The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Nazi: One Possible Meaning Behind the Mischievous Banality of the Banality of Evil
Richard Curtis, Virginia Tech
Abstract: This article examines the painting “The Banality of the Banality of Evil” by graffiti artist, Banksy. I argue that his painting represents a current cultural phenomenon, the banality of the banality of evil, which takes Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil to a different meaning. I argue that the painting represents not only the Nazi’s, in this case Eichmann, unwillingness to confront his crimes, but people’s unwillingness to engage in political debate without confronting the significance and exclusivity of Nazism. Furthermore, I argue that instead of the banality of the Nazi as an ordinary man committing horrendous act, the increasing use of the accusation of ‘being a Nazi’ presents Nazism as the cliché and banal subject.
Throughout October of 2013, Banksy was the artist-in-residence on the streets of New York City. While most of his pieces were on the walls or in the streets, one piece was of a more traditional form. As the story goes, one of his associates went to a local thrift shop and bought an old painting that Banksy could ‘modify’. These modifications involved the painting on top the original mountainous landscape a Nazi officer sitting on a bench looking over the lake; with these modifications, and with a reference to Arendt’s famous phrase, he entitled the piece, “the Banality of the Banality of Evil” and put it on display in the window of the original thrift shop. Why would he name the piece ‘the banality of the banality of evil”? But more importantly, what does the piece say (if anything) about Arendt? What does it say about Nazism in the United States (why would he do this piece for an America audience)? While I am unaware of Banksy’s original intentions and motivations, the titles direct reference to Arendt begs an analysis.i In that spirit, I attempt to address these questions though examining the link between Banksy’s piece and Arendt’s concept and how the piece of art reflects the general banality of Nazism in contemporary political discourse.
When examining the piece, on a surface level it is a mere joke, or a piece of humorous mischief, typical of many of Banksy’s work, in which he is poking fun at the banality of the original image—the generic landscape found at a secondhand store—and the question arises—should this even be considered a piece of art? The mischief goes further by pointing out the legal dichotomy surrounding graffiti—is it art or is it purely vandalism? Is Banksy vandalizing the original piece of art by placing a piece of graffiti that introduces evil to the landscape with the painted Nazi? While these questions direct the focus upon Banksy’s intention with the piece, I wish to take the examination in another direction. A greater meaning exists beyond this mere mischief, that is, a greater meaning exists beyond the “banality” of oil paints. The banality lies in the overused and cliché “shock” of the Nazi. I believe this piece, with its banality, can help us understand the modern conditions and effects of Arendt’s conception of the “banality of evil.” In order to do this, it is helpful, and necessary, to approach this painting as a juxtaposition of two images—the “banality of evil” and the “banality of the banality of evil.
One can see multiple juxtapositions in the piece. The most obvious example is of the image of nature and the figure of the Nazi. The former is one of serenity and peace of a seemingly quiet mountain lake in autumn. One is reminded of the mountainous landscapes of Bob Ross from his PBS series, the “Joy of Painting.” However, this peaceful image is disrupted with the figure of the Nazi, who represents violence and destruction through the mastery of mechanized and industrialized annihilation. While on the surface it is easy to grasp these opposing images, it is necessary, not to go ‘deeper’ into the presented image, but to go out of frame and to see the images not present in the painting. By presenting the opposing images of the peaceful landscapes and the violent Nazi, the piece introduces the opposing concepts of the “banality of evil” on the one side, against the “banality of the banality of evil” on the other. It is in this secondary image that one must analyze in order to understand the banality of Nazism in modern American public discourse.
With this framework in mind, one must look beyond the questions and argument concerning the piece’s stylistic merits and artistic value to understand the significance of the mischief and analyze the connection between the piece and Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil” and what Arendt meant by it. In order to address this, one should focus on the Nazi himself. First, it is important to note that Arendt first applied the notion, the “banality of evil’ to her image of Adolf Eichmann based his trial in Israel. Is the Nazi Eichmann? Like the title of the piece, the grey uniform would hint that the Nazi is meant to represent Eichmann. Eichmann was an Obersturmbannführer of the Schutzstaffell (SS), which in the mid-1930s changed out the black uniform for a grey uniform.ii The Nazi is sitting and looking out over the lake and the peaceful, mountain air gently blowing off the water, over his bare hand. One may wonder, what is he, Eichmann, the Nazi, thinking? Here is a point of irony: The use of water, the lake, is a point for and of reflection of image of one’s self but also of the actions of one’s self. But, is the he truly reflecting upon his actions? For Arendt argues, Eichmann does not think. Her description of him was that he had an “inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.”iii Eichmann, full of his clichés and his defense of following orders and obeying the laws was not ordered or expected to think. By ‘thinking’, Arendt points out that he is not required to contemplate; which, she argues starting with the Ancients, is the ‘quiet’ of internal thoughts and gaze toward Truth and freedom and the reflection of the world without the noise of human activity.iv Instead of contemplation and reflection, she argues, he was required to be an expert, to have the knowledge—to have the “know-how”—necessary to carry out his orders.v In other words, his know-how and expertise was in deportation and expulsion. He is not required to the think about the consequences because the means (his expertise/know-how) cloud the ends (the deportation and eventual annihilation of select peoples of Europe). By “following orders,” which means, obeying the laws of the Fuhrer, Eichmann’s reflection in the water is not his own active self but that of a general “law abiding citizen” of the Fuhrervi, and therefore it is a reflection of Hitler. Additionally, Eichmann is not merely a citizen, but a bureaucratic citizen, and due to the totalizing bureaucratic nature of Nazism, he would have no reflection because a bureaucracy is the rule of nobody, and therefore, a bureaucrat is merely a single piecevii; that is, each bureaucrat is not an active individual, but only an expert in the large, procedural mechanism of governing in which anonymity and secrecy reign.viii In the end, it is appropriate for the viewer not to see the Nazi’s reflection in the lake. The irony is that while the water provides a setting for or moment of reflection and thought, due to the nature of bureaucracy, the lake might as well have not even been there.
While the Nazi is facing toward the water, but not reflecting, he is facing away from something as well. What is out of the frame? This question drives to the center of the banality of evil. The Nazi does not have to face the atrocities of his “know-how”. The evil is outside of the frame, just as it is outside of the gaze of public. This brings us back to the scene in nature and the perversions done upon it by the concentration camps—the smell of rotting or burning flesh, the mass graves, the ‘showers’, the smoke stacks; all of which tears away at nature and replace it with an image of industrialization for the sake of death. The structure of Nazi Germany, for Arendt was not merely a matter of conscience, but one of inversion and under which banality of its perpetrators overtake the evil of their acts. Within the image, the Nazi does not reflect not only because it is not necessary to think, but furthermore, because there are no longer any moral obligations that require him to view his actions as abnormal; in other words, the evil becomes banal because he thought of his actions as normal. She argues that temptation disconnects from evil. In a Christian sense, one, normally, is tempt to sin or commit evil, but under Nazi system, one must be tempted not to commit evil.ix He has no need (at best) and no desire (at worst) to look behind him, outside of the frame and confront the consequences of his ‘know-how’. This unwillingness or inability to reflect and see behind is at the core of Arendt’s banality of evil—it is the transformation of abominable act of into the ordinary act of committing genocide while living surrounded by the peaceful restraint of obligations and obedience.
If this is the banality of evil, what could be the banality of the banality of evil? Again, one must focus on the Nazi in the piece. While under the former framework, the Nazi is facing away from his actions, in this new framework, he is facing away from the viewer and one outside the frame of Nazism and genocide. The banality of the banality of evil allows for the image of the Nazi to stay at peace. Not because of a desire to leave it alone, rather because of our society’s inability to confront the Nazi. Arendt attempts to construct a connection between bureaucratic Nazism and individual action; in other words, a connection between structure and personal agency outside of the narrative of that structure. However, while her analysis provides space for individual accountabilityx, it leaves too little area for a political confrontation and actions towards and against individual persons. Arendt’s attempt to dispel the idea of Nazis—specifically Eichmann—as monstrous psychopaths, did not construct in its stead an image of an active man amongst men. Instead, she provides an image of a bureaucrat man. While there may still be room for individual accountability within Arendt’s argument, her breakdown of the Nazi leaves two options, the mass opinion of the Nazi as a monster or the replacement of the monstrous Nazi as an anonymous nobody. That is, an individual who does not have distinguishing characteristics; he is an everyday person who is swept up into the totalizing nature of Nazi bureaucracy. Neither of these are appropriate images in terms of being able to confront the Nazi and Nazism within political and cultural discourses. While the former, the monster, is an evil figure, which could be unabashedly and violently wiped out, the latter is a faceless and unthinking and nonpolitically active entity—for while he is an individual, because under the totalizing effects of Nazism, there are no individuals or individuality, there is only a mass in which one cannot and will not enter into the political world between a plurality of men; in other words, there is no individual man to enter into a space of politics.
The lack of the confrontable man amongst men is at the heart of the banality of the banality of evil. While Arendt meant to unmask the monster as a man (at the protest of those who wish for the unmasking of the man as a monster), what occurred was the unmasking of the monster to expose a blurry or faceless entity; in other words, a nobody. The distinction between the Nazi as the monster versus the Nazi-as-a-bureaucratic man/nobody, cannot be understood because neither can be understand through political action. It is this lack of understanding that drives the banality of the banality, for it has become normal to see or hear an accusation of Nazism and the denying or rejecting of a relation to Nazism. The banality of the banality of evil is the use of Nazism and fascism to defeat or accuse an opposing side. This is followed by the rejection of such a hyperbole and therefore, the validity of the accuser. This occurs so often that such things as “Godwin’s Law” were established (which states, the longer a discussion/argument goes on, the higher the probability that someone will be accused of Nazism). The law, as understood and used, is meant to create a valid method to expel from the discussion/argument the accuser; those who throw around the “Nazi accusation” far too often and/or inaccurately. We expel because the accuser has crossed a line, not for being monstrous, but quite the opposite, for being unoriginal by throwing around such an inappropriate, cliché accusation. This highlights our society’s inability to confront Nazism or fascism as a legitimate point of debate because it has become such an unoriginal accusation and banal in itself. While these general accusations should be rejected, what both sides misunderstand is Arendt’s point that the actions and atrocities executed by Nazis—at all levels—were done by ‘normal and ordinary’ men. The one side by implying and the other side by adamantly rejecting the affinity to Nazism, both attribute to Nazism not the totalizing bureaucratic character of it, but something more, something grand and monstrous, and therefore, only reserved for those extraordinary, or perceived extraordinary events. Throwing out the accusation so often and consequently making it banal exposes not only the inability to politically confront the Nazi as a man, but also a lacking of thinking about (or contemplation of) the nature of Nazism, fascism, and bureaucracy. People are conceptually blind to the structure and rule driven nature of Nazi bureaucracy in the production of atrocities and the establishment of normalcy surrounding those atrocities.
The banality of the banality of evil establishes a simplistic association with and accusation of Nazism, which misses the more important point that bureaucratic Nazism allows ordinary men and women to be blinded to the crimes of that system. With his back turned away, neither he nor we are required to think or capable of thinking about evil of Nazism and the banality of bureaucratic governance; leaving the image peaceful, yet unoriginal.
Arendt, Hannah. 1976. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co.</p<
———-.1998. The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
———-. 2006. Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: Penguin.
i The purpose of the essay is not to analyze and decipher the intentions of Banksy. Considering the anonymity of the person/character of Banksy, an interview with him to discuss his intention would be a task beyond the means of the author.
ii Additionally, one of the few common photographs of Eichmann captures him in his grey Nazi officer uniform.
iii Arendt 2006, 49
iv Arendt 1998, 14-16
v Arendt 1998, 3
vi Arendt 2006, 24
vii Arendt 1998, 45
viii Arendt 1976, 213-214
ix Arendt 2006,150
x In the Epilogue of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt argues that Eichmann must be held accountable for his actions and that the death penalty sentencing is appropriate but for the wrong reasons. Eichmann made a conscious decision to join the party and even if he was merely carrying out orders, he was still “actively supporting a policy of mass murder” that fulfilled his understanding of Nazism and its social structure (Arendt, 2006 255).