"Charles Krafft and the Conundrum of Nazi Art"
March 24th, 2013
The New Yorker
Last month, an article by Jen Graves in Seattle’s weekly paper The Stranger exposed the artist Charles Krafft as a white nationalist and Holocaust denier, and former admirers of his work are now stripping it from their walls. Krafft, who is sixty-five, has been a respected figure in the Seattle art world for decades; his work has been shown in galleries around the world and featured in Harper’s, Artforum, and The New Yorker. Since the nineties, he has been known for combining decorative ceramics with loaded political imagery—delftware plates and other objects commemorating Nazi atrocities, porcelain AK-47s and hand grenades, perfume bottles with swastika stoppers, and a teapot and other pieces in the shape of Hitler’s head. In the past, many art collectors and curators had interpreted this work as a critique of bigoted and totalitarian ideologies. Now, the revelations about Krafft’s repugnant personal opinions have cast his work in a new light, and brought up knotty questions about how an artist’s intent should influence our evaluation of his work. We have precedents for heinous personal beliefs coinciding with creative brilliance (Ezra Pound, Richard Wagner), and bigotry embodied in works of great formal achievement (“The Birth of a Nation,” “Triumph of the Will”), but this is an unusual case of an artist’s ideological extremism so suddenly exposed, and so plainly relevant to his art.
In recent articles discussing Krafft’s Holocaust denial, one of the main ideas gaining traction is that he has been duping the art world by passing off as ironic Nazi imagery that was, in reality, intended as homage or propaganda. Graves, who is the Stranger’s art critic and, in 2009, featured Krafft’s ceramic AK-47 on a list of the best works of art ever made in Seattle, raised the possibility that Krafft had been “using the guise of art and irony to smuggle far-right symbols into museums, galleries, collectors’ homes, and upscale decor shops,” and wrote that, according to old friends of Krafft, he has “laughed in private at the liberal-leaning art establishment he’s fooled with his art.” An article on the blog The Weeklings, re-published at Salon under the headline “We Let Charles Krafft Fool Us,” asked, “If Charles Krafft…is capable of fooling thousands into thinking him a forward-thinking genius, who else are we currently paying, or worshiping, to fill us with surreptitious hatred?”
But Krafft has, in fact, been vocal about his views: as Graves pointed out, he has posted links to Holocaust denial articles and other anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on Facebook, where he has over two thousand friends, and he has appeared multiple times on white-nationalist podcasts like the White Network (whose “about” page reads, “We recognize that different races and ethnic groups cannot live together in peace on the same soil,” and “We do not hesitate to identify and criticize Jews and will not allow them to hide amongst us”). One video producer, who made a short portrait of Krafft for a Seattle TV network in 2007, told me by e-mail that she chose to exclude interview footage of Krafft sharing his opinions on the Holocaust. “Charlie and I discussed whether or not to include his holocaust views on the day we shot the video,” she wrote. “He didn’t want to be censored. I told him that if I put anything about that subject in the video no one would listen to anything else he had to say…I struggled with this decision at the time. I want to allow the artist to tell their story but I didn’t want this video to become platform for the Charlie’s political views and conspiracy theories.”
Others proved similarly—and understandably—loathe to give Krafft’s views a stage and so chose, instead, to tuck them under the rug. In a conversation by phone, Krafft told me that the curators of an exhibition currently running at the Halle Saint Pierre museum in Paris asked him to revise a questionnaire he’d completed for them after he listed as his “heroes” the famous Holocaust deniers Paul Rassinier and Sylvia Stolz. (In France, as in a number of other European countries, Holocaust denial is a crime.) The curators, who did not respond to my e-mails asking them to confirm this, wrote to Krafft following the publication of Graves’s story to let him know the museum had pulled his work from the show. Fred Owens, who helped draw attention to Krafft’s views on Facebook and on his blog prior to the Stranger article, told me, “I think I was kind of waiting for somebody else to say something, and maybe everybody else was waiting for somebody else to say something.”
But in addition to exaggerating the art world’s ignorance of Krafft’s beliefs, the “He Fooled Us” line of thinking sets up a false dichotomy between ironic, critical artistic uses of Nazi imagery and propagandistic ones. In fact, the modes of Krafft’s artistic representations—and of most artistic representations of Nazi or Holocaust imagery—are more fraught, and demand a more precise treatment.
“Ironic” is not, and has never been, an adequate characterization of Krafft’s work. There is, to be certain, an element of irony, in the sense of an incongruence or disruption of expectations, in Krafft’s combination of dainty decorative objects and disturbing political iconography, and in series like his “Forgiveness” perfume bottles and soap bars, whose logo is the swastika, or his china reliquaries made from clay mixed with cremated human remains. But, according to people knowledgeable about Krafft and his career, his intentions have always been somewhat ambiguous, and his work difficult to classify.
Krafft is famous for being an iconoclast, an autodidact, and a lifelong contrarian and provocateur. Throughout the nineteen-seventies he lived off-the-grid in Fishtown, an artists’ colony in the Skagit Valley, where he immersed himself in Tibetan Buddhism and Eastern mysticism and made paintings of landscapes and anthropomorphic birds in the style of his hero, the Northwest School painter and mystic Morris Graves. In 1980, he moved back to Seattle, where he continued painting and exhibiting his work and where, in the early nineties, he decided to learn ceramic painting so that he could create a tile portrait of his childhood hero, the hotrod pinstriper Kenneth Howard, a.k.a. Von Dutch, who had become his pen pal. He took china painting classes with a group of “little old ladies,” and began making the ceramic plates that would become his Disasterware series, commemorating both natural disasters, like earthquakes and floods, and political ones, like the Bombing of Dresden and the explosion of the Hindenburg.
Krafft’s art became increasingly politicized in the mid-nineties, when he traveled to Slovenia to collaborate with the arts collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (N.S.K.), and ended up accompanying its founding band, Laibach, on the end of a European tour. He was at their performance in Sarajevo on the day the Dayton Agreement was signed, ending the Bosnian War. 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. According to “Villa Delirium,” a 2002 book about Krafft’s work, the idea for the “Forgiveness” series came about when an N.S.K. member exclaimed, “Ah, the smell of blood and snow. If I could bottle that scent I’d create a new fragrance for the twenty-first century and call it ‘Forgiveness.’” An early bust Krafft made of Hitler contained that line inscribed on its base and Delft bunny rabbits on either side. That piece, with its politically loaded but elliptical quote and jarring juxtaposition of the quaint and the terrible, is representative of the style for which Krafft has since become known.
Sometime after his first trip to Slovenia (he has returned several times since), Krafft became interested in Romanian history, particularly the life story of the Archbishop Valerian Trifa, who was deported from the United States in the nineteen-eighties after being investigated by the Department of Justice for his involvement with the Fascist Iron Guard, and for helping to incite a pogrom against Jews in Bucharest in 1941. Krafft came to believe the charges against Trifa were specious; it was from there, he wryly told me, that he “went off the tracks” and became a Holocaust denier. He dates his official interest in “revisionism” to around 2001.
But the contradictions and ambiguities of Krafft’s early ceramics have not disappeared. The now-infamous “Idaho” Hitler teapot, which he made in 2003, and which contains overt references to neo-Naziism, almost certainly reflects Krafft’s anti-Semitism (the base of the teapot contains in Germanic font the inscription “Idaho,” a state known for being a gathering place for white supremacists). But Krafft is not making a straight tribute to Hitler in that piece any more than he was in pieces twenty years ago—or, if he is, then he is not doing a very good job. The teapot, which was originally owned by a Jewish collector, was donated to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and exhibited there in 2007. Timothy Burgard, who curated the show and wrote a detailed, thoughtful analysis of Krafft’s piece in the exhibition catalogue, said in a P.R. statement the museum shared with me 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.
There isn’t, in other words, a clear line between “irony” and “homage” in Krafft’s work, and 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. As Susan Sontag pointed out in her 1975 New York Review of Books essay “Fascinating Fascism,” one of the consequences of the kitsch or campy use of Nazi imagery, even if it is intended critically, is that it can normalize those images, desensitizing us to their power by mingling them with more banal ones. “Shocking people…also means inuring them,” she wrote of the famous poster of Robert Morris half-naked wearing a Nazi helmet, “as Nazi material enters the vast repertory of popular iconography usable for the ironic commentaries of Pop Art.”
This is only one of the points of moral murkiness surrounding the artistic reproductions of Nazi imagery. In 2002, the Jewish Museum in New York held an exhibit called “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art,” which featured the work of, among others, the Polish artist Zbigniew Libera, known for controversial LEGO models of concentration-camp scenes (Krafft has expressed his admiration). Most of the artists featured in the show were Jewish, and their work attempted to confront the horror of the Holocaust, not negate or dispute it. And yet, in the foreword to a catalogue of essays accompanying the exhibit, James E. Young, the director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, raised questions that we could just as soon apply to Krafft’s work:
We have every right to ask whether such obsession with these media-generated images of the past is aesthetically appropriate. Or whether by including such images in their work, the artists somehow affirm and extend them, even as they intend mainly to critique them and our connection to them. Yet this ambiguity between affirmation and criticism seems to be part of the artists’ aim here. As offensive as such work may seem on the surface, the artists might ask, is it the Nazi imagery itself that offends, or the artists’ aesthetic manipulations of such imagery? Does such art become a victim of the imagery it depicts? Or does it actually tap into and thereby exploit the repugnant power of Nazi imagery as a way merely to shock and move its viewers? Or is it both, and if so, can these artists have it both ways?
The richness of these questions, and their relevance to Krafft’s work, is one indication that his art should not be pulled out of museums and galleries as a result of our new knowledge. The impulse to pack his swastikaed perfume bottles and Hitler teapots away is inevitable—museums and galleries don’t want to promote his conspiracy theories, and don’t want to feel complicit in his bigotry. But ridding ourselves of Krafft’s art, like avoiding or ignoring his beliefs, does a disservice to our understanding of the larger questions now surrounding his work. Tim Detweiler, an arts consultant and curator in Seattle who was interviewed with Graves on Studio 360, told Kurt Andersen: “If I had a show of Charlie’s work right now, and this came out during the run of it, the best thing that a museum could do is have a panel and try to educate people as to how this changes things, and get comments from as many experts as possible.”
It’s worth mentioning that, in the past few years, Krafft has produced some lesser-known, or unknown, artwork with a direct, didactic relationship to his Holocaust denial. Around 2008, he made a miniature diorama of a dwarf family in Auschwitz for the John Erickson Museum of Art. The museum never exhibited the piece, probably because Krafft’s accompanying artist’s statement made fairly clear that his intentions were to minimize the Holocaust:
Denial or ‘trivialization’ of the received history of this sixty-year-old set of events has been declared a criminal act by nine European governments and the United Nations. The idea of the Holocaust as the single episode of the 20th century whose consequentiality seems only to increase as it recedes into the past raises questions about scale in relation to the proper commemoration of an incident of such psychic magnitude. These issues are what the sensationalized theme and reduced size of this exhibition are attempting to address.
Several years ago Krafft made “Fowlschwitz,” a metal sculpture of a birdhouse built to look like Auschwitz that, he told me, was also inspired by his “interest in revisionism.” The name alone belittles the death camps.
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. 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.