What do you do when the person you love turns out to be vastly different than the person you thought he was? This is the question Northwest art lovers, Jewish and not, have been asking themselves in the months since ceramics artist Charles Krafft was exposed by The Stranger as a sympathizer of white nationalist and Holocaust denial ideologies.
Krafft creates ceramic plates, objects, and figurines in the Delft style, but with an edge: A flowery AK-47, a plate decorated with the crashed Pan-Am plane, and — perhaps most famous — the Hitler teapot. Until now, Krafft’s Nazi-related art had been interpreted as wonderfully ironic. Jewish collectors bought his work.
Around the same time that story broke, Delilah Simon, executive director of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center, stopped by JTNews with a recently acquired painting. The framed oil depicts a pawnbroker with a trimmed white beard and a conniving grin, tipping a scale away from a soldier. A donor, assuming it to be a work of European anti-Semitica, donated it to the Holocaust Center.
This is not the first piece of art the Holocaust Center has received. Paintings, posters, postcards and artifacts have for years appeared at the center’s doorstep. Recently, they received a briefcase full of Nazi propaganda a new homebuyer found in the house. At an estate sale, they picked up a box full of painstakingly preserved Nazi propaganda magazines saved by a German immigrant who turned out to be a pilot for the Luftwaffe.
Other items, like a postcard for Germany’s 1937 “The Eternal Jew” exhibit and a massive poster advertising a world Jewish conspiracy, are picked up by travelers who, for whatever reason, are interested in propaganda.
So what’s to be done with it? And should our local Jewish community be concerned with revelations of Nazi sympathies and Holocaust denial in our midst?
“I think the Charles Krafft incident heightens our awareness into the subject of anti-Semitism, and how we as a community need to be ever vigilant and never assume that something isn’t anti-Semitic because we don’t want it to be,” Simon told JTNews. “We see cases of anti-Semitism happening throughout our own region. And it makes our work that much more important.”
Simon cited a phone call from concerned parents in nearby Federal Way whose son was acting violently and had joined an Aryan group. In some parts of the state people don’t know what a Jew is.
“We use [the propaganda and art] as a case study to show future generations what it looks like when a country and its laws can marginalize its people, and how that manifests itself first as something as simple as paintings, to eventually the ultimate extermination of a people, and how a society as a whole tolerated what was subtle in the beginning. And how that occurs today,” Simon said.
In light of this, a question looms large: What should be done with Charles Krafft’s Hitler teapot, Ahmadinejad hot water bottle, and swastika windmills?
Krafft, who has been long considered by admirers as a “provocateur” and encyclopedic in historical knowledge, skirts around his artistic intentions. In an email correspondence he avoided that topic, instead adjuring me to “do my homework,” which would have involved watching several Holocaust revisionism YouTube videos and blog posts. He denies the Holocaust denier title, but appreciates “revisionist research that includes the study of the holocaust as a psy ops,” according to a comment he left on a blog. In a short documentary film produced for the Seattle Channel around 2007, he says, “I know exactly what I’m doing, and any good artist knows exactly what buttons they’re going to be pushing, or they wouldn’t be artists. So I take full responsibility for the imagery I use.”
While the revelation of Krafft’s affiliations stunned the art world, the general response has been to shrug off this fringe outlier. There is an assumed separation between art and artist.
Akiva Kenny Segan, a Seattle-based artist and human rights educator whose “Under the Wings of G-d” series portrays Holocaust victims with angel wings, is understandably disturbed by Krafft’s views.
Akiva Segan and three “Under the Wings of G-d” mosaic-drawings at the Seattle
Central Community College exhibit, April 25.
“I find it troubling that people are willing to divorce a famous art person’s politics from whatever their works are, even if their work
doesn’t reflect it directly,” Segan said. “If this guy is a professed anti-Semite or racist…and his work was continuing to be popular, I would find it troubling.”
But as an artist, Segan finds it difficult to answer the question of intentionality versus interpretation. When an artist puts his or her work out for public view, “it’s out of their hands,” he said. “It’s up for grabs in terms of what people are going to make of it.”
On that note, Segan dismisses Krafft’s work as boring.
“In terms of creativity I don’t find it exciting at all,” he said. “It’s just kitschy to me.”
According to Mark Mulder, a museology master’s student at the University of Washington and the collections assistant intern at the Holocaust Center, whatever Krafft’s intentions were, the exposure of his views changes the game.
“It’s easy to see Hitler’s head on a skunk body as being kitschy, as being ironic, a way of showing absurdity,” he said. But when the artist is revealed as a Holocaust revisionist, the pieces are “not as ironic as they once appeared.”
Mulder, like Segan and many others, squirms when asked what museums and art collectors should do with the art of offensive artists. He says he’s not sure if it’s the responsibility of museums to say he’s a Holocaust denier.
“It’s contested argument,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any one answer.”
“How should the Jew react to this so-called gentleman’s beliefs? That’s a difficult question to answer,” said Michael Ehrenthal of Moriah Judaica in New York. “Ultimately, it depends [on] each one’s personal belief and opinion.”
Ehrenthal’s father’s collection of anti-Semitica is on display at the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art at Hechal Shlomo in Jerusalem. His catalog, “The Jew in Anti-Semitic Art,” includes benign Jewish figurines and vicious Nazi propaganda, as well a porcelain ashtray with a Jew beckoning a naked little boy, captioned “The Yiddish Clipper.” This souvenir is marked “Niagara Falls, N.Y.” and dates to around 1900. Decorative plates, a porcelain tobacco jar in the shape of a Jew’s head, and (conversely) a chamber pot with Hitler’s face populate the collection.
Is Charles Krafft’s so-called Disasterware really as unique as everyone thinks, then? And should we be outraged?
“This is really nothing new under the sun,” said Ehrenthal. “We Jews have experienced this over the centuries.”
But Ehrenthal separates it from anti-Semitica. “Mr. Krafft has not exhibited or shown anything that is anti-Semitic other than personal beliefs,” he said. “You don’t necessarily have a good criticism regarding his artwork, at least up until now, unless he comes up with some thing anti-Semitic.”
Segan hopes Krafft will come around to education, especially “if he were amenable to folks like me.”
But should a rendering of Charles Manson’s swastika-engraved head show up at the Holocaust Center’s door someday, they will just have to keep educating about the dangers of propaganda.
“Propaganda can be a powerful tool to show institutional bigotry, brainwashing,” said Mulder. “It can start conversations about how the public was okay with acts that were committed.”