Seattle artist finds personal opinion, art an uncomfortable mix
Seattle artist Charles Krafft’s recent revelation as a Holocaust denier has raised difficult questions for museums and collectors about separating the artist’s beliefs from his work.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Once celebrated by museums and collectors for his playful tweaking of Nazi iconography, renowned Seattle artist Charles Krafft has lately become the art world’s problem child.
After recently revealing his doubts about the Holocaust and insisting Hitler has been demonized, he was dropped from a group exhibit in Paris, and museums are rethinking their stance on his work and its meaning.
When San Francisco’s esteemed de Young Museum acquired Krafft’s 2003 piece, “Hitler Idaho” — a teapot fashioned as the Third Reich leader’s head — the accepted wisdom was that it was a wry take on the history of political violence.
The curator there described the piece as “Reinforcing the persistent belief that Hitler was a demonic and inhuman aberration ... ” and said it “Reduces the feared Nazi leader to a spouting teapot wearing the yarmulke of the people he most despised.”
Indeed there was no reason to think otherwise. Krafft himself assured collectors and museums that his work was a poke at power, telling Salon in 2002: “I’ve always had a knack and a penchant for going toward humorous irony.”
No one is laughing now, given the artist’s recent comments, which he shows no sign of tempering.
“I don’t deny the Holocaust. I am skeptical about certain parts,” Krafft said in a phone interview the other day. “I’ve walked the camps and saw a gas chamber that I believe was a set built ... to make a newsreel.”
Krafft’s public unraveling started in February, when Jen Graves, the art critic for Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger, wrote about his political 180, his views on the Holocaust and his participation in a podcast with the white nationalist website the White Network.
Last weekend, Krafft doubled down, appearing on National Public Radio’s “Studio 360” and telling host Kurt Andersen that Hitler is misunderstood.
“I think he’s been demonized excessively,” he told Andersen, who had questioned Krafft’s mental health. “I’m not trying to resurrect national socialism or Hitlerism, but my opinion of the man has changed considerably.”
Within days, organizers of the “Hey! Modern Art & Pop Culture / Part II” exhibit at the Halle Saint Pierre in Paris notified him that they didn’t want him on the bill.
“It doesn’t make me feel good,” Krafft, 65, said of the decision. “But I think it’s a ‘success du scandale.’ ”
Whatever you call it, Krafft, a bespectacled, bearded, Beacon Hill resident who seems a little hurt by what his words have wrought, has raised a lot of uncomfortable questions.
His work — delicate and exquisite pieces fashioned in the style of blue-and-white Delftware — have been celebrated for their cultural and political implications: Wedding cakes and bars of soap decorated with swastikas. A Thompson machine gun, made of porcelain. Monstrous symbols recast as beautiful objects.
Museums all over the country appreciated that irony, but in light of Krafft’s statements, those that hold his work are facing questions that speak to the very purpose of art.
Do they leave the work as it stands, and let the artist be who he is? Label the art explaining that Krafft wasn’t being ironic after all? Or pull it from exhibits, as the Paris museum did, lest it offend donors and visitors?
Tim Burgard, the deYoung’s American art curator, issued a statement in the wake of Krafft’s revelations, and his words about the “Hitler Idaho” teapot were considerably cooler than when it was gifted in 2007.
“If the artist were to state now, 10 years after its creation, that this teapot was intended as an homage to its subject,” Burgard stated, “it appears to have failed in visual terms.”
The Seattle Art Museum, which holds four Krafft pieces and last showed his Delftware Thompson Machine Gun in 2006, has been having internal discussions about Krafft.
“We are troubled to learn of his views, and they were not known when we acquired his work,” said SAM spokeswoman Cara Egan. “It is definitely something that is on our minds.”
At present, though, Egan said the museum has no plans to either exhibit Krafft’s work or get rid of it.
The Bellevue Arts Museum showed one of Krafft’s pieces in 2010 as part of its “Clay Throwdown!” exhibit. The piece wasn’t Nazi-related, but depicted “tabloid baddies” such as North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Amy Winehouse.
Nora Atkinson, a curator there, declined to comment, saying, “It’s such an explosive issue.”
At the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, four of Krafft’s pieces are included in the current “New Blue and White” exhibition.
“They do not have iconography referential to the Holocaust or white supremacy,” said museum spokeswoman Amelia Kantrovitz. “Nor is a connection to Krafft’s personal political beliefs apparent from the objects themselves.”
“Whatever I believe shouldn’t reflect on the art,” Krafft said. “I grew into my skepticism, and now people are wondering if they should go back into my whole body of work and decide if it’s politically incorrect and if it is, remove it.
“So artists have opinions, and sometimes they’re contrary to the zeitgeist.”
Tim Detweiler, an art consultant and former executive director of the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Skagit County, disagrees with the artist.
He believes Krafft’s views should be part of any exhibit of his Nazi-themed work, and in those cases, museums should hold panel discussions — and keep the art.
“That he came out as a proponent of white nationalism elementally changes the work,” Detweiler said. “Museums are forums. We’re not supposed to be reactionary, but hold the long view.
“Sometimes art becomes an artifact, over time, of the time period.”
Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York magazine, believes that all art is controversial, and said, via email, that there is “no possible way” for a museum to try to explain away any controversial belief that an artist has.
“Degas was an anti-Semite. I love his work,” Saltz pointed out.
But he has no such feelings for Krafft’s teapots and Thompson machine guns.
“Whatever the politics of this guy, his work is unoriginal crapola one-liner kitsch,” Saltz said. “The only label I would write about his guy’s work would be: ‘Any museum that thinks this work is anything other than kitsch needs to rethink itself.’ ”
That’s Saltz’s opinion.
Charles Krafft believes he should be allowed to have one of his own.
“Why do I have to be punished?” Krafft insisted. “I can’t have these opinions?”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org