A Bull in an Art Gallery – The Problem with Charles Krafft

DSCN3222I’ve been thinking about how best to write about this situation since learning about it on the Vice website last week. It has since kicked up a lot of dust on a variety of risqué topics, some of which must be trodden with great care so as not to misconstrue your own message.

Nonetheless, it feels important to me to take a step back from everything that’s happened and try to analyse the bigger picture. I have to clarify at this point, however, that the views expressed by Charles Krafft are entirely his own, and one of my primary interests in writing this article is to separate the Art from the Artist in the hopes that the former can continue to play a role within the critical art world.

Photograph by Kyle Johnson

Photograph by Kyle Johnson

For those unfamiliar with Krafft, he is an artist from Seattle, Washington, who built a name for himself in the early 1990s when he took a china-painting class and began creating porcelain replicas of assault rifles and weaponry that would soon form his ‘Disasterware’ collection. First conceived during several trips to war-torn Bosnia Herzegovina, their initial role as a searing critique of the military powers in Eastern Europe struck a chord with the art community and his work was soon being displayed in galleries the world over.

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Problems arose, however, when an article by the Seattle Stranger uncovered appearances by Krafft on Podcasts by the White Network – a white supremacist website whose slogan is ‘whites talking to whites about white interests’ – during which he states quite clearly that ‘I believe that the Holocaust is a myth’ (23:30 onwards).

Furthermore, he argues that this ‘myth’, or ‘civil religion’, is ‘being used to promote multiculturalism and globalism’, describing the Holocaust as a ‘tar baby that […] these intellectual leaders of the New Right are looking for a way to get around’. Comments on the website also make frequent use of phrases such as ‘the holohoax’ and references to ‘the Jew’s Game’. Long story short – the end picture for Krafft, however he dresses his own intellectual agenda, is not pretty.

This has posed a huge problem for the art community, with many galleries and personal collectors removing his artwork from their displays, some going as far as destroying them. The problem seems to be that when his work was a kitschy and ironic critique of Nationalism, Nazism and Far-Right ideology, it was okay. Now that it’s possible that the guy making the china genuinely did hold alignment with these views, it’s offensive and dangerous.

Dresden-1945Questions have been raised about the importance of agency and artistic intent in art, and Krafft’s own response in his interview with Vice goes to great lengths to emphasise the intellectual aspect of his work – ‘Post-1945 nationalism of any type was demonised; If you look back before the war and read nationalist literature it isn’t really as bad people say. I’m interested in re-examining history and intellectual movements before 1945’. This all concerns me though, because I think we run the risk of denying our own intellectual footing in the debate when we focus this issue entirely on a direct relationship between art and artist.

I first learnt about Krafft through his collaboration with Erik Brunetti and FUCT, featuring two of his artworks printed on t-shirts. I instantly fell in love with the aesthetic, and Krafft’s collision of these two things – the blandly inoffensive blue and white china, reminiscent of my grandmother’s dining room wall and semi-automatic weaponry and incidents such as the Dresden Bombings – struck such a powerful chord within me. There were so many statements that leapt out at me regarding violence & beauty, the sacred & profane, art & terror, and I spent a long time looking at and, yes, enjoying his work as I scoured the internet.

It concerned me when the storm kicked up over the past week because it felt like people almost felt ‘burnt’ by Krafft. There was this explosive reaction as if he had tricked people, or that these beautiful artworks were suddenly evil, like blood diamonds. People were asking questions about ‘how the art community allowed Krafft to slip under their radar like this’, as if art is meant to be some sort of concrete force that tells the world ‘yes’ and ‘no’. We weren’t supposed to interpret art. We were supposed to be given clear and representative messages that provided a telescopic view into the artist’s inner soul. It worried me.

perfume_bottle_case002People seem to have forgotten how it is that Krafft’s art has been received over the past twenty years. As users and recipients of art, the process through which we construct meanings is equally as important as the artist’s own agency when looking at an artwork. Krafft wanted to inject the dull and kitschy medium of porcelain – described by Krafft as ‘all 18th century: cows and windmills.’ – with new and visceral imagery that would strike a chord in the modern age – to bring it forward with a loud bang. These anonymous plates, stood in display cabinets and kitchen cupboards across the world, were suddenly adorned with some of the most tragic and shocking incidences in modern history. That’s what grabbed our attention in the first place.

We fell in love with it. And when the nazi imagery started appearing, we all laughed! You can almost imagine the critics now – ‘A swastika! How kitsch!’ – and it makes me wonder how important this aspect of art is. How much power does the recipient hold in art? René Magritte told you it wasn’t a pipe, but you knew it was a pipe, and therein lied some of his work’s greatest wit.

Yet nobody wants to recognise the brilliance in the fact that his work was being stone-facedly delivered to galleries, collectors and museums worldwide, 99% of whom were surely cracking half a smile as they marvelled in what they saw as the artistic derision of the very attitudes he might want to perpetuate – rather than bringing the porcelain into the modern age, is it not possible that Krafft’s work has helped to further kitsch-ify these views as dated and other-worldly, much like the ‘cows and windmills’ of centuries before?

There is obviously something important to be said about how well-documented his anti-semitic and White Nationalist views were in certain pockets of the Seattle community, as well as in the realms of the internet and beyond. It does concern me that Krafft has gotten away with being so openly offensive on Facebook and in his involvement with White Nationalist groups, and it is obviously upsetting to think that the money he has made from his work might have gone towards supporting some of these evil causes. That said, however, I still think there’s something intrinsically beautiful in a bigot’s life work being received in such an ironic manner that it actually ends up being detrimental to his cause.

20-Sal-Mineo-BunnyAnother thing that has concerned people has been the ‘risk of normalisation’ of these shocking images in society. People are understandably concerned that the ease with which Krafft has managed to slip these ideologies into the public eye means that people have become (or are becoming) naturalised to the history of incidences such as the Holocaust and WWII – that people don’t understand the severity of these horrific events.

But, again, we are forgetting our own agency, and submitting to the idea that we only go to galleries to be told how to think. I would be shocked to find that even 10% of people who have viewed and enjoyed Krafft’s work would display views in alignment with his own, and people perhaps misinterpret the way we laughed at ‘Hitler Teapot’ as a casuality towards Nazism in general when in reality it’s a lot simpler – he took the most evil man in modern history and stuck an ugly mold of his head on a fucking teapot. It’s like the Toby Jug. It’s just nothing. Hitler is nothing. He was nothing. Just a stupid man. So stupid, in fact, that he deserves to be a Toby Jug. No matter what Krafft was thinking when he made the teapot, it ended up being enthusiastically snapped up by a Jewish collector, so we can only assume that Hitler’s legacy wasn’t exactly bolstered, more likely diminutised.

KRAFFT_5005In conclusion, I really do think that the questions that Krafft’s art poses, both before the recent revelations and now, are very important in helping us to understand how we as recipients of art help to form meaning, as well as how much an artist’s intent should factor into that meaning, if at all. If I give a group of people the Nazi salute and they all laugh back at me, am I still being offensive? Can I still cause offence? Do I, myself, feel powerful in my views, or am I weakened and destroyed? It’s hypothetical, but we should be asking these questions if we want to understand how our hearts and minds are operating in this difficult debate.

People still argue over ‘Tintin in the Congo’ and the offensive portrayal of black people, both visually and intellectually, within. Some want to see the book banned. Some don’t think anything should happen. Others want the book moved into the ‘historical’ sections of libraries and bookshops in the hopes that the book will then be read to younger generations with the appropriate historical and political context necessary to properly understand what is being said. The same problem is present here, is this stuff so dangerous that you want to deny people the right to know about it at all and to flex their own intellectual prowess?

We, as a people, are better than this, and we should be allowed the right as recipient agents to utilise our own understandings of these parts of history and politics to understand what is wrong with them. Yes, there will be some that ‘don’t see the problem’ to put it lightly, and that is why it is so important to share your views and educate others, so that no matter what message these bigots are trying to transmit, it will only ever be met with a laugh and a pat on the head. Cute swastika, Charlie, what you gonna do next bub?

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