Some time ago we devoted a few inches of text to the extraordinary early-modernist architect Titus de Bobula, whose buildings still regularly drop the jaws of architectural historians, and whose pioneering reinforced-concrete constructions had an influence far beyond what we might expect from their small number and budgets.

We also mentioned that he harbored ambitions of becoming Nazi dictator of Hungary.

Our friend Father Pitt is still occasionally poking at the life of the mysterious Titus de Bobula, and he has dug up quite a few more curious facts about the man. For example, a pictorial feature in an architectural magazine documents an astonishing mansion he designed in the Bronx—so far the only post-Pittsburgh construction by de Bobula that has come up in Father Pitt’s extensive research. We are sad to say that it has disappeared from its perch overlooking the junction of the Harlem and the Hudson, but the photographs that remain show a prodigious imagination at work.

Father Pitt has also dug up, in English translation, the exact text of the “treaty” between Adolf Hitler and de Bobula and his partner in Hungary. That document, in fact, was what caused de Bobula’s coup to fail: his courier was on his way to Munich to have it signed by Hitler when police stopped and searched him on the train. But if the plan had gone through, here is what would have happened. First, Hitler would take over Bavaria. Then swastika-wearing Bavarian troops would march into Hungary to help de Bobula and company overthrow the government there. Then they would round up all the Jews.

You can read all about Titus de Bobula’s ever-weirdening life in Father Pitt’s greatly expanded article about him. But the case of Titus de Bobula poses an important question in the starkest possible terms. How much can we separate art from the artist who made it? How much Nazi can we take?

On the one hand, Titus de Bobula the architect was an artist of unignorable talent. As Lu Donnelly says on the Society of Architectural Historians site, “De Bobula is the most original force to have emerged from the many immigrant groups who enriched Pittsburgh with their artistic heritages.” Pretty strong words to speak about the city of famous Slovak Andy Warhol, but she makes a strong case.

On the other hand, Titus de Bobula later became a full-blown Nazi who would have started the Holocaust ahead of schedule if he had had his way. (We may find it a little ironic that, in his earlier Pittsburgh years, he drew plans for the new Tree of Life synagogue as one of the entrants in an invitation-only competition. It would have been even more grimly ironic if he had won.) Nor did he have the excuse of being swept along by the tide of popular mania: Titus de Bobula was an early leader in the movement, or at least he fancied himself one.

Even without the sudden swing to fascism, he seems to have been an awful person generally: his wife’s uncle Charles Schwab called him “dishonest, incompetent, and a blackmailer.”

So do we repudiate the art because the artist was a Nazi?

Well, we could do that. But we run into the problem that most great artists are awful people. The best artists tend to have a streak of self-centeredness in them, coupled with an absolute confidence that they know what is good and correct, and a strong willingness to enforce their ideas given half a chance. Our job as citizens of a representative government is to make sure they do not get half a chance. But it would impoverish our museums if we decreed that the artists represented in them had to be of morally upright character.

Of course, this is not necessarily a binary proposition. We don’t have to accept all the rotten apples or none. We could decide that there are degrees of horribleness, and draw a fuzzy line somewhere in the middle. Unfaithful to his wife: pass. Attempted Holocaust: fail.

But it is at least a decision we should make knowing that we are making a decision. If we unthinkingly reject every artist who offends our moral sense, we are bound to run out of artists before we even notice the shortage. If we plan to reject any artists on any moral grounds at all, we ought to decide in advance what our standards are going to be.

Here Dr. Boli will admit to being an extremist himself. He believes in a complete separation between art and artist. This means that we do not even consider the moral character of the artist. If Adolf Hitler draws us a nice picture of a cow, we say, “That’s a nice picture of a cow. I hate Hitler’s guts, but this is a nice picture of a cow.” It also means, incidentally, that the artist has no control over the meaning of the art once it is launched into the world. The artist has a moral right to tell us that his art means this, but we have an equal right to say that it doesn’t, and that the artist has misunderstood his own work. To say otherwise is to say that critics have no right to exist, which would certainly please plenty of artists.

Dr. Boli will even try to find something nice to say about Nazis, just to demonstrate the principle of separating the work from the worker. How about this? Of all the extremist movements of the twentieth century, the Nazis had incomparably the best graphic design. Put your socialist-realist posters away, Soviet propagandists: you just can’t match the Nazis for style. There. That took some effort, but we found something nice to say about Nazis. We have probably exhausted the entire world’s supply of nice things one can say about Nazis, but we did it.

What Dr. Boli is saying is that the question of whether we can swallow the Nazi when we look at Titus de Bobula’s work should not come up, because the art is a separate thing from the artist as soon as the art is presented to the public. You don’t have to swallow the oyster to wear the pearl. Nor, if it comes to that, do you have to wear the pearl to eat the oyster. The pearl grows from a slimy mollusk, but it is not slimy. The First Hungarian Reformed Church of Pittsburgh comes from a Nazi con man, but it is not a Nazi.


  1. DSmolken says:

    Was it Chesterton who said that both art and morality consist of drawing a line somewhere?

  2. Richard A says:

    A friend of mine of long acquaintance, and a fair musical talent, once observed to me that Felix Mendelssohn was a well-adjusted personality, which is why some of his stuff is boring. Which I’m sure fits into your thesis somewhere.

  3. Lars Walker says:

    Hugo Boss made the Nazis look better than either the Russians or the Americans. Tell it not in Gath.

    • No, Hugo Boss didn’t design the Nazi uniforms. Like many others, his clothing factories did get orders to produce uniforms and such during the war, but they neither were given much choice in accepting such orders, nor were they allowed any input in what designs of uniforms to produce.

  4. Is Dr. Boli old enough to have had his purse lightened by François Villon?

  5. The Shadow says:

    I think I draw the line when an artist’s production of his art is itself mired in the evil he does – if a Nazi painter used human blood from the camps in his pigments, consign it to the flames.

    I’m thinking in particular of “Fr.” Rupnik, whose artistic process involved threesomes with nuns he’d manipulated in the confessional.

  6. John Salmon says:

    As Glen Campbell once said jokingly about himself-Is there no beginning to de Bobula’s talent?

    One could start the whole process of separating artists with dicey (or worse) politics and personal lives from their works with a Roman Polanski Film Festival, to be screened in one of de Bobula’s edifices.

    Your larger point is an apt refutation of the T in TULIP.

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