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Art, politics and the aesthetics of Hitler

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Terry Teachout has a wonderful essay in the current issue of Commentary about art and politics which also serves as a review of Frederic Spotts’ new book, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics. There’s nothing I can add that would enhance or clarify it, so I will instead give you a few excerpts:

…(W)ith few exceptions, biographers, historians, and commentators have seldom… consider(ed)… the possibility that Hitler’s artistic interests might have been central to his character, or have had a significant effect on his political career…

Spotts contends that Hitler’s “aesthetic talents,” far from being peripheral to his achievements as a politician, were in fact at the heart of his political self-understanding.

Hitler believed, according to Spotts, that “the ultimate objective of political effort should be artistic achievement.” He meant this in a literal sense: “Once he had won his war and established an Aryan state that was a dominant world power, he intended to devote himself to the creation of cultural monuments that would change the face of Germany and immortalize himself.” But Hitler was no mere builder of temples celebrating the triumph of his iron will. As Spotts goes on to explain:

The Hitler of this book is someone for whom culture was not only the end to which power should aspire but also a means of achieving and keeping it. . . . Using a new style of politics, mediated through symbols, myths, rites, spectacles, and personal dramatics, he reached the masses as did no other leader of his time.

Not only does Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics serve as a useful corrective to earlier Hitler biographies, it also supplies a thoroughly unsettling account of what, for lovers of the arts, is one of the most unsavory features of the Third Reich: the seeming eagerness of so many noted German artists (as well as more than a few of their counterparts in Nazi-occupied countries, especially France) to collaborate with Hitler and his henchmen. What was it about Hitler that appealed to them? Were they simply afraid not to support him? Or were they responding to the siren call of a deeper urge?

…Hitler, in short, was a deranged idealist, a painter who sought power over others in order to make his romantic dreams real, then grew ever more bloodthirsty when the human beings who were his flesh-and-blood medium resisted his transforming touch.

…To read Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics is to reflect not only on power but on the various ways in which artists through the ages have responded to power, and more specifically to the politicians and political ideas of their time.

In Nazi Germany, this response, as Frederic Spotts reminds us, was overwhelmingly positive. The list of distinguished non-Jewish artists who left the country after Hitler came to power is brief to the point of invisibility when placed next to the rogues’ gallery of those who stayed behind, in many cases not merely accepting the inevitability of Nazi rule but actively collaborating with the regime…

The relationship of these artists to the Nazi regime remains relevant to this day. Though artists vary widely in their political awareness—from total indifference on the one hand to passionate involvement on the other—many, perhaps most, find it hard to resist the blandishments of politicians who appear to take an informed interest, however specious, in the arts…

It is tempting to try to excuse this as mere foolishness. As Hitler himself once remarked, “Artists are simple-hearted souls. Today they sign this, tomorrow that; they don’t even look to see what it is, so long as it seems to them well-meaning.” But as he knew—better, perhaps, than any other politician of the 20th century—ideas have consequences, and the artist who succumbs to the temptation to dabble in ill-digested political ideas, be he a Nazi, a Communist, or a pacifist, is as morally responsible for their ultimate consequences as any other human being. In the end, beauty excuses nothing, least of all mass murder.

The piece is fascinating both for its historical context and for the light it shines on art today – including the media arts such as acting. I don’t think Teachout or Spotts – and for that matter, me – is advocating that artists stay out of politics. Certainly politics and current events give us some of our most moving art, such as Picasso’s Guernica (I don’t agree with his overall sentiment, but the painting is one instance where I think the modernism of his art conveyed the emotion and tragedy of the moment better than realism). But I do think this as one of the larger points is well taken – art cannot be fully understood outside of its political and historical context, and artists do not operate in some divine sphere that removes their motivations from the taint of self-interest or even evil.

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