What is: Degenerate Art?

Dr Brad Evans

‘When art is condemned, fascism prevails.’ — Dr Brad Evans

Political Philosopher Dr. Brad Evans explores the concept of ‘Degenerate Art’, a term adopted by the Nazi Party in 1920s Germany to describe art that did not conform to their ideal vision of the world, culminating in the now infamous Degenerate Art exhibition held in Munich in 1937.

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Nazi Germany showed, in the most insidious and terrifying ways, how oppressive power truly fears free expression and creativity.

In their attempts to control and censor the meaning of art and its public value, which was after all integral to how society imagined itself, the Nazi regime orchestrated a brutal campaign aimed at revealing how art was responsible for corrupting the very fabric of the nation’s moral and political character.

The early twentieth century was witness to a remarkable period of creative energy, much of it taking place in Germany that was particularly open to Expressionism.

Then, in 1933, the world’s most infamous failed artist, Adolf Hitler, came to power as Chancellor of the Nation. He would take an active role in reshaping the image of the nation, instigating his own cultural war upon all forms of creativity that were to be blamed for social decay. This war upon the imagination would lead to the widespread suppression of all forms of creative activity that didn’t fit in with the fascist vision of the world and that resulted in the curtailment on artistic freedom and the freedom of expression.

A widespread policy was soon implemented with the aim of purging galleries of many notable works that were part of this modernist tradition. Now the scale of this policy was systematic and actually quite terrifying. According to the inventory of degenerate art held by the V&A museum, there were some 16,000 works confiscated. But confiscation alone wasn’t enough. The degenerate artists needed to be publicly shamed, and they needed to be put on public trial.

The Nazis had already held a number of what was called ‘condemnation exhibitions’, to disparage forms of art. This would culminate in the now infamous Degenerate Art exhibition, held in Munich in 1937. Set alongside what was seen to be the main attraction, The Great German Art Exhibition, that showed works Hitler approved of due to their perceived high moral value, as framed through the mythical qualities of the nation and the virtues of family, home and church.

The degenerate exhibition was meant to show how art could lead to cultural and social collapse. We can see a great deal of thought goes into the disparaging of art. The way in which the exhibition itself appears has to exhibit a certain atmosphere. The exhibition had a suffocating feel. The works of art were hung in an askew way. Works were featured without frames. Alongside the works we would see slogans such as, ‘Nature as seen by sick minds’, or ‘The madness is the method’. This was not therefore just simply designed to denigrate or humiliate particular artists. It was also about invoking a certain degeneration, invoking a humiliation for alternative artistic visions of what the world might become.

Let’s turn our attention here to two particular artists and consider what was it about their particular work that so perturbed. Paul Klee was notably considered degenerate by the regime. Klee’s work would be marked out as an insane childish scrawl by the Nazis and indeed, when his work was featured in the exhibition catalogue, it would be featured alongside the work of a mental asylum patient. But if Klee’s work was such a childish scrawl, why did the Nazi’s pay him so much attention?

His Twittering Machine perhaps gives us a good insight into why he was deemed so subversive. Now, at a surface level, we see these beautiful pastel colours which slowly draw you into the painting. On closer inspection, there is a real nightmare vision at work in the piece. Everything is reduced to a form of machinic enslavement. Even the birds we see are mechanised and they operate above some fiery or cataclysmic pit. Could there be a better vision concerning the instrumentalisation and the techno-scientific fanaticism of the Nazi party in this particular representation by Klee?

The Nazis were a movement which brought millions to the abyss if they didn’t conform to their perfect vision of society.In this regard, we can see the work of Klee as perhaps being a form of art from the future. It reveals the terror that was already in waiting for society and that perhaps is why he was so terrifying to the Nazis.

Otto Dix is another important artist whose story needs to be recounted as part of the Degenerate Art exhibition. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Dix was dismissed from his professorship teaching in Dresden. The reasons the Nazis gave was that he was committing a violation to the moral sensibility of the nation.

His paintings, which depict the raw realities of WWI in an unflinching and a gruesome way, completely works against the heroic ideal that the Nazis were trying to promote. These paintings were denounced as a veritable assault on the lived memory of the German nation and its heroic soldier past.

So, what can we take from this exhibition today?

We could argue that any understanding of the importance of art and culture in modern societies, should begin with this exhibition. The first thing that the exhibition makes clear, is that art matters. Indeed, art is not simply culture, art is profoundly political.

History shows how those who were labelled degenerate were on the right side of history. They were also more intimately connected to the human condition than any system for power, which instead of creating, in the end, nearly destroyed the world. So, let’s heed the warning of the degenerate artists of history, recognise the importance of their transgressions, the heavy price they had to pay, so that the freedom of expression is defended, and its right given the due prominence it’s deserved.

In this regard, the degenerate art exhibition should serve as a continuous warning to us about the dangers of censorship.

When art is condemned, fascism prevails.

Archive

Alamy Stock Photo

Bridgeman Images

National Gallery of Art, Washington

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

 

Music

Music Vine

FMA

 

 

Credits

 

March of Time — outtakes — Danzig Nazi flags/banners; Hitler and Goering; Nuremberg rally, 1937

Producer: March of Time, Inc.

Camera Operator: Julien H. Bryan

RG-60.3012

Accessed at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives & Records Administration

Public Domain 1.0

 

 

Why We Fight: Prelude to War, 1942

Director: Frank R. Capra
Producer: Frank R. Capra
Producer: United States Army. Signal Corps.

RG-60.0571

Accessed at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives & Records Administration

Public Domain 1.0

 

 

Nazi Germany — Julien Bryan, 1937

Director: Julien H. Bryan
Camera Operator: Julien H. Bryan

RG600373 to RG600382

Accessed at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Library of Congress

Public Domain 1.0

 

 

German town; Degenerate Art exhibit in Munich

Nazi Germany – Julien Bryan, 1937

RG602668

Accessed at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Library of Congress

Public Domain 1.0

 

 

A Study of Negro Artists, 1936

Prelinger Archives

Harmon Foundation

Public Domain 1.0

 

 

Reconciliation (Versoehnung)

Franz Marc, 1912

Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Public Domain 1.0

 

 

Genesis II (Schopfungsgeschichte II)

Franz Marc, 1914

Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Public Domain 1.0

 

 

Entartete “KUNST” Ausstellungsführer 30 Pfg.

Degenerate art Exhibition catalogue front cover

Fritz Kaiser, 1937

Nazi Germany Propaganda

Wikicommons

(CC BY-SA 4.0)

 

 

Adolf Hitler looks out the window of a train

Heinrich Hoffmann / Studio of H. Hoffmann, 25 May 1935

Photograph Number: 37459

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

Public Domain 1.0

 

 

Adolf Hitler addresses an audience in Danzig, 19 September 1939

Photograph Number: 20349

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

Public Domain 1.0

 

 

German art gallery showing nationalist art, 1933

Bridgeman Images

 

 

Paul Klee, portrait of the German / Swiss artist & painter in Possenhofen, Germany, 1921

Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo

 

 

Entartete “KUNST” Ausstellungsführer 30 Pfg.

Degenerate art Exhibition catalogue page on Paul Klee

Fritz Kaiser, 1937

Nazi Germany Propaganda

Wikicommons

(CC BY-SA 4.0)

 

 

Twittering Machine

Paul Klee, 1922

Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

 

 

Portrait of Germain painter Otto Dix

Hugo Erfurth, 1933-1934

Wikicommons

Public Domain 1.0

 

 

The exhibition ‘Degenerate Art’ in Berlin, 1938

Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

 

 

A National Socialist propaganda picture shows the painting ‘The War Cripples’ by Otto Dix at the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Dresden, Germany, September 1933

dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

 

 

Indigo Strokes

Daniel Birch, 2020

FMA

(CC BY-NC 4.0)

 

Nazi Propaganda’, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Explore ‘Entartete Kunst’: The Nazis’ inventory of ‘degenerate art’’, Victoria and Albert Museum

Otto Dix, The War Cripples, 1920’, The Online Otto Dix Project

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