A recent battle in the art world illustrates the point. The billionaire Ronald Perelman is suing the multimillionaire art dealer Larry Gagosian on the grounds, among others, that Gagosian overvalued an unfinished sculpture of Popeye (yes, the Sailor Man) by Jeff Koons. Perelman purchased this item for $4 million.
In parallel to the David of Michelangelo, I will refer to the disputed work as the Popeye. A judge will eventually decide what the Popeye is really worth. My own view is that it is worth precisely what its component materials are worth, or perhaps a bit less, due to the costs that would be incurred in hauling it away and melting it down or crushing it. If called as an expert witness, I will testify to that effect.
One of my pleasures over the past couple of months has been the universe confirming my aesthetic choices as a novelist by allowing near-facsimiles of a couple of my book’s more extravagant jokes to pop up in real life. So, for instance, there’s a little bit about legalizing bigfoot hunting in Pittsburgh; lo and behold, my editor sends me a link to a real-life bigfoot season on Long Island. Elsewhere in the narrative, we briefly meet a performance artist who “reenacts the aesthetics of atrocity” by dressing up like a Leni Riefenstahl extra—basically a caricature cribbed shamelessly from the real-life Eastern European collective, NSK. Ladies and gentlemen: Charles Krafft.
If not in the top tier of international art scammers, Krafft nevertheless had a national reputation, got museum shows, sold works for tens of thousands of dollars. His work was never any good; even presumed to be commentary, it was the sort of crap that you can find in any hipster gallery on any First Friday gallery crawl in any gentrifying neighborhood from Bushwick to Bloomfield and back again. Well-regarded shit is the reserve currency of the global art market, and just about anything with a hint of ironic appropriation and meta-artistic commentary will eventually find its way into a well-regarded biennial. The art world is the Sokal Affair diluted to an eighth-grade reading level and repeated ad infinitum, except that the pranksters believe their own essays.
Krafft, it seems, never made much effort to conceal his fetish for Aryanism, but it wasn’t until earlier this month when a reporter for The Stranger published a short investigation that anyone with a well-regarded degree from a decent college bothered to notice:
When I wrote to Krafft back in May, letting him know that a reader had asked whether he was a Holocaust denier, I added, “I suppose you don’t have to answer that, but I guess I’d like to know.” This wasn’t the first time I’d heard the rumor, but I found it impossible to imagine that the swastikas on Krafft’s work might reflect genuine spite toward Jews—i.e., that there might not be so much difference between Krafft’s swastikas and Hitler’s. After all, that could mean this self-taught, former Skagit Valley hippie artist was using the guise of art and irony to smuggle far-right symbols into museums, galleries, collectors’ homes, and upscale decor shops like Far4 on First Avenue.
“I found it impossible to imagine that the swastikas on Krafft’s work might reflect genuine spite toward Jews.” I think this is the fine-arts version of that serial killer story in which the neighbors all recall what a nice boy he was, how polite, although he was, come to think of it, awfully quiet and came and went at really odd hours.
To the credit of both The Stranger’s Jen Graves and The New Yorker’s Rachel Arons, neither takes the easy route of calling Krafft a fraud as a way of exonerating themselves and their colleagues for past plaudits. Unfortunately, they can’t quite disavow any ill-considered praise for this third-rate ceramic hobbyist either. Arons:
Perhaps Krafft’s obsession with Holocaust conspiracy theory is costing him his creativity; that would be karmically interesting. But his work that contains contradictions—a “salad of symbols” too freewheeling to parse. That work is worth continuing to examine, even if we are disgusted by Krafft’s current personal beliefs and unsure exactly to what extent, or for how long, they have been informing his work. It should always be difficult to look at art about Nazis. Now that looking at Krafft’s art is even more difficult, we shouldn’t look away.
Looking at Krafft’s work was never difficult, unless, in an effort to contort your own natural aesthetic reaction (“this guy makes shitty trinkets covered in swastikas; uh, oooookay”) to the received opinions of an art establishment to which you want to belong (“ironically appropriating the symbology of fascism in a metacommentary on the nature of nostalgia in our conceptualizing of past atrocity blah blah blah”), you had to take your own brain to the bar, feed it one too many drinks, and then convince it to do something it wasn’t really comfortable with.
It’s true, we shouldn’t look away from Krafft’s art because it’s “even more difficult”. We should look away because it’s lousy art.