D is for Deformity and Degenerate

| May 4, 2014

From our readings on somaesthetics and Ranciere,  I am inspired to write about ‘Degenerate Art’, from the exhibition currently at The Neue Galerie. The term “degenerate” was adopted by the National Socialist regime (Nazi party) in Germany, as part of its campaign against modern art – which resulted in a statewide purge of all modernist art from museums. In stark contrast to the Hitler commissioned museum housing the “Great German Art Exhibition,” which he had built to showcase his aesthetic ideal, the display of modernist art was “pitched as a freak show”, according to the New York Times review of the current exhibition, with its displays of imperfect bodies, physical discomfort, an eschewal of the perfection and ideals presented in the “Great German Art”. Most of the artworks presented in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition would be “intolerable” in the way that Ranciere initially (or subsequently) describes. Most were not lifelike depictions of atrocities taking place in plain sight (though a few could be described as such).

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Here is the New York Times review of the current exhibition:


According to the article, over 5,000 works were seized, including 1,052 by Nolde, 759 by Heckel, 639 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and 508 by Max Beckmann, as well as smaller numbers of works by such artists as Alexander Archipenko, Marc Chagall, James Ensor, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh.

It is hard to say what effect these images would have had on the public and individual citizens, had they been allowed to stay on view, or if there was a politically motived intent on the part of the artist, considering most had already fled Germany or even committed suicide, it is hard to know.

Self-portrait by Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler who was murdered atSonnenstein Euthanasia Centre in 1943
File:Albert Gleizes, 1912, Landschaft bei Paris, Paysage près de paris, Paysage de Courbevoie, oil on canvas, 72.8 x 87.1 cm, missing from Hannover since 1937.jpg

Albert Gleizes “Paysage de Courbevoie”

To me, they are less like Rancier’s description of Vietnam images by Rosler –  they seem less of an attempt to emancipate or motivate the spectator to action. Instead, to me, they offer a true aesthetic form – one which, taken out of historical or political context could evoke the same responses in the spectator. After removal from their original museums and appropriation by the Nazi party for a very different purpose, it seems neither the intent nor motivation of the artist mattered nor the emancipation of the spectator (as there was no such position available).

The Nazis painted slogans on the walls next to where they hung the stolen art for the exhibition.

For example:

  • Insolent mockery of the Divine under Centrist rule
  • Revelation of the Jewish racial soul
  • An insult to German womanhood
  • The ideal—cretin and whore
  • Deliberate sabotage of national defense
  • German farmers—a Yiddish view
  • The Jewish longing for the wilderness reveals itself—in Germany the Negro becomes the racial ideal of a degenerate art
  • Madness becomes method
  • Nature as seen by sick minds
  • Even museum bigwigs called this the “art of the German people”[28]