Is It Okay to Enjoy Fascist Art? The Ethics of Cultural Debate

“I can’t believe this,” my mum said. “This guy was a proper fascist!”

She uttered this statement at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, The Netherlands, which currently hosts an exhibition of the work of Pyke Koch. Looking for something to do during our respective Christmas breaks mum and I had decided to give it a go, if only because Koch’s name sounded vaguely familiar.

It turned out we had already seen one of his paintings, De Schiettent, at the Boymans  van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam during a recent visit. Although I quite like magical realism, I found the painting a tad sinister, and was keen to find out more about its maker.

Koch, it turned out, was a complicated man. While he was undoubtedly talented his political ideas were problematic, to say the least. Calling him a fascist, as my mum did, is not an accusation but a simple factual statement. Koch was a member of fascist organisation Verdinaso prior to World War II and openly spoke of his admiration of Mussolini during interviews. His work, particularly his Zelfportret met Zwarte Band (featured image), reflects his right-wing leanings.

The exhibition covered this aspect of his work by showing fragments from a documentary about his life. Other than that, descriptions and information merely mentioned Koch’s fascist ideas without offering any criticism or alternative point of view. To my mum, this curatorial choice bordered on explaining away his problematic political viewpoints.

I suppose the exhibition was successful if its aim was to be thought-provoking. Neither myself nor my mum thought Koch’s work shouldn’t be shown. He undoubtedly was a talented and important artist whose work deserves to be displayed. Besides, I’ve never been a fan of censorship and believe that bringing problematic cultural products out into the open facilitates discussion and debate. In this respect, exhibiting controversial art can only be a good thing.

But like my mum, I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable about the choice to virtually ignore the impact of the views expressed by Koch cum suis. Newspaper Trouw mentions that the exhibition places Koch’s political side “appropriately in the background”. I find this choice of wording a bit odd, as some of Koch’s most famous paintings explicitly engage with fascism. Koch denounced some of his views later in life and it’s only right that the exhibition reflects this complexity, but it remains part of his life as an artist nonetheless.

A few days later a new controversy drew my attention. Dutch rapper Boef was criticized for referring to women as “kechs” – slang for “whores” – and some of his shows were cancelled as a result. While I dislike misogyny as much as the next person – particularly when it comes from a man unable to change his own car tyre, directed at the women kind enough to give him a lift home – I couldn’t help comparing the instantly negative response Boef received to the much more nuanced accounts of Koch’s viewpoints.

Is it a race thing? A pop culture thing? A history thing? I have no idea. It does invite the question what standards we, the people, apply when discussing problematic viewpoints. Can fascist leanings be negated by artistic talent? Is it ethically acceptable to enjoy art created by someone whose views are responsible for the death of millions, even if the artist himself did not commit any acts of violence himself? I don’t know.

“I need something to cheer me up,” my mum said. We climbed the stairs to the museum’s top floor, which hosts a replica of Dick Bruna’s workspace. Bruna, one of the most celebrated Dutch illustrators, created the now world-famous Nijntje, known internationally as Miffy, a rabbit whose adventures are enjoyed by toddlers of all ages.

“I feel much better now,” my mum said as we left. “Let’s go and get a hot chocolate.” We tried, and failed, as the entire country had decided to flock to the city’s cafés. On the way back to the station we passed Koch’s former home, a bright pink house overlooking Utrecht’s prettiest canal. I still don’t know what to think about the man and his work but at least I learned one important thing that day: taking your mum to a museum is always a good idea.

 

 

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