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Scandal, Outrage, Censorship
Controversy in Modern Art

January 21, 1992 to March 07, 1992

Scandal has dogged the steps of modern art from its inception. The outcry that greeted the first exhibition of work by the Impressionists has assumed near legendary status, and for many years thereafter every new movement or wave in the surging tide of modernism evoked similar displeasure. This reaction was common to all countries in which modernism flourished, but it assumed particularly insidious form in Germany, for only here, alone among Western European nations, was opposition to modernism sanctioned, codified and eventually dictated by the state.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the would-be censor's proclivities have proven remarkably consistent. Special attention is paid to art that seemingly violates moral (usually sexual or religious) taboos or that critiques the prevailing social, economic or political order. Stylistically, the censor adheres to a fairly orthodox concept of realistic verisimilitude, and lunges at art that fails to reflect generally accepted standards of beauty or that treats conventional subjects in an unconventional way. Often considerations of content and style work hand in hand, so that, for example, many perfectly sincere Expressionistic renderings of religious subject matter were, due to their unaccustomed distortions, judged blasphemous by the Nazis.

Modern art--particularly the Expressionist variants pursued in Austria and Germany--proved quintessentially vulnerable to assaults from conservative forces because of the ways in which radical style and content were intertwined. In 1900, Gustav Klimt's painting Medicine, the first of a series of three works commissioned by the University of Vienna, provoked a torrent of abuse, including angry petitioning and a protracted critical debate in the press, because it combined blatant nudity with an unprecedented, ahistorical presentation of a traditional academic subject. Klimt's protegé Egon Schiele took the exploration of human sexuality one step farther and was prosecuted for his involvement with under-age models. The tacit assumption that children--even when they have given their consent and are clearly not physically molested--are somehow tainted by the simple act of posing in the nude has resurfaced periodically during repressive moments throughout this century.

Klimt and Schiele came to loggerheads with a society that, though seemingly entrenched and stable, was in fact on its last legs, and it may be argued that their work was controversial precisely because it foreshadowed a doom not yet acknowledged by the general public. By the 1920s both Austria and Germany had endured revolutions as well as resounding military defeat, and the demise of the old regime was an inescapable fact. Hyperinflation in the early years of the decade decimated the middle class, creating unprecedented extremes of wealth and poverty. The plight of crippled veterans, destitute widows and the unemployed contrasted harshly with the greed of war profiteers and speculators. Käthe Kollwitz, who had for decades sympathetically documented the victimization of the working poor, now turned her attention to the new underclass, while younger artists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix caricatured the overclass. These biting critiques for the most part found a sympathetic reception in Weimar Republic Germany, where the avant-garde was gradually being absorbed into the mainstream and museums nationwide led the field in acquisitions and exhibitions of modern art.

It was the relatively permissive values of the Weimar era--epitomized by the government-regulated bordellos and celebrated cabaret life of Berlin--that, coupled with dire economic circumstances, made some people fear that the very fiber of society was breaking down. The Nazi regime rose to power by playing on these fears and giving them a focus in a host of activities and ideas labeled un-German. Foreign influences were identified with an international Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy, and any sort of "deviant" moral, intellectual or personal behavior was branded as degenerate. A self-righteous and unswerving morality, imposed from on high, was promulgated as the cure necessary to save society from a contagion of degeneracy.

This philosophy ultimately found expression in the Nazis' extermination of homosexuals, invalids, cripples, mental patients and of course Jews and other non-Aryans, but particularly in the regime's early years, the elimination of "degenerate" art had compelling propaganda value. The fact that modernism was international in orientation and often incomprehensible to the common folk played right into Nazi hands, as did the modernists' avowed interest in the art of the insane and of non-Western cultures. The Nazis delighted in pointing out examples of "inferior" racial types in the art of Expressionists such as Emil Nolde, and stressed that many of Lovis Corinth's most prized works were done after the artist had suffered a debilitating stroke. Needless to say, artists who, like John Heartfield, criticized the existing social order were also prime targets.

Within one year of assuming power, Hitler had removed many leading artists (including Dix, Kollwitz, Max Beckmann and Karl Hofer) from their teaching posts, and by placing the administration of even private galleries under the control of an official Kulturkammer (Chamber of Culture), severely curtailed exhibitions of avant-garde art. Museum directors sympathetic to modernism also lost their jobs, and prior museum acquisitions were publicly ridiculed as a waste of taxpayers' money, simultaneously discrediting the art and the Weimar-era policies that had supported it. Exhibitions highlighting and mocking selected modern works from museum collections were common from 1933 on, but in 1937 a wholesale purge of museums was begun, with the most salient pickings exhibited in the famous "Degenerate Art" exhibition. By this time, the voices of modernism had effectively been squelched in Germany, and most of the major artists had sought refuge in either actual or "inner" exile.

The Nazis' systematic campaign against modernism compares in intensity only to that waged in Stalinist Russia, but kindred impulses exist even in the supposedly free United States. In the last several years, the National Endowment for the Arts, which through its grants to individuals and institutions has a significant impact on the nation's artistic climate, has become increasingly politicized. Right-wing attacks on avant-garde art, spearheaded by Reverend David Wildmon's American Family Association and Congressmen Alfonse D'Amato and Jessie Helms, have forced the NEA to become a diligent self-censor, cautiously vetting grant nominations, pre-screening peer review panels and, most notoriously, insisting that grant recipients sign a controversial "anti-obscenity pledge"(now partially rescinded). Among numerous NEA-funded exhibitions that recently drew well-publicized fire from the right were a group show at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art featuring Andres Serrano's surprisingly lyrical photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine (shocking only by virtue of its title, Piss Christ), the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective "The Perfect Moment" (cancelled by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and subsequently the cause of an unsuccessful obscenity suit against the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center), and the AIDS exhibition "Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing," which was accompanied by an inflammatory catalogue essay by artist David Wojnarowicz.

The latest attempts by the United States government to censor creative expression have much in common with prior crackdowns on the avant-garde, both in terms of the charges (which revolve principally around accusations of blasphemy, obscenity and offenses against patriotism) and in the underlying causes (which derive from a pervasive sense of social and economic decay). Here, as in pre-war Germany, much of the arts community remains remote from the general public, and the artists' primary sins lie primarily in the exploration of aspects of contemporary existence that the ruling forces do not want to see exposed. Politicians such as Helms seek to deflect attention from America's genuine problems by directing discontent toward an alien "other," whose decadence allegedly saps the public coffers and threatens to undermine and destroy mainstream moral values.

Those who contend that artists denied NEA grants can always find support in the private sector conveniently ignore the fact that most commercial galleries will exhibit only marketable art and, as the artist Hans Haacke has taken great pains to document, that corporate sponsorship invariably serves a conservative business agenda. The larger implications of the government's attempt to dictate policy at the NEA are chillingly reflected in the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding laws that prohibit publically supported clinics from even mentioning abortion. Those in the university community fear, with good reason, that academic funding may be the next target. Although America cannot be equated with Nazi Germany, one would do well to recall that even Hitler's campaign of cultural dictatorship began slowly and with seemingly innocuous measures, and that the right to freedom of speech, though written into our Constitution, is worthless if the institutions of our government fail to enforce it.