While expanding their empire in Europe, the Nazi party regularly collected famous works of art from museums and governments, as well as from the Jewish people that they moved and later imprisoned. Much of the art of the time period was influenced by ideas that are now commonplace in art; expressionism, dadaism, abstraction, the Bauhaus movement, anything having to do with jazz. The Nazis affiliated the popularity of these movements with the Jewish art salesmen of the time, equating them to lesser forms and more debase behavior.
Modern art was perceived by many of the Nazi leadership as “degenerate,” or not representative of the ideals of the Aryan race. The regime created a large exhibit to shame and ridicule these works of art, to bring the public in line with their views. It traveled throughout the Nazi territory crammed into tight spaces and overrun with people. In fact it was one of the most scene art exhibits of all time. And after the exhibit was through, the Nazi leadership sought to destroy many of these works and many others that were never displayed.
The Neue Galerie in New York is currently hosting an exhibit to present the subject called “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937.” Images from the gallery give a sense for what was lost and what it was being replaced with. One room features empty frames for works that were destroyed, along with some images of what they might have been. In another room the large works favored by the Nazi’s are arranged in such a way as to overshadow the degenerate art crowded into the corners. It is a sobering reminder of how culture can be commandeered, altered, and destroyed at the hands of leaders.
It is a wonder to me this Wednesday that we have the freedom to create and express without anyone threatening to remove our works of art. At the same time, we as Christians can be quick to label or reject art from our culture. Would we, if given the power, label the works of art in our culture in the same way the Nazis did? Does it make you as uncomfortable as me that my answer to that question is “I’m not sure”?
Art is an amazing piece of communication, a representation and an idea at once. As leaders in our spheres of influence, in the realm of art that we encounter, how can we be ambassadors for God and engage with the art? Do we ask the deeper questions about what the art is and why it’s in favor before we judge it? Does that give some insight into why our culture feels about the church the way it does?
Beloved art community, we have a difficult calling; to at once love and act righteously, to call for repentance while we repent, and to make sure that no one walks away from us not knowing the almighty love, grace, and power of God. Have you been critical and negative when you were called to be kind and patient? Let’s all ask for forgiveness and for the perspective of God – to love the creators around us the way our Creator does.
If you are interested, here is a not so great version of a documentary about Degenerate Art from an exhibit at LACMA in 1993: