Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Max Beckmann at the Neue Galerie

Walking by a news stand yesterday I noticed the cover of The New York Sun with German painter Max Beckmann staring out from his 1938 work, "Self-Portrait with Horn." Beckmann, one of the most important Weimar artists - along with Otto Dix and other contemporaries among German Expressionist painters - will be featured in a new show at the Neue Galerie. As I read the article about the show and Beckmann's career,I realized that there were some apparent parallels between the experiences of these German painters and the anti-intellectualism described in Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason.

First, understand that Beckmann, like most avant-garde artists in Weimar Germany, faced persecution after the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. In fact, by 1937 Hitler had declared all modern art as "degenerate." The Nazis even created a special Munich show of what they called "Degenerate Art" (Entartete Kunst) in 1937 - an exhibit that included six Max Beckmann paintings. In terms of the cultural expressions of German nationalism, Hitler and the Nazis hated all aspects of modernity and abstraction, preferring a romanticized heroic realism that often resembled the Socialist Realism of the Soviet Union during the same period. Artists were jailed, their works seized and destroyed, or they fled the country like Beckmann, who went to Holland in 1937 and moved to the U.S. after the war.

I mention Susan Jacoby's recent book because her description of the anti-intellectualism of evangelical conservatives and their rejection of modernity and its cultural expressions - as well as nostalgia for an idealized past - reminds me of the Nazis. Although the religious right has had only limited success with more overt forms of censorship, their considerable influence in the Republican party agenda has contributed to conservatives' efforts to effectively cripple the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities since the 1990s. Of course, their assault on reason and modernity goes beyond art, as demonstrated in their attempts to stifle the teaching of evolution in public schools and their rejection of the science behind concerns about global warming and climate change. But in the arts, from painting to music and film, the religious right mirrors the suspicion and scorn exhibited by the fascists of the 1930s. Artistic modernism, according to the "religious right," is identified as a product of liberalism and moral lassitude, in much the same way it heralded Weimar defeatism and Jewish degeneracy to the Nazis.

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