Art in Crisis. The German-Speaking Degeneration Discourse. Its Roots, Evolution and Continuity

Art is for the history of societies what a dream is for the psychiatrist”, claimed the French art historian René Huyghe in 1938. This sentence was used programmatically by Hans Sedlmayr to allude to his method in “Verlust der Mitte“ (Loss of the Centre). This relation of art and insanity should be regarded as a concept originating from the 19th century. Its fatal consequences were exposed during National Socialism and the Stalinist Era.

The Greeks and Romans were already familiar with the idea of cultural decline. Schlegel used the German term entarten to describe art and taste in late 18th century. Later the cultural-philosophical concept of degeneration was enriched constantly by categories taken from the fields of medicine and/or race to be politicized finally.

As the mental diseases had been defined as illnesses around 1800 (Foucault), the term could be used as a metaphor (Sontag) by the artists and their critics as well. How far-reaching the influence of Max Nordau’s book “Entartung“ (published in 1892/93) was, can be shown with Georg Lukàcz’ late statement in which he commented on his reading. In his bestseller, Nordau pathologized contemporary works of art and literature (and their producers) systematically for the first time in history. From then on, degeneration enriched by a bio-medicinal meaning was established as a category of art criticism. Being exiled in the Soviet Union, Lukàcz had already equalized degeneration and expressionism as a symptom of late capitalism in 1934. This thesis was adopted in the Soviet occupation zone and later in the GDR within the so-called formalism-debate from 1948 on.

With Benjamin’s idea of the aura we can ask for the need to campaign against works of art metaphorically by writing and physically by hiding or destroying the bodily co-presence of the pieces. At once it was Benjamin’s vision to respond to the fascist aesthetication of politics by a communist politicisation of art.

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Zitierhinweis: Maria Männig, „Art in Crisis, The German-Speaking Degeneration Discourse. Its Roots, Evolution and Continuity, in: The challenge of the Object, 33rd Congress of the International Committee of the History of Art 15th-20th July 2012, Postgraduate Program. Get in Touch – Objects, Places, People, S. 76-77.

Maria Männig

Promovierte Kunstwissenschaftlerin und Mit-Herausgeberin der NEUEN kunstwissenschaftlichen forschungen.

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5 Gedanken zu „Art in Crisis. The German-Speaking Degeneration Discourse. Its Roots, Evolution and Continuity“

  1. Vielleicht machen wir einmal ein Interview für meinen Schreibwerkstatt-Blog, wenn Du eine Weile dabei bist und siehst, wie es läuft und was es Dir bringt. Ich fände das spannend!
    Alles Gute! Lieben Gruß, Huberta

  2. Liebe Maria,

    ich gratuliere Dir zu Deiner Seite auf Hypotheses!
    Hoffentlich ziehen viele nach. Kann sein, dass Du derzeit die erste und einzige Kunsthistorikerin bist.

    Lieben Gruß, Huberta

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