Monday, March 17, 2014

Fake Hitler Landscapes : Open Thread

I know an art dealer who specializes in Modern and Contemporary art that includes works by most of the giants of the cannon. He can talk authoritatively about autobiographical or technique or aesthetic details for any of the artists or works, in tones so soothing and compelling, it makes you want to run out and rob a bank just to buy up and take his entire inventory home with you.

In his private life, however, this dealer collects only art by Anonymous artists. He finds them in estate sales or even flea markets, and relies on his "eye" only to make purchasing decisions. It's a wonderful and daring approach to collecting, and not one that in the current climate of "big brand" artists is likely to leave his heirs much to sell off, but the confidence this gives his clients in his abilities as an aesthete probably more than makes up for it. 

I thought of this dealer recently, and the advantages of collecting anonymous art, because lately there's been a number of conversations on Facebook and other social networks about not being able to see past the autobiographical details of artist X or artist Y in attempting to appreciate their art. One such discussion I got embroiled in dealt with Woody Allen (which I provide here as a clear example of what I mean, and most definitely NOT as a wish to revisit that comments on Allen will be published except those using that case as shorthand for this phenomenon of not being able to tolerate the work of someone who you cannot stand personally...there are plenty of other places where the details of that case have been hashed out over and over), but there have been a few more such cases come up lately than is normal, and a few about contemporary fine artists, so I thought I'd examine what this all means.

There was an episode (or two) on the TV show "Justified" that dealt with an art dealer who specialized in paintings by Hitler. The market for that work was portrayed as so hot, apparently there were also "fake" paintings by Hitler they were concerned about. I wasn't familiar with this particular market at all, but I wasn't terribly surprised to entertain the idea that one exists. A little post-TV research revealed an article that suggested the market not only exists but is "thriving"...although the same article suggests the editor who inserted "thriving" in the headline hadn't read the full text. Indeed, the interest seems, mercifully, to be quite finite:
"Some people, for whatever reason, like these paintings," says Dr Burkhard Asmuss, head of the department of contemporary history at Berlin's Deutsches Historisches Museum. "But we have no interest in them. We have enough objects that enhance people's understanding. And what do these paintings show? That he once turned his hand to a few picture postcards? So what?"
I jump ahead to Goodwin's Law here, though, to help put the rest of the conversation in context. None of the artists I've heard mentioned recently have done anything that even begins to approach the evil that Hitler embodied, and yet, their actions have also won them hard-boiled detractors unable to separate out their statements or behaviors from their artwork. And all of them are much more accomplished by far as artists than Hitler. (So let's please keep that relativity firmly in mind while we debate this topic.)

And so, with all that established: this issue raises a number of interesting questions for me about authorship, "vessel-ship," and the role of the artist in society. 

The questions about authorship and what I'll call "vessel-ship" (i.e., an artwork's ability by itself to carry into the future cultural clues or solid information about how a generation that has passed away thought and lived or what they valued) are similar to my mind. If we're looking at a painting from a few centuries ago, for example, and the way it portrays someone is offensive to us today, it might be useful to know the artist was, even in their own time, seen as a notorious bigot and his/her views didn't represent those of the majority of his/her contemporaries. 

But if there's nothing particularly offensive in another painting by the same artist, does the fact the author was a notorious bigot still matter? In other words, does his/her bigotry taint all his/her work? If so, is the concept of "vessel-ship" valid? If a work doesn't ever stand on its own in conveying information, but always brings its author's baggage along for the ride, do any of us really appreciate any of the art that came before we were born? Even for those artists who we can read indepth biographies about, without being an expert on his/her time and place, we're most likely projecting quite a bit onto their meaning and personal opinions. 

Dragging this up into the present, if an artist says or does something that offends us, what does it mean that such behavior can taint all his/her work? I personally cannot stand a few artists (yes, it's true, a few of them are occasionally unpleasant), but I can't think of any case in which that has made me conscious of evaluating their art in unduly negative terms. Having said that, I can't think of a single living artist I personally can't stand whose work hangs in our home either, so there's most likely something at play there. We do have an engraving by Picasso, who I suspect I wouldn't have been all that fond of, but honestly, once an artist is gone, I truly couldn't care less about their personal lives...I suppose if Picasso were revealed to have slaughtered a million people or something I would care, but otherwise, his excesses or abuses seem too removed from the genius of the work to my mind.

Which I know is not the case for a lot of people. Many people cannot separate out excesses or abuses from the work an artist creates. I've heard of collectors who, learning something negative about an artist, were no longer able to even look at their art. Part of me finds this both understandable and quite beautiful. It makes artwork somehow more of a living thing in the world. Part of me, though, can't relate. I have seen enough Hitler paintings in magazines or newspaper articles to know they don't interest me, but it's not because he was evil, but rather because they're so dull. In this way, my objection to them isn't based on his evilness, but rather his work's blandness. If they were sublime, I'm not entirely sure how I would feel about them, but I suspect, because I don't turn away from them now just because of their author, I wouldn't turn away from them if they were sublime because of their author. He would have been an evil person capable of painting sublime paintings. (Fortunately, that exact paradox isn't one we need to consider here.)

All of which for me comes back to the role of the artist in contemporary society. Actors are interviewed more than other creative types in our society, so I'll begin this discussion with examples from Hollywood (which conveniently keeps me from having to name any names in the art world ;-) ). But several actors, when asked about others in their industry who voice political opinions that may be controversial or even offensive, have responded by saying they see their role, as actors, to work on films and such and not share their opinions with the public. And while I feel that's a perfectly valid personal choice, I don't agree it should be considered the "place" of actors to simply perform and not participate in the democratic dialog. On the contrary, I find the experience most actors accumulate over long careers, the number of different people and locations they're exposed to, to make their opinions very much worth hearing. Even when I disagree with them.

I feel the same about visual artists. The amount of self-awareness and the practice of perceiving so intensely that it takes to make great artwork does indeed make most artists very, very interesting people for me. (I've said it before, what I like far and away the most about being a gallerist is talking with artists in their studios...hearing their opinions and learning what they're thinking about.) And so, when from time to time their opinions chafe my neck, I try to consider how much good I'm getting (along with this bad) in determining whether I want to continue my dialog with them. As noted above, though, I'm not sure I have ever consciously decided to dismiss an artist's work because of an opinion that I didn't appreciate, but I'm not sure that hasn't happened subconsciously, so....

Of course, there's a difference between sharing opinions and offensive behaviors, but one of the most recent examples I know of a contemporary artist stirring up resentment was essentially both: an offensive sharing of opinion that basically equaled bad behavior, at least to some people. The behavior led someone who owned the work by this artist to no longer wish to display it or have any future dealings with the artist.

The second decision is fully understandable, but the first one is one I personally cannot relate to. Should the artist who made one of the works that hang in our bedroom be revealed to have committed some terrible crime, would my love for that art need to change? I know for many people it simply does change. They don't rationalize it, it's simply that they can't look at it any longer. I cannot imagine the same happening for me, though. I've actually had arguments or falling outs with various artists whose work hangs in our home, but I have never felt that should lead me to take the work down. I didn't hang it up because I liked the artist...I hung it up because I liked the work.

Again, though, there are degrees. Should they discover a "sublime" painting by Hitler, I would not ever wish to own or live with it. I suspect I would also approach evaluating its sublimity with great skepticism. And perhaps this reveals to me that my choices here reflect nothing so much as my own line in the sand and what I can personally excuse or forgive and what I cannot. But that then raises the question of how meaningful a vessel any artwork can ever truly be...and I'm back at square one.

Consider this an open thread on how artists behave affecting how you feel about their work.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many people are aware of Tom Otterness having killed a puppy on public access TV. For many this ruins the work. I for one can fully disengage from history and biographies and don't like Tom Otterness because the work is uninteresting.

3/17/2014 04:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Lisa R said...

somewhat related:

3/18/2014 08:48:00 AM  
OpenID dennishelsel said...

Hitler's work definitely sucks, so there is no real deep discussion to be had within the scope of reality. However, lets say Hitler made work like Rothko or Hiroshi Sugimoto. I can honestly say that a discrepency of this magnitude would seriously shatter my understanding of art and aesthetics and casue me to question a whole lot more than myself. It would certainly feel wrong to view the work as beautiful or compelling, but the work would undeniably possess these qualities apart from their author. It might however be a sickening kind of beauty in which I would throw up in their presence or something.
On a lesser note, I find much of Gauguin's life in Tahiti problematic, but his work still casts a spell over me.
Another interesting case is Oscar Murillo whom I find very likeable and interesting as a person and artist - however the economic context of his work and how it is all tied up in race/class/identity/speculation politics makes me seriously question if I will ever be able to like the work for what it may have to offer as a pure work of art. This is truly sad, becasue I do genuinely feel that his work does have something to offer, but as of now I can see it as little more than a financial pawn. My own thoughts are all very loose at the oment, but the questions you pose in this thread are all very interesting

3/18/2014 09:25:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


I too think the reverse is an interesting notion: feeling compelled to like artwork by an artist you personally like, even when that work is complicated by issues of quality or (as in your example) market manipulation.

I'm not entirely in sync with your position that "a discrepency of this magnitude would seriously shatter my understanding of art and aesthetics and casue me to question a whole lot more than myself" though.

Taken to its logical conclusions this would mean the most sublime art in the world would need to have been made by the most pure-of-heart artists, and, well, art history teaches us that's not true. Messy, conflicted, sometimes truly horrible humans can indeed create amazing works of art.

3/18/2014 09:44:00 AM  
Anonymous said...

I was definitely exaggerating a bit, but in the case of Hitler producing work as sublime as Sugimoto - that would mess with my head for a real long time. I also understand that some of the most twisted individuals have produced some of the most impressive works of art. I get carried away with these thought experimnets and sometimes speak a wee bit melodramatically.

3/18/2014 10:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Cole said...

Walter Sickert immediately comes to mind. London School impressionist or serial killer? Or both? Celine, the writer, was a vocal supporter of the Nazis prior (and during) WWII, and spent the rest of his life digging himself out. Who can deny that Celine's ouvre had an enormous role in late 20th Century literature? He influenced writers as varied as Kerouac and Vonnegut to Heller and Bukowski. I would argue his influence (which is not political in nature but psychological and aesthetic) can be seen today in other mediums from painting to standup comedy. I have most of Celine's books. They remain ahead of their time and stand as valuable documents of European history, that capture the mindset (the truth?) of the French underclass of that time,not unlike Steinbeck with "The Grapes of Wrath" or Jacob Riis with "How the Other Half Lives." (Not for nothing, but word was that Steinbeck wasn't all that pleasant either.) The concept of collecting "unknowns" is compelling and reminds me of Wayne White finding flea market paintings and embellishing them with his text paintings but, moreover, it makes me think of Jean Dubuffet championing art from the asylums which would evolve into the current, now long-standing, interest in Outsider Art. Hitler's paintings were certainly primitive (one might even say naive), but they may be more compelling when put into the framework of "art by the insane," and when one considers what Wayne White might do with an original Hitler, well, I'd love to see that!

3/18/2014 01:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Kate LL said...

my immediate experience with this is finding out a singer whose recordings I really love was a wife-abuser - I still love the music, but rarely play it, given that while I'm enjoying the voice I'm also reminded of an ugly situation, which makes me sad - and thus ruins my enjoyment of the music . . . Ruminations on this topic probably highlight just how different we all are. Overall, I very much wish I'd ever learned of my favored singer's background!

3/18/2014 03:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

Makes me recall the 'rumours" concerning Leni Riefenstahl's work. Ive heard it is beautiful, but "dirty' because of its subject, or its postion in regards to the subject (positive to it), or because of whom funded it? Wasn't her and her work ostracized because of this controversy?

I think this is in part why artworks are funded differently then other endeavours. Could you imagine a corporate atelier owned fully by Coca cola say? Or if companies paid me to include their logos on my paintings? (the original product placements are seen in the patrons included in religous works...)

I beleive we are willing to open ourselves to the possibility of the sublime only if we first trust the 'individual' artist. Hence all this other baggage opens or closes that 'trust' gate. At that stage its not about the sublime, but if we are willing to take the risk to discover the possibility of the sublime. And it is in my opinion a real risk to be open to art.

3/19/2014 09:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The logical conclusion of this abstract exercise would be a Charles Saatchi Type art Face off.

Bush Vs Hitler

Bush post genocide vs Hitler pre genocide.

Maybe The history channel could do a hour special on it, with Historians, art experts , pundits
the best psychiatrist in the business ect.

3/19/2014 02:16:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Bush post genocide?

Let's dial it back a bit, please.

3/19/2014 02:44:00 PM  
Blogger Ann Fensterstock said...

The art historical debate here is really interesting and has thrown a couple of names onto the table that I hadn't thought about. But I'm perhaps more interested in the dilemma of the contemporary artist, collector and I'd perhaps like to include curators here. Personally I am with the 'disturbed by wife-beater singer' comment above and the contributor who feels that disgusting behavior from a living artist somehow taints the work as it occupies the space - gallery, museum or private home. As a collector I'm afraid I can't help myself. If the artist is, or behaves like, a jerk - define that as you will - I end up wanting to get their work off my walls and am discouraged from supporting their work again. There are so many other brilliantly deserving things out there. This has nothing to do with requiring artists to toadie up to collectors or influential curators. They are free to behave as they will. I just make the point that they should be realistic about the potential harm they do themselves. Excellent doctors lo
se patients for lack of a decent manner, visionary architects lose clients because they are obnoxious to deal with.

3/20/2014 12:31:00 PM  

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