"Degenerate Art": The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany / "Entartete Kunst": Ausstellungsstrategien Im Nazi-Deutschland

By Werckmeister, O. K. | The Art Bulletin, June 1997 | Go to article overview

"Degenerate Art": The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany / "Entartete Kunst": Ausstellungsstrategien Im Nazi-Deutschland


Werckmeister, O. K., The Art Bulletin


STEPHANIE BARRON, ET AL. "Degenerate Art ": The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, exh. cat. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991. 424 pp.; 164 color ills., 646 b/w. $75.00; $34.95 paper

CHRISTOPH ZUSCHLAG

"Entartete Kunst": Ausstellungsstrategien im Nazi-Deutschland

(Heidelberger kunstgeschichtliche Abhandlungen, Neue Folge, xxI) Worms: Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1995. 440 pp.; 17 color ills., 192 b/w. DM 180.00

On July 18, 1937, Adolf Hitler opened the House of German Art in Munich with the following words:

For the artist does not produce for the artist, he produces for the people, just as everybody else does! And we are going to take care that it will be the people who from now on will again be called upon as judges over its art.... For an art that cannot count on the most joyful and most heartfelt assent of the healthy, broad masses of the people, but relies on small, partly interested, partly disingenuous cliques, is intolerable.l

The staged display of an art guided by the state as the art the people want, which Hitler inaugurated here, was a characteristic act of the plebiscitary self-legitimation pursued by totalitarian regimes.2

The two contemporaneous exhibitions of officially sanctioned and officially condemned German art held in Munich in the summer of 1937 were coordinated with one another so as to show that an overwhelming majority of the German people was spontaneously opting in favor of traditional art and against modern art. On the one hand, the Great German Art Exhibition offered an even-handed, representative selection of works by artists from all over the country, corporatively organized by the Reich Chamber of Art. On the other hand, the exhibition Degenerate Art displayed a selection of what was taken to be the most outrageous works by modern artists from the period of the Weimar Republic, installed in German museums by a group of art officials with no political mandate and in disregard of public sentiment. The underlying notion of an art for the people had been a crucial argument of cultural policy in the confrontation between traditional and modern art in Germany and elsewhere since the beginning of the century.

The two publications under review have decisively enlarged and solidified the art historical evidence for a political history of these events. Stephanie Barron's catalogue for the show "Degenerate Art". The Fate of the AvantGarde in Nazi Germany, which in 1991-92 circulated in three major North American museums and was subsequently on view in the National Gallery in Berlin, is a collective work written by ten authors under her editorship. One of these, Christoph Zuschlag, has now published a comprehensive volume of his own, based on his dissertation for Heidelberg University, and titled "Degenerate Art": Exhibition Strategies in Nazi Germany, an encyclopedic survey of all that can presently be known about the show, much of it discovered by the author. The impressive art historical achievements of both works give no cause for any substantial criticism, but the political history of the theme is beyond their scope. In neither one does the suppression of modern art in National Socialist Germany seem to raise a political problem beyond categorical condemnation. Although their sober-minded documentary approach raises them over the moralistic diatribes of previous authors, from Paul Ortwin Rave to Werner Haftmann, who wrote with a Manichaean parti pris for modern art, they still retrace the brutal oppression of modern art only as yet another political crime of the Nazi regime. I know from experience that searching for historical circumstances can be mistaken for pleading mitigating circumstances, and that historicizing National Socialist culture can be mistaken for historical vindication.3 And even the counterargument that historical knowledge helps to avoid past mistakes or to guard against recurring calamity falls short.

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