Nazi leaders used all kinds of propaganda—in newspapers and posters, on the radio and in films—to win support for their ideology and policies. The arts, too, became a tool for expressing Nazi ideas about national identity and racial purity, about who belonged in the “national community” and who was a dangerous enemy. In the worlds of music, painting, and sculpture, Nazis celebrated what they perceived as “authentic” German culture and tried to eliminate what Joseph Goebbels and others referred to as “degenerate” art.
A letter to a painter in 1937 from the president of the National Chamber of Fine Arts revealed the consequences for an artist of being labeled “degenerate”:
This display from a 1937 "degenerate art" exhibit is entitled "German Peasants—From a Jewish Perspective.” It includes paintings by German Expressionist artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.
The two art exhibitions referred to in the letter were sponsored by the Nazis in 1937. The first featured works labeled as “degenerate.” The second showed “true German art.” The more popular of the two was the exhibit of “degenerate art.” It traveled from Berlin to 12 other cities between 1937 and 1941 and attracted more than 3 million visitors. The exhibition carefully arranged art the Nazis considered “degenerate” alongside drawings done by people described as “insane” or deranged” and photographs of men and women who were physically deformed. In doing so, the exhibition claimed it was merely highlighting the “diseased, Jewish-Bolshevist, inferior” character of the artwork. In a building nearby, the public could see the opposite of this art in the Great German Art Exhibition. Much of it featured idyllic landscapes and happy blonde “Aryan peasants.”
In 1938, the Nazis arranged a similar exhibition showing Entartete Musik—“degenerate music.” It targeted popular music, including jazz and swing, as well as works by Jewish composers. The show included photographs, caricatures, musical scores, negative reviews of performances, and quotations from Hitler as well as special booths that allowed visitors to actually hear the music of such “degenerate composers” as Igor Stravinsky, Kurt Weill, and Ernst Toch. To the Nazis’ dismay, so many visitors mobbed the booth that played music from Weill’s The Threepenny Opera that it had to be closed.
The Nazis eventually destroyed many of the works of “degenerate” art. Some were sold to foreign museums.
- What does the term “degenerate” mean? What did Nazi officials mean by “degenerate art”? What kind of art was given this label? Why was such art thought to be threatening?
- Many Germans attended the “degenerate art” exhibits. Why do you think they went? Do you think that everyone who attended agreed with the Nazis’ opinion of the art that was displayed?
- What is the role of art in forming a community? Is art ever dangerous?
- What criteria are used to decide what kinds of art and music are “acceptable” for the public today? Who decides? How does art play a role in opening up or shutting down discourse in a society?