Thursday, July 26, 2007

Art and Hitler?

I'm not too crazy about Jonathan Meese's paintings- which look to me like a 15 year old's skate ramp graffiti. I do find his sculptures interesting. According to the Saatchi Gallery his "work exploits cultural taboo. Appropriating historical and media references. Meese parodies his own symbolism. His paintings reduce the perception (of) evil to the level of operatic theatre: simulated horror plays out in cliched formulas, resounding in contemporary consciousness as benign fable and gripping spectacle." And why should artists take evil seriously anyway?

Meese has pissed off Georg Dietz, among others, by exploiting the cultural taboo about Hitler. "'Images cannot be dispelled,"'Jonathan Meese once said, with Hitler in mind. 'If you want to be rid of certain images, you must give them the chance to fight themselves.' But it doesn't look like Meese wants to dispel Hitler; it seems more like an invocation. And the strange thing is that precisely at the time when the last eye-witnesses are dying and in a generation that seemed so free of this shadow, the temptation exists to tap into the energy of evil. In his major exhibition in Frankfurt, Meese stuck a picture of Hitler above his self-portrait and wrote "Vater" next to it on the wall."

I've noted before how unthinkingly the art market seems to champion transgression for it's own sake. This seems to me to be as banal as conformity for it's own sake. But if transgression is seen as a positive good, should we just expect artistic tributes to Hitler?


Holly said...

Don't bust on the skater tags, man. Some of those are kick-ass...

Meese reminds me of something, not a person, a group. Die Brucke, maybe? (Jugendstil architecture students who decided art would be better if it was more about lounging around scenic places with alcohol and nekkid women.) But that wouldn't be so surprising, given his work.

The argument about Hitler sounds suspiciously akin to the argument that American black people can "take back" all the abuses of slavery by turning the invective on one another. It might sound good from certain angles, but there's no clear evidence that it accomplishes anything productive. (I would actually like to hear the end of a sentence that began with, "The explicit positive consequences of self-referential racial slurs among the targeted community is ....")

Annnnnnyway, back to Meese. I've been trying to think of a less base reason for his invocation of Mr. Evil Himself, but I can't see the rationale. On the other hand, we in the US have never been nearly as disturbed about Stalin, who did so much more savage extermination work, because that happened to Russians, who we've long believed to be fundamentally bad people, anyway. If Meese was harping on Stalin, it would somehow be more interesting (because most people know less about him) and less controversial (because most people know less about him).

The flows and turning points of group identification and sentiment are fascinating, and infuriating.

(I actually find this image oddly compelling. But I wouldn't want it in my house.)

Rufus said...

In our old neighborhood, the skate ramp had only one bit of grafitti, which read "Fuh-Q".

I think Meese's work is making fun of the idea of evil, which I don't think he believes really exists. Personally, while I don't use the word evil to describe a metaphysical force in the universe, I do use it to describe actions and people who are wantonly cruel and destructive, or 'evil'. Certainly the term would apply to Hitler. But not only does this artist seem to be lacking in any sort of moral seriousness, but his work seems to be largely ridiculing moral seriousness, as if it's stupid or naive. I've often encountered this idea that an unwillingness to think seriously about anything really (aside from one's self) is a mark of sophistication. But surely the Saatchi Gallery can sell better art than this?

I've often wondered why students see Hitler as a manifestation of pure evil and have little interest in Stalin. I think part of it is indeed that Russians are still seen as 'exotic orientals' of some sort. The other thing is that I think people find it easier to sympathize with victims who were singled out solely for their ethnicity than those who were killed for being 'enemies of the state', even though that term was completely arbitrary and irrational throughout the soviet period. It's harder to get people to realize that the state isn't an objective good (in my humble opinion, it's often much the opposite). Also, the Nazis killed by the factory process, which seems more malevolent somehow. The gulags often killed by neglect. And, lastly, I do think there are still plenty of old hippies who still romanticize the USSR as some sort of noble experiment. But, again, never having been big on the state, I've never had much use for communists.

But it's just bizarre that there have been so few movies about Stalin or the gulags. And living in neighborhoods with so many Polish and Czech immigrants, I cringe when I see hipster kids with Soviet kitsch tee-shirts. Actually, every time I see a kid in a Che tee-shirt, I think "Let's hear it for proto-fascists and state terror!" But I'm a grouch.

Holly said...

Dunno, seems like killing through neglect is almost worse. At least with the Nazis, there was intention and follow-through.

I wonder if anti-art is really becoming a thing?

Rufus said...

Of course all killing is terrible. I just meant that it's harder to get people to conceptualize the gulags. I am thinking about assigning The Gulag Archipelago. I think we might need to teach what concentration camps are, because people tend to associate them only with the Nazi death camps.

I don't know too much about anti-art, so you might have to explain what it is.