Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany
Stephanie Barron, the editor of the monumental catalog Degenerate Art, closes her introductory essay on an anxious note. After describing the Nazi attempt to degrade and denounce modern art in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition of 1937 held in Munich, she writes:
Perhaps after a serious look at events that unfolded over half a century ago in Germany, we may apply what we learn to our own predicament, in which for the first time in the postwar era the arts and freedom of artistic expression in America are facing a serious challenge.
The same concerns, accompanied by references to congressional criticisms of the works of Robert Mapplethorpe, were expressed by the commentators on the “Degenerate Art” exhibition organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1991, when it was shown there and later that year at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. Before examining contemporary challenges to artistic freedom in light of what happened in Nazi Germany, however, it may be useful to describe the specific and, in my view, unique conditions in which that terrifyingly successful defamation of modern art and thought took place.
On July 19, 1937, Hitler opened the first official Great German Art exhibition in Munich. More than six hundred paintings and sculptures by German artists were displayed in a new building resembling a temple, whose neoclassical style was seen as an architectural symbol of the rebirth of an uncorrupted German culture. In his opening address, Hitler proclaimed the birth of a new form of art, not international but German, not modern but “eternal,” and went on to say:
In this hour I affirm my unalterable resolve here, as in the realm of political confusion, to clear out [or purge, aufräumen] all the claptrap from artistic life in Germany. “Works of art” that are not capable of being understood in themselves but need some pretentious instruction book to justify their existence—until at long last they find someone sufficiently browbeaten to endure such stupid or impudent twaddle with patience—will never again find their way to the German people!…. From now on we are going to wage a merciless war of destruction against the last remaining elements of cultural disintegration.
The idea of a “purge”—a forceful purification or cleansing—was Hitler’s most destructive obsession. By spring 1933, he had purged the German civil service, firing nearly all Jewish employees. The concentration camps set up around this time were another, more brutal form of purge: the Jews, left-wing intellectuals, Gypsies, priests, and homosexuals confined in them were treated far more harshly than ordinary criminals. By 1937 the regime was preparing another purge: the extermination, euphemistically called euthanasia, of the insane in German asylums. Next it was the turn of German art to be purged of its pathological symptoms.
The “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich, which opened the day after the Great German Art exhibition, was intended to display the kind of pathological works that were to be eliminated. Hitler had privately viewed the “Degenerate…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.