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Monday, January 3, 2011

Entartete Kunst

Our patience with all those who have not been able to fall in line
 is at 
an end.  What you are seeing here are the crippled products 
madness, impertinence, and lack of talent.  I would need
freight trains to clear our galleries of this rubbish.  
This will happen soon.

Adolf Ziegler, President of the Reichkulturkammer, 1937

Among the many things the Nazis burned was art.  In their attempts to forge a new national identity that reflected their Aryan purity was the effort to control artistic expression and that meant anything contemporary was not sanctioned. Furthermore all this art was exhibited in ways that were intended to denigrate and villify it and also to associate it with the Jewish race and communists, to underscore what they claimed was the negative impact both had on "proper" society.

"Entartete kunst" in German means "degenerate art" - art that was debauched, of low value, contemptible, despicable, shameful - you get it.  The term actually came from a book from 1892 by Max Nordau, a social critic, entitled Entartung.  In his opus, which consists of five books, Nordau identified "a contempt for the traditional views of custom and morality", and sees society imitating what they see in art, which he then goes on to diagnosis as an illness - degeneration and hysteria which points to neurasthenia, a type of mental disorder.  Entartung was not his original concept, but one that had originated in German-speaking countries during the 19th century, and was even made legitimate by a pseudo-scientific branch of medicine called "psycho-physiognomy", thus entartung was accepted as a serious medical term.  Not until Freud and psychoanalysis was this idea challenged.  To be fair, however, Mordau also condemned anti-Semitism, which was growing at the time, as a product of entartung.  This is a significant fact, because Mordau was a Jew.

Max Nordau
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Born Simcha Südfeld in Budapest, he was the son of a Hebrew poet.  He earned a medical degree, then moved to Berlin and changed his name.  He moved again to Paris as a newspaper correspondent and spent most of his life there.  His reaction to the Dreyfus affair - a French Jew named Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of sharing military secrets and then proof of his innocence was suppressed by the military - drove Nordau to Zionism.  He became co-founder of the World Zionist Organization and held executive positions at several Zionist congresses.  But his ideas were influenced by another Jew, Cesare Lombroso.  In The Criminal Man, published in 1876, Lombroso maintained that some people were born criminals whose ability to deviate from social norms could be predicted by abnormal physical characteristics which confirmed them as atavistic.

Cesare Lombroso

Thus the idea of entartung was a growing and prevalent European concept that the Nazis twisted and seized to use as a tool to enforce their goal of purifying culture, albeit from concepts generated by Jews who could never have foreseen the damage that would be done.  I'm sure the irony of this escaped the Nazis.

Adding further fuel to the fire of Nazi concepts of art and race was Paul Schultze-Naumburg, a well-known painter and architect at the turn of the century.  He was part of the group of artists that formed the Jugenstil and Arts and Crafts movements in Munich.  He wrote a nine-volume series of books on art - the Kulturarbeiten, or "Works of Culture", published in 1900-1917.  This series was very popular and established him as a cultural guru of the time.  He went on to become a prominent architect.  After WWI, he became regressive and began to write condemning treatises on modern art and architecture using racial terms, such as Die Kunst de Deutschen.  Ihr Wesen und ihre Werke, "The Art of the Germans. Their Nature and Factories" (1934), and Kunst und Rasse, "Art and Race" (1928).  Schultze-Naumburg  posited that only "racially pure" artists could produce true art, like that of classical Greece and the Middle Ages, while racially mixed modern artists produced inferior art.  The Nazis held that classical art was the true ancestor of Aryan art.

In 1933, the Reichskulturkammer, or Reich Culture Chamber, was established under Josef Goebbels.  This was divided into sub-chambers for each form of artistic expression:  art, music, film, architecture, etc.  Only "racially pure" artists were allowed to create works, and membership was open to only those who met the entrance condition of works which met the Nazi standards, which included no experimentation of style. In June of 1937, Adolph Ziegler, head of the Reich Chamber of Visual Art, created a six-man commission authorized to confiscate any extant art from the various purgings from any museum or collection within the Reich.  These works were to be featured in a massive art exhibit intended to reveal to the public the revulsion of "Jewish spirit" and garner their support of Aryan supremacy.

There were many defamatory exhibits of "degenerate art", but the culmination was one that opened in Munich in July of 1937, and was touted as the exhibit of "cultural documents of the decadent work of Bolsheviks and Jews."  The Entarte Kunst exhibit was held on the second floor of what was once the Institute of Archaeology.  The layout of the exhibit was such that patrons would be in cramped rooms with the art displayed erratically, some unframed, and all hanging by cords.  There was graffiti on the walls, and slogans that were prejudicial and jeering.  Paintings by psychotic patients were also displayed to mock the art. The first room held works deemed to be anti-religious; the second room contained works by Jews; and the third held works considered to be disrespectful of soldiers, women, and farmers, or in other words, the German people.  The rest of the exhibit was helter-skelter with no perceived scheme.  Most of the pieces were identified as Jewish-Bolshevist, however of the over 100 artists whose works were included, only six were actually Jewish.  Prices were hung by each work with inflated amounts that were supposedly what the museums and collections they were from had paid.

Hitler and Goebbels at the Entartete Kunst exhibit,.

Some of the so-called degenerate art was traded at first, for pieces across Nazi-occupied Europe that exemplified the new German art.  Eventually the Nazis just began looting museums and private collections, and taking whatever they wanted. There is a current database for art stolen from Jews in German-occupied France and parts of Belgium.  There is also a registry for looted cultural property from 1933-1945.  On March 20, 1939, at a fire station in Berlin, over 1,000 paintings and almost 4,000 drawings and watercolors were burned.

The "degenerate" self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh is auctioned in Lucerne, Switzerland.
Proceeds of this 1939 auction financed the Nazi Party.

Perhaps because Germany had become the center of avant-garde development - think Bauhaus, Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, Fritz Lang - the German public supported the return to tradition (think "family values"), which made it easy for Nazi imposition of this cultural cleansing.  Although this post focuses on fine arts, all aspects of culture were affected, even philosophy, critical theory, and many fields of academia.  Ultimately, the Nazis' attempt to end the progression of modern art, and modern life, was in vain.  But it was very costly in so many ways.


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