Nuremberg Art Auction: Should Hitler’s paintings ever be sold?

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In light of plans by the Weidler auction house in Nuremberg to sell a number of paintings done by Adolf Hitler, Charley Weldrick explores the ways in which we judge art and whether or not work done by figures such as Hitler should even be put to auction in the first place.

There’s a side to Adolf Hitler that rarely appears in the pages of our history books and doesn’t quite fit in with our usual understanding of the maniacal dictator. This is the Hitler prior to his politics or involvement in the war, Hitler the artist. Between the years of 1908 and 1913, Hitler was living in Vienna and producing as many as thirteen paintings a day. Some supposed Hitler originals, although there are plenty of fakes floating around the art world, will soon be auctioned off in, of all places, Nuremberg, with starting bids ranging from €130 to €41,000. What should we think about this? Should we judge the artwork on its merits, or is it important to contextualise it?

One of the most commonly cited thinkers on this topic is the French philosopher, Roland Barthes. Barthes’ essay, The Death of the Author, deals with the extent to which criticism of a piece of literature should be informed by our understanding of the author’s intent and the context in which it was created. Barthes argued that the meaning of a text, rather than being a function of the author, was determined by the reader. The literature was effectively rewritten every time it was read, because the meaning of a text, informed as it is by our language and experiences, would never be exactly the same twice.

Whilst the finer points of Barthes essay are interesting, what’s useful for us here is its application to Hitler’s artwork. If we accept the core of Barthes’ argument and think about the piece independently of Hitler’s crimes, what then should we think about it? Does it deserve the high price tag? This is particularly interesting in light of the view of the Vienna School of Art, which described his work as “utterly devoid of feeling, colour or spiritual imagination”.

There are two separate questions here, each of which likely deserves an article unto itself. The first is how we should determine the aesthetic value of art, and the second is how we should determine its monetary value. Greats tracts could be, and have been, written about the intersection between these issues. Leaving aside the monetary value question, because it’s far less interesting than the question of aesthetics, we find ourselves confronted by a very broad topic. Determining how and why a piece of art looks good, or indeed whether it does, is an issue that has plagued philosophers for centuries.

Some thinkers, notably the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, held the position that there is such a thing as objective beauty. For Kant, though, this was linked to a range of factors that seem quite odd today. Beauty, he thought, was a function of the mind being in ‘free flow’ and dependant on the object in question being ‘free from ends’. Essentially, Kant thought that beauty arose when we focused on something with no practical value, like a pebble, but also when we refrained from seeing it as a thing in particular – a beach of pebbles was closer to achieving beauty than a single one. It’s unlikely, then, that Kant would have cared much for the work of Hitler. It’s probably unlikely that he’d agree it’s worth the starting bids it’s commanding, either. This is almost beside the point, though, because it’s unlikely Kant would have cared much for anyone’s artwork, perfectionist that he was.

There are a whole bunch of interesting thinkers on this topic, and the vast majority of them diverge from Kant in one way or another. George Dickie famously argued against the disinterest that Kant advocated, whilst E.D. Hirsch has argued against the position taken by Barthes about the intentions of the author. 

Aside from how it looks, there’s a moral question about whether or not it’s right for to sell and make money from the work Hitler. This is complicated by the claims that the art would be of less value, were it not made by Hitler. Hopefully the discussion of aesthetics has shown that it’s hard to decide whether or not it would, in fact, be valuable were it produced by someone else. Ultimately, this question is basically a direct analogue of cancel culture. Framed that way, there’s no room for philosophising – we should absolutely cancel Hitler, and we should be boycotting any auctions claiming to sell his work.

Charley Weldrick

Image Courtesy of Daniel Karmann/AFP/Getty Images