In March, shortly after the Neue Galerie in New York opened its exhibition “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” lines were forming outside the ornate Fifth Avenue mansion the museum calls home. The gallery recently announced a two-month extension of the show — through Sept. 1 — in response to record-breaking attendance. Visits to the exhibition have been twice the gallery’s average over the past few years, and the catalogue is selling at four times the usual rate.
The exhibition explores one of the most notorious chapters in art history, the exhibition of “Degenerate Art” organized by the Nazis in Munich in 1937 to mock modernist trends in art and further their anti-Semitic and anti-communist ideology. Like a larger exhibition in Los Angeles in 1991, the Neue Galerie show features some of the work that was in the original Nazi-organized show. The subject is fascinating, but so, too, is the strange, and ongoing, cultural rebranding project that it furthers: A label that was once used to discredit art has become a gold standard for authenticity, emotional depth and high quality.
In the mid-1990s, for example, the Decca recording label had considerable critical success with a series of CDs — branded as “Entartete Musik” — devoted to the music of composers the Nazis considered degenerate. And late last year, when a reclusive German art collector named Cornelius Gurlitt was discovered in possession of an astonishing trove of art, including works by “degenerate” artists such as Otto Dix, Franz Marc and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, part of the fascination undoubtedly had to do with the status given these artists by the murderous philistines who hated their work.
There is something more here than mere lingering fascination with the Nazis. There is nostalgia, too, for a way of looking at art that is confident in its judgment. “Degenerate Art” seems to invite visitors to do what is all but impossible at any exhibition of contemporary art today: travel quickly from the surface of the work, its subject and style, to judgment about its larger cultural and political worth. In an age of almost universal confusion about the direction and status of art, the Neue Galerie offers an alluring invitation: Here, perhaps, we might enjoy an oasis of moral clarity about the connection between art and politics.
But this is dangerous. Consider a wall-sized painting called “The Four Elements,” by Adolf Ziegler, who was president of the Reich Chamber of Art. It is in a classical style, depicting four blond women sitting on a low bench. One holds a torch, another a bowl of water, a third has her hair slightly in motion, and the fourth, slightly older, is doubtless the allegorical figure of Earth, mother of us all. The painting is self-consciously old-fashioned, with flowing drapery, a tile floor that looks borrowed from a Dutch interior, and a sky-blue background. It was owned by Adolf Hitler and hung above the fireplace in one of his salons.
The Ziegler, a triptych, is placed next to a similarly scaled triptych, “Departure,” by Max Beckmann.
The Beckmann is a big, noisy, brawling work, full of images of torture and mutilation, surrounding a central figure of a regal woman holding a blond child. Painted in 1932-35, the work seems to reference Beckmann’s precarious position during that period: The Nazis forced him out of a teaching job in 1933, and he fled the country in 1937. Nazi aesthetes would have found implications of madness and moral decay both in the ambiguous subject and the expressionist style of “Departure.”
By contrast, Ziegler’s work is more muted, perhaps a bit insipid and static, but by no means inept. Beckmann and Ziegler were both looking back to historical precedents in German and northern European art. Beckmann’s style suggests his interest in stained glass; Ziegler’s reveals his devotion to the cool clarity and meticulous realism of painters such as Rogier van der Weyden. They are also both using figurative art to construct allegories, Beckmann’s ambiguous and disturbing, Ziegler’s clear and reassuring.
But for its association with Hitler and Ziegler — who organized the 1937 “Degenerate Art” show with work confiscated from German museums — one might make a case for the “Four Elements.” Forget the fact that the women were meant to be exemplars of the Aryan ideal of beauty — the blond boy in Beckmann’s “degenerate” painting looks just as Aryan. Many collectors, if left to their own natural instincts, might well consider it beautiful. And given the poly-stylistic chaos of today’s art world, and the treacherous currents of irony that make it difficult to interpret a work without knowing the artist’s agenda, it’s easy to imagine Ziegler’s work being reevaluated, even redeemed, as a solid effort from a minor painter whose primary sin was being a little behind the times.
But of course that wasn’t Ziegler’s primary sin. His unforgivable sin was being fully, unrepentantly and opportunistically a Nazi. Worse, he used his power as one of Hitler’s favorite artists to advance his career. He did whatever was asked of him, and when he opened the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in 1937, he spoke the language of totalitarian polemic fluently: “You see around us monstrosities of madness, of impudence, of inability, and degeneration,” he told the crowd. “What this show has to offer causes shock and disgust in all of us.”
The 1937 Degenerate show was hastily organized to complement the “Great German Art Exhibition,” intended as a splashy and fully Germanic opening display for a new Munich museum in which Hitler had taken a deep personal interest. The two shows would underscore something the Nazis thought would be obvious: The power of proper German art versus the decay and degeneracy of modern art. But the whole thing was a debacle: Not enough competent art could be found for the sanctioned exhibition, and by one estimate four times as many people flocked to see the “degenerate” work.
Hitler and his culture minions quickly realized that once you evicted the modern camp from German art, there wasn’t much left. Part of the problem was that the art they considered self-evidently degenerate was slowly becoming its own, established style. The intellectual buzz and energy belonged to the modernists, and many of the painters championed by the Nazis were deeply resentful of being out of fashion. These men, including hacks even more pernicious than Ziegler, were often driven by bitter personal grievances; their campaign against modern art had the special ferocity of a professional grudge match.
Grievance, unfortunately, isn’t a coherent platform on which to build a cultural agenda. As several essays in the catalogue make clear, there was bitter infighting and deep disagreement in Nazi circles about what proper Nazi art should look like. Joseph Goebbels, who built an extraordinary personal power base as head of the Nazi propaganda office, was sympathetic to some of the modern trends, including expressionism, which others in the party felt might legitimately be the basis of a new, nationalistic German art. He threw his weight behind the rather simple-minded mockery of the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in part to shore up his power with Hitler and do an end run around even more virulent philistines who were also angling for power.
None of this, obviously, is clear simply from looking at Ziegler next to Beckmann. From the comfortable vantage point of the present, it might seem possible to judge the men by the work: Ziegler is old-fashioned and finicky; Beckmann is bold and emotive; Ziegler is cold and calculating, Beckmann direct and confrontational. But all of this is projection. Distrust of modernism fit into a Nazi ideology of degeneracy and had deep roots in German culture; but Nazi cultural ideology wasn’t particularly coherent, and if the personal politics had gone a different way, some of what was mocked as degenerate might have been celebrated as prototypically German. The music of Wagner — deeply expressionistic, and set to texts that would have been deemed degenerate if read with any attention — was avidly endorsed by the regime. The Italians, for example, embraced futurism as a quasi-official Fascist style, despite its radicality, as made clear by another New York exhibition at the Guggenheim.
We do know that Hitler’s personal taste favored ideals of clarity and subject matter that fit his political agenda. “Being German means being clear,” he once said. And “anything with any claim at all to the name art can only be Greco-Nordic.” Applying these ideas led to a lot of bland statuary (there are some examples on display) and to paintings like that made by Ziegler. But one could just as easily argue that there is perfect clarity in works by Kokoschka and Lyonel Feininger and Beckmann.
So this exhibition has competing messages. The easiest, quickest and dumbest truism is that the Nazis unfairly demonized great artists, creating a pantheon of artist-martyrs whom we continue to celebrate today in part as recompense for how savagely they were treated. But the other message is that the practice of art is always deeply political, there are always winners and losers, and many artists, like other professionals, are very good at the infighting, undercutting and self-promoting it takes to climb the greasy pole.
To condemn Ziegler as a Nazi is to make a necessary historical judgment on his character; to condemn him as an opportunist is to recall how universal this kind of behavior was, is and always will be. At every company with a new CEO, the hacks and the aggrieved and resentful wannabes will always rush into the office first. This is human nature.
The Neue Galerie exhibition is disturbing, for all the usual reasons. It seems absurd today that anyone could not be moved by the supposedly degenerate works on display. But even more disturbing are a few of the competently rendered, realist works that fit the Nazi aesthetic. They don’t condemn themselves. Nothing about them makes the dark story of their origins manifest.
They may be less interesting than the serious work, but on purely artistic grounds, they are not beneath contempt. They are dark reminders that what we may have come to find — a clear, powerful connection between art, aesthetics and morality — is still elusive.
“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” is on view at the Neue Galerie in New York. For more information, visit www.neuegalerie.org .