Censored! Nazi blacklist launches new art row
Today, a London museum will make public the lists Hitler made of ‘degenerate’ artwork he wanted destroyed. But even now, art censorship continues all over the world. Why?
Two shabby, A4 ledgers containing endless handwritten lists of old paintings will be unveiled online to the public for the first time today.
Why is that important? Because these lists are the only surviving records that document Hitler’s obsession with the art he considered degenerate and subversive; paintings he wanted banned and even destroyed. After decades of obscurity, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum has decided that the dark secrets of the Third Reich should come to light.
The Nazis purged more than 100 institutions of over 16,000 works of art under Hitler’s watch. Modernist masterpieces by artists including Man Ray and Otto Dix were seized, then exchanged, sold or destroyed – an ominous cross beside a painting marking the end of its existence. The systematic lists were a major operation concerning the highest echelons. They serve as a chilling echo of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews.
To Hitler, the art was incomprehensible, ugly and negative. He believed that artists who used bright colours to convey emotions had deranged minds. He even said that anyone who painted the sky green and clouds blue should be sterilised.
Nearly all historians now consider Hitler’s actions to be arbitrary and his views appalling. But others believe his actions raise an uncomfortable issue: even under so-called civilised governments art censorship has a chequered history.
In 1917, French-American artist Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a urinal, was excluded from the first exhibition of the New York Society of Independent Artists. Wartime images, such as CRW Nevinson’s painting of dead WWI soldiers, Paths of Glory, were officially censored in 1918 in the UK. In 2003, the UN’s copy of Picasso’s painting, Guernica, was covered up, as the then US secretary of state, Colin Powell, made the case for invading Iraq. And last November, an adult education centre in Berlin removed six paintings of nudes out of deference to Muslim students. After public outcry, they were reinstated.
Art for art’s sake
It is not to defend Hitler to say that art should be subjected to moral limits, some say. Governments have a duty to protect their citizens, particularly the vulnerable. Torture pictures from war zones are voluntarily censored by the press. Why not art? Images can make a visceral impression. And much that is shocking today is commercially driven: many artists know that if they produce images that cause outrage, they will gain more publicity.
Rubbish, say others. The whole point of art is to provoke and challenge the status quo. We need artists to push the boundaries of public debate. To let governments decide what we can and cannot see is the slippery slope towards mind control. If you police art, you police our thoughts.
- Should governments be allowed to decide what constitutes art?
- Is social disgust a legitimate ground for banning artwork?
- Visit a local art gallery. Are there any paintings there you think might have been censored in the past?
- Research and compile a list of all the different reasons why art has been censored throughout history.
Some People Say...
“The artist does not create for the artist: he creates for the people.’ Adolf Hitler”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Is art really that shocking and dangerous?
- Not always, but it certainly can be. Marcus Harvey’s 1995 portrait of notorious serial child killer Myra Hindley, distressed some people so much that ink and eggs were thrown at it when it was displayed at the Royal Academy. The gallery cleaned it up, but refused to take it down.
- So do artists deliberately try to create pieces that will upset and offend?
- Some do. Many art critics believe the raison d’etre of the artists Jake and Dinos Chapman is to shock audiences. They are known for their scale models of scenes of depravity and disaster; skeletons, half-naked maniacs and sadistic Nazi troopers have all been featured.
- Seeking to disrupt an established system or institution.
- During the 1930s, the Nazis embarked upon a programme of mass human sterilisation; medical procedures which prevent a person from being able to reproduce. The idea had already been considered by Social Darwinists in the UK during the nineteenth century, and the US also embarked on a sterilisation programme during the 1920s.
- Probably Picasso’s most famous work, it was painted in response to the Nazi’s devastaing bombing campaign on the Basque city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. When the Gestapo visited Picasso’s Paris apartment and saw the gigantic image, a Nazi pointed to it and asked: ‘Did you do this?’ to which Picasso replied coolly, ‘No, you did.’
- A visceral reaction is one based on instinct rather than intellect. The word originates from viscera, the plural form of the word used to describe internal organs. Hence the phrase ‘gut feeling’.