Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Confronting Evil" at the Neue Galerie's "Degenerate Art" Exhibit Eight Days Before Passover

by Annita Soble April 2014*
So already, on April 6, I visited the Neue Galerie as a participant in the Massasoit Community College Art Department's annual field trip to the art galleries and museums of New York City.* 

I used the bus ride time to read in preparation for two events:  on Friday, April 11, I was part of a Project Zero team associated with Facing History and Ourselves' 2014 Day of Learning: Confronting Evil in Individuals and Societies; and tomorrow, Monday, April 14, I am making the Seder for the first night of Passover. First I reread a great deal of The New Union Haggadah prepared by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Next I finished reading an academic paper about human behavior and its contexts during the Rwandan genocide. Finally I read a journal article about stereotypes, their relationship to identity construction, and the implications of both for legal equality and the "social ideal" of equality (Appiah 47).***

Aliza Luft's "Boundary Crossing in High-Risk Contexts: From killing to saving in the 1994 Rwandan genocide" argues that classifying individuals as "perpetrators, victims, bystanders, and rescuers" eliminates a consideration of people who belonged to more than one category, specifically, in the case of Rwanda, those Hutus who killed Tutsis in some situations and saved them in others (2). "By clarifying the conditions that explain boundary crossing from perpetrator to rescuer in a genocide, we can better understand the variety of mechanisms that influence how people make decisions in high-risk contexts," she explains in the abstract of her paper (2).*****

K. Anthony Appiah's "Stereotypes and the Shaping of Identity" in part explores the difference between "equality and sameness" (41). Appiah explains that "questions of equality largely arise when the treatment [of people who are somehow different from one another] is not only different but in some way invidiously so" with the following example: "It is one thing to give pink cookies to girls and blue ones to boys, but another to give the boys expensive toys and the girls cheap trinkets" (43).

Appiah also distinguishes among three kinds of stereotypes.  The first is a false attribution of a quality or attitude to an individual that, statistically, could be correctly attributed to many members of the group to which the individual belongs, but not to that particular individual. The second is a misconception based on a robust preconception or belief rather than on statistical evidence.  

The third, which he calls a "normative stereotype," has less to do with expectations for how people will behave, and more to do with conceptions of how they should behave. Explains Appiah,
Both the first and the second kinds of stereotypes involve intellectual error--either misunderstanding the facts, in the case of simply false stereotypes, or misunderstanding their relevance, in the case of statistical ones. But there is no reason to suppose that normative stereotypes as such must be wrong, or that public actions grounded on them are to be criticized, even when they involve differences in treatment that are judged to be invidious (49).
Normative stereotypes create expectations of some kind of conformity that individuals may experience as burdensome and arbitrary--but not necessarily as disadvantageous to their pursuit of dignity and respect:  even though I may inwardly bristle at needing to buy black slacks and a black top when the majority of my old college women's close-harmony singing group decides they are de riguer for an alumna singing event, I simultaneously recognize that the inconvenience and financial burden will ultimately be outweighed by the social and emotional benefits of enthusiastically belonging to the group.****** That said, "invidious" easily morphs into "insidious" if I receive constant messages that, as a rule, I cannot be trusted to dress myself appropriately; my self-esteem and confidence might plummet, creating further personal, economic, and social consequences.

So with genocide, varieties of stereotypes, oppression, freedom, and new theories for explaining people's capacities to commit both atrocious and morally courageous acts, I entered the Neue Galerie's "Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937."  To represent that the Germans mounted in close proximity to each other two deliberately contrasting exhibitions, the "Great German Art Exhibition" and "Degenerate Art," the Neue Galerie exhibit juxtposes triptychs from each in one of its exhibition rooms: Adolf Zeigler's The Four Elements (Fire, Earth and Water Air), displayed on the left, met with German approval; Max Beckmann's Departure, on the right, did not. 

Text on the wall explains that while the approved art of this period of history, which seemed classically balanced, solid, implacable, monumental, and aspirational, was displayed in a large, uncluttered exhibition space, the disapproved art cluttered and overwhelmed the insufficient exhibition space in which it was mounted. Thus, the "Degenerate Art" exhibition in its very layout was designed to dishonor and disrespect. A short video showed a steady stream of visitors viewing the exhibition. What were they thinking and feeling?  that the art was beautiful? interesting? strange? disgusting?  Was that what they had they expected to think and feel? Was anybody thinking, "If I could sneak that beautiful painting out of here, I would"?

******** (8*)
I entered the Galerie with a misconception that many Jewish artists were represented in the exhibition; in fact, works of very few Jewish artists were featured. One painting particularly drew my attention. "The Pharisees" by Karl Schmidt-Rotluff seemed to represent the rabbis featured prominently in the Gospels as stereotypically Jewish in appearance--beards, long noses, heavy brows--and stereotypically Jewish in behavior--whispering, plotting, conniving. Wouldn't the Nazis have approved of artistic expression that presented Jews unfavorably, that made them through the artist's choice of color and shape almost inhuman?

So if such a painting wasn't going to win the approval of the Nazis given their anti-semitism and genocidal aims, what was the real purpose of discrediting and mocking modern art? As I looked around the room as a whole, I was struck by the often unorthodox use of vibrant color; the distortion of forms; the characters and caricatures; the life.  No suggestions of static tableaux; instead, movement, light, and darkness--irrepressible vitality immersing the viewer in "slant" truths.*********

Suddenly, I developed one possible answer to my own question: imagination itself was under attack. Not just an art movement or a subgroup of people, but a whole way of living and responding to the world. Individual imagination would not be tolerated. No more symbols, except those chosen and adopted by the state. No more exhilaration via color and abstraction. No more humor, light or dark. No more unorthodoxy. Just forms, subjects, and palettes selected by the state. Stolid, uniform dignity.

********** (10*)
Thinking about this later, as I read the exhibition brochure and explored the Neue Galerie web site with this in mind, I mused that the four women in the painting on the left would never date the four men in the painting on the right. Clad, the four women, embodiments of life forces, could be starters on an undefeated field hockey team already happily planning to spend the rest of their lives wracking up victory upon victory.  In contrast, the men, skeptical, subversive, urbane lurkers, restless and uneasy, bide their time in doorways, wondering but not quite hoping. The women did not interest me as people at all; the men made me chuckle, but not derisively or disrespectfully. Still, of the two groups, the men, with their discontent and imagination, would no doubt have been the more vulnerable. For them, artistic conformity--a kind of adaptive, self-chosen normative stereotyping?--would have been one form of death, while non-conformity might have led to another.

************ (12*)
Oscar Kokoschka's proudly self-asserting self-portrait of this time period suggests the problem. On the one hand, he rebels against those trying to humiliate him by entitling his picture Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist and claiming the label almost as a badge of honor; on the other hand, as the National Galleries of Scotland web site explains, "A deer can be seen on the right and a running figure on the left. It has been suggested that both of these elements refer to flight or pursuit and to the artist as a hunted man." 

Kokoschka's portrait speaks emphatically to me personally:  the experience of being given an emphatic institutional thumbs-down when one feels at the height of one's creative and productive powers is extraordinarily painful even when it's not terribly public. No doubt an actual public "'exhibition of shame'" would intensify the experience of being shamed, both as an individual and as a member of an identified group.************* As education articles, studies, and reports proliferate, many written to advance the agendas of powerful lobbies and groups rather than to illuminate the challenges and complexities of district-based public education, the designation of teachers as the unskilled, uncaring, overly autonomous culprits often goes unchallenged. While imagination is identified as a must for "college-and career-ready" students, teacher imagination is discouraged, curbed, even rooted out. 

After several hours of fascinating, disturbing, often beautiful stimulation, I walked out of the Neue Galerie into a sunny, warm, perfect spring day. It was the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and practically the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, but the forsythia was in full bloom. Particularly as a Jewish person leaving one more cultural/historical/artistic event that captured the Nazi genius for organized terror and humiliation, I felt saddened, angered, sobered, vulnerable, and enlightened. But I also felt wonderfully free--and so grateful for that.

Oppression and aggression are alive and well in too many places, and the memories of oppressions and aggressions past are sometimes as burdensome as the events themselves. Reading, looking, and thinking, on one's own and in the company of thoughtful, knowledgeable others, can lead to so much understanding, but one has to want that new understanding and insight. And that understanding will seldom transform strong emotion into something easier to bear. But it is extraordinarily helpful as one determines to move forward into a future shaped less by aggression and oppression. That was my take-away from Friday's Facing History "Confronting Evil" day of learning. As both a teacher and person, I actually have more hope today than than I did three days ago that freedom from oppression is possible for many if not all.

A reading in the haggadah to the left explains that Jews eat matzah before bitter herbs at the Seder because "First Moses had to teach the taste of freedom's hope,/ and only then did servitude taste bitter" (43).************** Those of us who are free are particularly obligated to seek freedom for those who have it and are in danger of losing it, for those who don't have it and may never have had it, and for those whose memory of it has been obliterated by habituation to oppression.  So I go into this Passover looking for new and deeper understanding, and believing that everyone should feel as free as I do. I go into this Passover hoping that I'll learn something more about who I am vis à vis myself, vis à vis others, and vis à vis God; who we (Jews) are as a spiritual people guided by ethical considerations; and what all of this should mean to us in terms of actions and commitments.

People are complicated; issues are complicated. But if we--as educators, citizens, and human beings--dedicate ourselves to making time and taking care to acknowledge and explore complexities, we might have a real chance at doing better at increasing freedom and dignity. Self-awareness, other-awareness, and issue-awareness, followed by awareness-based action: could be the winning combination, for all of us.**************

*1 It was, as always, a beautifully organized trip that allowed students, most of whom had never been to New York City, to make personal choices about what museums and galleries to visit, to navigate several art-rich areas of the city with information and ease, and to be part of a group or not be part of a group as they did their viewing and exploring.  The trip's organizer, Massasoit professor Bob Priest, even encouraged students to take advantage of Central Park when they became overly saturated with art and needed a respite. Choice, support, optional camaraderie, great weather, and great art combined to make it a wonderful day.  Older students being treated as the adults that they are, but with the understanding that NYC is a dense, complicated environment for newcomers.
**2  This Passover image was created by Annita Soble, my cousin.  Please check out her web site:  <>.
***3 Appiah, K. Anthony. "Stereotypes and the Shaping of Identity." California Law Review 88.41 (2000): 41-53. Print.
****4 Luft, Aliza.  "Boundary Crossing in High-Risk Contexts:  From killing to saving in the 1994 Rwandan genocide."  Academic paper under auspices of the Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin, Madison.
*****5 Lvov, Ariella. "Image from "Shenanigans"" Web log post. Habitat for Humanity Immersion. Rollins, 10 Jan. 2012. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <>.
******6 I've adapted a clothing related example that Appiah provides in his article.
*******7 Screen shot from  "Neue Galerie." Museum Landing Page. Neue Galerie, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <>. 
********8 Screen shot of painting image: Schmidt-Rotluff, Karl. The Pharisees. 1912. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Provenance Research Project. Museum of Modern Art. Web. 09 Apr. 2014. <>.
*********9 Dickinson, Emily. "Tell All The Truth." N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <>.
**********10 Screen shot of painting image: Zeigler, Adolf. The Four Elements (Fire, Earth and Water, Air). 1937. Pinakothek Der Moderne, Bayerische Staatsgemaeldesammlungen, Munich. Neue Galerie. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <>.
***********11 Screen shot of painting image: Kirchner, Ernst Ludwig. A Group of Artists (The Painters of the Brucke). 1925-6. Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Neue Galerie. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <>.
*************12 Screen shot of painting image: Kokoschka, Oscar. Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist. 1937. Web site. National Galleries Scotland, Edinburgh. National Galleries Scotland Collection. Web. 9 Apr. 2014.>.
*************13 Zwick, Tracy. "Art In America." "Degenerate Art" Exhibition of Nazi-Era Modern Work Opens at Neue Galerie. Curiator, Mar. 2014. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <>.
**************14 Bronstein, Herbert, and Leonard Baskin. A Passover Haggadah: The New Union Haggadah Rev. Ed. New York: Penguin, 1978. Print.
***************15 The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting fosters "issue awareness" through supporting and sharing high quality independent journalism.

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