PRINT October 2014


“Degenerate Art”

WHEN I WENT TO SEE “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” at the Neue Galerie in New York, I found a line snaking from the museum’s Eighty-Sixth Street entrance and around the corner onto Fifth Avenue. I joked to my neighbor that it was like waiting to see the enormously popular, Nazi-organized namesake exhibition. Crass humor aside, I expected to enjoy the show, which featured National Socialist art alongside the “degenerate” work of such artists as Max Beckmann and George Grosz. But I came away unsettled. I was prepared for an exploration of Nazi aesthetic politics, not for a presentation geared to elicit sympathy for German museums.

As the opening wall text explained, the National Socialists removed more than twenty thousand artworks from state-owned museums. “The altered and even distorted faces of important museum collections, the irretrievable losses of art, and legal relationships that are still disputed today are some of the lamentable effects,” the text continued. If the tenor of this assertion seemed slightly off—its lugubriousness suggesting a lack of critical distance—a more discordant note was struck in a hallway that doubled as a narrow gallery. Here, viewers encountered a juxtaposition that vividly evoked the context of persecution. On one wall was a photomural showing visitors queued up to see the show in Germany circa 1937; on the opposite wall, another photomural showed Jews arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau. I found the implied equation of Jews transported to death camps and artworks purged from German museums disturbing. Even if the campaign against art may have paved the way for that against people, the misfortune of inanimate objects under the Third Reich is not a tragedy commensurate with genocide. I could not help but recall Stephanie Barron’s landmark 1991 show, whose title, “‘Degenerate Art’: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany,” signals both the similarity and a key difference between the exhibitions: Barron’s “avant-garde” may refer to art or artists, whereas curator Olaf Peters’s “modern art” focuses unambiguously on objects.

My unease grew in a large gallery that also sported photographs as wallpaper. This time, the pristine Dresden of 1935 could be seen opposite the ruins of Dresden after the 1945 firebombing. Now what was I supposed to think? That the suffering of the Jews and other persecuted groups was comparable to that of the Germans? Walter Hahn’s photograph of a statue gazing down on the devastated city was used to bear witness against the Nazis for bringing about the destruction of the very culture they championed, as evidenced by the red swastika that someone (the historical record does not indicate who) painted onto the original transparency. I failed to discern the swastika in this black-and-white rendition, initially mistaking the image for a very similar photograph of the same view by Richard Peter, which is iconic in Germany and (as historian Steven Hoelscher has shown) has served a gamut of agendas, including, notoriously, the neo-Nazi revisionist emphasis on German victimhood. Why would the curator, who was surely aware of the fraught multivalence of this view, choose to give it such prominence?

Turning to the exhibition catalogue for enlightenment only heightened my concerns, as certain contributors seem to be soliciting the reader’s pity for German art museums. Peters, for example, says the purge “represented a terrible loss and destruction of German culture that in some cases has yet to be compensated today.” He writes as if it goes without saying that the losses should be compensated. But German museums are not Jewish heirs. The moral calculus in each case is entirely different. The legal calculus is hardly straightforward, either, as a catalogue essay by historian Jonathan Petropoulos makes clear. For one thing, a 1938 law retroactively legalizing the purge remains on the books. In 1948, German museum officials concurred with the American authorities’ decision not to repeal the law, fearing that any attempted clawback would damage relationships with patrons. Whatever one thinks of this rationale, it was based on self-interest. Yet Petropoulos does not take these institutions to task, even as he suggests that everyone who sold art for, or bought art from, the Nazis is morally suspect, irrespective of the fact that such transactions effectively saved artworks.

Both in the exhibition and its catalogue, I objected not so much to the presentation of an argument in favor of restitution as to the way the argument was made: through a conflation of museum-as-victim with Jews-as-victim, and by manipulating viewer response instead of inviting us to engage with the complexity of debate. In the last gallery, empty frames posed as the only trace of missing masterpieces—except the frames had never housed the paintings described in the captions, historical reconstruction giving way to evocation in a strategy reminiscent of some installations commemorating the Holocaust. If the heavy-handed exhibition design elided historical complexity, however, it could not efface it. Peters hoped the face-off between Nazi and degenerate art—the kitsch of Adolf Ziegler’s triptych The Four Elements, 1937, versus the brilliance of Beckmann’s own triptych Departure, 1932–35, for instance—would prove the avant-garde’s aesthetic superiority. But reality, to say nothing of the relation of art and politics, is never that simple or tractable—as I was reminded when I heard a docent say that when she polled high school students visiting the show, half of them said they wanted to take home a National Socialist painting.

Bibiana Obler is an associate professor of art history at George Washington University in Washington, DC.