Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Can Art Be Offensive?

When I first put together the line-up that comprises this month's show over a year ago, I selected three artists whose visual styles and conceptual goals were completely different. Mark Gleason is a mannerist painter whose works maintain a sense of whimsy even though his palette is often dark. Vicki Berndt is the original Big Eye revivalist, having resurrected the work of Walter and Margaret Keane on her cover for Red Kross' Third Eye album long before it became a staple of lowbrow tribute. And Dave Dexter's gift for utilizing pre-programmed imagery to turn stereotypes upside down is both high concept and highly controversial. While we knew that the public reactions to Dave's paintings had the potential to run the spectrum, we expected critical coverage to explain the tradition of visual agitation from which such art extends. Critical reviews were absent, however, and here's why:

Charles Kraftt's Nazi art is under fire
A few months ago, the work of Charles Krafft came under fire when an article by Jen Graves in Seattle's The Stranger weekly paper exposed Kraftt as a Holocaust denier, causing a boycott of his Nazi-themed art. Collectors and curators had for decades interpreted his work as a critique of fascism and bigotry rather than an advertisement for them. A series of rants on his facebook page revealed the accusations to have merit and institutions across the globe removed his work from museum collections and annexed his contributions from planned and ongoing exhibitions. A Rachel Arons article in The New Yorker points out that much of the art Kraftt produced predates his conversion to holocaust denialism and "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."

It has occurred to me that critical review of art with such power to polarize can become a proverbial can of worms for art critics, newspapers and the op-ed society that makes up the art world as we know it. I don't think this stems from cowardice per sé, since many critics revel in the idea of controversy, but there is a definite fear of winding up on the wrong side of history. Most critics wait to applaud challenging work until after the artist's sales attain a level of generally undisputed success, and by that point a healthy dose of critical backlash will only help build a provocateur's reputation.

From Dave Dexter's exhibit Round Eye and the Switch
In that respect, it shouldn't surprise me that painting's like Dave Dexter's Human Safari (pictured) didn't garner much local or even web coverage. Dave Dexter isn't Damien Hirst yet. And it would be a great disservice to compare Dexter to Kraftt, because Dave is not a racist and happens to be a really lovely man who utilizes such imagery to open a dialogue about corporate culture and confronting the skeletons in the American closet. Much of the subject matter presented in his art comes straight from the headlines not on page one, but on page 36, exposing a mentality still present and which deserves discussion, debate and revelation.

In the grand scheme of things, what does this say about context or irony? In other words, how does an inanimate object offend? What gives a work of art the power to offend if not the singular viewer's own perception? James E. Young, the director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, addressed such matters in an essay that accompanied a similarly controversial exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York back in 2002: 
"We have every right to ask whether such obsession with these media-generated images of the past is aesthetically appropriate. Or whether by including such images in their work, the artists somehow affirm and extend them, even as they intend mainly to critique them and our connection to them. Yet this ambiguity between affirmation and criticism seems to be part of the artists’ aim here. As offensive as such work may seem on the surface, the artists might ask, is it the... imagery itself that offends, or the artists’ aesthetic manipulations of such imagery? Does such art become a victim of the imagery it depicts? Or does it actually tap into and thereby exploit the repugnant power of... imagery as a way merely to shock and move its viewers? Or is it both, and if so, can these artists have it both ways?”
The bottom line is that no painting or sculpture is by itself offensive. A specific mindset is required, and that mindset is itself a bi-product of intentional indoctrination. Perhaps what disturbs us is the realization that as sophisticated as we might think we are, we are easily manipulated by symbols. Anger doesn't stem from the affront of the imagery or even the reaction it originally solicited; it's the power of all pre-programmed imagery against ambivalence that incites us.

If you haven't stopped into the gallery to check out this show, I really can't recommend highly enough that you do. This is the last week, and I don't know how long it will be before you get the chance to view something this stimulating in a gallery again. This is an exhibition that confronts you not only with the artist's point of view, but demands that you confront yourself about your own. It's one thing to manipulate a reaction, and quite another thing to stimulate the national discourse. History will be kind to Dave Dexter, hopefully without diluting the courage of his message, which is this:

We've come a long way, baby. Or have we?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. At least spell the name correctly. It's Charles K-r-a-f-f-t and the Facebook rants were never mine. They were made by an anonymous person using the name "Elsa" who sprayed skunk stink all over my wall. Not wanting to be censorious I let it go on too long and a psychology professor at the University of Puget Sound, Lisa Fortlouis Wood Ph.D, dropped a dime on me. After the thought police broke down my door they weren't kind to my kitsch. With every reiteration of The Stranger's original story the vileness of my "Nazi art" was force multiplied until it was removed from the HEY! show in Paris. Throughout this auto de fé, perpetrated by a sanctimonius and thoroughly culturally Marxist international art media, I kept silent. Now I can only say this, "I feel sorry for people who don’t love Hitler and want to gas six million JUXTAPOZ readers because they wake up in the morning and that’s the best they are going to feel all day.”