Art Defines Culture, Even When ‘Degenerate’

As an artist, it is no secret that I believe a culture is defined by its arts, be it painting, theater, film or music. So what happens when a political group strives to both manipulate and destroy the culture of not just a group of people, but an entire continent?

"Poster with Self-Portrait for Der Sturm magazine" by Oskar Kokoschka

“Poster with Self-Portrait for Der Sturm magazine” by Oskar Kokoschka.

The Neue Galerie in New York is currently presenting “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany 1937.” It is not a large show, but it is a very comprehensive overview of the Nazi’s denegration of the modern in favor of acceptable, “classical” style.

For fans of modern art, surely the “Entarte Kunst” (Degenerate Art) exhibition is one of the best shows ever put together. It featured the greatest names of early 20th-century modern art — Paul Klee, Vassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Pablo Picasso, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckman, Otto Dix and many more.

Paul Klee's "Twittering Machine."

Paul Klee’s “Twittering Machine.”

The show consisted of artworks haphazardly hung, with labels that mocked the work on display. The public was expected to see the vulgar work as the product of unsavory Jews and Bolsheviks.

At the same time, the Nazis opened an exhibition called “Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstelung” (Great German Art Exhibition), which would celebrate two thousand years of German culture. The GDK was held in the opulent Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art). Adolf Hitler was very involved with selecting the works for the show, at one point dismissing the panel of nine prominent artists who did not meet his expectations. It is telling of the kind of work on display, that Hitler, in his speech at the GDK opening, praised the artists “decent work and sincere diligence.” [Catalog p. 94] Not exactly stirring words.

By contrast, when Adolf Ziegler opened the “Entarte Kunst” the next day, he said, “You see around us monstrosities of madness, of impudence, of inability and degeneration.” [Catalog p. 116]

The contrasting exhibitions served to highlight the Nazi propaganda that the German way of life — its culture — was under threat, and only by purging such undesirables from the culture could German rise to its pre-WWI power.

Ironically, under the Weimar government of the 1920s, Germany had become center of the European avant-garde. From German Expressionism and Dada to the music of Arnold Schoenberg and the films of F.W. Murnau, Germany pushed the boundaries of modernism.
By 1937, the tide had turned. Anyone producing unacceptable art was subject to sanctions, including being fired from teaching positions (teachers at the Bauhaus were among those persecuted).

It is estimated that nearly 22,000 works, classified as “art of decay,” were removed from German museums, with around a quarter destroyed. Far from preserving German culture, these actions actually undermined and diminished a vibrant and exciting contribution to German culture.

Max Beckmann's "Departure" and Adolf Ziegler's "The Four Elements: Fire, Earth and Water, Air" show the contrast between "degenerate" and Nazi sanctioned art.

Max Beckmann’s “Departure” and Adolf Ziegler’s “The Four Elements: Fire, Earth and Water, Air” show the contrast between “degenerate” and Nazi sanctioned art.

The exhibition does a fine job of presenting the historical background and the context for the show, as well as contrasting the degenerate art with examples of officially sanctioned works.
As that period of art history is a personal favorite, it was a pleasure to see the artworks gathered for the show. It was also frustrating to see grainy images of works that were destroyed. The show is a mixture of celebration and anger — but not in the way the Nazis intended.

It is easy to say that this was an anomaly — that it will not happen again. But how far are we away from that happening again? From Chinese cultural genocide in Tibet to Afghan Taliban destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas, the seeds of cultural destruction are still with us. Even on our shores, it is so far in the past, the 1980s, that Sen. Jesse Helms waged his war on the National Endowment for the Arts.

The arts define us. Suppressing free expression does not save us — it kills us as a people. There is no telling what will stand the test of time, what future generations will look back on and celebrate us for. Remember, the French Impressionists were once considered vulgar and indecent, but it is hard to imagine anybody thinking that way now.

“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany 1937” is on display through Sept. 1. The accompanying catalog is an excellent resource.

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