Warning: Misuse of Art Leads to the Gulf of Barbarism

Over the past few months, we've heard a great deal about Adolf Hitler and the lessons to be learned from the world war he provoked.

Whether those lessons apply to the conflict with Saddam Hussein is a topic for another time. But if the Gulf War is indeed an anti-fascist struggle, the proper historical analog is Mussolini, not Hitler. As a reviewer in the Economist recently pointed out, "It takes a special sort of incompetence, if you run a medium-sized Third World country, to maneuver the United States into a shooting war with you."

Incompetence was not a Nazi failing. Rather, one of their particular perversions was the subjugation of modern virtues, like competence and efficiency, to ancient barbarism. Those who wish to study that firsthand ought not look to the Persian Gulf, but to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's remarkable exhibition, "Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant Garde in Nazi Germany."

The exhibit re-creates to the extent possible what its curator, Stephanie Barron, calls "the most virulent attack ever mounted against modern art," the infamous show of "degenerate"--which is to say, disapproved--painting and sculpture the Nazis mounted in 1937. Part of the show's shattering impact arises from its juxtaposition of a great and advanced art with the Nazis' tortured denigration of it. But, to an unexpected degree, some of the exhibit's power is in what it suggests about our own ongoing crisis of free expression.

There are, certainly, critical differences between the Nazis' total war on artistic culture and our own recent skirmishes over the National Endowment for the Arts, the work of the late Robert Mapplethorpe and recordings by rap musicians. The apprentice Torquemadas among us are, after all, restrained by constitutional democracy and the saving grace of the jury system.

But in substance, if not in scope, the attack on contemporary art mounted by Jesse Helms, Dana Rohrabacher and others is inescapably similar to that of the National Socialists. There is the same alleged but implausible concern with respect for women, religious symbols, national dignity and the values of an idealized home and family. There is the same preoccupation with "pornography" and the same demand for beauty and an art "the people can understand."

Last Sunday's Calendar section printed letters from some of the people Helms and Rohrabacher have in mind, including a man who wrote that he agrees "with much of what Hitler said about art." So, too, do a surprising number of the people with whom I spoke at the County Museum this week.

Most simply declined to discuss the show. Others paused briefly to denounce the art as "ugly" and a "waste of time and money." One man told me this "junk" made him sympathize with Hitler.

Then I met Elizabeth and Louis Newman.

He is 72, of medium height with a shock of wavy gray hair and a beard to match. She is slender and grave with a sort of watchful quiet. Like the bit of red paint on her sleeve, it confirms her vocation as a painter. Both project that warm and lively attention one recognizes as the fruit of an engaged intellect and a certain age.

They have been married for more than 40 years. As they walk, they touch hands.

It was the second time he had been to see the exhibit. "But it still is difficult to talk about it. I am a German Jew. I was born here, in the United States, but until I was 7, I spoke only German with my family. Then the other kids started kidding me and I stopped.

"I was in the service in World War II. It meant a lot to me to see the places my family came from, but there was so much that was terrible, too. I guess I've tried to hold those memories and my feelings back all these years.

"But seeing this brings it all back. It makes it hard to appreciate the art. My wife is an artist . And, through her, I've come to appreciate this great art. So I tell myself that the important thing is that so many of these wonderful paintings are here to be seen."

"These paintings," Elizabeth Newman said, "are so moving that, standing there with them, I started to cry. I want to thank (County Museum Director) Rusty Powell for hanging them here. The German curators and gallery directors who first showed this work were very brave, and I'm thankful that tradition is being continued here."

I asked whether the exhibit made them think about the NEA, Mapplethorpe retrospective and 2 Live Crew controversies. Or did they seem trivial in the shadow of this historic tragedy?

"No," Louis said, "we've thought about it. It's impossible not to. We are against censorship in any form. But I have a great faith in the basic strength of our institutions, in their respect for freedom. They come and they go, these periods of repression. But we survive them.

"I used to take people on over these questions, but not anymore. Age makes me feel vulnerable--physically vulnerable. But I still have an inherent belief in our society's respect for people and their freedom."

Had that sense of vulnerability led them to consider whether some restrictions on expression might not be desireable--restrictions, say, on anti-Semitic speech?

"No, no," Louis said. "We are against any censorship of the arts or speech. Look, I don't like anti-Semitism, but there are all sorts of things I don't like. I don't like racism or people who smoke in restaurants or drunk drivers. But what are you going to do?

"All you have to do is go in there," he said, waving toward the museum, "to see that censorship doesn't stop anti-Semitism."

All at once, it was cold. I thanked the Newmans for their time. We shook hands, and I watched them walk away.

I wanted to be warm. I walked to my car and drove east on 6th Street to La Brea Avenue, parked and began to walk north. I passed the galleries and the cafes, the coffeehouses and the secondhand clothing stores, the synagogues and the yeshivas. I passed Asian working men and groups of young bohemians in earnest black. Hasidic Jews in beards, dangling side curls and long coats bustled past, lost in their purposeful distraction.

Joseph Goebbels, I thought, would not like this at all. Neither would Jesse Helms. I held that thought, and it warmed me like a second sun.

Whistling, I hurried on toward a place I know where, on the lucky days, poets gather in the afternoon.

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