Sunday, The New Yorker weighed in on Charles Krafft with a thoughtful, extended opinion piece that includes fresh original reporting by Rachel Arons.
Intrigued by the "unusual case of an artist's ideological extremism so suddenly exposed, and so plainly relevant to his art," Arons argues that Krafft's art should not be hidden away, removed from museums or galleries (such as it was recently in Paris), or, as some have suggested, smashed.
Arons searches for the complexities in Krafft's works. She uncovers a piece I've never heard of before, a miniature diorama of a dwarf family in Auschwitz that Krafft made around 2008 and intended to show in the (also miniature) John Erickson Museum of Art. The museum never showed it, "probably because" Krafft's accompanying statement, which Arons quotes, explained its literal intention to minimize the Holocaust. (I wrote to Sean Miller, founder of JEMA and a founding member of SOIL Gallery here in Seattle, to ask for his side of the dwarves incident; if I hear back anything interesting, I'll add it in the comments to this post.)
Arons raises the dwarves (along with a Krafft piece called Fowlschwitz) to contrast them with works by Krafft that she writes are important to consider:
Pieces like those should be ignored, not because they reflect a morally repugnant misreading of history, but because they are narrowly didactic, which makes them bad art. Perhaps Krafft’s obsession with Holocaust conspiracy theory is costing him his creativity; that would be karmically interesting. But his work that contains contradictions—a “salad of symbols” too freewheeling to parse. That work is worth continuing to examine, even if we are disgusted by Krafft’s current personal beliefs and unsure exactly to what extent, or for how long, they have been informing his work.
The idea that Krafft's best work is a "salad of symbols" comes from Krafft himself. Arons writes:
Laibach is known for its ambiguous, deadpan appropriation of Fascist, religious, and Third Reich imagery (their name, the German word for the city Ljubljana under Nazi occupation, was banned in Slovenia for part of the eighties). They are by some accounts Marxists, but have also been accused of espousing rightwing and nationalist ideas; when asked about their views in the past they’ve given cryptic responses like, “We are Fascists as much as Hitler was a painter.”
Krafft described N.S.K.’s aesthetic to me as a “salad of symbols,” and his work has, since the mid-nineties, reflected a similar fondness for iconographic mixtures too slippery, and too agnostic, to be understood as straight political critique.
But in 2011, Krafft distanced himself from Laibach in an interview with Morgan Spurlock (of all people) in Hi-Fructose magazine. What matters here is the reason he gave for distancing himself. Krafft told the story of his own life this way:
Jack Kerouac was a handsome gifted mess. I liked his square jaw and his jaunty forelock. I wanted to be a beatnik when I grew up and I caught the tail end of that era in San Francisco in the summer of l965 at The West Coast Poetry Conference in Berkeley. Gary Snyder and his favorite painter Morris Graves are both from the Pacific Northwest so these two were huge influences on me. Von Dutch was a beatnik of a different order whom I was actually aware of before Snyder and Graves. In the early ‘90s I met Boyd Rice, Adam Parfrey and Laibach who represented a new anti-beatnik/hippie ethos. My trip to war torn Yugoslavia also changed my thinking. I dropped the trappings of Snyder’s and Graves’ “beat Zen” and embraced Laibach’s philosophy of “retro-avant gardism.” After that I didn’t like beatniks anymore because they were Marxist rabble, but I was still attracted to their metaphysics. When Laibach founder Ivan Novak admitted to me that he had always been a commie my retro-world was shaken to it’s core. To save it I turned to Ezra Pound and Jesus Christ and became a Orthodox National Futurist. I am allowed to still admire Jack Kerouac because he died a proper Catholic.
According to Krafft's own account, when Laibach lifted its veil to him and revealed a belief system behind their fascistic displays that was more in line with the "Marxist rabble" Krafft so despised, Krafft distanced himself from Laibach—their "salad of symbols" was in fact not "too slippery" or "too agnostic" but rather rooted in a political stance he despises.
Now that Krafft would like to have it both ways, he's back in the Laibach camp.
I agree wholeheartedly with Arons that Krafft's work shouldn't be removed from display or disowned—even if we disagree on the reasons. ("On Martyring the Art of Charles Krafft.")
Arons writes about the Hitler teapot as well. As she points out, "it's a mistake to assume, as many members of the art world apparently have, that an ironic artistic appropriation of Nazi symbols safely amounts to an anti-Nazi critique." She quotes De Young curator Timothy Burgard, who makes the bizarrely sweeping statement that:
So far, no art world professional or member of the public that has viewed this ten-year-old (2003) teapot in person or in reproduction has perceived any interpretation other than a critical one, given that the infamous dictator is rendered as a kitschy teapot, not to mention the unflattering rendering of his demonic-looking eyes, which are so suggestive of blind rage…If the artist were to state now, ten years after its creation, that this teapot was intended as an homage to its subject, it appears to have failed in visual terms.
Actually, I have "perceived" an "interpretation [of Hitler] other than a critical one" in this teapot.
I never thought it was particularly critical of Hitler—I never thought it was about Hitler at all, actually. I thought it was about demonization, and I still do, but not quite in the same way.
To my eyes, the teapot is plainly a joke about the demonization of a single person—about the artist's act of gouging the eyes out of a historical figure. In order to believe that Krafft gouged the eyes out of Hitler to convince his audience that Hitler was a bad guy, I would have to believe that in 2003, anyone thought it was necessary to convince an art audience that Hitler was a bad guy. The "blind rage" reading, while understandable on the surface, is also the most simple-minded part of Burgard's long essay on the teapot.
Rather, the teapot could always have been seen as an extreme extension—and therefore, flirting with being an inversion (hence, the iconoclasm)—of the basic moral lesson handed down from Holocaust history teachings: That the dehumanization of any single person, Hitler included, can lead to the dehumanization of millions. If you follow the inversion of this idea to its profoundly unsettling (and, yes, "slippery") outcome, you are left to consider that Hitler was just a person like anyone else, and that his beliefs were forged in nothing more unusual than a life.
But suppose that the artist began a public campaign—on Facebook, among other places, as Krafft has—to promote the idea that the worse demonization was not this man's capitalizing on the rampant expression of anti-Semitism in the world before World War II, but the demonization of this man himself by a cabal of Jews now endangering the future of the White Race, as Krafft says.
At this point, in order to maintain a perspective that this work of art is "agnostic," you might have to vociferously defend the modernist separation between work of art and the world in which it lives. And in this case, to whose benefit would that redound?
You can join in the comments on the original story here.