American Degeneracy

Michael Lobel on Confederate memorials and the history of “degenerate art"

View of the Statue of Liberty from Frederick Wellington Ruckstull's Altar to Liberty: Minerva, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. Photo: Anthony Catalano.

SOME HAVE BEEN INCLINED to view the recent removal of Civil War monuments as a turn away from the past. To many of us, however, it is a prompt not for less but rather for more history—which is to say more clear-eyed, more unflinching, more detailed historical inquiry—that would help us better understand the circumstances under which those markers were erected in the first place, often decades after the war’s end.

This is just one of many stories comprising that history, one that I think should be better known.

In 1916, a new monthly magazine appeared on the US art scene. Published in New York, The Art World was a deeply conservative if not reactionary affair, announcing its ideological commitments on the cover of its first issue, which featured the highly classicizing motif of a bust of Zeus enclosed within an elaborate triumphal arch.1 There was much about the publication that further underscored those ideological tendencies, including what would become a regular and recurring feature, a section devoted to judging the aesthetic merit of works of art. Among the various categories to which artworks were assigned, which included the great, the clever, and the trivial, the most redolent phrasing was reserved for describing—or perhaps more accurately, decrying—those that were deemed to cling to the lowest rung of the aesthetic ladder, a group composed exclusively of modern works designated as “degenerate art.”

For those with even a passing familiarity with the history of modern art, that term conjures one of the most infamous cultural episodes of the twentieth century, when it was used by the Nazis in the 1930s to denigrate works of art seen as antithetical to the “Aryan” values the party sought to cultivate. It became the title of a traveling exhibition, first staged in Munich in 1937, of more than six hundred modern artworks seized from German museum collections, a massive cultural propaganda effort aimed at turning the public against the putative decadence of avant-garde artistic innovations.

In this context, and given how notorious the German episode has been in accounts of twentieth-century art, our attention might already be drawn to the appearance of nearly identical rhetoric in an American art publication some two decades prior to the Nazis’ “Entartete Kunst” exhibition. But there’s more to the story than that. Those columns in The Art World appeared under the byline Petronius Arbiter—yet another nod to the classical past (it is one of the names ascribed to the author of the Satyricon) and the chosen pseudonym of Frederick Wellington Ruckstull, the editor and guiding force behind The Art World.2 The journal was something of a second act, or at least a side gig, for Ruckstull, who was then in his sixties. For by the time the publication appeared, he had already distinguished himself as a major American sculptor, one who in the prior decade and a half had come to be deeply invested in creating a particular brand of statuary: that of Confederate memorials. Ruckstull thus offers a conspicuous link—one in need of further examination—between the production of Confederate monuments in the US and Nazi cultural policies, in their overlapping engagement with the rhetoric of racial supremacy, idealizing sculptural forms, and the anti-modernist discourse of degeneracy.

The concept of degeneracy that both Ruckstull and “Entartete Kunst” drew on can be traced back to the text Entartung (Degeneration) by the physician and critic Max Nordau. That book, which was published in the early 1890s and was translated and widely distributed throughout Europe and the US in the years that followed, attacked a range of cultural developments in myriad fields—literature, music, and the visual arts among them—as symptomatic of fin de siècle social decline and decadence (Oscar Wilde was one of Nordau’s more high-profile targets). The text spawned a veritable cottage industry of like-minded critics often referred to, in the scholarly literature, as “degenerationists.”3

View of Frederick Wellington Ruckstull’s Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Baltimore covered in red paint, August 14, 2017. Photo: Jerry Jackson/Getty.

The Art World, then, was certainly not the first or only venue for the propagation of such a platform. In fact, the journal’s first issue featured a reprint of an article by the English physician T. B. Hyslop, a specialist in mental illness who worked for years at Bethlem Royal Hospital in London (the bastardized name of which gave us the word bedlam), and who equated modern art with the art of the insane, a signature degenerationist tactic that Ruckstull and the Nazis would also make use of. Even given that wider discourse, The Art World was still arguably the American organ that most fully elaborated a degenerationist sensibility, and certainly one of the most notable venues where that sensibility was applied to the visual arts. Over the course of its year-and-a-half run, The Art World published numerous lengthy screeds that pushed the descriptive language of opprobrium to its limits, describing modern works not simply as “degenerate” but as “ugly,” “vulgar,” “vile,” “inept,” “abnormal,” and “monstrous” (to cite just a few of the terms put to use). In the inaugural issue, Ruckstull contrasted Raphael’s Transfiguration, which was touted as “The Greatest Picture in the World,” with a Degas pastel of a bather that he singled out as his first exemplar of artistic degeneracy. (His dismissals of artists weren’t always blanket; several months later, he—rather begrudgingly—afforded a “clever” label to a picture of a dancer by Degas.) From that point on, the magazine offered up one work after another for abuse in a lineup that to us looks instead like a list of modernism’s greatest hits, among them Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, a van Gogh self-portrait, and Cézanne’s bathers—with not just one but two versions of the latter coming in for castigation in separate installments. In the spring of 1917, Ruckstull published a veritable degenerationist manifesto, declaring that when an artist “boldly departs from the beauty of nature, and by a process of de-formation uglifies those forms which the cosmic volition strives unceasingly to make beautiful, and does this deliberately through a false philosophy, he is intellectually either an undeveloped or a degenerate.”4 For Ruckstull, it wasn’t enough just to condemn modernist artworks; the artists responsible for these repellent creations were degenerates themselves, and he drew on racist tropes and the quasi-medical language of physiognomy to attack them. He declared Cézanne “semi-insane” by virtue of photographs of the artist’s head that presumably showed “evidences of degeneracy lurking in his eyes and radiating from his cranium,” while a van Gogh self-portrait revealed “a villainous looking jail-bird with . . . a deformed Neanderthal skull, degenerate ears, Choctaw cheeks, Chinese eyes, hobo beard, and insane glare . . . .”5

In a 1998 text that is newly relevant for its examination of the ideological histories of national icons and monuments and its call for a form of “patriotic iconoclasm,” the art historian Albert Boime carefully tracked the parallels between Ruckstull’s rhetoric and that of the Nazis’ own formulation of degenerate art some two decades later. Boime ultimately concluded that Ruckstull’s writings, in The Art World and later publications, were very likely a direct influence on the Nazis’ conceptualization of and approach to the “Entartete Kunst” exhibition.6 Although there is no surviving documentary evidence I know of that would establish that link definitively, Boime’s supposition aligns with more recent writings by historians such as James Q. Whitman, who in a 2017 book mapped the strong influence of American race laws on Nazi anti-Jewish policies and legislation.7

Leaving the creators of Confederate monuments anonymous implicitly absolves them—and the institutions that comprised the art world of the time—of complicity in their conception and preservation.

If Ruckstull’s vituperative attacks on modernist art have been framed as a reaction to the display of such works in the 1913 Armory Show, his deep involvement with creating Confederate memorial sculpture must have had a major hand in shaping his response as well.8 In the two decades or so leading up to his writings in The Art World, Ruckstull had devoted his artistic career to developing a detailed symbolic sculptural language for the Southern ideology of the so-called Lost Cause. The list of monuments he created includes the Confederate Soldiers Monument in Little Rock, Arkansas (1905); the South Carolina Monument to the Women of the Confederacy (1912); and the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Baltimore (1903). (The latter received a Black Lives Matter tag back in 2015, several days after the Charleston church shooting; two years later, after being doused in red paint, it was removed along with other Confederate monuments in Baltimore by a vote of the city council.) In addition to actively pursuing commissions from groups like the Daughters of the Confederacy, he published writings and lectures that convey the attention he lavished on the iconographic schemes of these figural works, all of which adopted a classicizing sculptural language similar to those that would later come to be embraced by fascist regimes, including those of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.

A substantial swath of the recent journalistic coverage of the debate over Confederate monuments has left the creators of those works unnamed. This might seem a fairly innocuous omission, but I wonder if the failure to identify a maker tends to frame these as akin to vernacular objects that have somehow popped up spontaneously in the landscape, like so many poisonous toadstools after a heavy rain. Leaving the creators anonymous implicitly absolves them—and more broadly, the institutions that comprised the art world of the time—of complicity in the conception, manufacture, installation, and preservation of those monuments. Given that Ruckstull is no longer an immediately recognizable name to most of us, it would be easy to dismiss him as a marginal figure, yet he was in fact a central and active member of the art world, deeply involved in such organizations as the National Sculpture Society (which he helped found), the Municipal Art Society of New York, and the National Arts Club.9 When he later repackaged a selection of his writings into a text entitled Great Works of Art and What Makes Them Great, the book was widely distributed and went into multiple printings that were heavily advertised across the US (in one 1936 newspaper ad, the book shared column space with The Decameron and Roget’s Thesaurus).

Although Ruckstull was a frequent visitor to the Southern states, so much so that at one point he was made an honorary citizen of South Carolina, he was in fact a longtime resident of New York City, which came to be a repository of some of his sculptural efforts as well.10 In 1920, his sculpture Altar to Liberty: Minerva, which commemorated the Battle of Brooklyn, the first major skirmish after the US declared independence from Britain, was unveiled in Green-Wood Cemetery, at one of the highest geographical points in Brooklyn. The pose of Minerva, with her left arm raised high, was meant to echo that of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s Liberty Enlightening the World, better known as the Statue of Liberty, which is visible from that very spot. Ruckstull’s sculpture was explicitly intended, then, as a visual complement, creating a call-and-response of sorts across New York Harbor.

View of Frederick Wellington Ruckstull’s Altar to Liberty: Minerva in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. Photo: Wally Gobetz.

Ruckstull almost certainly would not have known it, but Bartholdi’s statue was initially conceived by the French to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the United States, which is why an early version of the figure held broken shackles in her left hand.11 Although they were eventually replaced by the tablet now nestled in the crook of her arm, a set of broken chains still remain at her feet. I’ve come to see the relationship between Bartholdi’s and Ruckstull’s figures as a microcosm of American history, in which celebrated ideals and values cannot be separated from the repressive and destructive impulses that have shaped the nation as well.12 Where the one, a gift from France to the US, stood for international cooperation and comity, the other amounts to a relatively bland and toothless representation of military might (in addition to her obvious martial garb, Minerva is the goddess of war); where the one invokes America’s foundational systems of enslavement, the other avoids the specific stains of history by looking instead to the generic imagery of an antique past; where the one provides literal illumination in her torch held aloft, the other offers a listless, empty salute. Thus envisioned, the hilltop figure is a grim but necessary complement to the better-known statue in the harbor. Ruckstull’s contribution comes to stand not as an inspired homage or “altar to liberty,” as its title claims, but rather as a stunted and diminished echo of its distant counterpart, fittingly relegated to the land of the dead.

Michael Lobel is Professor of Art History at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.


1. On the first issue’s cover, see “Art: The Completion of a Great Work,” The Nation, December 28, 1916, 619.

2. The artist’s given surname was Ruckstuhl, but he Americanized it to “Ruckstull” during World War I. See “Ruckstull Changes Spelling of Name,” The State, January 20, 1918, 12.

3. See, for instance, William Greenslade, Degeneration, Culture, and the Novel, 1880–1940 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), esp. 120–33.

4. Frederick Wellingston Ruckstull, “As to Degeneracy in Art,” The Art World (April 1917), reprinted in Albert Boime, The Unveiling of the National Icons: A Plea for Patriotic Iconoclasm in a Nationalist Era (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 349.

5. Petronius Arbiter (Frederick Wellington Ruckstull), “A Degenerate Work of Art: ‘Bathers’ by Cézanne,” The Art World 1, no. 3 (December 1916): 206; and Petronius Arbiter (Frederick Wellington Ruckstull), “A Degenerate Work of Art: ‘A Portrait of Himself,’ by Van Gogh,” The Art World 2, no. 2 (May 1917): 165.

6. “I will go one step further and state what until now has been overlooked: Ruckstull was a major source of inspiration for the notorious exhibition Entartete Kunst—Degenerate Art—as well as its immediate forerunners in Dresden, Karlsruhe, and Mannheim that gathered Modernist examples into a single space for the express purpose of defamation.” Albert Boime, The Unveiling of the National Icons: A Plea for Patriotic Iconoclasm in a Nationalist Era (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 343.

7. James Q. Whitman, Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

8. “Ruckstull’s strong prejudices against anything modern in art exploded after the famous Armory Show in 1913 with a series of articles published in The Art World, a magazine that he established and edited and for which he wrote much of the text.” Albert TenEyck Gardner, American Sculpture: A Catalogue of the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1965), 62.

9. On Ruckstull and the National Sculpture Society, see Michele H. Bogart, “In Search of a United Front: American Architectural Sculpture at the Turn of the Century,” Winterthur Portfolio 19, nos. 2/3 (Summer–Autumn, 1984): 160–63.

10. “‘Au Revoir,’ Mr. Ruckstuhl,” The State, November 23, 1906, 10.

11. Gillian Brockell, “The Statue of Liberty Was Created to Celebrate Freed Slaves, Not Immigrants, Its New Museum Recounts,” Washington Post, May 23, 2019.

12. Bartholdi’s work has not escaped latter-day criticism; his bronze statue of Christopher Columbus in Providence, Rhode Island, has been splashed with red paint by protesters on Columbus Day numerous times in the past decade.