On this day in 1938, the Third Reich officially banned and voted to confiscate all “degenerate art,” which apparently meant all art of the 20th century that didn’t depict halo-ed portraits of the fuhrer or creepy blonde children frolicking in the Jew-free German countryside. A year before the official vote, however, Hitler’s Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (a more absurd and truthful title has never been given), Joseph Goebbels, organized a bizarre anti-art exhibit in a political move that was more or less the inverse of wearing an airbrushed Destin, Fl t-shirt that you found at the thrift store in an effort to achieve Coolness Through Irony.
The exhibit was snappily titled “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”) and premiered in Munich on July 19, 1937. Inside the exhibit’s temporary partitioned walls were over 650 modern art sculptures, paintings, prints, and books seized by the Reich Culture Chamber from various German museums and re-displayed in this scarlet letter, public flogging sort of scenario.
Among some of the black-listed artists on display were modernist masters Paul Klee and Paul Kleinschmidt, along with hundreds of lesser known but no less threatening German “Bolshevists,” as they were called, among many other things. Visitors to the museum were invited to climb a narrow staircase, at the end of which was an oversized sculpture of Jesus nearly blocking the way to the exhibit–symbolism that I’m sure earned Goebbels a fist bump from the fuhrer. The rooms were grouped according to theme: the first was “works demeaning to religion,” the second was “works by Jewish artists,” the third was “works insulting to German women, soldiers, and farmers,” and the last was “miscellaneous abominations.” (Okay I made that last one up, but it might as well have been.) the art pieces were purposefully crowding each other, often tilted and hung by cord with sarcastic slogans painted over them. This schizophrenic art criticism included gems such as:
“Insolent mockery of the Divine under Centrist rule”
“Nature as seen by sick minds”
“The ideal–cretin and whore”
“Revelation of the Jewish racial soul”
The exhibit’s opening coincided with the nearby unveiling of the Great German Art Exhibition, a Nazi-approved art exhibit featuring more or less hundreds of versions of this:
The general idea was to pull a little switcheroo on the German public, with a little word association on the side: “This modern art stuff? BAD! Yucky, awful. And…and Jewish! Yeah that’s right. All kinds of Jews up in that art. Now this lovely Adolf Wissel masterpiece, now there’s some art for you! See how he captures the warm glow of far-off air raids? And those expressions of total soul-crushing compliance? Superb!”
As you might have guessed, the Degenerate Art Exhibit proved to be far more successful than the Museum of Ringlets and Fear, drawing in almost three and a half times more visitors during its four-month run. Hitler’s grand scheme failed to take into account what any freshman psychology major will tell you–that by making something taboo, you instantly make it more desirable. I guess it also helps when the thing you’re making taboo is art born out of true freedom of expression rather than propaganda enforced on pain of death. In any case, irony trumped irony like a brightly-colored bike chain ripping through a kafiya scarf.
I think my favorite part of this story, however, is how in trying to crush Germany’s spirit and turn its citizens into little Aryan robots, Hitler actually summoned the inner fighting tiger of Germany’s art community, with German artists such as Edgar Ende and Emil Nolde remaining in their home country even though they were banned from teaching in universities or even from buying paint at an arts supply store, often continuing to work on their art in secret. Despite several public burnings and much theft by high-ranking Nazi officials, some anonymous Germans, who can only be concluded to have loved art and freedom enough to risk their lives for it, buried a small remnant of degenerate sculptures in the cellar of a private house, where they were finally discovered in 2010 by workers building a subway line. You can see some of the sculptures in their new home at the Neues Museum in this article.
I’ll leave you with a few art selections that Hipster Hitler didn’t want you to see. Or rather, that he wanted you to see and then call Jewish try-hard slop and then go listen to his new poetry-core band. And that, kids, is why censorship and Buddy Holly glasses don’t pay.