Hitler was a monster – but does that make his art monstrous too? Most people today probably wouldn’t care to have a Hitler landscape hanging on their wall, and would shudder every time they looked at it. I, for one, endorse and understand this.
As it happens Hitler’s art was not highly-rated, even at the time he was producing it, but if it was extraordinary, if it was truly beautiful, if it had shown enormous artistic merit, can we rightfully devalue it because of its provenance?
After all, isn’t a work of art meant to stand alone, without reference to the artist, because it is, essentially, a “thing-in-itself?”
As Oscar Wilde once said, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well-written or badly-written. That is all.”
So surely the same applies to a painting.
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The Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937
In her article for BBC World News, “Degenerate Art: Why Hitler hated modernism,” Lucy Burns reported on a discovery of modern artworks in a flat in Munich which Hitler and the Nazi Party considered as an abomination.
An art exhibition held in July 1937, featured the kinds of paintings the Fuhrer admired; for example, fine paintings of blonde nudes, military paintings and attractive landscapes, including a number of works by Hitler himself, who was an artist before he began his political and military career.
Adolf Hitler considered all abstract, non-representational and modern art as degenerate, so to show this, he also, simultaneously, put on another Art Exhibition in order to disparage the establishment. According to Burns’ article:
“The Degenerate Art Exhibition included works by some of the great international names – Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka and Wassily Kandinsky – along with famous German artists of the time such Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde and Georg Grosz…The exhibition handbook explained that the aim of the show was to ‘reveal the philosophical, political, racial and moral goals and intentions behind this movement, and the driving forces of corruption which follow them.’”
Over a million people saw the exhibition, and a million more visited while it was on tour.
Ridiculing the Competition
As much as being a bizarre item of twisted Nazi promotional blurb, Hitler’s ire revealed his anger and jealousy at being sidelined by the establishment; indeed, his own works were largely disregarded as being of little merit by his peers. As a result he spared no effort in ensuring the presentation of this so-called degenerate modern art to the public in the worst possible way, as described by Lucy Burns when she spoke to Jonathan Petropoulos, Professor of European History at Claremont McKenna College.
Petropoulos says: “The pictures were hung askew, there was graffiti on the walls, which insulted the art and the artists, and made claims that made this art seem outlandish, ridiculous.”
Modern Art: An Evil Plot Against the German People
Included in the categories of painting exhibited was an “insanity room” which contained only abstract paintings, while Jewish art that was critical of the German military or dishonoured German women also had their special place. Burns quotes an entry from the exhibition handbook:
“In the paintings and drawings of this chamber of horrors there is no telling what was in the sick brains of those who wielded the brush or the pencil.”
David Wilkes, in “Face of a Monster” for the Daily Mail Online, tells how Hitler approached the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1907 and 1908; the Academy rejected him both times due to his lack of talent. As a result, he began copying pictures from postcards to sell to the tourists.
Richard Westwood-Brookes, a historical auctioneer, told David Wilkes that he found it strange that a man who could paint such bucolic pictures could have ended up being such a monster. However, Westwood-Brookes’ summary of his thoughts about Hitler’s artistic ability are hardly complimentary:
“One can see why Hitler didn’t exactly make a success of his career as an artist. These are at best the standard of a reasonably competent amateur and some might consider them downright crude in their execution.”
A British buyer purchased a pencil sketch for £1050 in 1999, according to David Wilkes. It seems that now the pictures have a historical fascination for art historians and collectors.
Beauty is No Longer a Necessary Condition for Great Art
Lucy Burns ends her article with a charming account of a young Jew, who was as baffled by The Degenarate Art Exhibition as Hitler and his henchmen professed to be, agreeing with the German regime that the artefacts were odd and distorted. Until much, much later, when he recanted:
“I can appreciate modern art much better now than I did then. It’s not meant to be beautiful is it?”
According to Grant Bartley in his editorial, “Angles on Art,” there has been a paradigm shift in art. Soon, some of us (certainly not all) learned to accept as authentic Duchamp’s Fountain, Emin’s Unmade Bed and numerous other bizarre creations which come under the name of “art” and which can hardly be described as “beautiful.”
These are now regarded as ideas or concepts, intended perhaps to force us to recognise that art can be whatever it chooses and to recognise there is creativity in everything. No doubt the argument will continue, and we will continue to question and refute the validity of such works.
Angles on Art
Grant Bartley defines this shift in perspective as follows: “… the new art culture will come to be seen as pluralist. If modernism can be summarised as the rejection of traditional values, and postmodernism as the rejection of all values, perhaps we can define pluralism as the acceptance of all (sets of) values, anti-pluralism excepted.”
Bartley adds, however, that in the process the sidelining of beauty and skill is a loss to the art world.
“Instead, whether a work is good is a question to be decided by the individual – by you – for whatever reason and with whatever criteria you wish to use for your judgements; including many diverse ideals of beauty and skill. How much you might be able to sell it for is really beside the point.”
I suggest though, that art experts are unlikely to uphold Grant Bartley’s comment. After all, surely a work of art must stand alone, as a thing-in-itself, if we are to look at it from an objective, philosophical perspective.
Art, Hitler, and Philosophy
So – can a Hitler’s landscape be considered great art? The general consensus is no, it cannot, for the simple reason the artist had little talent according to his contemporaries, and also to modern informed opinion.
On the other hand, if it was great art, would we regard it as such or would our subjectivity overcome our psychical distancing as defined by the philosopher Edward Bullough, that special moment of reflection on great beauty, when the “Aha” feeling overcomes our very sense of ourselves?