Adolf Hitler, Banksy, Carolos Estévez, Cuba, Cuban Art, Degenerate Art Exhibition, Expressionism, History, Modern Art, Nazi Germany, Painting, Peter Kennard, Politics, Theodor Adorno, Thomas Paine, Wassily Kandinsky, World War 2
I have a confession, and a pretty common one at that. Like many millions of my fellow citizens, I often take our freedom of speech for granted. While we are not the only nation that recognizes this freedom as an irrefutable right, we are often the ones who utilize it most noticeably. For instance, on each eleventh of September, an increasingly vocal subset of Americans gather at the World Trade Center Memorial to voice their criticism of the narrative of that horrific day. Many among them contend that the incident was orchestrated by our own country. Yet their freedom to espouse such contentious ideas is, and always will be, protected by our founding documents. It may be difficult at points, but we as citizens must ensure that everyone can exercise this right. As Thomas Paine said in his pamphlet series, The American Crisis, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”
I would not be surprised if you are thinking, “Jack, this is an arts article, not a political opinion piece. What bearing does this discussion have on the art world?”
Honestly, this is an excellent question. What is the relationship between the legal system and the art world? Judging by the events of recorded history, it can certainly be quarrelsome at times. Theodor Adorno, the famous German sociologist and philosopher, once said that every work of art is an uncommitted crime. What he means is that all art, as completely free subjective expression, will continually challenge the ways we perceive the world, and our open-mindedness toward controversial messages.
It is my contention that there is a strong connection between political liberties and artistic expression. And, more controversially, I believe that the only way complete artistic expression can be ensured is through the interventions of an impartial government body.
Consider the contrapositive. Let us suppose for a moment that man is free from any semblance of governmental influence. More specifically, let us presume that there is a scenario in which every man and woman lives in a place where no form of government exists at all. Would artistic expression, then, be entirely free? I would maintain that for controversial pieces, with no impartial governmental protections, particular groups would attack the artist, either by physical harm, ridicule, or through discredit.
Such a scenario, where artists have the potential to be persecuted without any possibility of judicial punishment, would deter future artists from expressing their messages, robbing us of artwork that can challenge our convictions. For the remainder of this article, I would like to evaluate the link between artwork and the government, and then share with you some pieces that, graced by complete freedom of speech, challenge governmental actions in an intriguing way.
There is a criticism of my position that should be explored more thoroughly. For the sake of argument, let us presume that artistic expression would be severely restricted without a protective government entity. I do not expect many to dispute that it might. But one might aver, “While artistic expression may be limited in lawless lands, there is simply too much evidence demonstrating governmental censorship of the artistic community for all the years that governments have existed.” This argument is convincing in one major respect. Government censorship of the arts has been prevalent for centuries, remaining constant in many parts of the world.
The cogency of this point, however, begins to shake upon further inspection. Let’s take an example from a country close to our own. The Constitution of Cuba ensures that its citizens possess freedoms akin to ours: freedom of religion, of conscience, of speech, of the press, and of the rights of assembly and demonstration. But there is a clause explicitly labeled in the Constitution; freedom of speech and freedom of the press, “must be exercised in accordance with the aims of a socialist state…and cannot be exercised against the existence and objectives of the socialist state.” This restriction against its artists offers us a necessary clarification: while it is true that governments can and have censored art makers in the past, this is directly tied to whether the government recognizes complete freedom of speech as an immutable right.
As a brief aside, the prohibition against anti-socialist sentiments in speech and the press in Cuba has afforded us with some intriguing artwork as a consequence. I highly recommend, to those who are interested, looking into the oeuvre of Carlos Estévez. His work is simply fantastic, and has a consistent theme of universality most likely resulting from the traditionally isolationist positions of the Cuban government. His piece A Través Del Universo (1992) is a great place to start!
A further example involves the artistic plunder that occurred in World War II. The recent movie, The Monuments Men, was an interesting film that showcased the great affection the Third Reich felt for many excellent art pieces. Traditionally, the Nazi regime cared most fervently for works that they considered quintessentially German. But what does this mean?
In this context, one might expect that for something to be quintessential to a country, its most perfect examples ought to be found within its borders. This makes a certain deal of sense. When one thinks of sushi, one immediately connects it to Japan. When one thinks of curry, it is quickly linked to India. With this in mind, which artwork would be characteristically German? In the years before the rise of the Third Reich, Germany was being highly praised by the international art community for its riveting Expressionist artwork.
Indeed, most art historians have attributed early 20th century Germany as the birthplace of Expressionism. Strictly within the context of this period, it follows that quintessentially German art was classified with this emerging modernist movement.
Adolf Hitler strongly refused this characterization. In his eyes, all recent modernist movements in art were an infection which jeopardized the stability of German society. In 1937, the Ministry for Education and Science distributed a pamphlet throughout the country declaring that, “Dadaism, Futurism, Cubism, and the other isms are the poisonous flower of a Jewish parasitical plant, grown on German soil.” In order for Germany to live as perfectly as possible, measures were enacted to remove all artwork which did not coincide with the Nazi worldview. All forms of modern art were then sought out, confiscated, and their creators were threatened with sanctions if they did not abandon their modernist leanings. If they continued to make non-Aryan artwork, they could lose their jobs in prestigious teaching positions, they would lose any possibility of selling their work, and in the most extreme cases they were banned from producing art of any kind.
This overarching power was oppressive and deserving of admonishment, and the situation only grew worse. Their artwork was not only condemned; it was publicly ridiculed.
The date is July 18, 1937. Adolf Hitler is speaking before a crowd at the opening of The Great German Art Exhibition in Munich, lambasting art makers who create with purposefully ambiguous intentions, “We are more interested in ability than in so called intent. An artist who is counting on having his works displayed, in this House or anywhere else in Germany, must possess ability. Intent is something that is self-evident.”
On display that day were pieces of art that he classified as quintessentially German.
He considered “German” art to be evocative of the styles found in ancient Greece and through the Middle Ages, periods that he considered to be unblemished by Jewish influence.
The following day, Adolf Hitler did not offer a speech as the doors of the Degenerate Art Exhibition were opened. Nazi soldiers had seized more than 5,000 degenerate art pieces before the grand opening, stuffing many of them in close proximity. Sentences were intentionally graffitied on the walls to accompany the artwork, some of which include, “The Jewish longing for the wilderness reveals itself—in Germany the Negro becomes the racial ideal of a degenerate art,” and “Nature as seen by sick minds.”
I offered a greater amount of detail for the Nazi Germany example because it verifies a hidden issue in the notion that artistic expression would be most free without the existence of government. My original claim was that complete artistic expression can only be ensured through the interventions of an impartial government body. In Cuba and in Nazi Germany, no artistically impartial government can be said to exist. In fact, the very actions these governments have undertaken illustrate the lengths that men and women would take to censor messages that they may vehemently despise. In artistically impartial nations, where the freedom of speech is avowed and staunchly defended, artists will feel the most security in sharing with each of us all that they wish to express.
I would like to offer you the names of some artists whose work I am familiar enough with to recommend. The first is a name that may be known to some of you, Peter Kennard. He is a London-born artist who is most notably remembered for his artistic contributions to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament during the Cold War. My favorite work of his by far, is Haywain with Cruise Missiles, a modern reimagining of John Constable’s most famous painting.
Another artist whose political works have widened my knowledge on the subject is a graffitist named Banksy. I can understand the hesitance to consider most graffiti art, but I promise that Banksy is an exceptional individual who reinvigorates typically depressing political imagery. There are two great examples I highly recommend searching for on the web. The first is Rage The Flower Thrower, and the second is a complete photo slideshow of his multiple pieces while visiting Gaza, (which can be found here), most particularly the image of children playing on the watchtower.