A scandal in the art world raises interesting questions about the importance of an artist's intentions.
The story broke in the Seattle newspaper The Stranger, in a shocking article by Jen Graves about the artist Charles Krafft. Krafft has been a darling of art critics, and a hero of the U.S. West Coast art scene in particular, for years, known as a dark humorist. He has exhibited in New York and San Francisco, and his work has been discussed in The New Yorker, Harper's and Artforum.
Krafft is best known for his ironic ceramics, which are made in classic 18th-century porcelain styles, yet are painted with images from 20th-century disasters and wars. Krafft calls them "Disasterware." They include objects painted with scenes from the bombing of Dresden and the Hindenburg crash. Krafft also did a series of ceramic weapons – revolvers, assault rifles – decorated in traditional delft blue. He has also decorated objects with swastikas and has one teapot, now in a San Francisco museum, in the shape of Adolf Hitler's head. That teapot is labelled "Idaho" in Germanic script, and the work was titled Hitler Idaho by the artist.
Krafft has up to now been seen as a social-critic postmodernist, mixing incongruous forms and irreverently making reference to the infiltration of the horrific in the cheapest of popular culture. His references to the Second World War have universally been described as anti-fascist. In fact, the Hitler Idaho teapot was bought by a Jewish patron with a collection on political themes. Salon magazine once said that his pieces "[force] the viewer to look at mankind's cruellest, most absurd behaviour in a way that penetrates the numbness induced by media overload."
What The Stranger's reporter discovered is that Krafft has contributed to a white nationalist forum called the White Network and has been making Holocaust-denying statements. Friends of the artist said that he is a conspiracy theorist with unpleasant biases.
Suddenly, all the pieces he has done with Nazi themes take on a troubling resonance. Is the Hitler-head teapot a serious commentary on the trivialization of Nazism? Is it just a tasteless joke? Or is it in fact a proud flaunting of Nazi affinities?
It's worth pointing out that Krafft is not the only artist who has used Nazi imagery for shock value in art about contemporary culture. Similar praise has been heaped on Polish conceptualist Zbigniew Libera, who is best known for creating Lego models of Second World War concentration camps and photographing them to look like actual Lego products, complete with branded packaging. The results are eerily convincing; the point – something about commercialism – is murky. The Lego Concentration Camp series was eventually exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York.
An Israeli artist, Yael Bartana, who represented Poland at the Venice Biennale in 2011, made a trilogy of dramatic videos about a fictitious Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland. The second part of this shows Jewish settlers building a "kibbutz" in Poland, which ends up looking exactly like a walled concentration camp. The work made troubling connections between Zionism and Nazism. People who took it literally were outraged.
Libera also offended by meticulously recreating some famous 20th-century war photographs, recasting them as happy holiday snaps. The series was called Positives. One of those shows some healthy young men dressed as death-camp survivors, posed at a barbed-wire fence in an exact replica of a photo from a camp's liberation. The image is deliberately upsetting. Would it be less interesting if the artist went on record saying the art was merely his attempt to show that the Holocaust was a big joke?
Say he did. Say Krafft does. Buyers and admirers of Krafft's art are embarrassed because they gave the work a different interpretation from the artist's own. But since when did the artist's intention count for everything? And since when did an artist's hateful personality render his work invalid? (The idea that we should disparage Picasso's paintings because he was nasty to women has great traction right now, but it still hasn't forced the great museums to divest themselves of his work. We still read Ezra Pound and Yukio Mishima, too.) The fact is, the first interpretations of Krafft's work – as ironic juxtapositions, a commentary on popular culture – can still be eloquently argued. Interpretations must come from the work itself, not the statements floating around it.
The story is also a useful reminder to reporters that visual artists are rarely very good interview subjects. They are not an articulate bunch, as a whole – just look at their gobbledegook artist statements – and they often have very weird views about where their own art came from, ideas that don't seem to have made it into the work on display. The artist is, honestly, the last person I'd ask to explain any given work.
Let's ignore Charles Krafft, the person, completely. He's a goof. His art is weirdly powerful, perhaps despite his intentions.