The recent revelation that Seattle-based artist Charles Krafft is a Holocaust denier and white nationalist has brought about a wave of controversy regarding the merits of his art. In the past, his work — which includes pieces made with ground-up human bones, porcelain AK-47s, and Delftware teapots, piggy banks, and Chia Pets shaped like an eclectic cast of characters including Adolf Hitler, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong-Il, Charles Manson, and, randomly, Amy Winehouse — was considered satirical and widely lauded. Kraft was a proud son, albeit a somewhat rabble-rousing one, of the Seattle art scene. His work was featured in prominent shows and collections throughout the world.
Now that Krafft’s racist and anti-Semitic ideas have been exposed the art world is wondering what to do with his works, whether they are neo-Nazi agit-prop to be shunned or still effective pieces of art made by a provocative artist with some outrageously ugly ideas. One Krafft piece that has drawn particular concern of late is a Hitler-shaped Delftware teapot which was donated to San Francisco’s de Young Museum by a famously liberal — and Jewish — collector, Sandy Besser. In light of the revelations that Krafft doubts the existence of Nazi gas chambers and defines himself as someone who “is racially aware of their whiteness and proud of the achievements of European civilization,” some believe the teapot can no longer be seen as a work of satire; rather it is a symbol of Krafft’s anti-Semitism and a cunning celebration of the 20th century’s most infamous war criminal.
Tim Detweiler, a Seattle-based curator, spoke with NPR’s Kurt Anderson about Krafft a few weeks ago. He makes it clear that from his curatorial standpoint, the revelations about Krafft’s personal beliefs change the meaning of the work. “When you are making an elemental statement about your work that it is saying one thing politically and then you flip that meaning publicly… then that new interpretation has to be taken strongly into account.” When asked if the work could still be interesting, Detweiler replied, “Maybe to a different audience.”
In a report compiled in 2007 by Tim Burgard, the de Young Museum curator who managed the receipt of Besser’s collection, the teapot was discussed at length: “It resurrects the likeness of Adolf Hitler in the form of a souvenir teapot to comment on the nature of evil, the persistence of fascism, and the role of kitsch.” Burgard drew comparisons between Krafft’s teapot and Hannah Arendt’s theory concerning “the banality of evil,” which posits that “the Holocaust was carried out by otherwise ordinary people who accepted the philosophy of the Nazi state, obeyed its laws, and abdicated personal moral responsibility for their actions.”
In an email sent to ARTINFO last week, Burgard defended his initial interpretation of Krafft’s teapot. “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.” Burgard then reiterated details about the teapot’s “demonic-looking eyes” and “devil-like horns” before concluding, “If the artist were to state now, 10 years after its creation, that this teapot was intended as an homage to its subject, it appears to have failed in visual terms.”
Such political iconography is present in only a fraction of Krafft's work, and its presence predates his public avowal of white nationalism and Holocaust denial by several years: the first Hitler teapot was made around 2000, and it wasn't until 2010 that Krafft began to identify as a white nationalist. As Krafft himself said to ARTINFO, he believes his work is satirical and absurd no matter what his political stance. “I don’t think that one iota of the satire and irony that went into those works has been diminished by this revelation.” When asked about his feelings about Hitler, he replied simply, “He’s perceived as the epitome of evil. He’s a cliché for evil. I’m trying to explore clichéd evil.”
In conversation, Krafft is a sort of pseudo-historian prone to hyperbole. He describes himself as “getting off by exploring evil,” because “the darker it is the more curious I am about it and when I get into it...it kind of blows up in my face. It becomes less and less powerful the more you look at it.” While Krafft has spoken publicly about his white nationalism and Holocaust denial for several years now, it wasn't even until 2007 that Krafft began his ‘research’ into the Holocaust after spending time travelling around Eastern Europe with Laibach, a satirical Slovenian art collective Krafft describes as a “post-modern critique of totalitarianism.” In other words, as far as anyone can tell, his provocative Hitler teapot predates his still more provocative beliefs about its subject.
“The question of whether he’s an artist or a propagandist, or combination of both has to be judged from the outside, not the inside,” said Steven Heller, a former art director of the New York Times and prolific writer whose literary oeuvre includes Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption. The responsibility of interpreting the work, or placing it into a social context, “must be self-policed by the artist’s establishment,” he added. “If [Krafft] or anyone else is putting things into their artwork that are questionable, you have to ask the question of ‘why?’”
Was the establishment too easily seduced by Krafft's kitschy satire to really ask 'why'? Or, more importantly, where is the establishment left when an artist's explorations — which had previously been celebrated for their edginess — lead to the wrong conclusion? Will it turn out that the satire once implicit in Krafft's work is not static or solid, but ultimately negated as a result of his reprehensible (and faulty) understanding of history? These are the questions that will be left lingering even after the uproar over the recent revelations has faded.