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Culture shield

When Sajid Javid was appointed to the role of Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, there was some sniffiness about his alleged lack of a cultural hinterland. It seems that in the course of working his way up from a Pakistani immigrant family background to the heights of the financial and political worlds, he’d neglected to spend enough time hanging around the right theatres and galleries.

Perhaps the art world should be grateful for politicians who don’t take too close an interest in culture – because, let’s face it, the precedents for those who do aren’t encouraging. In a thought-provoking essay for the Smart Set, Morgan Meis tackles the most notorious culture-vulture of them all:

“Hitler loved art. His taste tended toward classicism. The Greek ideal of beauty was his general standard in aesthetics.”

His cultural policy was interventionist, to say the least. Consider the following extract from one of Hitler’s memos on the subject:

“If some self-styled artist submits trash for the Munich exhibition, then he is a swindler, in which case he should be put in prison; or he is a madman, in which case he should be in an asylum; or he is a degenerate, in which case he must be sent to a concentration camp to be ‘reeducated’ and taught the dignity of honest labor. In this way I have ensured that the Munich exhibition is avoided like the plague by the inefficient.”

Meis suspects that a “number of contemporary curators and museum directors feel roughly the same way” but notes that Hitler was “willing to go that extra mile” and actually “send artists to prison, the asylum, and the concentration camp.”

The Nazis organised an infamous exhibition of “Degenerate Art” by which they meant modern art. Commenting on a contemporary exhibition of surviving works that featured in the original exhibition, Meis makes the point that the Nazis are still influencing our view of art, if only by negative example:

“The danger is that we enter the exhibit already ‘knowing’ that all the art the Nazis thought was bad must be good, and that all the art they thought was good must be bad. There is some truth to this. But it is an easy truth. The question is whether we should ever approach the history of the Third Reich looking for easy truths.”

By reactively and deliberately holding to the exact opposite of the aesthetic views held by the Nazis, we erect an artificial barrier between them and us – as if we belong to a completely different culture that couldn’t possibly succumb to the totalitarian impulse. This is a dangerously complacent assumption and one that overlooks the potential for extremism that exists in all societies.

Furthermore our understandable reluctance to  have anything in common with Hitler is not consistent. For instance, Nazi economic policy before the war – which was strongly Keynesian in character – hasn’t done much to dent the popularity of similar policies with contemporary Keynesians on the liberal left. However, art, unlike economics, is seen as something that springs from the soul, which is why automatically hating the art that Hitler loved, and loving what he hated, seems like a good idea.

However, the mirror image of a distorted, simplistic worldview is still distorted and simplistic. By letting Nazi preferences define what we should and shouldn’t value in art, we miss the bigger picture:

The artists Hitler tended to despise were the artists who, more often than not, chose to play with outright ugliness in their work. Even thoroughly non-Nazi art critics like Robert Hughes have wondered, often and with great pathos, why Western art so thoroughly abandoned beauty in the course of the 20th century. Lamenting the loss of beauty is not shallow and it does not lead to evil.”

Morgan Meis goes on to advance the subtle but powerful argument that “the lament is not the problem… the problem, perhaps, comes from the idea that beauty can be an act of will.” In other words, Hitler could only see beauty in strength (or at least his notion of strength). The Nazis hated the idea that anything good could come out of brokenness – a key theme of western art before the 20th century and especially of religious art:

“This was a spiritual insight utterly intolerable to Hitler. Hitler had emerged from his own pain and suffering with a different idea: Strength comes from strength, power from power.”

Much of modern art goes to the opposite extreme: confronting its audience with the ugliness and weakness of the human condition – but leaving things there, finding no beauty and no redemption.

There is, it would seem, more than one way to crush the human spirit.

3 comments for: How the Nazis are still distorting our view of art

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