“Entartete Kunst” – degenerated art – a derogatory term adopted by the German National Socialist (“Nazi”) Party to describe all modern art, i.e. “Kunst”, (as well as literature) which didn’t correspond with the prior to World War II Nazi ideology and assessment of culture. In 1936 the Nazis had passed a law that regulated that only German Art was allowed. Other types or forms of art were deemed to be“entartet” and therefore forbidden and persecuted. “Entartung” was of major significance as a political tool of the Nazis, used by them to justify the exclusion of a whole segment of the population, in particular the Jewish population, and also as a reason to chase or victimise political opponents.
Historically, the early twentieth century was a period of wrenching changes in art. In painting innovations such as Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism, followed closely bySymbolism, Cubism and Fauvism, were not universally appreciated. Germany had emerged as a leading centre of ‘avant-garde’ not only in the visual arts but in music and film as well. The zenith of this development took place during the Weimar period which was viewed with immersive scepticism and huge disgust by the Nazis; partly due to a conservative aesthetic taste and partly because of the Nazis’ determination to use culture as a propaganda tool.
Therefore the Nazis tried to undermine the movement in order to prevent the spreading of unwanted cultural developments, but their methods where not consistent.
The general aim was to clean culture of contra-national socialist’s influences. Art was therefore especially considered from the perspective of whether it was “Un-German”or “Jewish-Bolshevist”. The inconsistency is exemplarily revealed in the fact that some art was destroyed and other actually collected and even exhibited.
From 1933 the Nazis forced every artist to register at the, -for their category of art relevant-, cultural national association. Those artists then identified as degenerated were mainly sanctioned at a personal level including dismissals from teaching positions, forbidden to exhibit or sell their art, and, in some cases even prohibited from producing art entirely. Their work was confiscated and either painted over, burnt or destroyed.
The burning of paintings, and of other art pieces, was a symbolic act meant to influence the German population. They wanted to censor depicted ideas, emotions and thoughts of the artists to create a false belief that the only trustworthy moral standard and way of living was that of the Nazis, anything aside to be depicted as false and misleading. Hitler wanted art to calm the people and not to reflect modern everyday life. They were supposed to show traditional and old motives to symbolise a cessation. The idea behind this was to mask the nationalist politics, so that the people wouldn’t realise the brutal and destructive political culture or at least would be deflected from the actual reality. That is why he wanted art pieces not to deal with anything new or provocative. To influence the people according to their purposes, paintings were idealised. Soldiers, for example, were pictured as aggressive, heroic and tough, whereas women were shown as mothers with an obedient attitude towards men, mostly symbolised with a suppliant gaze downwards.
Other art pieces Hitler allowed all showed excellent daily work motives, such as a farmer with clean clothes and employees playing music and drinking wine as if they were glad to work. The idea of “great art” was to form and influence people that they would follow the “behaviour plans” of the Nazis and create a population that could easily be lead while suppressing rebellions.
On the other hand the Nazis collected, saved and even exhibited “degenerated artworks”. “Entartete Kunst” was the title of an exhibition that premiered on July 19th 1937 in Munich. Over the years the Nazis had confiscated an unknown number of art pieces. It is assumed that over 16,500 works were seized. 650 of these pieces, including paintings, sculptures, prints, and books from the collections of 32 different German museums were deliberately hung in a chaotic manor and accompanied with text labels and pictures of stunted people deriding the exposed art. Slogans of these labels for example were: “Insolent Mockery of the Devine under Centrist Rule”, “The Ideal- Certain and Whore”. Designed to inflame public opinion against modernism, the exhibition subsequently travelled to several other cities in Germany and Austria. Astonishingly, in respect to the attitude of “cleaning” German culture of Jewish influences, only six of the 112 artists included in the exhibition were in fact Jewish.
It seems paradox that “degenerated art” was collected and destroyed. The reason for this equivocal paradox might be found in Hitler himself. Hitler was devoted to art. And as a dictator, he gave his personal taste in art force of law to a degree never seen before. He, however, wasn’t immune to the beauty of “Un-German” or “Jewish Bolshevist” art works himself. It is assumed that he collected Max Liebermann (an orthodox Jew) for his personal taste. Pursuant to private conversations with other highly positioned Nazis, who also collected “unwanted Art” of, for example Ernst Barlach, Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Emil Nolde, and Pablo Picasso, Hitler believed that only the commonality had to be prevented. Hitler and his personal confidants, such as Goebbels, had the intellect to see the beauty of art and concurrently sensed the desuetude for their purposes.
To avoid such massive abuse and discrimination in reference to art the German legislature tried to establish a basic right in the German constitution in 1949. Under this aspect an accurate definition of “Kunst” is important, especially in terms of application of law.
According to the German Federal Constitutional Court, art is not definable. Various appendages exist, but no overall definition is found due to the fact that the meaning “art” shall never again be disposable to the legislator.