What Do You Do with White Nationalist Art Once the Irony’s Gone?

Charles Krafft, "Forgiveness" perfume and soap
Charles Krafft, “Forgiveness” perfume and soap (all images via

Charles Krafft’s artwork would be creepy no matter what. The artist makes porcelain ceramics in the traditions of Dutch Delftware and Italian maiolica pottery, but with a postmodern twist: the pieces are shaped like guns and grenades, or feature scenes of warfare and death (Disasterware), or portraits of Hitler and Charles Manson. There is a soap and cologne set called “Forgiveness,” which features swastikas. And Krafft creates china pieces — memorial and reliquaries, according to his site — using human cremains instead of calcinated cow bone.

But the work of the artist, a leading figure in the Seattle art scene, has become a whole lot more disturbing, with the publication of The Stranger art critic Jen Graves’s exposé of Krafft as a white nationalist and a Holocaust denier.

The piece is definitely worth reading in its entirety, but the basic story is this: for the past few years, Krafft’s work has been accepted and celebrated as being darkly ironic. Galleries and museums have shown and purchased it, as have Jewish collectors, and in an interview with Salon in 2002, Krafft seemed to affirm this interpretation, saying, “I’ve always had a knack and a penchant for going toward humorous irony.”

A porcelain statue from Krafft's "Pitchfork Pals" series
A porcelain statue from Krafft’s “Pitchfork Pals” series

Recently, however, it’s become increasingly clear that Krafft isn’t actually skewering Hitler; in fact, he’s probably celebrating him. Graves compiles Krafft’s own words from his Facebook page, a white nationalist podcast he was a guest on, in July 2012, as well as an email exchange she had with the artist, and the results are damning. “I believe the Holocaust is a myth,” he says on the podcast. “It’s not just the Jews that are promoting this thing,” he goes on to say. “Yeah, it’s their little myth. But we’re going to be rounded up not by Jews, we’re going to be rounded up, if it comes to this, by people just like ourselves.”

Krafft also wrote to Graves about the evolution of his views. Referring to a book he read about a Romanian archbishop prosecuted for crimes against humanity, he said: “Understanding the nuts and bolts of this complex civil case, the Romanian history behind it and its geopolitical ramifications ultimately served to awaken my racial self-awareness as a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant).”

But part of what’s most fascinating, and disturbing (to me, at least), is not Krafft’s response but those of his friends. They generally come off as ambivalent to the point of tolerance: one “feels extremely torn on the subject”; another stopped socializing with him but told Graves, “Be sure to say I love Charlie” (!) ; another lamely responded, “I try not to pay too much attention.”

There seems to be a lot of willful ignorance going on here, bordering on denial. A blog post at the website for Feral House, an independent book publisher run by Adam Parfrey, claims, “It appears that Charlie lost control of his Facebook page, which was often hijacked by a couple mental cases who spoke of ‘kikes’ and such, with some of those comments directed at me.” Lost control of his Facebook page? I’m not even sure what that means. The post ends, “Feral House doesn’t shy away from points of view we don’t necessarily agree with, and so do some of our friends. Despite his occasional idiocy, we love Charlie Krafft.”

Hijacked or not, that’s generally the sentiment on Krafft’s Facebook page, too, where recent friend posts on his wall include, “Remember what they say Charlie, ‘Don’t hate the player. Hate the game.'” Someone else posted a link to a piece written by a fellow white nationalist defending Krafft (it has 25 likes and two shares). “The Persecution of Charles Krafft,” published at a site called Counter-Currents Publishing, starts off quite bluntly:

Whenever a person of any prominence expresses interest in or agreement with tabooed ideas like White Nationalism, anti-Semitism, or Holocaust revisionism, the standard Judeo-Leftist strategy is to destroy him socially and economically — unless, of course, there are no legal barriers to outright murder.

You can imagine how it continues from there. The writer, Greg Johnson, parses the differences between neo-Nazism, white nationalism, and historical revisionism in order to try and discredit Graves. (Another warm and fuzzy sample line: “But Krafft’s art is attractive to people like me, namely White Nationalists who feel what I call ‘the burden of Hitler,’ i.e., people who wish to distinguish their views from National Socialism while also giving just acknowledgement to what Heidegger called its ‘inner truth and greatness.’”) He concludes by encouraging people to buy Krafft’s art, show support and defend him, and letting “this controversy [die] in the pages of The Stranger.” Not if I can help it.

I wrote to Graves asking what kind of response she’s gotten to the piece, in addition to the 200+ comments online. “Lots and lots of response,” she wrote. “Kara Walker, Jerry Saltz chiming in. Plenty of people on all sides. Was the art ever good? Could this have happened on the East Coast? ‘The natural outcome of white Seattle irony,’ a friend said to me last night.”

One of the more astute online commenters echoed that sentiment, writing:

Here we have another case of something extremely common in Seattle. People granting a pass to bigotry by explaining away the obvious as ‘sarcasm’ or ‘hipster-ia’ or ‘edginess’. Not all bigots and antisemites are toothless southerners or mountain hillbillies. Some are actually fairly talented. Others are mildly intelligent (in non-historical/sociological/analytical fields). … [S]omehow the Seattle art scene and the region in general are given a carte blanche ‘tolerant’ rating…mostly by the very people who either fit into Krafft’s type of anti-social normative behavior or from the endless number of people who excuse it.

As Graves mentioned, artist Kara Walker, whose name is invoked in the article by one of the curators interviewed, also commented online, several times. In one of her entries, after complaining about her name being “bandied about in this article as an example of the ‘good negro,'” she makes a great and necessary point:

But I don’t think this is the first time this has happened, that a successful white male artist is proven to have racist sexist ideas! It never fails to surprise me how willing some folks are to render such racism invisible.

And it does seem as though Krafft’s views have been a kind of open secret known by some people for a while. Graves sent me this note, which came via Facebook, from an owner of one of Krafft’s pieces:

Jen, I want to say thanks in regards to your article on Krafft. I came to realize what his beliefs were a few years ago; I packed away the two pieces I own. Now and then, I would check (mostly FB) to find evidence to make sure what I suspected was true. I finally talked about it at a dinner with some other collectors (one of whom is Jewish) and was met with skepticism and disbelief. I am thankful it is now out in a more open and public forum. Again, Thanks.

This dovetails with the words of Seattle blogger Clark Humphrey, who wrote, in a short post on the whole saga:

Like many participants in and observers of the Seattle visual-art scene, I’ve long known about Krafft’s open admiration for neo-Nazis and Holocaust revisionist pseudo-scholars. He didn’t keep his views secret. They just hadn’t been written about in the local arts media, prior to Graves’ article.

So basically, an all-too-common mixture of ignorance, denial, hyper-tolerance, and fear led everyone to this tenuous point, until Graves wrote her article and everything exploded.

One of Krafft's porcelain guns
One of Krafft’s porcelain guns

Or did it? Because the real question is: now that Krafft is outed, what happens to his art, especially the works owned by museums? The San Francisco curator told Graves the museum would likely keep its piece — “he [the curator] values the perspectives brought by artworks.” In other words, we need to parse the art from the artist, at least to the point where we can still display and engage with it. On the one hand, I want to be open-minded enough to agree with this, and some of Krafft’s work is undeniably powerful, for instance, his Delftware guns. On the other hand, the whole “the creator isn’t the work” thing strikes me as pretty flimsy here, since the art seems to be very much a representation of the artist’s skewed views. How do you show a Nazi teapot now, knowing that its creator is a Holocaust denier (and that the man who bought it didn’t know)?

“The line on separating the man from the art feels to me in this case like a diversionary tactic our brains do to us to make the simple less simple because simple is dull and in this case kind of horrible,” Graves wrote to me. “The fact is, he’s selling World War II satire portraits where the satire turns out to be a tactic to fool a world full of dumbshits.”

Graves and I agreed that at the end of the day, Krafft himself is far less interesting than the larger issues raised here. “Exiling a person is a way of pretending the whole society is not infected,” she said, “but he comes from a backlash to multiculturalism that we’re seeing all over the place out here.” Not just out there, I would add, but all over; any country that’s perpetuated and grappled with as many ridiculous myths and conspiracy theories surrounding its President as we have in the past five years is battling some serious demons.

I reached out to one gallery, Stolen Space, that lists Krafft as a represented artist on its site, but no one has responded. Graves said she hasn’t heard from Krafft since the story ran, either. As for whether her article will affect his market — I don’t know. I told Graves I feared people would just ignore it and keep buying and showing his work. She disagreed: “I think they will stop buying it … Or at least, as Greg Johnson urges, a different kind of person altogether will start.”

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