It’s not a simple story. It’s a story about dreadful ideas, hideous politics, and their interaction with art and aesthetic judgment.
By Harvey Blume.
And his art?
Charles Krafft is an artist whose pieces in various media have been prized, collected, and shown in the Seattle area and beyond. He is also an unabashed Holocaust denier and anti-Semite cum white supremacist. Krafft’s stuff is replete with and depends upon Nazi imagery, which he deploys ironically—as collectors and curators have all along, necessarily, supposed—but maybe not ironically at all.
The Krafft story has lately surfaced in the New Yorker. But it begins on Facebook, with that elemental act, an unfriending. Unfriending is perhaps the more instructive part of the default liking and friending this social medium fosters. In any case, Fred Owens, not too long ago, unfriended Charles Krafft. Fred is well-traveled—I met him in his Boston years and have kept up with him vis a vis his blog and lately through Facebook. Fred knew the Krafft crew in the Northwest, then on Facebook. He was privy to their views and chose to completely disown them.
Fred’s unfriending was picked up and became the basis of a piece in thestranger.com, an alternate Seattle outlet. It traveled from there to the Seattle Times, Studio360, and lately the New Yorker.
It’s not a simple story. It’s a story about dreadful ideas, hideous politics and their interaction with art and aesthetic judgment. The Rachel Arons piece in the New Yorker will likely not put the issues raised to rest.
Arons notes that Krafft “has appeared multiple times on white-nationalist podcasts like the White Network,” which promotes the notion that “We do not hesitate to identify and criticize Jews and will not allow them to hide amongst us.” She writes that in France, where Holocaust denial is a crime, there are questions about whether Krafft’s pieces can be exhibited.
Arons entertains a discussion of whether an artist’s opinions, however heinous, should be decisive in the aesthetic judgment about the art. She quotes a pertinent passage by the scholar James E. Young, in connection with Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art, a show held in 2002 at the Jewish Museum. Young asks about art that draws on Nazi imagery, to whatever supposed purpose, whether it aims, ultimately, to “tap into and thereby exploit the repugnant power of Nazi imagery as a way merely to shock and move its viewers.”
Arons ends her piece on a tolerant note: “It should always be difficult to look at art about Nazis. Now that looking at Krafft’s art is even more difficult, we shouldn’t look away.” But is Krafft’s art “about” Nazis? Or is it just Nazism in contemporary drag? And if so, why not look away?
I don’t know Krafft’s work well enough to form a fully confident opinion. But based on what I’ve seen in reproduction, I have to allow for the possibility that the main attraction of Krafft’s objects, their real claim on our attention, is precisely their sly inclusion and manipulation of Nazi imagery. If there is nothing ironic about Krafft’s use of such imagery, if the anti-Semitism is completely sincere, then those who have promoted his work have been badly fooled. Minus the critical element imputed to his intentions—Nazi? No way. How could any respectable, post-modernist multi-media artist applaud Hitler? Krafft’s pieces boil down to neo-Nazi kitsch.
A strong artist’s racist views should not in and of themselves damn the art. But neither should bad art be able to hide behind such views. Art critic Jerry Saltz is quoted in the Seattle Times saying, “Degas was an anti-Semite. [But] I love his work.” But there is no direct connection to be made between a Degas ballerina and the anti-Semitic positions the artist took in the Dreyfus Affair. The situation is different with regard to Krafft: his reputation is founded on and inseparable from his toying with Nazi imagery.
Have his pro-Nazi views been hiding all along in plain sight? What a joke on collectors of his work that would be. What radical questioning and revision that would entail, not only about his art but about how we come to aesthetic judgments.