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CONSTRUCTUING THE CATEGORY ENTARTETE KUNST: THE DEGENERATE ART EXHIBITION OF 1937 AND POSTMODERN HISTORIOGRAPHY

by McKeon, Joseph Michael

Abstract (Summary)
This study, utilizing Michel Foucault’s theory from which to interpret visual abnormality in art, analyzes the reasons why the Nazis believed visual dysfunction and mental illness were the operative forces behind modern art. In Munich, Germany in 1937 the National Socialist party, fearing that German culture was slowly degenerating into madness, sponsored two art events largely for the purposes of contrast. At the largely monolithic Great German Art Exhibition the Nazis hastened to forward their own aesthetic vision by displaying art works representing human forms in the language of classicism. The Degenerate Art Exhibition (held a day later) showcased early twentieth-century German avant-garde paintings, which, the Nazis claimed, were the products of abnormal vision and mental illness. The importance of visual perception in art is first detected in the period Foucault identifies as the Classical episteme, a period that regards man’s capacity for representation as the primary tool for ordering knowledge about the world. The roots of this way of thinking about representation go back to the fifteenth-century theorist Leonbattista Alberti, who established rules in art for the normal and healthy perception of nature. Such rules, including linear perspective and an emphasis on line, continued to be supported after the advent of what Foucault calls the Modern episteme, which began roughly around the late eighteenth century. The Modern episteme still regarded man’s knowledge of the world as fundamentally representational, but, in addition, saw man’s representational capacities as an object of knowledge. This line of thought contributed to Immanuel Kant’s theory of knowledge, in particular his view on how the subjective awareness of beauty opens up for the subjects solidarity with others in judging beauty, that is, a judgment of taste’s claim to universality. Kant’s aesthetics thus becomes a space where a consensus about the visual perception of art is now possible. This type of aesthetic consensus is shown to imply a rejection of anything perceived as being the product of insanity or visual aberration, such as, for the Nazis, Impressionism, which utilizes heavy impasto and bold striking colors to suggest form. This style, via Post-Impressionists like Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, made a profound impact on the early twentieth-century German Expressionist movement. The Nazis eventually marginalized such modern art from German culture by maintaining that its practitioners freely appropriated the formal language of the insane artist in their rejection of bourgeois aesthetic values. The following study is a consideration of the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937 as a space where a prescribed aesthetic community could convene and attack the modern artist as “other.”
Bibliographical Information:

Advisor:

School:Ohio University

School Location:USA - Ohio

Source Type:Master's Thesis

Keywords:postmodern historiography michel foucault degenerate art nazi aesthetics the exhibition of 1937 great german madness in expressionism

ISBN:

Date of Publication:01/01/2006

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