There is no doubt about it: In the previous century Hitler was the greatest Artist, greater even than Picasso.Who said that? Well, you might not have heard of him. He's a Scandinavian painter named Odd Nerdrum. As these things go, very successful - his paintings sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop. Mine, ahem, do not. Nerdrum saw fit to post this little observation on his Facebook page, where he is in the habit of posting delphic epigrams once in a while. I was among the first to notice the post, so I had the opportunity to be an early commenter. Let's see what I had to say:
I'm sorry, I find this unbelievably offensive, and I will be deleting you from my friend list now. This kind of pathetic wit is harmless enough until you start treading on the dead bodies of my relatives. You can go to fucking hell.So I crossed that rubicon, and I may as well elaborate a little bit on how, exactly, Nerdrum can go to fucking hell. I've been thinking it over.
Nerdrum's post has a plain-language meaning, and its plain language meaning is a praise of Hitler.
Nerdrum's post also has an ironic art-world-critical meaning, in which he is attacking the moribund state of art by saying that, if Picasso is your paragon of good art, then Hitler, in your aesthetic cosmology, is even better.
Nerdrum's post is further modified by a labored and, by my lights, dubious distinction he has been working on for years between what he calls Art, of which he disapproves (think: modernism and post-modernism), versus Kitsch, which is supposed to be the good stuff (think: Rubens, Velazquez, Titian, etc.).
The Hitler quip triggered a flurry of comments, about 180-200, before the brave Mr. Nerdrum deleted the post. Hearteningly, many of the comments were to the effect of Nerdrum being a prick. The rest were defences, mostly on the basis of contending that those opposed suffered either a lack of relevant information, or a lack of proper interpretation, or a lack of sense of humor. Two actual Nazis crawled out of Nerdrum's list of 5,000 friends to defend, not so much Nerdrum, as Hitler.
I am going to tell you happy few right now that you have enough information to formulate a valid opinion of Nerdrum's post. It is obviously an ironic comment on some particular of the state of art, art criticism, and the art world.
What is just as obvious is that, by collapsing the moral distinction between anything to do with bad art, and the most profound monstrosity of which humanity is capable, Nerdrum has betrayed an astonishingly flattened moral topography. Let's consider the comment in light of a few options with regard to its interpretation:
1. Its plain-language meaning is its true meaning: he's praising Hitler.
2. It's an ironic critique: he has the moral topography problem.
3. It's meant to provoke: he has the moral topography problem.
4. It's meant to "inspire thought and discussion": he has the moral topography problem.
There is no way around concluding that he is either a Hitlerite, or has a disturbingly casual indifference to, and incomprehension of, evil.
Imagine spending time with a madman. In every particular, he is quite ordinary. He is friendly, considerate, perfectly reasonable in his conversation. Walking along the street with this madman, you pass a random stranger, and, out of the blue, he says something about how funny it would be to do this stranger a grievous harm of a particularly inventive and gruesome type. He chuckles a little bit, then continues with the previous discussion. He continues to be friendly, considerate, and reasonable. But the comment cannot be unsaid. Now, you have become aware that he is a madman, and nothing else he ever says will make it possible to consider him sane.
Nerdrum is not a madman. Rather, he is evil. His Facebook post is akin to the chance utterance of the madman: to Nerdrum, it was an acceptable comment. Perhaps meant to provoke, perhaps meant to outrage the squares - but overall, acceptable. And this makes us aware of something about him which any subsequent apologies (and they have not been forthcoming) cannot undo.
In kind, it is similar to, if less audacious and original than, unlistenable German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's public comment of September 16, 2001:
Well, what happened there is, of course—now all of you must adjust your brains—the biggest work of art there has ever been. The fact that spirits achieve with one act something which we in music could never dream of, that people practise ten years madly, fanatically for a concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. There are people who are so concentrated on this single performance, and then five thousand people are driven to Resurrection. In one moment. I couldn't do that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers. [...] It is a crime, you know of course, because the people did not agree to it. They did not come to the "concert". That is obvious. And nobody had told them: "You could be killed in the process."Nerdrum's supporters can, and have, argued that whereas Stockhausen was serious, Nerdrum was ironic. This is a distinction without a difference. The same moral flattening occurs in both instances, regardless of intent. It is not a comment you could think of without the moral flattening.
The moral flattening is not idiopathic. It is not the outcome of some lone lunacy. It is a symptom of a so-called artistic demeanor, a demeanor which considers the question of good and evil to be terribly passe, to have no claim on the artist's attention. It is a symptom of the decadence of culture. And in this respect, Nerdrum's comment was marvelously clarifying for me. Why?
Because I have spent years worrying about Nerdrum. I could never reach a conclusion about him. He has fabulous technique, and sometimes I am inclined to think of him as a legitimate artist. Other times, I am inclined to think of him as a fetishist whose work is best suited to the cover of Omni magazine. I have never been able to put my finger on what bothered me about his work, until now. Let's take a look at a few of his paintings:
In the last instance, you might recall my previous thoughts on mouths and eyes. The partial or total effacement of the eyes is a common motif in Nerdrum's portraits. He has a mouth fixation similar to that of De Kooning, who cut photographs of mouths out of magazines and stuck them directly on the canvas as a starting point for his faces. When he is not painting portraits, Nerdrum often paints hieratic figures in barren, threatening landscapes. Frequently, violence is implied or explicit:
...and for years, I have been unable to solve what it was about Nerdrum that was troubling me. Lately, I have fallen in with a crowd of painters who are huge fans of his. Many have studied with him, and many emulate the qualities of his paintings: the thick impasto, the mimicry, not so much of Rembrandt's technique, as of a romantic half-memory of Rembrandt's technique, the gauzy depiction of idealized faces, the hieratic figures, the threatening landscapes, the peculiar clouds, the funny hats. In fact, Nerdrum seems to be encouraging his students to paint ersatz Nerdrums: you can often recognize who has studied with him, as you can recognize the work of people who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, because they all built ersatz Wrights.
Anyhow, Nedrum's comment finally clarified for me my problem with his work: flat moral affect. In depicting good and evil, he does not choose sides between them. He has a lurid fascination with brutality, but he does not define himself relative to it. Goya, whose work was more brutal, depicts horror, and is horrified. Nerdrum depicts horror, and is fascinated. In Nerdrum's universe, beauty is more important than virtue, and boredom is more repellent than evil.
My revulsion at this teaches me something about myself as an artist. It is often said that beauty and virtue are the same, or that the virtuous is beautiful. And this is often true. But when they diverge, I am obliged to choose virtue. I would rather be bored than wicked, and I would rather do right than be fascinating.
There is room in the world for wicked artists. Evil too must take an artistic form, from the perspective of evil, in order for us to complete our understanding of the dilemma of being human. Kundera has a wonderful quotation, which I am unable to find now, on the necessity of morally compromised writers, because otherwise history will be a tale told by choir-boys: a tale told from the perspective of moral innocence, which is to say, ignorance.
To be a successful evil artist, you must not only be good - you must be great. And you will still deserve the condemnation heaped upon you. But Odd Nerdrum is merely good.
Let's zoom back for a moment from the issue at hand, to the long-standing problem it exemplifies so well, to wit: what about this business of artists being assholes? What about that?
I have thought about that long and hard. After all, I'm an artist. Does this give me a right to treat people badly? Well, in my case, it would little serve my purposes as an artist, because the pictures I make come from love. So not being an asshole is very difficult for me as a practical career artist, but it is necessary in order to preserve the source of my inspiration. I am simply in love, in one way or another, with most of the people I know, and with my pictures, and with the people who sit for them. For me, a big part of love is a desire to know - not the good only, but the good and the bad, about that which is loved. And for people to be willing to show this to you, the good and the bad alike, again, the method of brutality is less effective than the method of adoration.
But leave aside the practical considerations. Many well-known artists and even great artists are notorious assholes. Caravaggio? Murderer - well, man-one, five to seven years, if this were Law and Order. Michelangelo? Grumpy as all hell, really stinky feet. Bernini? Had his girlfriend's face slashed. Picasso? Serial asshole to every woman he knew. The list goes on, and all the examples are more impressive than a shitty little Facebook post.
So what are we to make of the asshole problem, and of the link between artistry and assholery?
Here is my latest thinking on it. With regard to those who have already died, there is nothing we can do any longer. They lived; they died; they abused those around them and made what work they did. If the work is good - by all means, appreciate the work.
With regard to those who are living, absolutely - let them be assholes. But do not make a special exception for them because they are also artists. Treat them with the contempt you would treat any asshole. You don't get special dispensation to be an asshole because of what you can contribute to humanity. If it's really so important for you to be an asshole, for you to renounce your first citizenship, to the human race, then suffer the consequences. Nobody said it should be easy - it should be hard. There is no whining in art.
And if the work is good, then still appreciate the work, even the work by the living asshole. Just don't make it easy for the asshole to get away with being a jerk. Ostracize him. Humiliate him. Mock him. If he wants to make his own cost of producing art higher than it needs to be, make him pay every penny.
To go back from the general to the specific, I imagine some of my Nerdrum-following friends and acquaintances will, at some point, stumble on this post. Many of these friends are young; virtually all of them are extremely talented. This Nerdrumism of theirs appears to me to have the fanaticism of youth. It is in the nature of youth - I have suffered through this myself - to attach to heroes. Nerdrum has cultivated himself as a hero to many young artists. He has promulgated a system of virtues, many of which are legitimate virtues, and he has promulgated his own work as the ne plus ultra of quality and legitimacy. Part of becoming an adult is learning to recognize the faults of your heroes. It is learning to identify a set of principles which you can reliably advocate, and learning to separate those principles from men. It is a difficult and lonely process, setting your principles first and being skeptical even of them. Principles are fallible; our thinking is not perfect. But more fallible than principles are men, and sometimes even our heroes turn out to be cranky old Nazis.
UPDATE April 6, 2011
I notice this post is still getting a lot of traffic. I feel obliged to add that if anyone is thinking of using material from this post to prosecute Mr. Nerdrum under any ridiculous European hate speech laws, I will do everything I can to undermine the utility of my writing as evidence in the case.