Two weeks ago in Studio 360, we talked about the Seattle-based artist Charles Krafft. Krafft is a painter and sculptor whose work is both provocative and respected; it has been collected by major museums and prominently reviewed, and Krafft has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Soros Foundation. Some of his provocation has consisted of imagery of dictators, notably Hitler, and swastikas in various contexts. That imagery was used ironically, the artist said, and he was praised for it in the art world and the media.
But earlier this year, a reporter for the Seattle Stranger discovered that Charles Krafft was not just an ironic provocateur. Her article revealed that during the last decade, he had also become a Holocaust denier. Admirers of Krafft’s art are left wondering whether the use of swastikas and Hitler was a form of surreptitious propaganda for hate. Krafft maintains that what was intended as ironic then remains ironic now.
“I knew that these were hot symbols,” he tells Kurt Andersen. “I’d been working with this group, Neue Slowenische Kunst, a Slovenian collective, and they were mixing tropes that included Nazi symbols. That’s kind of where I got infected with this idea, where I began to think about using them myself ... Prior to that, I was apolitical,” he asserts. “I was using these symbols before I was a Holocaust denier. I wasn’t even interested in the Holocaust, really.”
Krafft asserts that he is not a racist or a Nazi, but a “revisionist” whose ideas are based in history. “I just don’t buy this thing about ‘2,000 people a day being gassed at Auschwitz,'” Krafft claims; “it doesn’t add up to me technologically."
Kurt asks about one particularly charged work, a teapot in the shape of Hitler’s head. “I think he’s been demonized excessively,” Krafft says. “I’m not trying to resurrect National Socialism or Hitlerism, but my opinion of the man has changed considerably since I began my revisionist investigations, so the teapot started out ironical and still stays ironical. Because for God’s sake, if you look at that thing, it’s goofy. And I don’t understand why people now think that this is some sort of an attempt to slip my evil neo-Nazi ideology into the homes, museums, and galleries of the unsuspecting.”
Krafft’s public embrace of Holocaust denial is likely to wreck his career as a respected artist — his works were recently withdrawn from an exhibition in France — though he may garner fans among extremists. “The thing about being a Holocaust denier,” Krafft says, “when they throw that word around at you, it’s not good socially, so I’m having a little bit of a tough time dealing with old friends that are suddenly distancing themselves from me. But I don’t have any regrets for making the art that I did or for my intellectual curiosity, which led me to this opinion that I have, that I’m holding right now. And I’m saying it’s not forever. I mean, I could change my mind about it.”
Kurt wonders frankly if the change in Krafft’s outlook may have resulted from mental difficulty of some kind. “Nobody’s said I’m crazy, although somebody wrote that I might be getting senile. Do you think I need some sort of psychiatric help?” Krafft asks. “If I find a psychiatrist that can help me, Kurt, I’ll get back to you and let you know when I’m well.”
Interviewing a Holocaust denier (Charles Krafft prefers the term "skeptic," but he also refers to himself in the interview as a "denier") is a delicate piece of broadcasting. Many listeners who commented below find it inappropriate that we gave him any airtime at all, while others take us to task for not debating Krafft's interpretation of the literature he has read. We interviewed Krafft not as a spokesperson for that viewpoint, but as a major artist whose work has used imagery that, given his new beliefs, seems to take on a vastly different meaning. We felt obligated to explore how those beliefs should affect our understanding of his body of work.
We've been heartened to see the vigorous debate among our readers/listeners below. Thank you to everyone who has contributed thoughtful comments to the conversation, and continues to do so.
A note from Kurt:
Thank you all for listening and taking the time to comment.
One point I'd like to add to what my Studio 360 colleagues have posted here is the fact that I spoke with Charles Krafft for more than 40 minutes, of which we broadcast 7 minutes. Which is to say, he provided and we recorded his "side of the story" at length. But our interest and intention was not to air a debate with a non-scholar about the well-established facts of the Holocaust, but rather to provide a sense of Mr. Krafft's state of mind and personality, and (given the cultural focus of this show) how his artistic practice, which included Nazi iconography, led him to his peculiar beliefs in late middle age.
And to the commenter who asks if I would similarly question the mental states of fervent "birthers" and believers in extraterrestrial visitations: yes, I would. In fact, in one part of my conversation with Mr. Krafft that we didn't air I compared Holocaust denialism to a belief that the earth is flat, and said that geophysicists holding such opinions are excluded from serious discourse and denied jobs in the academy; he agreed the analogy was apt.