for what was a uniquely Jewish atrocity seems bone-headed to me.

            • Jack, I think if a critic of one of your many productions made an analogous observation in his review, you’d be entitled to, and would, dismiss it as a quibble.

              And speaking of the worst event of the 20th Century, “Sophie’s Choice” is a terrific movie where young Kevin Klein and young Meryl Streep deliver tremendous performances. And Styron’s book is really tremendous. One of the great books of the 20th century.

              My college English professor/friend was in a creative writing class while an undergrad at Duke with, as my friend called him, “Bill” Styron. Which I thought was the most preposterously hilariously funny things going: William Styron getting anything out of a creative writing class. Which was confirmed by my friend saying Styron always showed up for class drunk, verging on hung over, unshaven and stinking, whereupon he’d put his head down on his desk and fall asleep. Which is pretty understandable if he had to live through any aspect of his first book, “Lie Down in Darkness,” a horrific portrayal of incest in a Tidewater family. Frankly, it’s a book I wouldn’t recommend. If you realize what’s going on, it’s irredeemably brutal.

              • Wait, which? I don’t think the complaint that non-Jewish characters shouldn’t be used to highlight the Holocaust is a quibble. I would expect Jews to be quite adamant about that. It was indeed “a crime against humanity,” but the objective was to exterminate the Jews, wipe them from the face of the Earth. How can Marge and Homer convey that?

                Imagine if today an Asian actress was cast as Anne Frank to point up the “humanity” angle. What do you think would be the reaction?

                • But Homey and Marge aren’t representing a specific murdered family or person. They are just (in a frankly clever and unsettling way) representing a murdered family. I don’t think Jews would insist on claiming only Jews were murdered by the NAZIs. Adolf and Abert and the boys were intent on solving a number of other problems while they were busy getting rid of Jews.

                  Edgy? Somewhat. Unsuccessful in making a point? No. Effective, in the best way, art in my book.

                  • The definitions of “The Holocaust” are very consistent:

                    “The Holocaust specifically refers to the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews.”
                    “The Holocaust was the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War’
                    “The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah, was the genocide of European Jews during World War II” (Wiki)
                    “According to the Oxford English Dictionary, use of the word Holocaust to refer to the mass murder of Jews by Nazi Germany dates back to 1942.”
                    “The Holocaust was a period in history at the time of World War Two (1939-1945), when millions of Jews were murdered because of who they were.”

                    The Milan memorial is specifically dedicated to “The Holocaust.” Using a non-Jewish family as such a prominent symbol may be powerful, but it’s perverse.

                • [The comment contained here (a good one, and interesting) is missing because actions have consequences. The commenter self-banned, the procedures for reinstatement are published and clear, and the rule is that if you announce that you are quitting the comment wars in indignation, showboating, protest or whatever, you can’t just reappear at whim.]—-JAM

          • Cartoon characters are not like us? Senator Snort? Lucy Van Pelt. Bugs Bunny? Elmer Fudd? Hell, the entire Chuck Jones cast. Even the Flintstones? If they are not like us, how did they become, to one extent or another, cultural icons?

              • No. They are us perfected, as we’d like to think of ourselves as being. But still us. If they weren’t, movie goers wouldn’t pay to see them on the screen. Hannibal Lecter is not like us. Bobby Goren is not like us.

              • And yet we see ourselves in them.

                Look, I think it’s fairly obvious that the artist was trying to make the victims of the holocaust more relatable than the horrorshow of the pictures that came out of that era.

                So I’ll turn this back on you. I think when you complained that the Simpsons weren’t Jewish and that Marge hadn’t been shaved, you missed the point. The point wasn’t to create yet another epitaph to misery, yet another canvas of Jewish suffering, we were supposed to identify with the work, and most of us aren’t Jewish and people generally have hair. You might disagree with my premise, and that’s fine… But work with me for a second:

                Assume, rhetorically, that I’m right, that was the intention, and the intention was valid. What would the better relatable family have been? Who is the stand in for “average”? Would it have been better if the artist had used multiple families? What about The Cosbys? Too fictional? Too black? Not Jewish? Take the work and the intention for what it was and finish it.

                • At the moment of artistic inspiration, it is often impossible to tell whether an idea is brilliant or terrible, and my experience is that only the artist can decide. Basically you go by your gut. Some of the best things I’ve ever put on stage were seen as crazy ideas by everyone when I proposed them, and I was right. Some also blew up in my face, killing legions. I’m completely sympathetic with the artist, and get his idea, which you have nicely encapsulated. But still….

  4. I think I understand some of the thinking here.

    One of the reasons why genocide happens is because the aggressors are conditioned to view the victims as being “not one of us”. I think the artist may have decided that, instead of painting generic emaciated Jewish figures on the wall, he would use recognizable figures. It would be tough to just paint non-Jewish Italians in striped uniforms to communicate the universality of mankind. Since pop culture is his mileu, he combined “The Simpsons” – recognizable pop culture figures – in order to make his audience think about the victims as being people they would know.

    At least, that’s my take on it.

  5. Well, let’s play Devil’s Advocate for a minute:

    Art is the use of known media to express the unknown, or to express an artistic vision about a given topic. The Holocaust – or Nazi genocide committed against Jews for no other reason than they were Jews – is one of the most heartbreaking, evil, and depressing moments of modern history.

    The Holocaust occurred over 80 years ago. There are very few survivors alive to tell their stories, and I give Steven Spielberg a huge ethics credits for his Shoah Project, which tries to preserve survivor stories on film for history’s sake. Yet, what we see in movies, television shows, etc., are artistic interpretations or representations of what occurred – though, the magnitude and scope of the atrocities, human suffering, and absolute evil can’t really show the horror of what occurred. “Schindler’s List” does a magnificent job expressing what happened – the “red jacket” scene is gut-wrenching.

    However, if I had to explain what happened in Nazi Germany to our 18 year old, I am not sure he would grasp the magnitude. I can relate the stories of having met survivors in the Cleveland, OH area in the 1970s and 1980s. I can explain that Geddy Lee’s parents were survivors of Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen death camps (the relevance is that Geddy Lee is the bassist and vocalist for Rush, my favorite band, so he would understand why that history in important to me).

    Like it or not, “The Simpsons” has reached the level of cultural iconography; many young people would see the image and it would have an impact – hopefully a revulsion about what the artist is representing. First, Homer isn’t fat and lazy, but emaciated and starved. Marge isn’t her typical chipper self, and Maggie, Bart, and Lisa likewise are gaunt, rail thin, and suffering. That is relevant to younger generations. Additionally, while I am not impressed by the imagery (I am not a “Simpsons” fan) and I think it trivializes/infantilizes Nazi Genocide, the image does what the artist intended, which was to bring attention to the Holocaust, and genocide on a larger scale.

    So, yeah, I don’t like the mural but, if the artist intended to shake the proverbial discussion tree, then it might have that effect. History, though, would seem to suggest otherwise, considering that if the 1994 Rwandan Genocide had been allowed to continue, those monsters may have eclipsed what occurred under the Nazis by multiples.


  6. I think it’s important to note two things:

    First, I think the fact that people here could correctly interpret the artists point and it inspires discussions about the nature of that point means that it’s “good art,” and that’s more than you can say for a ton of art these days.

    Second, just because it’s “good art” doesn’t mean it’s good public art. That’s a different beast, and as Jack noted, even artists who might be trusted to make good art can’t be trusted to make good public art without the oversight of a patron or, essentially, editor whose focus is on the potential reaction of the public.

    I agree with the commentators before me who made points about why it’s a powerful piece. I applaud the artist. But the people who hired him to make an addition to a memorial without oversight get a big ol’ “what’s wrong with you people?”

  7. >>At least Palombo didn’t use Porky Pig….

    As he gets cancelled, he mutters “bidib, bidib, bidibble… That’s All Folks!”

  8. I’ve wrestled with the pros and cons, agreeing with both, through all the comments couldn’t find a solid line until you made this distinction.

    Bingo! The artist is blameless. The Shoah Memorial Foundation should have recognized the folly of hiring an edgy pop-culture artist to communicate a public somber message.

    This was like hiring Katy Perry to sing at a funeral.

    • “This was like hiring Katy Perry to sing at a funeral.”
      The most fortunate attendee in that scenario would be the deceased.

    • Speaking of cartoons, if this were a “They’ll Do it Every Time!” cartoon, you’d get a tip of the Hatlo hat for that comment, WP. I think you may have identified the culprit. But frankly, I think the piece is somber as hell.

  9. Hi Jack, speaking of Cartoon ethics did you see the Jan 2023 cover of Charlie Hebdo commemorating the attack?

    Bold is an understatement. In fact they had a competition for illustrations to be featured in the magazine (mullahs go back to where you came from being the theme). But the cover … wow

  10. If you really want to see art that illustrates suffering of that sort, have a look at the French painting of the siege of Les Andelys.

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