degenerate art

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A term coined in Germany in the 1930s to discredit all contemporary art that did not correspond to the ideology of the Nazi party. Such art, which included most avant-garde work, was systematically defamed and suppressed in Germany throughout the period when the Nazis ruled the country, 1933–45. Adolf Hitler and Alfred Rosenberg (the chief theoretical spokesman of Nazism) linked art with political doctrines and racial theories, attacking modern art as ‘political and cultural anarchy’. Nazi-approved art was thoroughly traditional in concept and technique, and it favoured themes (often militaristic) that glorified Hitler and his ideals of Aryan supremacy. Hitler made his first speech against ‘degenerate art’ (Ger., entartete Kunst) at Nuremberg in 1934, and a series of exhibitions designed to ridicule modern art culminated in an infamous show (also called ‘Entartete Kunst’) that opened in Munich in 1937 and then went on tour round Germany. The works on display were confiscated from German museums and were mocked by being shown alongside pictures done by inmates of lunatic asylums. The artists represented were mainly German (by birth or residence), but a few foreigners were included. Among the total of over a hundred were many distinguished figures and several of the giants of 20th-century art: Beckmann, Ernst, Grosz, Kirchner, Klee, Kokoschka, Marc, Mondrian, Picasso (the inclusion of Marc caused some embarrassment, for he had been killed in action fighting for Germany—as a volunteer—in the First World War). As a propaganda exercise the exhibition was a huge success, more than two million people visiting it in Munich alone. Living German artists whose work was declared degenerate were forbidden to exhibit or even to work, and people who sympathized with modern art were deprived of their posts in museums and teaching posts. Some of the confiscated works were sold at auction, Nazi officials helped themselves to others, and the ‘unsaleable stock’ is said to have been burnt in Berlin.

Subjects: Art.

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