Degenerate Art and The Modern (Sue Wightman)
“IT’S A SICKENING OUTRAGE! Sadistic! Obscene! Evil! ……. These people are the wreckers of civilization!” (Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn)
The ‘Prostitution’ Exhibition at the ICA, London caused an outcry in the national press and parliament. Debate raged against the ‘degenerate’ nature of the show. Yet again art was testing the accepted boundaries and control of human behavior within a supposed civilized society.
Degenerate art became the mechanism through which arts, of all genres, could be criticized and destroyed through reaction and debate based on human behavior in relation to the ‘artistic.’ It was a radical expression of culture that provoked, shocked, outraged, corrupted and led to scandal and controversy.
The term ‘Entartete Kunst’ was introduced by Hitler in 1937, using culture as a means of propaganda and taking the Modern as a weapon against the purity of the human race and the National Socialist expectations of their vision of Utopia. Modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century was experimenting and exploring all aspects of the arts and the artists; musicians and literary communities were searching for a means of expression outside the traditional formats, techniques and experiences for their audiences. In Negative Dialects, T.W. Adorno states: “…art is now scarcely possible unless it does experiment….”
The Modern was the force that the arts interpreters used to become individuals with a need for innovation. In 1913, there was a riot at the first performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” an example of how audiences were being taken out of their comfort zones and thrown into an eclectic world of savagery, primitive and foreign sounds and visual concepts. In Modernism in Focus, by Lucien Jenkins, Adorno declared the work as “a necrophiliac work on account of its focus upon death.” According to Adorno, this individualism was giving a “heightened order of existence” and furthered the cause of autonomy for the Modern culture.
By the 1920s onwards, a series of ‘isms’ had appeared: Impressionism, Expressionism, Dada, Fauvism, Surrealism, Futurism, Symbolism, Cubism, Bauhaus etc. All of these were striving to widen the sphere of experimentation and to push the boundaries to extremes. There were no longer patrons to please and impress; now the focus was on a desire to startle audiences, to reeducate the viewer – especially the bourgeois and politically-motivated – and to contribute to social change or revolution.
Artists explored motifs of sexuality, violence and the extremes of human behavior. Additionally, influences of African and American cultures flourished, and new developments in materials and technologies added to the artistic mixture. These new developments in photography and film were to be used to great effect as propaganda against the very culture that were attempting ‘das Aufbruch,’ or to break out. The historical context as Adorno remarks is that “…the definition of art is at every point indicated by what art once was….”
The dictates also pointed to the concept of ‘What it is?’ and ‘What it is not?’: the motivator of art versus its own identity and past. Art was therefore “…a historically changing constellation,” claims Adorno.
The Modern within this context was in a constant conflict with its own natural resource and refused to be drawn into the defense of its place within the systems for creating truth and freedom. This in turn stimulated intellectual excitement to maintain the balance of power within a context of political motivation and human behavior. Adorno states that “art has struggled hard over the course of its development to establish its boundaries.”
This was put to the test under the Nazi regime: cultural communication was the ground upon which the rival artistic armies battle for supremacy. In Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 review – What Hitler dismissed as ‘filth,’ Jason Farago stated:
It is not the mission of art to wallow in filth for filth’s sake, to paint the human being only in a state of putrefaction, to draw cretins as symbols of motherhood, or to present deformed idiots as representatives of manly strength.
Censorship was politically motivated and led to a conflict of values for the mass culture; a tool of revolution that struck at the heart of modern social existence. The Third Reich took this further and expected conformity to their ideology and a rejection of the bourgeois intellectualism, decadence and the challenging of identity and individualism within race, ethnicity and class. Specifically, they attacked all modern art as being Jewish and a left-wing conspiracy to undermine German culture.
Cultural condemnation of tradition and its anti-representational developments did not fit into the Fascist ‘Blut und Boden,’ where the art connects the viewer to the deep structure of reality. Using the myths of nationalism and racial superiority to create a ‘pure race,’ the fascists utilized traditional and new forms of cultural production, including photography and film (e.g. “Triumph des Willens”). They used them in the celebration of beauty, sexuality, physical strength and superiority through classical aesthetics.
This was also enhanced by a fervor for iconoclastic indulgence. Intellectual and Artistic Modernism was the negated catalyst for the totalitarianism and ‘weltanschauung,’ or worldview, that was expected. Ultimately, artists were forced to seek sanctuary in other countries and the central focus moved from Europe to America. Adorno states that “the side of the mind that is hostile to life would be sheer depravity if it did not climax in its self-reflection.”
This act of reflection allowed the individual to maintain contact with a reality, despite the imagination and fantasies that attempted to infiltrate and human behavior sort to compete with the need for this alternative existence that dehumanized the consciousness. The Modern gave access to imagination and fantasy, but also fell straight into the hands of those with the power to extinguish the degenerate.
On March 18, 1912, Marcel Duchamp received an unexpected visit from his two brothers, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, at his studio in Neuilly-sur-Seine. They informed their younger brother that the hanging committee of the Salon des Indépendants exhibition in Paris, which included themselves, had rejected his Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. The Cubist painters had refused to display the painting, claiming that “a nude never descends the stairs – a nude reclines.”
Where is the nude? – was the question directed at Duchamp’s “Bride Descending a Staircase No.2” of 1912. The work lacked realism. There was no obvious human body. It caused scandal and controversy at The Armory Show in New York (1913).
The artist was depicting his model within the context of the new. He was influenced by the technology of photography, of the actual movement and speed of the body down the staircase. He was experimenting with the Modern. It was taking the viewer into the sexual, the radical and the reactionary. It was provoking the audience to look beyond their bourgeois intellectualism and into his experiment, but by doing this he was destroying the reality and the natural. Perhaps the actual intention of the artist was not to shock, but to enlighten the art world with a fresh perspective on artistic methodology and vision.
Life size pubescent dolls in unconventional poses, which ooze explicit sexuality, illustrate the provocative work of Hans Bellmer. A supporter of Lenin and Marx, he deliberately created erotic pieces that fought against the cult of beauty. They were an escape from reality, except they took the voyeur into a fantasy of sexual desires. This illustrated the intense impact of the sexual and ‘dirty’ upon social existence at a time of disruption and repression, and also how the art and cultural community was adding to the heightened sense of corruption.
The film noir of Maya Deren again depicted the experimental nature of Modernism. In Experimental Cinema in America, Lewis Jacobs describes how Deren’s film “attempted to show the way in which an apparently simple and casual occurrence develops subconsciously into a critical and emotional experience.”
“Meshes in the Afternoon” was a surrealist film that explored the conflict of consciousness with our internal experiences. It was full of symbolism and took the use of objects as extreme aide memoires or leitmotivs. The dreamlike nightmare took the viewer on a journey into his or her own individual musings and Freudian psychological narrative. This Avant Garde piece used the camera to interact both object and subject, attempting to catch reality, but within a context of emotionally heightened understanding.
Where did this ‘degeneratism’ lead later in the century? The element of shock, the need to feed human appetites that ‘clamored’ for hidden fantasies, a culture of transgression, and the flouting, breaking and overstepping of boundaries set by society, law and convention all contributed to the path the Modern continued to take. It was if the artistic world was involved in a war with human perception. Andrew Dilks, in “Orwell, Dali, and ‘Degenerate Art,’” describes what the author George Orwell observes:
The ‘offensiveness’ of any given work always boils down to subjectivity – people are too frightened either of seeming to be shocked, or of seeming not to be shocked, to be able to define the relationship between art and morals.
It was creating the challenge of offence, discomfort and unpleasantness, to the viewer and critic alike. This was a new type of connection with the audience. The example in the opening paragraph regarding the Prostitution Exhibition (1976) shows the impact media and politics had and still have today upon the arts.
Andre Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ,’ the infamous ‘Sensation ‘ Show,’ Tracey’s bed and Damian’s formaldehyde beasts, the portrait of Myra, Benetton advertising, and Viennese Action Cinema: all claiming infamy through transgression and disruption to human behavior and challenging the norm with their choice of materials and installation.
As time passes, the historical context changes. The original ‘degenerate’ art of the Nazis and ‘The Rite of Spring’ are now famous and treasured works and pieces by Emin and Hirst reach competitively high prices amongst collectors. After all, transgression can be lucrative. As our attitudes regarding societal values and mass culture have become more tolerant, we now look upon the Modern with a new understanding and knowledge.
The works above are exemplars of what was happening within the creative minds of the 20th century. Their need to experiment and explore the Modern also led to their confrontation with the social and real. Society was not in a position to except this within their cultural revolution and needed the arts to maintain a position, which supported their ideals not fought against them. These Modern artists also fell into the hands of those aiming to repress and control the power structures.
The social and cultural context of the Modern had been centered upon a conflict of the values within its identity and purpose. These values were constantly questioned by the different extremes within the mass culture, but it is ultimately this mass culture that had the ability to define the aesthetic territory of the Modern. Adorno states that “the art world is a thing that negates the world of things.”
Adorno considered the social and cultural function of the arts, within history at the beginning of the twentieth century, to support his theory. The arts were caught within the battle of politics and industrialization within the mass culture. Modernism was not possible without its historical tradition and it needed this as a backdrop in order to shock, provoke and attack. It was fed by a society enveloped in politics, culture and sex, all of which could not avoid contributing to the underlying raw energy of ‘us versus them.’
Alongside the negative were the intense links to imagination, new knowledge and vision. It was the ‘made-ness’ of things that was the foundation of their identity and their separateness from the empirical world. From this foundation, art could then revel in its autonomy, whereby the artist created without any recognition of potential censorship. He allowed his creativity to extend the experimentation and exploration without reference to external influences from the politics and mass social culture, but it still embraced the role of the critic of society, nature and life through the mechanism of content and context. Adorno claims that,
by crystallizing in itself as something unique to itself, rather than complying with existing norms and qualifying as ‘socially useful,’ art criticizes society merely by existing.
This criticism could also be translated into an act of resistance, where they condemned the capitalist, profit-saturated industry: a resistance that radically removed itself from its intended outcomes.
Adorno’s “iron law of nature” was a society that the cultural world was not prepared to embrace. It would not be drawn into a course of action where it respected the thought and ideals of certain elements within society, whilst not allowing others to regard the issues within art and come to their own conclusions. The role of artistic endeavor should not have been put into a position where it had to justify and define itself.
The works considered earlier all defied the supposed “law” by giving the artist the freedom to express exactly the concerns raised by the idiom and by giving the viewer the opportunity to formulate their own conclusions. This was keeping an opening available, through which ideas could continue to flow in all directions, but also allowed Adorno’s “indissoluble something” to be considered. It is the element within the society and cultural landscape that is kept open in order for the individual to consider their options within the context of their thinking and to allow any doubt or testament to reason that needs to be confirmed or denied.
Adorno also illustrated this within his own compositions. His output, in the genre of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern and their exploration of atonality and the twelve-tone technique, shows a need for freedom within the old traditions of musical style. Composing ‘outside the box,’ without the constraints of social expectations and within a context of experiment and stretching the resources of both the content of the works and the limitations of instruments and performers. Adorno describes how “art …embodies what does not allow itself to be managed and what total management suppresses.”
This scenario of the dirty, the obscene, the degenerate and the sexual introduced an essence of insanity that violated the principles of faith and politics. The critical mass was confronted with the opposing trends of the visionary idealism: pessimism versus optimism, despair versus celebration. The palingenesis, or power of the modern state, communicated a totalitarianism, which was driven through society and history to create the ‘Weltanschauung,’ or World Vision.
These attempts were encompassed by the needs of human obsession to transform and to be aware of their position as historical agents in this social change, whilst maintaining the certainty of reason. This certainty was the immoveable ground upon which all other social and human movement would be allowed to develop.
The importance of the moral and spiritual values within beauty and the effect of this was an important to the philosophers of the Enlightenment. It was through these values that beauty was able to acquire a sensuous form; a form that was not to be dislodged by subversion or transgression. It was necessary for the moral and spiritual to be fully grounded. This in turn was linked directly to modern society through this need to exclude any disruption, which would ultimately lead to immorality. Roger Scruton describes how Arthur Danto argued that: “…beauty is both deceptive as a goal and…antipathetic to the mission of modern art.”
Kant’s philosophy of knowledge and the boundaries that are set by limitations of human representation and empirical realism created a challenging basis. This basis did not allow for the understanding and evaluation of anything new beyond the concepts that already existed. Modernity had now separated church and state, which led to an opening up of the material forces of existence. It was the Ding an sich, or the ‘thing-in-itself,’ as known through a notion of judgment and previously understood knowledge that formed the ground.
Within this there was the idea that beauty can transcend this cognitive knowledge and in order to facilitate a means for beauty and the sublime uses the faculties of imagination, understanding and reason. The first two allowed perception, apprehension, intuition and cognition to take place. In Philosophers on Art from Kant to the Postmodernists, Christopher Kul-Want describes how the consideration of reason was related to: “…a series of transcendent ‘ideas’: human freedom, God, immortality, and the measurability of creation.”
The emphasis on the need for beauty within art was destined to be challenged. Artists needed to experiment and explore in order to claim their rights to human freedom. As with Adorno’s “iron law of nature,” Kant argues that “nature is beautiful because it looks like Art; and Art can only be called beautiful if we are conscious of it as Art while yet it looks like Nature.”
The existence of the arts, as well as the striving for beauty and the sublime to remain imprisoned within the constraint of nature or even within the restrictions fixed by society or the individual, had always needed the element of doubt to revisit the supposed truth. Francis Francina and Jonathan Harris, in Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts, states:
Doubt, a pervasive feature of modern critical reason, permeates into everyday life as well as philosophical consciousness, and forms a general existential dimension of the contemporary social world. Modernity institutionalizes the principle of radical doubt and insists that all knowledge takes the form of hypotheses: claims which may very well be true, but which are in principle always open to revision and may have to at some point to be abandoned.
Dreams versus thoughts, true versus false, and conviction versus doubt equal the condition of being within doubt. Cartesian doubt reassessed the forward movement of knowledge, but allowed for an opening to remain within the cultural context. In turn this led to enabling thought and creativity. The opening also revealed new cultural creativity (poesis) that developed into the forms that led to disruption, transgression and the sensuous. There was then the need for censorship to control the actions of the ‘exit.’
It is this doubt that, according to Arendt, is the basis of being human. This human behavior has to consider all sides in order to claim reason. It needs to use elements of common sense, superstition and political and social thought in order to manage opinions, whether individual or mass. Human life is based upon societies and their ability to evolve. She considered Modernity as the “age of mass society.” Her concern with what she calls “the losses incurred as a result of the eclipse of tradition, religion and authority” are supported by what can be provided through “questions of meaning, identity and value,” but her views show a negativity towards the concept of modernism. Arendt describes in Men in Dark Times that “the deadly impact of new thoughts.” Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, states:
In order for man to partake in civilized society, he has had to lay aside many uncivilized urges within the self, such as the natural appetite for adultery, incest, murder, homosexuality etc.…it is this repression of natural desires that is the source of modern neurosis.
Modernism supported Freud’s view of society by using themes and motifs that reflected man’s hidden thoughts and desires. It utilized the elements of shock, attack, sexuality, and extremes. It questioned and redefined the art forms and styles. It helped to build and transform tradition, whilst embracing new methodologies, materials and subjects. It brought the audience, viewer and reader into the critique of reason for and doubt of its existence. Dr. Parme Giuntini describes in Becoming Modern how “modernity is a composite of contexts: a time, a space and an attitude. What makes a place or an object ‘modern’ depends on these conditions.”
That this Modern was degenerate had its historical context, where it was used as a propaganda weapon of control and power, but society’s acceptance of the Modern changed and was able to comprehend and accept the experimental and exploration that was taking place within culture. Where the degenerate continues to challenge the Modern, in the Postmodernist era, is within the areas of the arts where boundaries are still being pushed beyond limits, unacceptable to certain elements of society. The Modern continues to struggle with the mass culture and diverse opinions of the creative industry and it is these that react when it is considered that the Modern has crossed the line.
The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen famously commented on the artistic nature of the September 11 attacks on The World Trade Center, New York. In ‘Transgressive Interactive Art,’ Stockhausen said the attacks were:
The greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos…. Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn’t even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for 10 years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying, just imagine what happened there. You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 people are dispatched to the afterlife, in a single moment. I couldn’t do that. By comparison, we composers are nothing. Artists, too, sometimes try to go beyond the limits of what is feasible and conceivable, so that we wake up, so that we open ourselves to another world.
Ultimately our perception of the Modern remains a personal journey of response to the ideology of liberation. Our acceptance, tolerance or artistically enquiring minds and imaginations will allow the arts to flourish in whatever form it demands.
Sue Wightman, is an independent scholar and artist in Banbury, United Kingdom.
Tagged with: Artistic Modernism, degenerate art, T.W. Adorno, The Modern
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