By Mark Brown
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In defence of degenerate art

This article is over 5 years, 6 months old
Issue 442

The so called “alt-right” project is an attempt to throw an ideological blanket over a range of deeply reactionary political tendencies. These range from racist right wing “mainstream” conservatives (such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg in Britain), to far-right populists (like US president Donald Trump and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán) and outright fascists (such as Marine Le Pen in France and Austrian vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache).

Fascist ideas play an important role in the efforts of the likes of Trump’s former chief strategist Stephen Bannon to create some kind of ideological coherence for their counter-revolutionary project. Nowhere is this clearer than in culture.

In 2015, Gerald Warner (the “Tory intellectual” Scottish journalist) wrote an article for the American alt-right house journal Breitbart attacking the Frankfurt School of left-wing cultural theorists. His piece included this little gem: “Theodor Adorno promoted degenerate atonal music to induce mental illness, including necrophilia, on a large scale.”

Leaving aside the bizarre suggestion that one might become sexually attracted to cadavers by listening to the string quartets of Béla Bartók or Anton Webern, Warner’s phraseology (“degenerate atonal music”) is taken straight from the ideological playbook of German Nazism.

During the Third Reich the Nazis waged a culture war against modern art, which they referred to with such terms as “entartete Kunst” (degenerate art) and “entartete Musik” (degenerate music).

For the Nazis any art work that reflected the abstract, non-naturalistic or discordant traits of modernism was, by definition, “degenerate”. The same was true of work by Jewish and left wing artists, and anyone else whose work was considered contrary to “German feeling”.

Needless to say, jazz, with its African-American origins, large number of black and Jewish musicians and its tangible cosmopolitanism, was a particular target for the Nazis.

The modernism which the Nazis so despised had created, arguably, the most exciting era in human culture (in European terms, at least) since the Renaissance of the 14th to 17th centuries. With the world convulsed by war, revolution and rapid technological change, modernism responded with a series of remarkable, startlingly original artistic movements (such as Russian Constructivism, Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism and Absurdism).

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they pushed back violently against a cultural revolution that had already created the novels of James Joyce, the plays of Gertrude Stein, the paintings of Pablo Picasso, the films of Sergei Eisenstein and the music of Arnold Schoenberg. It had not gone unnoticed by the Nazis that the modernist movements (with the exception of Italian Futurism) tended to be sympathetic to the left and the emancipatory vision of socialist revolution.

In Germany, the Weimar Republic that followed the First World War was characterised by an economic and social chaos that gave rise to the promise of revolution and the threat of counter-revolution. This tumult was reflected in the work of theatremakers such as Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, painters George Grosz and Otto Dix, and photomontage artist Helmut Herzfeld (who later Anglicised his name to John Heartfield to piss off the Nazis).

The Nazis hated this culture, with its jagged, uncomfortable reflections of a precarious society and its brilliant, grotesque satires of the obscenities of capitalist profiteering amid material poverty and social degeneration. They sought to replace it with a dishonest, narrowly representational and figurative art that expressed a “blood and soil” nationalism, created an idealised image of an “Aryan” German “master race”, as well, of course, as venerating Hitler.

It is from precisely this sewer that Warner’s denunciation of “degenerate atonal music” comes. Indeed, his article reflects a putrid, fascistic attitude to art and culture that is increasingly manifested in the actions of far-right activists and politicians.

For example, in May 2018, in the Czech city of Brno, members of the far-right Decent People movement invaded the stage of the Husa na provazku theatre disrupting a performance of the play Our Violence and Your Violence.

In Hungary, in 2012, the Mayor of Budapest (a member of Orbán’s Fidesz party) sacked the director of the city’s New Theatre and appointed actor György Dörner, a supporter of the fascist party Jobbik. Dörner announced his intention to cleanse Hungarian theatre of its “degenerate, sick, liberal hegemony”.

The following year, Róbert Alföldi (who is openly gay and had been accused of “treason” and “discrediting Hungarians” with the plays he had staged) was sacked as artistic director of Hungary’s National Theatre.

These are just a few of the more egregious examples of the new far-right’s assault on the “degeneracy” of free art.

In the coming battles against the far-right populists and fascists, revolutionary socialists must be the champions of “degenerate art”.

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