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Does Degenerate Art Turn Us Into Nazis?

When viewers at Neue Galerie deprecate the works National Socialists held up as emblems of perfection, whom are they hurting?

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Adolf Ziegler (1892-1959) The Four Elements: Fire (left wing), Earth and Water (center panel), Air (right wing), 1937 Oil on canvas 66 7/8 x 106 1⁄4 in. (170 x 270 cm) Pinakothek der Moderne, Bayerische Staatsgemaeldesammlungen, Munich (bpk, Berlin/Art Resource, NY)
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Neue Galerie’s current exhibition, Degenerate Art: the Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany 1937, has received overwhelmingly positive press—so much so that Neue recently extended the show’s run until September; epic lines stretch around the block, and Neue’s special exhibition galleries are stuffed full with visitors. With titles such as “First They Came for the Art,” and “Making a Mockery of Hitler’s Mockery of Degenerate Art,” critics insist that the strength of Neue’s exhibition lies in its display of Modernism’s strength: The “good guys,” like the “good” modern artworks, have persevered, allowing us to now denigrate or criticize the art of the enemy. The formerly “degenerate” works are anthropomorphized as surrogates for human resilience, while the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition becomes an emblem of Nazi tyranny.

As one example, in his New York Times review, Holland Cotter, referencing the exhibition design, writes:

“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” at the Neue Galerie, opens with a quietly devastating compare-and-contrast. The walls of the narrow hallway leading onto the first gallery are covered with facing photomurals. The image in one dates from 1938. It shows the exterior of the Schulausstellungsgebaude in Hamburg where the traveling antimodernist exhibition called “Entartete Kunst”—“Degenerate Art”—has opened. The line of visitors waiting to get in stretches down the street. The photo on the opposite wall is from 1944. It shows Carpatho-Ukrainian Jews newly arrived at the railroad station at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They are densely crowded together along the length of a platform that runs far into the distance and out of sight. The message is clear: The event in the first picture led or contributed to that in the second.

The photographic comparison—not to mention Cotter’s article title, “First, They Came for the Art,” a reference to the famous Martin Niemöller poem—argues that the popularity of the Degenerate Art Exhibition, the exemplification of Nazi persecution of modern artists, paralleled support for or enabling of the Nazis’ attempt at systematic genocide. By implication, the survival and current praise of modern over Nazi-approved art becomes then as much a proof of Allied victory and moral superiority as the continued existence of the Jewish people.

Artistic survival or destruction as metonymic barometers for human survival or destruction is a similarly prominent theme in the show’s catalog. Neue President Ronald Lauder’s preface argues that National Socialist-approved artworks included in Neue’s exhibition act as surrogates to understand the “entire scope of the Nazi plan.” Curator Olaf Peters’ catalog essay “Genesis, Conception, and Consequences” asserts that the Degenerate Art Exhibition’s “discourse on ‘degeneration’ … led to the reality of mass murder.”

Such sentiments are not incorrect. The conceptual link between a “cleansing” of art and a subsequent ethnic “cleansing” of the German population is, and has been, well-established. Thus, in our current celebration of art branded “degenerate,” we, as respectful viewers of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or the works of the Bauhaus, enact the failure of the Nazi agenda, and represent “good” triumphing over “evil.” However, despite the prominence of this thesis in exhibition reviews, such a message is not all, nor even primarily, the narrative revealed by the show.

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Let’s return to Neue’s photographic parallels: the juxtaposition of Jews, waiting on line, newly arrived at the train station at Auschwitz-Birkenau with a photograph of eager exhibition-goers, waiting on line to see/mock the works at the Degenerate Art Exhibition. What really is similar about these two photographs? People waiting on lines during the Third Reich? The Jews, torn from their homes, lives, families, await their fate and, for most of them, their deaths. And the other image? Individuals wait on line to see art. Art by artists many of whom were victimized by the Nazis, art in a compositional approach that certainly was under attack by the National Socialists, but art nonetheless. The photographic parallel is meant to suggest that the collective fervor of Nazi propaganda, the throngs excited to denounce “Jewish-Bolshevik” artists, signaled the mentality necessary to accept the Holocaust.

Though Neue’s photographic juxtaposition casts the crowds outside the Degenerate Art show as the perpetrators compared to the Jewish victims, such an accusation is presumptuous. It is quite possible that many of those visitors in 1937 followed the party line of the Degenerate Art Exhibition and came to and away from the show with their beliefs in the degeneracy of such artists and artworks, the threat it posed to the true, German Volk, strengthened and intact. However, it is equally possible that some visitors attended the show to see good art, regardless of its framing. Curators can dictate which and in what manner works are to be presented, but between curatorial intention and a viewer’s reception lies an uncontrollable gap. In the same way that advertising campaigns may be impressionable to some but innocuous visual noise to others, the program for the Degenerate Art show may have declaimed the horrors of the works displayed but couldn’t ensure that the viewers themselves agreed with that sentiment.

To accord these works of moral and mental failing the “honor” of a catalog for the exhibition’s travels throughout the Reich, to identify these works as valuable and therefore auction them off in Lucerne in 1939, and to have several of these pieces make their new homes within the abodes of the Nazis themselves, constitute just a few examples not only of Nazi hypocrisy, but also of an ambiguous Nazi response to the modern masterpieces. Take the 1937 installation shot of the “Dada Wall” and the 1936 poster by Hans Vitus Vierthaler (prominently displayed at the entrance to Neue’s exhibition) for a “degenerate” art exhibition that preceded and influenced the 1937 show. Though the “Dada Wall” ironically repurposes a quote from the 1920 Dada Fair in Berlin, “Take Dada Seriously!—It’s Worth It,” the works displayed are presented against a background containing a (seemingly loving) interpretation of Wassily Kandinsky’s style. Though Kandinsky is listed on the Dada wall, and Kandinsky’s writings were integral to the creation of Zurich Dada, Kandinsky was not a member of Berlin Dada, the movement the “Dada Wall” in particular hoped to criticize. Regardless, the 1937 exhibition team took the time and effort amidst writing wall text of condemnation to really look at the Kandinskys they censured, enough so that they could attempt to imitate, or, dare I say it, emulate his style. Similarly, the graphic black, white, and red design of Vierthaler’s exhibition poster, in which a black triangle penetrates a red circle, with the triangle tip an arc of white, is strikingly reminiscent of the works of El Lissitzky, such as the 1919 lithograph “Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge.” Lissitzky, a Russian artist alternately identifying as a Suprematist and later a Constructivist, returned to Germany in 1921, was responsible for spreading a Suprematist/Constructivist aesthetic to Europe, and created, while in Germany, pioneering examples of exhibition design, such as his 1927 Hanover “Abstract Cabinet.” In other words: To advertise an exhibition condemning modern, progressive, avant-garde art, Vierthaler lifted, borrowed, or, again, emulated the style of one of the premier avant-garde practitioners of the time.

Peters’ emphasis on multiple works by Emil Nolde and Ernst Barlach highlights the muddled definitions of what was “degenerate” according to the Nazis. Joseph Goebbels possessed an early affinity for not only German Expressionism but also the works of Nolde and Barlach—an affinity that, to the aspiring Nazi Nolde’s despair, quickly turned to condemnation under the auspices of Hitler’s cultural standards. What was “degenerate,” with Goebbels’ shifting preferences an example, was really a matter of taste—Hitler’s taste—and “taste” represents a highly personal, difficult to quantify entity. Take, for example, the Nazi-sanctioned works Peters includes. The exhibition reviews, and the catalog, variously explain the inclusion of such works as a means of comparison, or as a way of doing unto Hitler’s works what he did to modern art. And in fact when I visited the exhibition, many visitors were doing just that: commenting on how “bad” or cheesy Adolf Ziegler’s “The Four Elements” or Richard Scheibe’s “Decathlete” were.

Yet it is too easy to view these works as a means to “return the favor” to the National Socialist cultural program by mocking the works they once held up as emblems of perfection. While one could describe Hitler’s preferred aesthetic as narratively straightforward, more naturalistic, and, in many cases, directly illustrative of not only the ideal Aryan bodies but also of National Socialist agendas of health, values, and family, the reality is that many of these works were a little odd. In the main exhibition room, the juxtaposition of artists deemed “degenerate” with those favored by the Third Reich in some part highlights the similarity of technique—and, thus, the extent to which taste, rather than any empirical designation, determined whom was to be praised and whom condemned. The National Socialist body as articulated through sculpture was just as exaggerated or non-naturalistic as a Barlach body: While Barlach’s figures attain their emotive power through calculated deviations from natural physiognomy, the heroic men of Hitler’s taste may appear as “normal” men, but their musculature, torsos, and facial features have been overstated. The works of Josef Thorak (though, with their monumental scale, not included in Neue’s show) are another telling example: Favored by Hitler, Thorak’s giant stone men present a narrative of Aryan strength through their chiseled, rock-like jawlines and over-emphasized torsos, musculature, and thighs. Distortion is a technique shared by both Nazi and “degenerate” artists—though the ends to which this technique was put, and the visual evidence as a result, were determined by the ideologies hoped to be conveyed through the final products. While the Nazis’ artistic works were certainly propaganda, the works’ compositional strategy was of a piece with that of the avant-garde artists: overstated, non-naturalistic forms as vehicles for emotive or ideological authority.

What, then, transformed an exhibition exploring how the arbitrariness of taste (and, by proxy, the irrational, arbitrariness of racialized hatred) worked to shape artistic and ultimately human fates into a narrative of human perseverance in the face of destruction? In his preface, Lauder very poignantly includes his biography as part of why this show affects him so greatly. He states: “I was born in February of 1944, five months before D-Day. And although I was born in America, had I been born in Europe, I may not have survived. This one equation is something many Jews my age have considered at one time or another. And that is what makes this show even more personal to me.” In her review in the The Jewish Daily Forward, Anna Goldenberg wonders how she is “supposed” to feel when looking at Nazi art, as if one must feel the same certain, immediate loathing toward inanimate works of art as if confronted by the enemies who produced or sanctioned them.

In attending Neue’s show, I, too, found it a task to refrain from anthropomorphizing National Socialist art and seeing Nazi brutality manifested on canvas and reacting in kind—instead of seeing style or technique or even an attempt at art that realized a political agenda. Marianne Hirsch, in her book The Generation of Postmemory, defines this intensity of hyper-personalized connection to a long-distant event as “postmemory”: the condition of approximating “memory in its affective force and its psychic effects.” With postmemory, a parent’s traumatic narrative becomes as real, or more so, in the mind of the child, even though the child may not have lived through the events in question. In this way, “we,” as contemporary, enlightened placeholders for our 1937 counterparts, attempt on the victims’ behalf to take on the enemy, the Nazis and their accusations of degeneracy, and to treat them with the same contempt as they treated “us.” We try to see the world within their black-and-white binary, albeit with the roles triumphantly reversed. Perhaps with further historical distance, such reactions will be tempered. Until then, contemporary responses to the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition will continue to adopt the position of winning easy victories in the never-ending battle against the past.

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Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937

Neue Galerie, New York, through September 1, 2014
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