“Degenerate Art” lecture and Street Scene opera demonstrate strong ties to present-day

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Keith Holtz, professor of art history at Western Illinois University, gave a lecture at Peeler Auditorium on Feb. 2 about the “Degenerate Art” exhibition and The Nazi’s Attack on Modern Art and Music. Holtz has spent much of his time instructing students about Nazism and its connection to art and visual culture in Nazi Germany through teaching and by authoring two books.

Michael Mackenzie, professor of art history at DePauw, states that Holtz is interested in a variety of topics about Nazi Germany, including modern German artists who resisted the Nazi regime. An expert on modern art in Austria and Germany, Holtz provided an in-depth analysis of artists who went into exile to escape Nazi Germany because modern art, music, and architecture was labelled “degenerate” and banned.

The “Degenerate Art” exhibition was opened in 1937 and included 650 works of art seized from 32 German museums. “Degenerate” art was anything contradictory to the National Socialists’ ideology or propaganda. “Essentially, Nazis took modern out of museums and made fun of it,” Mackenzie said. “The purpose of the exhibition was to pick fun at modern art and encourage people who didn’t understand contemporary art to disparage it.”

Professor of history, Julia Bruggemann, found that the lecture was very crucial for DePauw students in order to learn not only about Nazi Germany but also about how art influenced the era. “The lecture pointed out the importance Art for the Nazi dictatorship and investigated how it's display, censorship, and even destruction was used in the service of nefarious, racist, and murderous purposes” Bruggemann said.  

National Socialists had a strong claim over what could be considered suitable for the exhibition. “The art that was labelled as degenerate was made by artists that the Nazis didn’t think were German enough, or were too Jewish, or too modern,” Mackenzie said. “The exhibition gained popularity by having it be the norm to make fun of modern culture.”

First-year Melissa Browning enjoyed the ability to view one exhibition through multiple lenses. “It’s important for students to understand and appreciate our own country's past,” Browning said, “but equally important to make an effort to understand other histories and how those shape and are shaped by art and music.”

The lecture from Holtz is closely related to DePauw’s upcoming rendition of the opera, “Street Scene,” which will be held from Feb. 9-12 in the GCPA. The composer of the opera, Kurt Weill, was a refugee from Nazi Germany who often composed music that served a socially advantageous function.

As a prominent and popular Jewish composer, Weill quickly became a target for Nazis. He fled from Nazi Germany in 1933 and moved to Paris before settling in New York City. The City sets the stage for “Street Scene,” an opera that focuses on romance and tensions between families.

By presenting both the “Degenerate Art” exhibition and “Street Scene” in such close proximity to each other, Mackenzie hopes to draw attention to the strong connection between past and present repression.

He states that while the exhibition was an attempt to demonize culture and gain popular support through such acts, part of the larger effort was to dehumanize the Jewish minority. “Do we see today that the same people who denounce culture and art they don't like as ‘elite’ and ‘unAmerican’ are also dehumanizing the members of a religious minority?” said Mackenzie.

Mackenzie fully believes in the importance of having this lecture for students so that they can attempt to look at the past and try and make connections to the present.  “We should be wary of those who want to win our support by telling us that we're ‘in’ while others are ‘out’,” Mackenzie said, “and who would achieve popularity by rejecting diversity, complexity, and challenges to tradition and cultural authority.”