Degenerate Art, Then and Now

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman

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Degenerate Art, Then and Now
Otto Freundlich, “The New Man,” (Degenerate Art Exhibition guide 1937)
By the time you read this, the Neil Young-Joe Rogan smackdown will probably have ended in a draw. Spotify will keep Rogan—and possibly even take Neil back (as they did once before, when he walked out on them over audio quality issues back in 2015 to pursue his ill-fated Pono venture). The media largely tired of the story after a couple of seemingly heartfelt apologies from Rogan, and Spotify’s vague pledge to be better and do better. The rumored mass exodus of other musicians never happened; Neil’s longtime buds and colleagues Joni Mitchell, Nils Lofgren, and his former bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash expressed solidarity, but that was about it. The dogs bark, as they say, but the caravan goes on. I’ve always had a lot of problems with politically driven boycotts of non-political actors like writers and other artists. In my world, unfettered speech and political freedom are inextricably linked, and I don’t believe in—and don’t support—any effort aimed at suppressing unpleasant or unpopular speech. Nor is this simply a First Amendment issue; as you’ve probably heard and hopefully understand, the First Amendment only applies to government curbs on free speech, as in, “Congress shall make no law…”, and subsequent case law has extended the same First Amendment protections to similarly bind state legislatures under the incorporation doctrine through the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. But there is nothing to legally or constitutionally prevent private companies from curbing most free speech of their employees while on the job. And while they can’t constrain their employees’ off-hours speech, it can certainly impact the employees’ standing and even their continued employment at the company; exercising your free-speech privileges off-site does not exempt you from on-site consequences.
Entartete Kunst poster, Berlin, 1938
That said, wherever possible we should still support the widest possible latitude and tolerance for free speech, even when it’s unpopular. Case in point, the infamous Hollywood Blacklist, which punished whole sectors of liberals, progressives, communists and socialists working in the entertainment industry in the 1940s and 1950s by denying them employment, forcing some into exile or out of the business altogether, facing financial ruin, destroying their health, even driving them to suicide.

The mostly right-wing studio chiefs hated government interference in their business, but they hated communists and the labor unions they supported even more, so it wasn’t a heavy lift to institutionalize political persecution of the Hollywood left. And let’s face facts: there were some actual communists among them; that wasn’t just a fevered right-wing fantasy roping in mainstream center-left liberals by accident. But it was still not OK. The gravest offense was not that the studios and broadcast networks were effectively advancing the government’s anti-communist witch-hunt to keep their tax breaks, government contracts, or FCC licenses. It was that employees’ personal political beliefs and activities were broadly circumscribed to conform with the studios’ political agenda, having nothing to do with their abilities or the quality of their work, and their reputations and livelihoods destroyed as a result.
So if you want to boycott Nike for using sweatshop labor, or jewelers who use blood diamonds, or meat from processors with cruel or unsanitary conditions for their animals, I’ll cheer you on. That’s your withholding economic participation from companies whose commercial activities are causing actual harm.

Punishing, however, a social media platform in an effort to shut down some of its “objectionable” content, or boycotting products in an effort to end their sponsorship of a program you don’t like; banning (not to mention burning) books from school and public libraries because somebody, somewhere, objects to their content; shaming donors to arts organizations because you disapprove of artists they support; pressuring publishers to drop books by culturally or politically disfavored authors (Dr. Seuss, Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth’s biographer); opposing the distribution and exhibition of “offensive” material, whether it’s a controversial new play or a screening of the century-old “Birth of a Nation”—all deeply offend the free-speech principles underlying the First Amendment. Even if such boycotts don’t directly implicate the government or violate the First Amendment itself.
There’s a classic Internet meme called Godwin’s Law, which posits that the longer online arguments go on, the higher the odds that somebody’s going to end up compared to Hitler and the Nazis. But here, the analogy actually applies.

In the summer and fall of 1937, following several years of book-burnings and cultural purges of verboten material, the Nazi Party in Germany mounted an infamous exhibition of 650 works confiscated from German museums that they considered “Entartete Kunst,” or “degenerate art”—meaning art that didn’t extol and advance the Nazis’ National Socialism political platform and embody the neoclassical style that Hitler, a failed painter, admired—subversive works of Modernism and Expressionism often created by Jewish artists.

You can probably guess where this is leading: in the first six weeks of the exhibition, held at the Institute of Archeology in the Hofgarten in Munich, there were more than a million visitors. By the time it closed in November, the degenerate art had been viewed by more than two million people, an average of 20,000 a day. It was one of the most popular public art exhibitions ever mounted in Germany, while the officially sanctioned concurrent exhibition of “racially pure and high-quality” art elsewhere in Munich nearby drew only half the visitors and garnered mediocre reviews, not exactly what the authorities had in mind.

Nothing draws an audience like the lure of the forbidden, which is why old-time exploitation film hustlers would hire people off the street to dress up like ministers and pretend to picket their own theaters. When books are banned or recalled, sales spike as readers who never even heard of the book before rush out to buy the remaining copies.

Thirty years ago, author Stephen King gave kids this advice in a guest column for his local newspaper. When local authorities pull books off your school library shelf, don’t argue, don’t protest, don’t demonstrate. “Instead,” he wrote, “hustle down to your public library, where these frightened people’s reach must fall short in a democracy, or to your local bookstore, and get a copy of what has been banned. Read it carefully and discover what it is your elders don’t want you to know.”

Whether it’s degenerate art, The Joe Rogan Experience, or Maus, find out for yourself what they don’t want you to know.
Joel Bellman

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February 18, 2022