ART : COMMENTARY : The Ties That Bind : The reconstruction of the 1937 'Degenerate Art' exhibition reflects a rising--and malevolent--tide of modern-day populist rhetoric

When I hear the word 'culture,' I release the safety catch of my Browning revolver. --Nazi writer Hanns Johst in his 1934 play, "Schlageter"

In 1934, Gustav Hartlaub became the first museum director in Germany to be fired by the National Socialist government. He had been director of the Kunsthalle Mannheim since 1923, and he had made the museum an important center for the new art of the day. During his tenure, exhibitions of Edvard Munch, James Ensor, Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka and the Bauhaus school were organized and shown, while purchases were made of modern paintings by Ensor, Beckmann, Marc Chagall, George Grosz, E.L. Kirchner, Robert Delaunay and many others.

Shortly before Hartlaub's ousting by the Nazis, Chagall's stark and commanding 1912 portrait of a Jewish rabbi, who has pinched a bit of snuff from a little jar by his open book, was removed from the museum by authorities and put in a window display on a public street. Beside the picture was placed a dramatic sign: "Taxpayer, you should know how your money was spent!"

If the invocation sounds familiar, that's because a claim of taxpayer money supposedly wasted on vulgar art has been revived of late in the United States. A few politicos have repeated it like a mantra in relentless assaults on the National Endowment for the Arts:

* "No artist has a preemptive claim on the tax dollars of the American people to put forward such trash," declared Jesse Helms on the Senate floor, referring to federally funded exhibitions of photographs by Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe.

* "As Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R.-Long Beach) so aptly explained," wrote Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich in a letter to The Times, "public financing of the above is inappropriate use of taxpayer funds."

* "The National Endowment for the Arts: Misusing Taxpayers' Money" exclaims the title of a recently published broadside from the Heritage Foundation, a prominent right-wing think tank with ties to the White House.

Comparing today's troublesome efforts at government censorship of the arts with the brutal repressions of the Nazi regime of the 1930s is, of course, risky business. The United States in the 1990s is hardly the Germany of a half-century ago. And, regardless of how frankly evil certain politicians in our midst seem to be, Adolf Hitler they are not.

Still, it would be equally foolhardy to ignore undeniable parallels between the Nazi purge of modern art between 1934 and 1937 and the politically motivated attempts at artistic censorship that have grabbed headlines during the past two years. For this reason, it's worth paying special attention to the benchmark exhibition called "Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany," now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

This exhaustive and expansive show, skillfully organized by LACMA curator Stephanie Barron, examines a worst-case scenario of daunting proportions. The silencing of the avant-garde in Germany was critical to establishing the totalitarian terror of the era. The LACMA show chronicles the tightening of the noose.

Literally thousands of modern paintings, graphics and sculptures were rounded up from state-funded German museums. That they were state-funded is crucial to know. Like today's attack on the NEA, which is a federal agency, and on such publicly supported museums as Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art and Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, the National Socialist assault on modern art was first launched through entities affiliated with government, and thus endowed with an imprimatur of officialdom.

Chagall's "Rabbi" was among the paintings denounced as offensive to populist officialdom, and among the hundreds that the Fuhrer personally approved for inclusion in "Entartete Kunst," the 1937 display in Munich of so-called "Degenerate Art." (Unfortunately, the Chagall could not be borrowed for LACMA's presentation.) The Munich show meant to ridicule modern art and thus inflame the German public. A special point was made of labeling each work by artist's name, title and date--and of listing the price paid by taxpayer money for its public acquisition.

The show was a huge popular hit. Its seven rooms were loosely divided into a variety of rather vague themes, but two recurrent ones stand out: art whose subjects were religion or sex. Like taxpayer appeals, these are highly personal, and highly emotional, topics. We saw their usefulness again in the initial blitz on the NEA, as Mapplethorpe's sexually explicit pictures and Serrano's photograph of a cheap plastic crucifix submerged in urine made for a one-two punch of supposed obscenity and blasphemy.

"Insolent mockery of the Divine . . . " began the Nazi slogan written on the wall next to Emil Nolde's monumental 1911 painting, "Life of Christ," in the first room of "Entartete Kunst." The gallery contained only religious paintings, most of them vividly Expressionist, while the second room was devoted solely to paintings made by Jews. (Six of the 122 "degenerate" artists were Jewish.)

The third room featured nudes. "An insult to German womanhood," raved the heading on one group of bold, primitivist paintings and carvings. A self-consciously male society, National Socialism made sharp distinctions between depictions of women meant for private use and those appropriate for public--and therefore political--display. The often wild sensuality of Expressionist art violated those public prohibitions.

In the admirable catalogue accompanying the LACMA show, historian George L. Mosse demonstrates how any threat to the Nazi version of manliness was held to be a public threat to moral respectability. "Entartete Kunst" was organized explicitly to demonstrate the consequences of any rejection of social and sexual norms.

The German word Entartete was actually a biological term, which described a plant or animal that had changed to such an extraordinary degree that it no longer belonged to its species. When applied to Kunst , or art, it meant painting and sculpture that was so "inherently deformed" as to no longer constitute art at all. The eradication of modern painting and sculpture did not constitute an aesthetic assault, for the work of Chagall and the rest simply wasn't considered art by National Socialists.

LACMA's Barron points out another essential fact: The eventual extermination of millions of Jews, homosexuals and the mentally disturbed did not, in the Nazi mind, constitute genocidal murder, because they weren't considered human beings at all. "Entartete Kunst" was an early warning of that ideology's grotesqueness.

"I don't even acknowledge the fellow who did it was an artist," said Jesse Helms to his Senate colleagues in his 1989 rebuke of the photograph by Andres Serrano. Denying artistic status, and thus legitimizing the political repression of a point of view, is a venerable tactic.

So is the more elaborate route taken by neo-conservative critic Samuel Lipman in his NEA assault. He adopted the aforementioned distinction between public--and therefore politically sanctioned--display and private use in his condemnation of federal funding for art that rejects social and sexual norms. "People have always had their private pleasures," he wrote, "and as long as these pleasures remain private, confined to consenting adults, and not immediately injurious, the public weal remains undisturbed. But, now we are told that what has been private must be made public. . . . But we can say no, and not only to our own participation as individuals in this trash."

Conservatism's version of manliness is violated by public affirmation of homosexuality. NEA sanction of the art of Mapplethorpe--as of Tim Miller, Holly Hughes and John Fleck--is thus intolerable. Their threat to a reigning social and sexual norm of manliness is held to be a public threat to moral respectability.

Similarly, the recent Heritage Foundation report condemns the federal agency for a supposed "bias against traditional forms of art and traditional values in general." Which is to say, condemns it for funding any art that veers from social norms in the United States today.

For these observers, as for many others, a purge of the NEA would demonstrate the consequences of that rejection. With this political objective in mind, the average citizen's distrust of modern art can be leveraged to formidable effect, simply through the vigorous use of populist rhetoric.

Significantly, the National Socialists advanced their cause through a thundering, carefully orchestrated clash between modern art and populist sentiment. The golden glow of populism resonated with the beleaguered German people of the Depression era. In a slumping United States, it has been the order of the day for quite some time as well.

During the 1988 presidential campaign, to cite an obvious example, George Bush's image-savvy advisers made an explicit point of having the candidate regularly seen and photographed extolling the virtues of pork rinds and beef jerky, with country singing stars Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle beaming at his side. Their aim was simple. At a time of rising economic uncertainty, of growing skepticism over seemingly insurmountable domestic social problems and of edgy discomfort with the nation's decline in global stature, relative to other ascendant powers, this was no time to be extolling as the people's choice a wealthy, Yale-educated, skull-and-bones Connecticut blueblood.

The Bush portrait needed to be redrawn. Better the picture of a go-it-alone Texas wildcatter at the helm than one of an effete Eastern snob.

And so, the picture was artfully changed. Bush's handlers deftly relegated an elitist picture of their candidate to history's musty attic, where all tattered or out-of-date items go. In its place, facing the national living-room sofa on TV, they boldly hung a populist version of their man. The Uptown Wimp was transformed into an All-American Guy. Voters smiled.

Politics has, and always has had, an aesthetic dimension. This image-crafting game has been played ever since there have been politicians to play it, but the nature of the game has been dramatically changed by television and electronic technology. In our media-driven era of overnight ratings and instant polls, where popular opinion is immediately gauged and then sold back to itself, a fervently populist style is appropriate.

There is a price. Rote repetition of majoritarian slogans, which populism requires, squashes citizenship's argumentative public spirit, flattening it into narcissistic self-congratulation. An idealized profile gets held up in a mirror, and we are vainly asked for our approval. Actual independence and individuality--the sense of being an American citizen--is denied.

Populist eras tend to be very bad times for art. Majoritarian slogans just don't fit well with a discipline whose very basis is the vigorous diversity of free expression. In our own populist moment, art has been taking a serious buffeting. It could be worse--and it might well get to be.

The Fuhrer suppressed the avant-garde in similar ways and for similar reasons, but he also actively championed conventional, academic art. Across the way from "Entartete Kunst," he mounted "Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstel-lung"--the Great German Art Exhibition--the first of eight annual shows. Hitler had been a failed painter in his Austrian youth, but the dictator's staunch support for charming landscapes of the Fatherland, exalted military subjects, stoical portraits and chaste nudes was far more than simple dilettantish enthusiasm. Politically, Hitler knew how useful the arts could be: By promoting only art the masses enjoyed and understood, his own authority and power could be enhanced.

During difficult times, any art's rejection of social norms is easily exploitable by clever politicians waving populist banners. The aesthetic dimension of the Nazi program lay in its deft creation of a basic populist illusion that the people actually rule. Its true, coercive contempt for the individualism and integrity of the rank and file is easily concealed.

That is why, when the Heritage Foundation condemns the National Endowment for the Arts for "spending millions on art that the vast majority of Americans find neither uplifting, ennobling, beautiful, nor meaningful"; or when Dolo Brooking, director of the arts administration program at Cal State Dominguez Hills, complains that the NEA erred in giving grants to difficult projects because "the people were entitled to understand the arts they were supporting"; or, when Sen. Helms scoffs, "I like beautiful things, not modern art," it is worth pausing for a long and reflective moment. For whose real benefit are they trying to silence art?

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