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Entartete Kunst
July 19, 2011 1:57 PM   Subscribe

74 years ago today, Nazi officials debuted an exhibit of "degenerate art" in Munich made up from pieces among the over 5,000 works of art the government had confiscated, including works by Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, and Wassily Kandisnsky. Most of the pieces the Nazis confiscated were later publically burned, although some was auctioned off or kept by prominent Nazis. Last year, a few of the confiscated sculptures were recovered from a bombed-out basement and exhibited. Today, you can view images from the exhibition catalogue as well as an unfinished recreation of the exhibit.

For more on Nazi aesthetics and the art they considered degenerate, The Architecture of Doom is available on YouTube.
posted by Copronymus (33 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
In 1991, the Entartete Kunst exhibition was reconstructed as closely as possible at LACMA in 1991 (which appears to have been the inspiration for the unifinished online version). The full digitized version of the exhibition catalogue is available here.
posted by scody at 2:20 PM on July 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Previously.
posted by Daddy-O at 2:26 PM on July 19, 2011


I'm confused by the ethos behind the exhibit. An organization as keen on propaganda as the Nazi Party surely must have realized that works of art can send messages that defy their context; why would you willingly exhibit stuff that you wanted everyone to hate?

The bit about the religious works makes a bit more sense, I suppose.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:28 PM on July 19, 2011


I saw the Entartete Kunst exhibit and I still curse the ex-boyfriend who took my copy of the exhibition catalog. Thanks, scody! for the digital version.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:30 PM on July 19, 2011


Sometimes you really just gotta hate Nazis.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:30 PM on July 19, 2011


Shakespearian: why would you willingly exhibit stuff that you wanted everyone to hate?

So the people knew what they were supposed to hate, while feeling better about themselves and their superior Germanness by joining in the bullying and scorning and rejecting this new weird, untraditional, sometimes unpretty other. The Nazis totally used it to build up their own cult/group and to reinforce the perils in being different.

Also, they looked at it and recoiled, so surely all right-thinking folks would too. I think they saw it as an easy target and scapegoat, and if there was one thing they liked to do was place a spotlight on the horror of the scapegoat and mine the propaganda for all it was worth. In this case, the "degenerativeness" and the ugliness and the weirdness and the strangeness of it all was the opposite of the sharp order, traditional iconography, and neo-classical leanings of the Nazis. It was an easy comparison to make and who would possibly choose Kandinsky over that, or so the Nazis reasoned.

At some point, the big art "collectors" in the Nazi party sold off bunches of this "terrible" art in return for more traditional pieces of art.
posted by julen at 2:49 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hey I remember going to that LACMA show too.

Yes, shakespherian, the exhibit backfired somewhat. It was a blockbuster, many people went to appreciate the aggressive modern works, especially the German Expressionists. The Nazis were infuriated because it drew far larger audiences than their official exhibits of approved artists.
posted by charlie don't surf at 2:51 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


why would you willingly exhibit stuff that you wanted everyone to hate?

Yeah, that's the funny bit of irony, in a way, to the series of Entartete Kunst exhibitions (the show actually toured German and Austria for four years) -- they were massively popular. About 3 million people attended.

The objective was to hold up modern art as an ugly, threatening assault on German values and the nation itself. The propaganda that accompanied the show demonized avant-garde art and artists by overtly linking them to Bolshevism, Jewish "filth," mental illness, criminality, homosexuality, etc. From one of the essays in the LACMA catalogue: "Respectability and all that it implied remained an essential part of the regime, and in the exhibition guide all those outsiders who had threatened society's conformist principles... were blamed for the degeneration of art. The paintings on display were presented as the work of madmen disfigured by sexual excesses; they represented Marxist and Jewish attacks on all that was German." (George Mosse, p. 31)

This was, of course, to stand in stark contrast to the Nazi ideals of art, beauty, and aesthetics (which were promoted simultaneously in a parallel exhibition). This kind of propaganda meant that enemies of the regime could now be identified just by their taste in art or design. It meant that of course it gave the Nazis the right to close art schools (such as the Bauhaus) or to prevent certain artists from being allowed to work any longer or to confiscate collections.

It also meant that individuals could now suspect each other of harboring anti-Nazi sentiment merely on the basis of their personal taste in art or design. Your neighbor who dutifully says "heil Hitler" but has abstract paintings in his home? That might not have raised eyebrows before -- but now it would. Perhaps your neighborhood Gestapo informant might like to know that information, hmmm?
posted by scody at 2:52 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


why would you willingly exhibit stuff that you wanted everyone to hate?

The purpose of the exhibition was ridicule, and the signage and "interpretive" materials bore this out. More to the point, the audiences drawn to these exhibitions were middlebrow and bourgeois, to the extent of open hostility, derision, and laughter. It was a five minutes' hate for art.

As with many such mass events in Nazi society, it was intended to be a social requirement to attend and make the right noises. I am sure many people took the opportunity to see the art and secretly wish they could speak out.

For a contemporary example, try this.
posted by dhartung at 2:53 PM on July 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


BTW, I will try to look at the bright side of this scenario, the Nazi expulsion of "degeneracy" was gladly accepted outside Germany and in the US particularly. Many of their greatest artists emigrated, where they found success and even helped drive world art movements. Even my own little art school had Max Beckmann as the dean, for a while.
posted by charlie don't surf at 2:59 PM on July 19, 2011


The purpose of the exhibition was ridicule, and the signage and "interpretive" materials bore this out.

I mean, I get that, but my point is that fascism and kitsch are interrelated, and the best way to keep one group hating another group is to keep them from having very much contact with one another. Showing a bunch of people some art that is considered pretty damn good, even though that's by those crazy modernist Other Countries, in order to get people to be suspicious of it seems like you're risking a backfire effect. It's like inviting all your homophobic neighbors to a barbecue at the friendly gay couples' house-- they're probably just going to find out that they're really friendly.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:02 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Gelb, Rot, Blau YOU NAZI FUCKERS! Guess which is still around and more important to society today?
posted by symbioid at 3:07 PM on July 19, 2011


(not that nazis don't exist, i'm just saying - which is at least more appreciated on a larger scale).
posted by symbioid at 3:08 PM on July 19, 2011


The Nazi hate for certain artists makes me roll my eyes. Many of them were intensely patriotic and quite a few German artists were killed in World War I, such as Franz Marc. I guess it's just a matter of the difference a few decades can make :\
posted by Calzephyr at 3:11 PM on July 19, 2011


Didn't take long for this thread to get Godwinized.
posted by fairmettle at 3:20 PM on July 19, 2011


Shakesperian: It's like inviting all your homophobic neighbors to a barbecue at the friendly gay couples' house-- they're probably just going to find out that they're really friendly.

It's not just "Let's go over to Rudolph and Jurgen's BBQ next door!" it was "Let's go see the degenerates next door and make sure they know their place." It was an invitation to join their group of bully boys. They set the agenda, and the agenda always included preconcieved notions. The Nazis weren't going to take the chance that you not see what was so horrible about Rudolph and Jurgen and they certainly didn't want to let you indulge in some free unfettered thinking; they made sure you knew in advance what you were supposed to feel and think as a good German and they gave you permission to lord it over the other and to punish them for being wrong. They encouraged it. You were the superior people, and those were the people who kept dragging you down.

If that wasn't enough to turn you into a bully like them, the Nazis would tell you over and over and over how bad they (the Jews, the Gays, the Communists, the Non-Conformists, the Gypsies, and so on) were. They were secretly plotting against you, ruining society and the economy and your life. It was all their fault, and you shouldn't let them get away with it any more! If only the other could be excised, the Nazis counseled, Germany - and the Germans - would be unquestionably great again.
posted by julen at 3:21 PM on July 19, 2011


It's like inviting all your homophobic neighbors to a barbecue at the friendly gay couples' house-- they're probably just going to find out that they're really friendly.

But much of the work on display was not going to automatically read as "really friendly" to most of the viewers to begin with, even without factoring in the virulent anti-modernist, anti-Semitic, anti-Marxist propaganda that accompanied it. Expressionism and dada, for example, were intended to be shocking and confrontational to conventional bourgeois tastes (and often an overt attack on conservative politics and values) in the first place. The point of the Entarte Kunst exhibition was to make sure people didn't just dismiss this sort of art as "merely" ugly or non-represenational or whatever -- they were supposed to come away from the exhibition considering it a danger that needed to be actively suppressed.

my point is that fascism and kitsch are interrelated

Sure, to us. But that's a specific aesthetic and critical point of view that's highly unlikely to have been available to the vast majority of the audience seeing the show in Germany in 1937 (and would have been dangerous to have expressed, even for those who might have held it).
posted by scody at 3:23 PM on July 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


More from Mosse's essay that I quoted upthread, which gets at the wildly different cultural, political, and historical context between viewing the art in a Nazi-promoted show in Germany in 1937 vs. how we view it now:
Entartete Kunst was designed to be out of the ordinary, a survey of all that was indecent and ugly, all that represented an assault on bourgeouis morality through the latter's concept of beauty. Works by modern artists were not treated as evidence of individual creativity but as representative of something undesirable; they were accorded no individual value, only a symbolic status.... It was a reaction of a society that felt itself to be under constant threat, a society, moreover, that was bonded together by respectabililty and the security that it radiated. Morality and its symbols, of which beauty was the positive and nervousness the negative, were an issue of the first order in an age when society believed itself to be on the very brink of chaos as a result of the pace of change and the Great War. In this context the concept of "degenerate art" merely added to the general sense of anxiety.

...The text of the [exhibition] guide summed up a tradition that drew an increasingly sharp distinction between respectability -- that is, normality -- and abnormality, between the healthy and the sick, and between the natural and the unnatural. By embracing the respectable, people could resist the chaos of the age.
In this context, it's not that the work will seem "friendly" -- if anything, it will seem even worse than people might have imagined (for example, juxtaposing cubist and expressionist portraits with photography of people with facial deformities to "prove" how supposedly sick and offensive the artwork was).

This isn't even a point of view that's disappeared today, as dhartung's link to the Glenn Beck-as-art critic clip demonstrates, or the National Portrait Gallery's self-censorship in the face of reactionary criticism last year, or any of the periodic paroxysms the right-wing likes to have over art (Mapplethorpe, Serrano, etc.).
posted by scody at 3:51 PM on July 19, 2011


There's something I've always wondered; maybe people in this thread know the answer. Are there constant characteristics in what art totalitarian regimes vilify? Did Mao hate the same art Hitler hated? What about Pol Pot? Or the Taliban?
posted by roll truck roll at 4:10 PM on July 19, 2011


"I made degenerate art for the religious right on the day that you were born
I had a passion to experiment but I was torn"

Put It Off

~The Tragically Hip
posted by bwg at 4:52 PM on July 19, 2011


why would you willingly exhibit stuff that you wanted everyone to hate? To make a mockery of it. To publicly shame it. To destroy the will to produce more of it.
posted by snsranch at 4:56 PM on July 19, 2011


Are there constant characteristics in what art totalitarian regimes vilify? Did Mao hate the same art Hitler hated? What about Pol Pot? Or the Taliban?

This lists several characterisitics totalitarian regimes have in common on this score (as well as more generally among pro-censorship forces that exist within democracies):
- art that goes against the dominant ideology
- art that is considered too sexually explicit
- art that is conceptually or aesthetically difficult
- art that offends social and/or religious sensibilities

So yeah, Mao and Hitler and Stalin and Franco and Pol Pot and the Taliban would all probably agree on much of the art that should be banned or destroyed (though the Taliban, as a specifically theocratic totalitarian regime, have destroyed art -- e.g., the Buddhas of Bamiyan -- on the basis of idolatry, which wouldn't have factored into other regimes). The Venn diagrams might not overlap 100%, but there'd certainly be a big chunk in the middle shared among them.

There's more about issues of art and totalitarianism here. The question of socialist realism in the Soviet Union is particuarly interesting, because its dominance didn't happen overnight -- it actually took eight years from the time Stalin seized power in 1924 till the time he declared socialist realism to be state policy in 1932, thus officially ending the avant-garde that had initially flourished around the years of the revolution.

Interestingly, this made for a period early in the cold war in which abstract art was officially promoted by the U.S. as being the art of democracy, freedom, etc., particularly in Germany in the immediate post-WWII years leading up to the division between the FRG and the GDR.
posted by scody at 5:01 PM on July 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's not just "Let's go over to Rudolph and Jurgen's BBQ next door!" it was "Let's go see the degenerates next door and make sure they know their place." It was an invitation to join their group of bully boys. They set the agenda, and the agenda always included preconcieved notions.

So it's more like a Metafilter art thread.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:02 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


shakesperherian, are you saying you're feeling bullied here? I apologize if that's the case. I'm just trying to engage your questions in good faith, on a subject I find incredibly interesting and that I've happened to work on professionally (I work at LACMA, often with the same curator who mounted the Degenerate Art show in '91). I'll bow out now.
posted by scody at 5:09 PM on July 19, 2011


No, I'm not feeling bullied here, and in fact your first response to me seems to back up my thought process to some degree, so I mostly find it amusing that a few people seem to be under the impression that I don't get it at all. Mostly I'm jabbing right now at the way that most 'Hey look at this neat contemporary artist!' threads go, which is in the 'That's not art, it's stupid and ugly' direction.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:12 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sorry, shakesperian. I kinda forgot I was on Metafilter, and totally missed the wryness in your posts.
posted by julen at 5:42 PM on July 19, 2011


A general rule of thumb" totalitarian nations detest individualism, ie, jazz etc and adore massed movements, ie, a zillion Chinese parading, performing as a huge group. In the massed thing, you merge with the entire group--the big nazi rallies, whereas in "dispised" art, the uniqueness of the individual is what is attractive.
posted by Postroad at 5:47 PM on July 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


To be fair, Adorno (no fan of fascism, *cough*) was highly critical of jazz, too, Postroad. Though what he likely meant by jazz is probably closer to bebop or even something resembling pop music, etc.

Sorry, it is Pavlovian: I see the words jazz and fascism and my mind instantly leaps to Adorno. Stupid hair-trigger mind.
posted by joe lisboa at 6:16 PM on July 19, 2011


Thanks for the reply, scody. Really interesting stuff.
posted by roll truck roll at 9:39 PM on July 19, 2011


Video: "Failed artists were characteristic of the leadership of the third Reich."

The web still has its apologists: Wilhelm Furtwängler and Music in the Third Reich
Hitler's reputation as a bitter, second rate "failed artist" is undeserved.

When I was six years old, I was left alone looking through some books owned by a relative. One of them was a collection of news photos from WW2. One of the images in that book frightened me so badly I had terrible dreams, woke up sweaty and terrified for a few days.

The photo, from a prison camp, has remained burned in my brain. It documented a truly degenerate art. To this day when I hear those claims about "improving the world", that bitter image arises in my mind.

It's terrible, what fear can force us to accept, to turn our eyes away from. I like to think that when they suppressed that art, their doom became inevitable. Because doing so revealed their fear of its power.
posted by Twang at 1:01 AM on July 20, 2011


But that's a specific aesthetic and critical point of view that's highly unlikely to have been available to the vast majority of the audience seeing the show in Germany in 1937

Indeed, I'm not sure this view would even exist, in large part, were it not for the Holocaust putting paid to the social currency of fascism itself.

Showing a bunch of people some art that is considered pretty damn good

In modern terms, yes, and in a free society, yes, but keep in mind the critical reception of new art movements in their own time: often quite negative. Impressionism is now in many ways the quintessential highbrow "living room art", but the critical disdain from establishment voices was severe. Even the name "impressionism" comes from a dismissive aside in a negative review^.

I had the opportunity to see major art museums on family vacations year after year, and never realized how inaccessible modern art could be until we went to one with my cousin, who grew up in a more limited environment and went to a Christian school. She was utterly baffled by a wood sculpture that to her looked like little more than a marble set.
posted by dhartung at 1:10 AM on July 20, 2011


The inverse, of course, is the CIA's support of abstract expressionism, as propaganda.

(The idea being to sponsor avant garde art to show how free expression was in the west, but it had to act in secret because the general public thought the art was... well... degenerate.)
posted by Grangousier at 1:29 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Many "avant-garde" artists between the wars were Jewish as emphasized in this recent article about a recent exhibition at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.
Here are three short videos about Degenerate Art. It is worth checking wiki as well, if only for a list of artists at the 1937 Munich show.
Degenerate Art was also a travelling show through Germany. Jimmy Ernst in his autobiography A Not so Still Life writes about seeing the exhibits in Hamburg and recognizing works by many painters he had known since his childhood and including " to my secret delight Max Ernst. His painting hung in a special section entitled Insults to German Womenhood"
La Belle Jardiniere had a prominent place between Ernst Kirschner and Otto Dix, and was not seen again.
posted by adamvasco at 6:05 AM on July 20, 2011


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