Sunday, March 3, 2013

Exploring Context in Art: Putting Interpretation Under a Microscope

[Keeping my thoughts on this to blog post length has been difficult. I hope that it will serve as a platform for discussion.] 

I recently heard a radio program about artist Charles Krafft, considered one of the pre-eminent artists in the Northwestern United States. He has created Nazi imagery for some time and this work has been considered by art historians and collectors to be "ironic." According to a recently broken news account, Krafft has recently been found to be a Nazi sympathizer and the art world has been turned on its head trying to find a way to handle this scandal.

In the interest of full disclosure as related to this story, I will say that my grandparents escaped from the Holocaust and I have strong feelings regarding "Holocaust deniers." I will also announce my ignorance by saying that I had never before heard of this artist. I have always had a strong interest in the fine arts and with an undergraduate degree in art history, I even once considered a career path as an art historian. However, the subject of interpretation, especially considering contemporary art, has been something I have struggled with for a long time. This case highlights that struggle. It shows how much "interpretation" is based on the "facts" as we know them or as they are presented to us. How much do we really ever know?

To me, Charles Krafft's ideas about his own work shouldn't be the determining factor in deciding if his is art worth viewing. It seems to me that this is part of the problem here. My husband and I discussed this in the car after we heard the radio program. He seemed to think that this new found knowledge about the artist's views of the Holocaust should change our view of his work, whereas I think that this new knowledge should give us new information about the work, but shouldn't fully change it. Krafft's art went for shock value, but is he really talented? Search for images of his work and see what you really think without applying any of Krafft's suggested context to the pieces. [Even with the context I have trouble appreciating this work. It is certainly kitsch and I think combining kitsch with political statements has been way overdone...but perhaps that's just me. After all, I didn't become an art historian. My professor laughed at me for my apparently naive criticisms of many modern movements.]

Hearing this story as an archivist got me thinking about Hilary Jenkinson versus Theodore Schellenberg. Jenkinson believed that the creator of a collection of records was the one who should determine the value of the materials -- who should decide what should be kept as part of the historical record -- and that the archivist was merely a caretaker, whereas Schellenberg's theories promoted the idea that an archivist has an essential role in selecting materials worth keeping. I began to wonder, what role does a curator play? Perhaps this is unfair, maybe our professions shouldn't be compared in this way, but it is something that I have wondered for a long it the role of the curator of contemporary art to listen to the creator of an artwork in order to care for it appropriately or should the curator evaluate the work on its own merit without the input of the creator? Do we know something is "ironic" because the artist says it is or do we know it's ironic because it's good art that somehow conveys the irony even without the artist pointedly telling us?

How does one's belief affect context? How should the artist's view of the world change our perception of his work? Is it possible for a curator to give context to art without the artist's input? If it's not, how much artist input is necessary? It seems to me that there was a bit of discussion about Krafft's world beliefs even before this story "broke." How far can, and should, a curator research to fully understand the context of what they are seeing. If we can, and do, evaluate context with older works of art -- by more objectively understanding the artist's life based on diverse archival documents and research materials -- why can't we do it with today's artist?

Once again, as always, it seems to me that archives have an important role to play in establishing context. I think we are at an important stage in our exploration of material culture. This case further demonstrates the value of cross-professional collaboration. The art historian cannot work in a vacuum with other art historians. Their work spans across disciplines. The Krafft dilemma sheds light on our times. It is a time when professionals are well-aware of the value of creating an image, a public face, in order to promote the work that they do. It is a time of complicated beliefs, polarizing opinions, multi-faceted interpretations of culture. Don't take what one tells you at face value. Dig deeper to fully explore context and be aware that what seems to be true may not always be so. How does one determine when context has been fully explored? I'd love to learn if others had alternate views of Krafft's work. I hope more diverse past interpretations of the art come to light and the story continues. I think we all have a lot more to learn here...

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