The Swastika in Art and the World

This poster, created by artist Max Papeschi, has appeared in Poland (and Berlin, it should be noted) since the beginning of June.  The Poles, as to be expected with their experiences during WWII, are shocked and want it removed.  I imagine that it's because of the swastika and not the naked Mickey woman.

Papeschi, whose work is titled "NaziSexyMouse," assured people he's not promoting Nazism (obviously), but instead pointing out that the symbol of Mickey and the symbol Nazis stole are about one in the same now.  It also is a commentary on the lifestyles of Americans, which he calls a "horror."

The Poles want the poster banned.  No discussion of capitalism and its ties to fascism.  No discussion over how symbols affect people.  They just want it to go away because it shocks them.


Subverting symbols is a valid use of art.  (And, hey, since we're on the subject, you know how scary Nazis were.  Imagine, if you will, how creepy and scary it would have been if Nazis were dressed as they normally were, but all wore Mickey Mouse masks.  Creepy!)  Using art to shock people -- intentionally or not -- is also valid.  Not only is it valid, it is often necessary.  This is a good case in point. 

The use of Nazi imagery is not new to art.  It's also not new when it is used with other symbols to get a point across.  To the left you see it used with Hello Kitty.  I'm not sure of the point of this piece, but that doesn't really matter.  It's a powerful symbol, which has now come to be equal to fascism and nothing else, combined with a symbol of one of the most popular children's characters in Japan.

Crispin Glover's movie What is It? also uses Nazi imagery with a beloved child star.  This movie poster obviously invokes all kinds of feelings in someone who remembers Shirley Temple.  It is designed to stop you in your tracks, and it does that through the juxtaposition of Nazi culture and child star.

I'm not an artist, but I can appreciate what these artists are trying to do.  Their output works.  It sends a message.  It evokes emotion.  It gets people talking, which any art worth anything should do.  That said, I do sometimes feel as if this is a lazy way to get a reaction.  It seems almost too easy.  Throw a swastika on something, combine it with something innocent -- Boom!  Instant fury.  It doesn't take much thought or effort, and if your art is seen by the public in any way, you get all kinds of publicity.

On the flipside of that, sometimes the general public needs something as obvious as this to react.  It is unable to comprehend the subtle due to the onslaught of images that comes at it everyday in the form of advertising and who knows what else.  It's all the difference between poison and a nuclear bomb.  Both kill, but do so in wildly different ways.  I prefer the poison because it's more direct and there is more art to be maintained that way, but the nuclear option does wonders for getting one's point across.

There are times, though, that there is unintended reactions that actually work for the piece.  Sometimes, like in this cover for the comic book Hansi: The Girl Who Loved the Swastika, the art isn't meant to be shocking in the same way as the above pieces (this was done many decades ago), but is meant to convey a certain point or mood.  The reaction to it may not even be one the artist intended.  It's not subtle, but it's doesn't appear to be going for the same reactions as those above pieces of work.

Of course, the swastika wasn't always a symbol of hate, used to inspire fear and later the questioning of American culture run amok.  It was at one point a symbol of luck and good fortune, and was used accordingly.

When this photo of a female hockey team was taken (1916), the swastika didn't mean what it does today.  Obviously, it's hard to imagine a sports team doing something so bold (though Native Americans will feel differently), but can you imagine the reaction if they did?  What kind of fear would it inspire in its opponents?  This Edmonton team doesn't inspire too much fear, even with us having the meaning of the swastika changed (it could be the sweaters), but if the Colts suddenly changed their name and logo, I think the NFL would be a wildly different place.

It is doubtful that the swastika will ever regain the meaning it originally had.  It's hard to undo a history as powerful as the Nazis'.  When artists continue to use the symbol to invoke shock, it just continues the tradition (not that I'm saying they shouldn't use it -- they should -- I just don't find it very subtle).  There will never be another serious sports team with a swastika logo, and it's doubtful there will ever be another comic book cover that uses it in such a benign way (it has been used as a tool of fear and shock, though).  We have come too far to ever go back.  It has been subverted by some evil people, and I'm not so sure that is a bad thing.  It has more power this way.  It is rare when symbols can change so drastically.  In fact, I can't think of another instance where this has happened.  The crucifix is close, but I don't think it has the power to enrage as much as the swastika does.  Its use as a shock value in art isn't universal, either.

The swastika, and its use by cultures long since forgotten by history and those that will never be forgotten, may ultimately end up being humanity's symbol.  (Telling that in some instances it is used for some of the Black Sun symbols.)  When aliens discover the hollowed remains of our world, which would have been destroyed through disease, war or some asteroid, they will find the one symbol that was there throughout history.  The one that started off as an innocent ward of good fortune, then was used as a calling card for fascism, and then became a wake-up call to complacency.  Will it evolve again?  Perhaps.  What it will evolve into, however, is anyone's guess.  As long as people want it banned from public viewing, though, it is safe bet to say that its power will continue to be that of a reminder of something people want to forget ... and that is the worst thing you can do when it comes to this symbol.  Because when you forget and when you ignore, that is when it comes back.  Maybe not in the same form, but it will appear.

 This is the base of a lamp post.  It was taken in 2009.  Ironically enough, the lamp post was at Disneyland California Adventure.


Nikki said...

I have issues with things that are shocking simply for the sake of being shocking. I personally feel it doesn't take much intelligence or creativity. Using a swastika or some other similarly bastardized symbol is the shock-value equivalent of a child screaming "fuck you!" on the playground. More of a "hmmm, well that was a little uncalled for Johnny" and not "wow, holy shit, that's crazy!" It screams "look at me!" not "look at the world around you." It's just not shocking to me.

As for the Poles, in your first paragraph you seem to express that you understand why this bothers them. But paragraphs down, you say "good," to the fact that they are shocked. To me, the swastika is overused and silly. To them, however, there are still many people alive who went through a hell you and I will never begin to understand, so it means just a little bit more. I think those people have earned the right to not have years of torture thrown in their face in such a blase (I need a French keyboard) manner. I personally do not agree with banning any art, even that in which I find no deep meaning or intrinsic value, but I can certainly understand and sympathize with them. On the flip side though, Hitler was a big fan of censorship, and perhaps they should consider that before censoring things themselves.

I think people are unintentionally shocking enough and those who intentionally try to shock me usually fail miserably. If it's obvious that shock is the point, then the point is lost.

KeithT said...

I have a problem with all things that represent hatred, murder, intolerance and cruelty. In fact, rather than being shocked by what has now become a Nazi symbol, even as a non Jew, I find the use of it down right offensive. The one thing it ain't is art.

-Doug Brunell (America's Favorite Son) said...