Some weeks ago, a discussion around a literary price here in the Netherlands reminded me of some photos that I find very fascinating.
The discussion, in short, was whether or not the author deserved to win a (very esteemed) prize, as the author supported or didn’t condemn a former Surinam regime that is seen as a pretty bad dictatorship. The literary work, as far as I understood, isn’t under discussion and is generally praised.
The issue hence is the political opinion of the artist versus the merit of the artist’s works.
I really have no opinion on the matter as far as this literary price concerns. I haven’t read the book, and didn’t read up on what was said about that dictatorship.
The core issue is very interesting, though. Are the creations of an artist with unfavourable opinions also unfavourable? How much are art and artist one and the same?
It’s a touchy subject, easy to polarise opinions. But it is still a good thing to think about. It’s the type of question where the question is actually more important than the answer.
As bad as it gets
No easier example of how wrong this can go as Nazi rules on art. With no regard or respect for the works themselves, a lot of art was classified ‘Entartet’ (degenerate) because of the artist creating them. It’s an easy example in two ways: the reasons to dismiss the art were insane and deplorable, and the works that were dismissed contained clear masterpieces by any measure. Paintings that were no longer displayed, music that was no longer played, books that got burned, for no other reason than insane and absurd ideas.
No person with a reasonably functional brain would agree to what happened back then. But as said, it’s an easy example.
Organised religions can throw similar rules, and then it already becomes harder. Plenty of books have been burnt in the ages because of heresy. Heresy that in hindsight we see as common sense or completely acceptable beliefs. But for those inside that organised religion, the rule may make perfect sense and keep validity, as it’s part of their moral framework.
The pink glasses of history
An important factor is hindsight – reviewing and judging the past with our current point of view can make it easy to judge what is wrong or right. But we shouldn’t forget: we too are product of our times. What we’ve learnt, what we think, what we feel: it is all shaped by the culture of our times. Perhaps somebody will judge our times as completely hilarious misguided idiocy in the future. Our point of view isn’t necessarily correct.
Second, and that plays into the education we enjoy, is that history is written by the winners. Labelling the Middle Ages as some in-between time, is an invention of Renaissance writers who found themselves a great deal smarter than those Medieval people. As the Renaissance ideas persisted, their vision persisted. But whether that view paints a correct picture is a question worth asking.
The unpink glasses of history
The question around seperating the art from the artist gets a whole lot more complicated when discussing artists that worked in Nazi Germany. Instinct reaction is to condemn it, being a product from times no sane mind ever wants to see return ever.
But it’s not that easy. There is the story of the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who stayed in Germany because he believed he needed to keep real culture alive (after all, Alle Menschen werden Brüder), and acted defiantly towards the government whenever possible. The mere fact that he stayed doesn’t make him a Nazi, his recordings are as valid as any.
But even that is still relatively easy.
What if the artist showed a level of sympathy for the insanity that ruled? That gets really hard; every fibre in my body at least wants to run away and know nothing about it.
But what if the works actually merit being seen, and being discussed? See, it isn’t that easy.
Olympia, the photos
Good, by now it might be clear where this is going. Photos made during the shooting and creation of the 1938 movie Olympia, by Leni Riefenstahl. Yes, a movie, but I think the still images reveal perfectly clear she was in fact also a photographer.
I don’t want to provide a biography here. I’m not expert enough, and it’s not the point of this post anyway. Noteworthy for this post, though, are two points. First: she worked for the Nazi government, and never clearly distanced herself from it other than saying she was naive. Second: her work has a fascinating and original visual language, instantly recognisable.
Her artistic merits aren’t the reasons for discussion, but rather to which extent they can be seen seperate from their time and place.
If these photos were result of the 1932 Olympics in L.A. and shot by an American, they would be all over the internet, heralded as masterpieces. But they’re result of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
As a visual language, it’s very recognisable. It reminds me of Nazi and Stalinist architecture and sculptures, but toned down to human size. There is some human touch to it, without any human warmth though. Not comfortable images that give you a pleasant warm feeling, or invite your fantasy to dive into them.
Humans more like statues, chiseled out of marble. Very focussed composition, no confliciting messages or open endings – these are statements. Bold, muscular, perfect and perfected statements. Ice cold, hard-edged, sharp.
The only warmth you’ll get: the Olympic flame.
As I mentioned at the very beginning, these images fascinate me. I don’t find them beautiful or inspiring. They literally have nothing in common with the kind of photos I tend to make myself.
But I do recognise their uniquely strong aesthetics, the boldness of these images, and a consistency between them that does elevate these photos. Yes, they may have been used as propaganda material. Yes, they’re symbols of Olympic games (1936) that weren’t about the Olympic ideal at all. But as photos, they’re also impressive achievements. They’re more than the dubious political opinions of the maker.
It’s easy to judge and condemn. And it’s also easy to look back at the past and think how stupid they were.
It’s not so easy, though, to admit we’re biased as well. To realize that knowing history doesn’t mean you understand what it was like to live it. And I can say that I’m fortunate enough to not know what it was like to live in Nazi Germany, or to work in that environment. So judging art from that time – it’s not that straightforward.
These photos above are product of an ideology I deeply despise, product of an era that turns my stomach upside down. Yet, something about them makes me return to them, and admire them. They’re also simply photos, and very well crafted photos.
That double nature helps create a moment of self-reflection: would I manage to be a better a person? A better photographer, that’s not going to happen. But a clean conscience is worth more in the end.