Degenerate art: Entartete Kunst
When democracy is under threat, the fruits of a democracy, even a flawed one, are quickly plucked and the branch cut to forbid growth or continued support. This especially involves the creative arts, including literature, cinema, music, theater, painting and sculpture, or anything that might oppose the new order. An assault on the democratic tradition of freedom of expression signals something worse to come. If unchecked, the rot grows vitriolic and endemic. The rise of the Third Reich in Germany, and the ensuing battle for control of Europe, and by extension, western and global culture, is a primary example of the delicate alliance between democracy and art.
Entartete Kunst, or the degenerate art show, was a result of the ransacking the Nazi party inflicted on German art museums and private collections. Bauhaus, Cubism, Dadaism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Impressionism, New Objectivity and Surrealism were deemed inferior to National Socialist idealism, and the result was an artistic and social realignment for Nazi Germany from the modernest period. The result of this destruction, and by extension the failed democratic experiment of the Wiemar Republic, was an exhibition of “corrupt” art that opened in Munich in 1937.
Hung in a jumbled, chaotic way in claustrophobic rooms riddled with graffiti, the exhibit included pieces by (easily recognizable today) Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Salvador Dali, among hundreds of others. The attack on democracy was not just on German art, but an onslaught against the democratic traditions of other nations as well. Democracies, usually, inherently recognize the artistic values of other democracies. The same cannot be said for Nazi Germany.
Hermann Göring hand-selected stolen valuable pieces for his personal collection. In 1939, 4000 pieces were burnt. The Nazi’s auctioned off some of the pieces in Switzerland. Deemed illegal after the war and largely returned to the proper museum or the victims’ descendants, legal battles over ultimate ownership still exist today. Peggy Guggenheim, Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee rescued 4,000 at-risk artists, including Marc Chagall and Max Ernst. The Red Army carted off an untold amount that still might be in storage at the Hermitage. In 2010, extension work on the Berlin subway revealed hidden sculptures from the exhibit. Even though so much was lost, it’s some reassurance that there might still be gems out there.
In the end, Entartete Kunst went on to be viewed by over 3,000,000 people in Germany and Austria. The Nazis has inadvertently created, and paid for, the first blockbuster exhibition. While the Nazis intended to eradicate much of what today are beloved pieces of the 20th centuries, art, and democracy, found a way to fight back. Food for thought for censors and revisionists everywhere, and our much needed never-ending vigilance to ensure all points of esthetic view are tolerated, not just the ones you or your government like.