degenerate art

i. the "infection" of art

In their attempt to control how the German people thought, the Nazis politicized the aesthetic: they fused politics and art . Then they systematically attacked art that they thought was "un-German" and dangerous.

They believed that just as the bad blood of inferior human beings could corrupt the vitality and purity of the German "Volk," bad ideas and bad art could poison the minds and thoughts of the people. The government had to inoculate people against the possibility of such "infection."

The Nazis confiscated all the art from German museums and artists that they thought was "degenerate" and, as bizarre as it seems, they put together a major free exhibition to travel throughout Germany, beginning in Munich in July 1937. They intended the exhibition to be seen by as large an audience as possible. They believed that their presentation of the art and their commentary about it would persuade the "Volk" of how corrupt and unacceptable it was and why it had to be eliminated.

Before moving on to our version of the Nazis' "Degenerate Art" exhibition, take a moment to look at how the Nazis liked to see themselves in art. They were reaching back to the classical world of Greek and Roman heroes, to a version of the human form was supposed to be naturalistic, but the Nazi adaptation of this style--in a sort of Uber-heroic manner--seems almost comical in the modern world. If classical art idealized the human figure, then classicizing the ideal German man or woman was such a marked departure from real appearance that it seemed out of touch with reality. The German Volk did not perceive these modern classicized images as we might today. They saw this revival of classical imagery--a modern-day Renaissance--as restoring old values and a grand tradition. Much of the art that the Nazis were identifying as degenerate was experimental and daring in its audacious colors and distorted representations of human form. Many people did not appreciate modern art, and the Nazi distaste for and dismissal of it reinforced the ordinary person's lack of understanding of it. The Nazis called this modern art degenerate. They identified people as degenerate--entartete--too. The disabled, the alcoholic, the downtrodden, the diseased--all were seen as people who would bring down the German race. Similarly, all of this wild and adventurous art would pollute the pure aesthetic that the Nazis encouraged. Literally, degeneracy would cause a decline in the "generating" of society, as opposed to a regenerating of society that was a goal of the Nazi regime. Both had to be stopped. The art had to be excised from the public and private arena (although ironically, the Nazis sold much of it for considerable profit through Swiss art dealers and auction houses) and the people, seen as a cancer on a wholesome society, has to be eliminated as well.


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