Degenerate Art

In 1937, the Nazi Party put on an exhibition of “degenerate” art.  The standard take on this is what you’d expect: by comparing their favored style (socialist realism kitsch, basically) to the hottest stuff of the avant garde, the Nazis ended up showing the public the cultural poverty of their movement.

Maybe.  I’m not a historian of the 3rd Reich, and you could write everything I know about art on a napkin.  But I do know how to use a google machine, so let’s have a look, shall we?

This is “degenerate” art:

Jan Metzinger, En Canot (Im Boot), 1913

Jan Metzinger, En Canot (Im Boot), 1913

and this is the work of Adolf Ziegler, the organizer of the show, one of Hitler’s faves and an artist colloquially known as the “Reich Master of the Pubic Hair:”

dfe5000d04a84feea90e8daa9007f5aaThat’s The Four Elements, which hung over Hitler’s fireplace (1). Not terrible, but very blah; it looks like a postcard knockoff of a lesser Renaissance painter.  So in the context of the times, the standard take looks like the right one — after 400 years of classical nudes, a genuinely new movement like Cubism seemed to open up all sorts of new artistic possibilities.

But fast forward 80 years.  These days, the “degenerate” stuff simply IS art.  I couldn’t buy a classical nude, even a knockoff of a Ziegler knockoff, at any price.  Ditto “literature” — it’s all MFA wank, with the Michael Chabons and Jonathan Franzens and whomevers in Manhattan awarding all the prizes to folks in another part of Manhattan while their second-person, present-tense quirkfests sit unread on coffee tables (2).  Ditto music.

Hold on a sec.  I’m not just griping about those darn kids today.  The point is that any successful mass political movement is also a cultural movement.  Pick any cultural form you like, and trace it back — you’ll find huge fault lines, giant chasms where the stuff just a decade before looks nothing like what came after, corresponding to extreme political change.  Here, for example, is rococo art, the popular style in France just before the Revolution:

Jean-Honore Fragonard, "The Swing" (1767)

Jean-Honore Fragonard, “The Swing” (1767)

and here’s post-Revolutionary neoclassicism:

Jacques-Louis David, "The Intervention of the Sabine Women," 1796-9

Jacques-Louis David, “The Intervention of the Sabine Women,” 1796-9

We have nothing like high art today, of course, but we do have things like video games and science fiction novels.  And movies.  A decade after its release, The Passion of the Christ looks even weirder.  A hyper-violent Bible epic written entirely in dead languages… that made $611.9 million dollars at the box office.

The point is this: You know a political movement has legs when it gets cultural support.  What was once “degenerate” is now mainstream, and has been for nearly a century.  Art that argues for a “return to tradition” doesn’t look traditional; it looks new and radical, in the same way David’s neoclassicism looked groundbreaking and radical compared to the saccharine of rococo and the hyperactivity of baroque.  A good old fashioned space opera looks shockingly new compared to all the social justice propaganda, just as an old school hack-n-slasher like Baldur’s Gate looks great next to the “updated” version where, instead of bashing orcs, you have to listen to trannies talk about their pwecious widdle feewings.

The blowback is building.  The first politician who really figures out how to harness it is gonna go very, very far…..



(1) Speaking of degeneration, what diplomat today could match the wit of the French ambassador, who said this piece should be called The Four Senses, because “taste is missing.”

(2) Seriously, click on that link.  Have you ever heard of any of those people?  And check the blurbs — I’d need a gun to my head to read that shit, and even then I’d need to think it over for a few of them.  Ex: “The Tiger’s Wife is a saga set in a fictional war-torn Balkan country where a young doctor must unravel the circumstances of her grandfather’s death through his stories of encounters with “the deathless man” and the legend of the tiger’s wife.”  Holy tap-dancing Buddha.

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12 thoughts on “Degenerate Art

  1. nightfly

    I always think of Jane Smiley’s Moo in this context. What a boring book. It was a gift from a well-meaning relative who thought I was wasting time giving one of my younger cousins a copy of The Hobbit for his birthday. “This is real literature,” I was tolded.*

    Real literature is set at an agricultural college, where pointless things happen to the various students and professors – not because any of them chose to do any of them, but because the author decided to run random events at them for the sake of the … well, I’d say “plot” but there wasn’t one of those either. There was even a “sex” chapter in which those scare quotes are fully-deserved. What, everyone got a memo and decided to hook up all at once, in the most boring fashion imaginable? I rolled my eyes harder than anyone rolled in the hay – and I was a virgin at the time I read the thing.

    I couldn’t for the life of me tell you the name of any character, or the name of the school, or anything they hoped would happen; since not a one was capable of hoping to actually DO something, “happen” was the only option.

    Now you might object that it’s unfair to compare such mundanities to the thrilling sword-and-sorcery adventures of a classic hero quest. To which I’d say, “MY POINT.” There’s a reason a classic hero quest can involve any number of fantastical trappings while remaining relatable to the average suburban teenager. But if that wasn’t enough, I can point to another story that features long chapters set at a university – one of which is nothing but the events at a faculty meeting – that was far more gripping and involved, with realistic characters demonstrating agency, motivation, and feeling: CS Lewis’ That Hideous Strength.

    Modern Littrachuh can suck it. I’m out.

    * not a typo; meant to be a combo of “told” and “scolded.” Eh, so maybe it didn’t work.

    1. Severian

      Modern littrachuh is completely unrelatable. Shakespeare’s characters are noblemen who speak in blank verse, but they still make sense — they’re recognizably human, and they do, say, and think things that real people do, say, and think. The stuff on that list, though…. let’s see:

      “Nobody Is Ever Missing follows a woman who leaves her husband and stable life in Manhattan to live in New Zealand, and her subsequent descent into madness.” So…. the dark and gritty reboot of Eat, Pray, Love.

      “A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is the story of a young woman who engages in increasingly violent sexual encounters in an attempt to cope with the trauma of her brother’s struggle with brain cancer and eventual death.” Yup. Good thing I only had an aunt who died of lingering, painful cancer… so instead of increasingly violent sex, I just read a lot of books and watched sports. I know, I know, I’m a weirdo.

      “Fourth of July Creek follows a social worker who tries to help a semi-feral boy living in the Montana wild, only to become entangled with the boy’s extremely disturbed father as his own family disintegrates.” I mean, who hasn’t done that? And let me guess: The kid is a Rousseauvian noble savage who teaches Our Hero that Consumerism is Bad.

      “Tampa is the story of a sociopathic middle-school teacher who seduces her 14-year-old students, a provocative, satirical examination of modern culture and society.” I don’t think the word “satirical” means what you think it means. I’m sure you’re spot on about “provocative,” though. Sigh. Epater les bourgeois. Marcel Duchamp, call your office…. at least you could take a leak on “Fountain.” Oh, and this has already been done — it was called Lolita, and say what you will about the plot, Nabokov had himself a prose style.

      &c &c &c. Unbelievable situations, impossible characters, zero plot… why on earth would anyone read one of those? Call me a lowbrow if you must, but I still think it’s possible to lecture us with your trite, tired talking points about the anomie of life in Consumerland while still, you know, telling a story.

    2. Nate Winchester

      I think you should have went with “sctolded.” As first time I thought you were playing around with a double past tense of “tell.”

      As for That Hideous Strength, that is something I would caution people against reading it too soon. I read it first in 8th grade and remember hating it because I thought it was so dull and there were cheats and plot holes to it. Now that I’ve gotten older and can fully appreciate the Abolition of Man (the most important book relating to the modern age as I keep telling people) I plan to go back to tHS where I know it’ll make more sense to me now.

      1. nightfly

        Actually, Nate, I went with “tolded” because it DID sound like a false past tense as well as a portmanteau. So it was a double, but not the way it sounded. (But again – eh, didn’t work out too good.)

  2. RW

    Painting has always had social and cultural underpinnings – religion, royalty, history, nationalism, etc. But until the late 19th century, depicting beauty and revealing it in various ways (figurative, still life, landscape) was always the paramount concern of the artist.

    The series of schools and movements which followed the Impressionist’s break with realism were all political, all about attacking the bourgeoisie, Christianity, Victorian concepts of decency and morality, and the established order.

    Mere vacuity gave way to transgressive displays of vulgarity late in the 20th century, and Beauty has not been a fixture in “Fine Art” in lo, these many years. Of course, you know to which idols the artists of the past 120 years have dedicated their efforts.

    Roger Scruton has a good essay about the abandonment of beauty and the pursuit of debased attacks on decency at

    When it comes to fiction, I like stories too. Alan Furst spins a good yarn.

    1. Severian

      Painting has always had social and cultural underpinnings

      Nobody denies that. And my choice of Jacques-Louis David as a contrast with Fragonard was a bit disingenuous — a lot of David’s paintings explicitly glorify the Revolution. The fact remains, though, that even apolitical art looks very, very different across the gulf of the Revolution – a radical change in only a few years. Or, in poetry, contrast the late Augustans with the early Romantics — Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751) vs. The Chimney Sweeper (1789) (though, again, Blake is hardly “apolitical”). What happened? The early industrial revolution and the Gordon Riots.

      Art responds to cultural / economic / political change, but, curiously, it seems that the uglier the real world gets, the uglier the hot new art gets, too. But there’s a limit, and we reached it long ago — nothing is more boring and predictable than “transgressive” art these days (“oh, I see your play has a character who reads the Bible and barbecues on the 4th of July. Obviously a gay pedophile. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but …. Godbag Christofascist!”).

      Eventually all “high” art becomes kitsch, and when that happens, you get…. well, you get “transgressive” kitsch, which is the point we’re at now. Remember that ridiculous show Glee? The first politician to step up and say “I don’t care what your religious views are, this is just a celebration of deviance for deviance’s sake, and it’s boring!” will have have the country behind him in an instant.

      Mere vacuity gave way to transgressive displays of vulgarity late in the 20th century,

      The EARLY 20th century, my friend. Duchamp’s “Fountain” — a urinal — was 1917. At least Duchamp had the excuse of France losing a third of its young male population in the trenches. There is no excuse for the Mapplethorpes and Ofilis of the world. Which is again my point — I don’t object to “Piss Christ” because it’s blasphemous; I object to it because it’s boring. Your Thomas Cromwell types were pissing on crucifixes back in the 16th century. By that standard, Ziegler’s paintings look damn good, and Leave it to Beaver looks like the greatest show ever filmed. A politician who said “you know, The Passion of the Christ was a pretty good movie, and you’re not a freak for liking it” would jump 20 points in the polls overnight.

      1. nightfly

        Heh. Recall the pre-Glee musical (and movie) Rent. Much better done of course, and it’s actually a shame the writer died so young, because I wanted to see where he went with things… but the work itself, though creative and well-made, is much as your hypothetical politician described. Hell, they even sang their first-act show-stopping number about it!

        I got in a spot of bother once among fans of Rent by suggesting a subversive idea – that Benny was secretly the hero of the story. Think of it from his perspective: he’s the one of the group who actually finished business school, but despite being labeled at once as a sellout by his layabout pals, he dedicates his additional skills and material success to getting investors to come revitalize their crime-ridden community. (Remember, one of them is mugged and beaten *during the opening number*.) So instead of being evicted by The Man, they’ll get to stay where they love, making a living with their films and music.

        Nope. Not good enough. He regretfully informs them that the only alternative is to be evicted. But even after that, he goes off and convinces the potential investors to actually attend one of the performances. Instead of making a good impression on willing investors, they go out of their way to offend everyone and start a riot.

        And yet even after that, Benny manages to get them to go to a popular local bar and flophouse to see the neighborhood’s potential, to see people at their best – rather than just fleeing to a Ruth’s Chris somewhere uptown. The performers make it a point to go over and personally insult them and drive them out of the bar (with a snappy showstopping tune, of course.)

        Seriously, what else could Benny do?

        Our supposed protagonists are neurotic, self-destructive assholes. A realistic story would have them in the end still miserably squatting somewhere dangerous, whining about The Man Keeping Their Art Down, Man… while Benny and his investors renew a different neighborhood that promptly fills with people looking for a safe place to live and work, with a studio much like they always dreamed of opening together. And THAT would have been so shocking and subversive that it likely couldn’t have been staged – even though all the people who staged the actual musical could NEVER have behaved the way their characters did if they wanted to be actual successful performers.

  3. RW

    “The blowback is building. The first politician who really figures out how to harness it is gonna go very, very far…..”

    Frankly, it’s not looking too good this year. I think that the uniparty is going to scupper Trump, Cankles will return to 1600 P. Ave. and the hammer is gonna come down big time.

    So your predicted Strongman is going to arise in the next eight years and hell’s going to follow behind. What artists are left after the purges are going to be designing armbands.

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