About this term
Source: Oxford University Press
Term used by the Nazis in Germany from the 1920s to refer to art that did not fall into line with the arts policies of National Socialism, chiefly avant-garde work. The term ‘degenerate art’ has been used generally to describe art perceived as signifying decay, and usually forms of art production in chronological proximity. It has been used in a polemical context to enhance the value of a specific aesthetic viewpoint. The first known example is the assessment made by the Italian bourgeoisie of the 14th century of medieval art as a barbaric relapse when compared with antiquity. The Italian writer and statesman Niccolò Machiavelli employed the term ‘degeneration’ (corruzione) in his Discorso of 1581. It was used by Giovanni Pietro Bellori in his polemic against Giorgio Vasari and Michelangelo. It is also used generally to mean irregular or against the rules, in contrast with the dominant aesthetic trend, which is set up as the rule. In this sense the term ‘Baroque’ was also initially intended to be disparaging. At the end of the 19th century the term was used in association with Nietzsche’s concept of decadence. It was later used in this sense by Thomas Mann, who regarded the artist as ‘a social outsider prone to be tired of life’ (1987–8 exh. cat.) and considered this predisposition to be the basis of the need for artistic creativity. Familiarity with crises and melancholy was viewed as the cause and driving force of artistic genius, which found its expression in a new artistic subjectivity. In contrast, in his book Entartung (1892–3), Max Nordau viewed Naturalism, Symbolism and Realism as decadent art movements that had originated in the ‘degeneracy’ of their founders, and he proposed that they be combated in the interest of health. This perception was essentially in line with Emperor William II’s ideas on art and with the imperial criticism of art, which, on occasion, even stigmatized Impressionism as ‘gutter painting’ (Gossenmalerei). William II had attempted to regulate art, claiming, in his speech at the inauguration of Siegesallee in Berlin in 1901: ‘Art that goes beyond the laws and limits imposed on it by me ceases to be art.’ In 1913 a resolution ‘Against degeneracy in art’ was passed in the Prussian house of representatives. In Germany these defamations were always closely linked to nationalistic tendencies.
With the growth of German nationalism from the end of the 1920s, the term was increasingly present in the art propaganda of the National Socialist Party and applied to everything that did not conform to Nazi goals. It became the central concept of their art policy, being used in the battle against ‘foreign infiltration’ (Überfremdung) of art. Citing petit-bourgeois artistic taste as ‘popular sentiment’ (gesundes Volksempfinden), the Nazis had instigated a wide campaign of defamation within all the arts. It was directed against avant-garde tendencies, both national and international, which had developed from the late 19th century. By 1930 the Minister for Culture and Education, von Thüringen Frick, had already proclaimed his programme ‘Against Negro culture—for German national traditions’, aimed particularly at the Expressionists, and he ordered the removal of 70 paintings from the permanent exhibition of the Schlossmuseum at Weimar. Also in 1930 Hildebrand Gurlitt, the museum director in Zwickau, was dismissed for promoting such artists as Emil Nolde, Heinrich Zille, Ernst Barlach, Otto Dix and others. In March 1933 Bettina Feistel-Rohmeder, the director of the Deutsche Kunstkorrespondenz, called for the removal from the museums of all works revealing ‘cosmopolitan and Bolshevik aspects’. The purpose of this propaganda was the bringing-in-to-line (Gleichschaltung) of the arts within a Nazi state. Art’s only task was to illustrate the ideas of National Socialism and the glorification of the State. Feistel-Rohmeder demanded the seizure of ‘degenerate works of art’. Museum directors were either forced out of office or relieved of their duties following the first defamatory exhibitions of 1933: Regierungskunst von 1918 bis 1933 in the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe; Novembergeist im Dienste der Zersetzung in Stuttgart; Kulturbolschewismus in Mannheim; Schreckenskammer der Kunst in Nuremberg; Kunst, die nicht aus unserer Seele kam in Chemnitz; and Spiegelbilder des Verfalls in der Kunst in Dresden. The latter was sent by the Mayor of Dresden, Zörner, as a touring exhibition in Germany. The Law for the Restoration of Civil Service with Tenure, passed on 7 April 1933, facilitated the dismissal of directors for ‘the promotion of degenerate art’. In October 1936 the ‘temporary’ closure of the modern wing in the Kronprinzenpalais in Berlin was ordered, though intended to be final. All these actions were arranged and coordinated by the Reich Ministry of the Interior for Information and Propaganda under Goebbels, in conjunction with the Gestapo. In 1937, under the newly elected President of the Reichskammer für Bildende Künste, Professor Adolf Ziegler, a commission was set up to select works for a planned exhibition of Entartete Kunst upon orders from Goebbels. One day after Hitler opened the first Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung in the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (now the Haus der Kunst), in Munich, the Entartete Kunst exhibition in the Archeologisches Institut in Munich began (19 July 1937). The skilfully anti-aesthetic hanging and the defamatory commentary on the works did not fail to achieve propagandistic success. In a reduced form, this exhibition toured to Leipzig, Berlin and Düsseldorf (1938), and to Chemnitz, Frankfurt am Main and Vienna (1939).
By August 1937 the wide-scale confiscation of all works of art in museums designated ‘degenerate’ had already begun. According to records, a total of 15,997 works of fine art were confiscated from 101 German museums. This action was justified by the Law on the Confiscation of Products of Degenerate Art, passed belatedly on 31 May 1938. Works affected were those of classical modernity, works by artists of Jewish descent and works of social criticism. Only a few were retained and hidden through the brave manoeuvring of individual members of museum staff. The artists themselves, assuming they had not already left Germany, were forbidden to paint or exhibit. In addition to confiscation, destruction took place of murals and architectural monuments, among others. In May 1938 Goebbels instigated the establishment of the Kommission zur Verwertung der Beschlagnahmten Werke Entarteter Kunst. Confiscated works were stored in depots and from there sold to interested parties abroad (the Nazis hoped for a source of revenue for foreign currency, which was needed for the rearmament programme), and sometimes exchanged (Hermann Goering made exchanges with older works of art for his private collection). In 1939, 125 works were put up for auction in Lucerne, including works by van Gogh, Gauguin, Franz Marc, Macke, Klee, Kokoschka and Lehmbruck. The end of the Aktion entartete Kunst was signalled by the burning of 4829 art works in the courtyard of the Berlin Fire Brigade.
From Grove Art Online