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.
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.
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.
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.