Art Spiegelman’s Conflicted Relationship with ‘Maus’

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“I’m grateful, and I don’t want to sound too peevish, but now that ‘Maus’ is in classrooms everywhere, it’s sometimes used in ways that distort it. It’s sort of Auschwitz for beginners.”

That’s Spiegelman, reflecting on his life and career recently with The New York Times, particularly his ambivalence over “Maus.” And the quote gets at an interesting conflict between the artist and their art, specifically how it should be consumed by the culture at large.

The 1991 comic details conversations between Spiegelman and his father about Spiegelman Sr.’s experience with the Nazis and his subsequent imprisonment at Auschwitz. “Maus” is one of those works that lent so-called “legitimacy” to comics as a medium, albeit under the marketing-driven moniker of a “graphic novel.”

Spiegelman’s not especially happy about that fact, either, perhaps seeing the distinction between “comics” and “graphic novels” as the kind of artificial cultural boosting that it is (one sounds like a product to be consumed by children, the other a “legitimate” medium). And in this way, you can see how Spiegelman might likewise consider his artfully-made memoir — a personal work — to have been co-opted as something that’s supposed to speak for the total Holocaust experience.

But does the artist get a say in the legacy of their work? Should they? Spiegelman’s response is rather elegant here, but as an artist, how would you come to the defense of (or even denigrate) the impact/legacy of your own work?

[Header image: “Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History” Cover]

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