A Question Of Taste

By Joe Sykes

Two weeks ago, in a small, dingy flat in Munich, surrounded by mouldy take-away boxes and tins of food, German police found a collection of some 1,400 modernist works of art that had been looted by the Nazis and condemned as degenerate art.

The “degenerate” is an idea that has haunted the art world ever since artists began to move away from classical ideas of form and beauty. In 1892, Max Nordau wrote that the art of the fin-de siècle “signals the end of an established order, which for thousands of years has satisfied logic, fettered depravity…and matured something of beauty”. The ferocity of his language derived out of a latent fear of modernity and the artistic culture it produced. In his book, Degeneration, he sets his sights on the archetypes of the modern cultural world, ranging from Tolstoy to Zola.

For Nordau, the fin-de-siècle had produced a moment of crisis in which modern culture was approaching the edge of the precipice. He wrote, “There is a sound of rending in every tradition and it is as though the morrow wouldn’t link itself with today”. This was an apocalyptic vision arising out of an age where the individual no longer had the ability to comprehend the radical and the new. Because of this Nordau embraced a reactionary politics, calling culture degenerate and pronouncing its arbiters as insane.

Nordau, a Hungarian Jew, turned to Zionism, in an attempt to escape the terrors of modern European civilisation. With the coming of “the reddened light of the dusk of nations”, Nordau decided to withdraw – better to flee than live on a degenerate continent.

Ten years after the publication of Degeneration, whilst its author dreamed of a Promised Land, Adolf Hitler moved to Vienna to live and work as a painter. While Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele broke down the boundaries of traditional artistic practice, Hitler scratched out a living painting bland watercolours, twice failing to gain a place at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.

Influenced by an anti-modern politics which culminated in the conviction of Schiele for distributing pornography to minors, Hitler began to develop a fiction arising out of the failures of his life. Believing that he was a great painter he would later say “I feel that I have it in my soul to become one of the great artists of the age and that future historians will remember me not for what I have done for Germany, but for my art.”

Telling himself that he had failed as a result of a degenerate society, he constructed a vision of a world where degeneracy was held up for what it was: the pernicious scribblings of the insane. Assuming the ideas of a Jewish intellectual, the desire to extinguish degeneracy from the cultural world became a central plank of the Nazis social programme.

The artworks found in Munich are a product of a particularly frightening chapter of the 12 years of Nazi rule. Degenerate art was not hidden away but displayed. Like book burnings, these exhibitions acted as a very public statement of what the Nazis considered deviant. Works considered as degenerate were hung at odd angles on walls covered with derogatory graffiti.

“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”, reads the exhibition handbook in the “Insanity room”. These degenerates, and the art world from which they sprang, were strung up and ridiculed. The German people were to be left in no doubt that they were under attack from an artistic community that had literally gone mad.

The elevation of degenerate art to national news raises the question of whether the language of degeneracy still exists within modern public discourse.

Nordau and Hitler represent the extremes of a reactionary movement that rails against the radical and the new. Newness causes a feeling of dislocation; a fear that the modern is encroaching on the traditions that hold one together.

This fear of modernity has not disappeared. In Grayson Perry’s first Reith Lecture, titled “Democracy has bad taste”, he referenced a study done by two Russian artists, Komar and Melamid, in the 1990s. They surveyed people in different countries across Europe, asking what kind of art they desired. When they got the results they painted a picture in accordance with the public’s desires. In almost every country people wanted a nice blue sky, some nymph-like figures playing in the foreground and, perhaps, a deer or two gamboling in front of a shimmering lake. Hitler said that “If degenerate artists do see fields blue, they are deranged, and should go to an asylum. If they only pretend to see them blue, they are criminals, and should go to prison. I will purge the nation of them.

Komar and Melamid’s picture is one Hitler would surely have approved of. No blue fields, no disorientating shades or impressions, just a nice, quaint landscape painting.

This is not to say that “the people” want to go out and purge the artistic world. But it does articulate something about the tendency for people to buy into traditional aesthetic forms.

At the University of Pennsylvania a large, metal installation by contemporary artist Knut Äsdam has caused friction within the Penn community. One commenter on the Penn newspaper’s website, going by the name of “Nice Campuses Deserve Nice Art”, wrote that “Penn has enough ugly modern art, and it doesn’t do justice to the beautiful, old architecture that the campus has. Please take it away from here”. The spectre of modern art is haunting Penn’s campus. Nice Campuses’ sentiment is not far removed from Nordau’s assertion that modernity had signaled the end of all beauty. The “Nice” is what Walter Benjamin calls the “ever-same”, that which is opposed by the inventive and the avant-garde. Nice art is problematic; it conjures up the blandness and banality of, a Hitler watercolour.

Now, of course, the paintings found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s grubby apartment are no longer radical, or even shocking. Art arrives, is validated by the mysterious beast known as the art world, and is eventually internalised within the public consciousness. Hitler vilified the art world, believing it to be the reason behind his failure as a painter and fantasising that it was run by Jews.

It is this art world, which at times seem like a strange Mafia, that often promotes the radical and the unfamiliar; those forms most would reject out of a latent fear of difference. It isn’t democratic but it does demonstrate that there is a value to the tastemakers, without them we might be stuck in a world of dancing fauns and shimmering lakes.

Perhaps this elitism suggests that “democracy has bad taste” because only a tiny elite are given the time, money and space to develop “taste”. With funding of the humanities at an all-time low and an ever greater focus on subjects that have a “calculable” value we are forever stuck in a world where people are not given the tools to deal with the problems of modernity.

Taste will never be universal and there will always be a natural urge to fall back under the comfort blanket of tradition. But it is important to recognise that the fear of degeneracy is never far away. The Nazi’s definition of degenerate art was works that “destroy or confuse natural form or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill”. This language is inherent in the idea of “nice art” and in Komar and Melamid’s project. Tt is a language that attempts to cope with the threat of that which is new; it is a language that must be challenged through education in order to avoid living in a society that conceptualises the radical as the deviant, the unconventional as the insane.

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