Degenerate Art

It’s always interesting to me to see how one thing can lead to another. As I learn about art and art history, I often find myself browsing a topic only to end up veering off on one tangent after another. This is how I came across “Degenerate Art” — a term I don’t recall ever hearing before.

As I began reading, I sat here open-mouthed, staring at my computer screen, all the while thinking, “Was this for real?” Yes, it was. To me, the whole concept of “Degenerate Art” is a bit appalling. It’s criticism at its worst, censorship at its most damaging. I find it a shameful chapter not only in art, but in world history.

I was browsing around to learn more about Die Brucke, the German art movement that existed from 1905 through 1913. This was the topic of a recent art quiz feature on the blog. I wanted to know more. I knew from my previous study that the expressionist art of the Die Brucke group was considered crude. It often featured overt sexuality. The colors were garish. The drawings themselves were often primitive, often based on “tribal” themes.

The Die Brucke group disbanded around 1913 as World War I broke out, and as the Nazi Party came to power, they frowned on the modern art they saw, adopting the term Entartete Kunst, meaning “degenerate art”.

Before I go on here, I have to touch upon an aspect of degenerate art that has had a profound impact on my life, especially my life as an artist.

In 1876 a man named Cesare Lombroso wrote a book called “The Criminal Man”. Lombroso is often referred to as the “father of criminal profiling”. In his book, he expressed his belief that certain individuals were born with criminal inclinations.  I’ve mentioned Lombroso once before in this blog.  Here is what I said then:

I was raised by my grandfather, a man who was very well-read on topics of his day, and one of those topics was the work of Cesare Lombroso. I’m sure Lombroso is probably not a “household name” for most families, but his theories played an important part in my life. Lombroso is sometimes referred to as “The Father of Criminal Profiling”, and much of his profiling centered around left-handedness. So, when I began showing a preference for my sinistre hand — with that ugly Latin word translating directly to our English sinister — my grandfather stepped in to save me from a life of crime. I was taught to use my right hand for everything. The result was that I became a clumsy, awkward child who “had problems with scissors”, spilled things at the dinner table, and generally made a mess of any arts or crafts project I attempted. – From “Now I Know My ABC’s

If you’re curious about Lombroso and “The Criminal Man” you can find the book at Amazon. Used paperback copies can be purchased at a reasonable price.

In 1892, art critic and author Max Nordau adapted some of Lombroso’s theories to decry the “corrupted and enfeebled” art of the day, calling them works created by individuals who had lost the self-control to produce coherent art.

Wikipedia explains:

He attacked Aestheticism in English literature and described the mysticism of the Symbolist movement in French literature as a product of mental pathology. Explaining the painterliness of Impressionism as the sign of a diseased visual cortex, he decried modern degeneracy while praising traditional German culture. Despite the fact that Nordau was Jewish and a key figure in the Zionist movement (Lombroso was also Jewish), his theory of artistic degeneracy would be seized upon by German Nazis during the Weimar Republic as a rallying point for their antisemitic and racist demand for Aryan purity in art.

Thus during Hitler’s dictatorship, many works of art were removed from state-owned museums on the grounds that they were “an insult to German feeling”. These works were banned because they represented Jewish or Communist principles.

Artists who were identified as “degenerate” were subjected to harsh sanctions. Many were dismissed from teaching positions. They were forbidden to show or sell their art. Some artists were even prohibited from creating art.

“Degenerate Art” was also the title of an exhibition held by the Nazis in 1937. In June of that year, a six-man commission was established and authorized to confiscate any art they deemed modern,  degenerate, or subversive. Over 5000 works were seized. Six hundred and fifty of these works were then displayed to the public in an event designed to incite hatred for the “perverse Jewish spirit” present in German culture.

Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Enlightenment and Propaganda, at the exhibition of Degenerate Art, 1937.

The artworks were displayed in a chaotic manner and included derogatory labels. The exhibition was initially held in Munich but later traveled to eleven other cities in both Germany and Austria.

Viewers had to reach the exhibit by means of a narrow staircase. The first sculpture was an oversized, theatrical portrait of Jesus, which purposely intimidated viewers as they literally bumped into it in order to enter. The rooms were made of temporary partitions and deliberately chaotic and overfilled. Pictures were crowded together, sometimes unframed, usually hung by cord.

Hateful slogans were emblazoned on the walls of the exhibit, including the claim that madness had become the method for these degenerate artists, that the works were deliberate sabotage of national defense, and that the work represented “nature as seen by sick minds.” Over two million people viewed the exhibition between its opening in July and its final showing in November.

Another interesting aside here — but a very important one, I think — is the fact that Adolf Hitler was an artist before becoming the leader of the Nazi Party. This farmhouse scene is one of his paintings.

Farmhouse painted by Adolf Hitler

The art world, however, wasn’t interested in realistic paintings of buildings and landscapes, but looked for more modern and abstract works. Hitler was very displeased by this. and the “Degenerate Art” exhibit was a chance for him to get revenge on the art establishment. In a speech in the summer of 1937 he said that “works of art which cannot be understood in themselves but need some pretentious instruction book to justify their existence will never again find their way to the German people.”

The concept of “degenerate art” extended beyond pure visual art. Severe restrictions were also placed on composers — whose music was expected to be tonal and devoid of any jazz influences. Films, plays, and books were also censored.

I found this information shocking, yet I know that censorship does exist and that it is all too often politically motivated. Time after time we see the intersection of art and political messaging, and as artists we should be able to express ourselves freely through our work.

More and more, as I study art history, I see how entwined with “the real world” art actually is. For so long, I viewed art from a simple, personal level. Little by little, my eyes are now being opened and I’m seeing art in a new way. Art is part of history. It is an undeniable part of mankind’s story.

 

20 Comments

  1. Yes sad that there is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or degenerate when it comes to Nazi Germany, Otto Dix was prohibited I think to produce, at least he did not end up in a camp but assign to his home, refuse to contribute art to the regime, maybe if Hitler would have been admitted to art school, he would have change…I doubt it…me I had one life model sketch blocked, did not think, a friend told me I could bring sketches and pastels, it was an exhibition at a protestant (don’t know which branch) church, catholic church were even more shy of that, and some people were shocked by my nude model, even if it was a quick sketch, and not explicite…should have think about that, actually I had, I did bring some less offensive pastel…:)

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    1. Censorship is always such a tricky thing. There are times and places where I feel certain rules and standards are permissible as to what is or is not allowed, but when it becomes political, it’s dangerous, IMHO. No one should have the right to stifle any creative voice. We might not like the art that’s produced; we might disagree with what it expresses. But we still should allow it… most of the time, I think.

      I do think it’s possible to go “too far” with scenes of violence. I’m against anything that promotes violence, but do I have the right to stop anyone from creating violent works? Where do we draw the line? I don’t know.

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      1. yes you are right, it is the most difficult thing to decide what can be said or shown, and sometimes prevent something make it appear somewhere else where it is more difficult to ‘control’. Sorry I just post another comment, I though I did forgot to click on sent, happen to me all the time…:)

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  2. I love German painting, especially those ‘degenerate’ ones, as for Hitler may be if he would be accepted at the academy, maybe he would have done something different, I doubt it or another more astute than him would have come up, the was also that fat a…s he add a bif one, ego and else, he ordered numerous museum to be plundered, works of art were shipped to his domain, another fine example of nazi way of doing things…but some did resist the way they can, I like Otto Dix, luckily he wasn’t kill by the regime, force to join but did not produced the required art, I think he was in some sort of house arrest, not sure though.

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      1. Yes I though I did forgot to press send, yes sometimes things like that happen, maybe wp try some random control of comments 🙂 also spam protection sometimes put comments aside, happened a few time over the years.

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      2. We have a saying in french, ‘Tout est bien qui finit bien’ or something like that, would translate as ‘all is well that end well’ more or less…not always easy to translate without using word for word, which usually doesn’t work so well..:)

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    1. I do both. Mostly I draw with my right hand but when I paint it feels more expressive to use my left. Sometimes I just switch back and forth. Either way, though, I’m still awkward, clumsy, and unncoordinated. 🙂

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  3. Notice how often the Nazis’ “degenerate” art is art influenced by non-European cultures. Jazz is associated with African American musicians. Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) could not have been more “degenerate” by Hitler’s standards: it was a painting of prostitutes, they were nude, they were not painted realistically to satisfy the male gaze (I can’t imagine anyone masturbating while looking at the Demoiselles!), and it was influenced by African masks!

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    1. I had to go look at “d’Avignon” again. It’s one of his works that I’ve always liked because I’ve felt a “boldness” there. The MoMA has several audio clips about the painting, so I listened to the first and learned several interesting things. This was the largest painting Picasso had done at the time, and he kept it in his studio for 20 years. As for the masks, MoMA mentioned them in terms of “supernatural powers” they were said to possess in their culture. I just found that exceptionally interesting. Here’s the MoMA link if you’d like to listen to any of the clips. I’m going to listen to the others now. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79766

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