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Guide to the "Degenerate Art" Exhibition (1937)

On July 19, 1937, the “Degenerate Art” exhibition opened in the Hofgarten arcades of Munich’s Residenz. It included 650 works of art confiscated from 32 German museums. For the National Socialists, the term “degenerate” applied to any type of art that was incompatible with their ideology or propaganda. Whole movements were labeled as such, including Expressionism, Impressionism, Dada, New Objectivity, Surrealism, Cubism, and Fauvism, among others. Many of Germany’s most talented and innovative artists suffered official defamation: for example, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Ernst, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Pechstein, Paul Klee, and Ernst Barlach. Avant-garde artists and museum directors who purchased or exhibited modern art had already been barred from professional activity as early as 1933. With this exhibition, the visual arts were forced into complete submission to censorship and National Socialist “coordination” [Gleichschaltung]. Initiated by Minster of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and President of the Reich Chamber of the Visual Arts Adolf Ziegler (1892-1959), the exhibition travelled to twelve other cities from 1937 to 1941. In all, the show drew more than 3 million visitors. The exhibition sought to demonstrate the “degeneration” of artworks by placing them alongside drawings done by the mentally retarded and photographs of the physically handicapped. These comparisons aimed to highlight the “diseased,” “Jewish-Bolshevist,” and inferior character of these artworks and to warn of an impending “cultural decline.” As an exercise in contrast, the opposite – good, “healthy,” “German” art – could be seen in the “Great German Art Exhibition,” on view in the House of German Art only a few meters away.

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Guide to the “Degenerate Art” Exhibition

This exhibition has been put together by the Reich Propaganda Directorate, Culture Office. It will be shown in the largest cities in all of the districts [Gaue]. [ . . . ]

What does the “Degenerate Art” exhibition want to achieve?

At the outset of a new era for the German people [Volk], it wants to offer a firsthand overview of the dreadful concluding chapter of those decades of cultural deterioration preceding the great change.

By appealing to the sound judgment of the people, it wants to put a stop to the palaver and claptrap of all those literary cliques and hangers-on, many of whom would still try to deny that we ever experienced artistic degeneracy.

It wants to make clear that this degeneracy in art was more than just passing foolishness, idiocy, and rash experimentation that might have run its course and died out even without the National Socialist revolution.

It wants to show that this was not a “necessary ferment,” but rather a deliberate and calculated attack on the very essence and ongoing existence of art itself.

It wants to point out the common roots of political anarchy and cultural anarchy and to unmask degenerate art as art-Bolshevism in every sense of the term.

It wants to make clear the philosophical, political, racial, and moral goals and intentions of those who were the driving forces behind the subversion.

It also wants to show the extent to which these symptoms of degeneracy spread from those driving forces who were acting deliberately to infect more or less unwitting acolytes, who, despite previous – and in some cases also subsequent – evidence of formal artistic talent, were so lacking in conscience, character, or common sense as to participate in the general Jewish and Bolshevik hype.

By doing so, it also wants to show the true danger of a development that, steered by a few Jewish and openly Bolshevik leaders, could succeed in putting such individuals into the service of Bolshevik anarchy in cultural politics when those very same individuals might very well have eschewed any affiliation with Bolshevism in party politics.

It wants to prove above all that not one of the men who were involved in any way in the degeneracy of art can now dismiss this activity as “harmless youthful folly.”

Out of all this comes, finally, what the “Degenerate Art” exhibition does not want to do.

It does not want to assert that all of the names attached to the sorry artworks shown here also appeared on the membership lists of the Communist party. Since no such assertion is made, no refutation is necessary.

It does not want to deny that one or another of the artists represented here has at some point – either before or since – “been capable of something different.” Yet this exhibition must not gloss over the fact that in the years of the major Bolshevik-Jewish attack on German art such men stood on the side of subversion.

It does not want to prevent those featured artists who are of German blood – and who have not followed their former Jewish friends abroad – from now honestly striving and fighting for the foundations of a new and healthy creativity. It wants and must prevent a situation, however, in which such men are foisted on the new state and its future-oriented people as “the natural standard-bearers of Third Reich art” by the circles and cliques of that dark past.

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