How Far Is Too Far For An Artist?

Charles Krafft’s response to the charge that he’s a Holocaust denier raises the question of how audiences respond to artists they once admired once their opinions go round the twist. This can be tricky. Artists inspire a devotion in their fans that can rival, and in some cases surpass (or at least outlast), friendships and marriages. While that devotion can withstand bombardment from a lot of nasty news, it can also suddenly curdle into equally intense hatred of the artist.

Of course, defining round the twist is in itself difficult. I’ll turn the matter over to Mark Twain for the needed clarification:

Let us consider that we are all partially insane. It will explain us to each other; it will unriddle many riddles; it will make clear and simple many things which are involved in haunting and harassing difficulties and obscurities now.


Those of us who are not in the asylum, and not demonstrably due there, are nevertheless, no doubt, insane in one or two particulars. I think we must admit this; but I think that we are otherwise healthy-minded. I think that when we all see one thing alike, it is evidence that, as regards that one thing, our minds are perfectly sound. Now there are really several things which we do all see alike; things which we all accept, and about which we do not dispute. For instance, we who are outside of the asylum all agree that water seeks its level; that the sun gives light and heat; that fire consumes; that fog is damp; that six times six are thirty-six, that two from ten leaves eight; that eight and seven are fifteen. These are, perhaps, the only things we are agreed about; but, although they are so few, they are of inestimable value, because they make an infallible standard of sanity. Whosoever accepts them him we know to be substantially sane; sufficiently sane; in the working essentials, sane. Whoever disputes a single one of them him we know to be wholly insane, and qualified for the asylum.


Very well, the man who disputes none of them we concede to be entitled to go at large. But that is concession enough. We cannot go any further than that; for we know that in all matters of mere opinion that same man is insane–just as insane as we are; just as insane as Shakespeare was. We know exactly where to put our finger upon his insanity: it is where his opinion differs from ours.


This is a handy working definition of round the twist for our purposes. It allows me to exclude a number of artists from consideration. I may have been disappointed to learn, for example, of David Mamet’s emergence as a Tea Partier, but while I feel free to regard his stated reasons for his ideological shift to be baffling and shallow, I don’t think they are, on their own, a basis for rejecting his work. (I dislike current Mamet because he’s become a mannered writer who hasn’t grown an inch in the last ten years. But his earlier stuff, from American Buffalo to Glengarry Glen Ross, still plays.) I spent much of the 1990s laughing at Dennis Miller’s stand-up comedy, and some of the last 13 years bored with his new persona as a right wing pundit. Still, the old stuff remains funny, if dated. Tom Cruise’s adventures in Scientology may bemuse me, but I still loved Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Nabokov supported the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, two things I find insupportable, yet I can read Lolita with pleasure. So insanity, defined as a difference of opinion, is cause for a slight sting of disappointment, but not necessarily for divorce from the artist.

Charles Krafft, however, occupies a different position. We’re not dealing with a difference of opinion here. The historical reality of the Holocaust–that is, the Third Reich’s policy initiatives to exterminate Jews, Roma, Sinti, Slavs, Russian war prisoners,  Homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses–has been proven by mountains of physical, testimonial, photographic, and documentary evidence. Though the evidence can’t quite reach 8+7=15, that’s only because real world proof is always less compelling than mathematical proof. Historians will continue to refine our knowledge of events within the camps, ghettos, and on open fields of the western Soviet Union as further evidence emerges from archives. But none of that will change the fundamental facts. The evidence leaves no reasonable doubt of the Hitler regime’s guilt in the deliberate murder of 17 million people in Germany and German occupied territories, including 5-7 million Jews. That Krafft denies evidence that is available for anyone to investigate and instead prefers to believe that a racist conspiracy theory can account for Adolf Hitler’s poor reputation suggests that Krafft isn’t “in the working essentials” sane.

How then to treat Krafft’s art? I’m sure it’ll be necessary to reevaluate a great deal of it. How much of what was previously read as satirical or ironic can now be read as propaganda? Can great art be made from evil intentions and lies (see Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will)? Was Krafft’s art great or merely fashionable? If great, it may survive the controversy surrounding its creator (see Ezra Pound); if fashionable, Krafft’s disgrace will swallow it. Since I’ve seen Krafft’s work only after learning he’s a Holocaust denier, I find it hard to divorce myself from that knowledge when judging his art. Some of his pieces may still retain an irony, but the character of the irony is probably different and, at times, more than slightly nauseating.

Whether that says something about me or about the art, I can’t yet say. (JIllian Steinhauer makes the case that Krafft’s views completely change his art , while Russell Smith at the Global and Mail, argues the opposite.)

What do you, the readers at home, think? Can you appreciate the art of someone whose views turn your stomach? Can great art be made with evil intentions? Do you think that Krafft’s art can ever be separated from Krafft’s personal reputation?

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