Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Paintings by Hitler should be seen - and treated - as historical artifacts, and not as art

Everything made by human hands has a story to tell, a life of its own that cannot be divorced from that of its creator or creators, not to mention the time and place in which it was created. Sometimes the story is clear - for example, we know quite a lot about the Gettysburg Address, its author and context, while if we turn instead to the massive stone heads dotting Easter Island, many more questions remain surrounding who made them, what the impetus was for their creation and what cultural or historical meanings they may have held for the people who once lived there. 

When we look at art objects, whether ancient, contemporary or somewhere in between, we often explore the time and place in which the art was made in order to better understand its meaning and significance. We also look at the provenance as a means for establishing the authenticity of a piece and to better understand the history of the object itself. With all of this in mind, I found myself somewhat surprised by media reports that several paintings by Adolf Hitler were recently sold at auction in Germany, fetching a total of nearly half a million dollars. As The Boston Globe reported online, the sale itself was highly controversial, noting that while sales of works which contain Nazi imagery are illegal in Germany, the paintings in question, which include landscapes and focus on other apparently inoffensive subjects (though clearly reflective, in some cases, of the delusions and fantasies which helped fuel the Shoah)  may be sold. 

This sale and the logic behind it are deeply problematic in several ways, including, primarily, the idea that the sellers are essentially deriving financial benefit from the Holocaust, profiting off of the deaths of millions of Jews, Christians, Poles, homosexuals, individuals with disabilities, Roma and many others. 

The other major problem here is a worldview that sees these paintings as "art," as opposed to "historical artifacts," the latter, in my mind, being a much more accurate way of viewing them. Seen as "art," these works are likely considered curiosities tied to a notable, infamous figure. To me, this is both a morally flawed and ignorant way of viewing them - instead of having the paintings put up for auction and transferred from one private  owner to another, they should instead be seen as historical artifacts and stored in a secure archive somewhere, accessible to scholars, but otherwise invisible. There are likely those who say these paintings should be destroyed, and perhaps they are right, but given the fraught history of Nazi-era Germany's relationship to the arts and culture, such a move would also undoubtedly be controversial, and rather perversely, increase the value of any paintings which managed to avoid destruction.

For all of these reasons, I think there is a strong case to be made for the removal of these paintings from the international art market. Perhaps it is too late now for the paintings and the proceeds from this sale in Nuremberg, but the next time such deplorable items come up for sale I hope that some sense of decency will prevail, and potential buyers and sellers will be shamed out of profiting from mass murder.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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