Degenerate! Art and the State
An 8-week study
It is not our fellow artist who is the enemy, but those who have made art the booty of exploitation, and who use it as a deodorant for war and fascism. —Arnold Blanch, First American Artists Congress, 1936
The idea of this course is to reveal the state’s entrenchment in determining the direction and limitations of the visual art world in capital’s domination of society. We will be examining the extent to which the power structure will go to control our cultural imagination. For example, the CIA and other governmental agencies energetically promoted abstract expressionism as an art movement that pointed to the limitless freedoms capitalism signified, especially in its American form.
The course would begin with a free screening of Architecture of Doom (dir. Peter Cohen, 1989, 119 min,)—a vivid documentary which presents the Nazi use of overt state control over visual art, with the premise that art had political and ideological functions. This film showing will occur at the Jefferson Market Branch of the New York Public Library on Saturday, January 20, 2:30 pm. For the Nazis, modernist, socialist, Jewish artists were necessarily entartete (degenerate). In Munich in 1937, an enormous exhibition of Entartete Kunst was launched to express degeneracy and madness. Over 3 million people attended. We will project art from some of these designated artists such as Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Max Beckmann in order to deepen an understanding of what was at stake.
From here we travel to postwar America, where the elites also held that art should fulfill an ideological (if not overtly political) function, but were politically compelled to denigrate both Nazi and now Soviet control over culture. The CIA worked alongside corporations to install “corporate” non-partisan, inoffensive art that celebrated the individual (i.e. capitalist and not communist) and denigrated anything containing possible, even hinted at, socialist leanings. Abstraction, particularly Abstract Expressionism became their rallying cry.
We will discuss the trajectory of this upsurge upon museums and galleries, and upon the artists themselves, and its relevancy today. What is the underlying nature of political art today? Who is funding it, and why? Has there been a radical reversal in art’s function since the postwar years? Who owns the museums? Are they meant to inspire or to intimidate? And, most essentially: why are these questions important to society in general, at this point in time?
There is a tremendous amount of material and resources, opinions and visual sources that pertain to this subject. The course will not be a series of lectures, but rather a guided discussion group, accessible to political thinkers, artists, and art lovers. A multitude of opinions will only enrich our understanding.
1. How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, by Serge Guilbaut, University of Chicago, 1983
2. Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War a.k.a. The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stoner Saunders, New Press, 1999
3. American Expressionism: Art and Social Change 1920 -1950, by Bram Dijkstra, Abrams Press 2003
Jeramy Turner’s primary concern has been for many years the appropriation of visual art and film for the purpose of ruling class hegemony. from 1975 through 1992 she directed alternative movie theaters in Chicago and Minneapolis, and edited the cinema journal, “Shattering Screen”. In 1986 she taught herself oil painting so as to visually depict the vulnerability of capitalism, and has been painting in this mode ever since. She established the radical feminist art collective, Sister Serpents in 1989, which Jesse Helmes decried as a “hate group” against unborn children. She has taught and lectured on the conjuncture of political involvement in art and feminism at numerous universities and institutions in the US (Chicago, Boulder, Jersey City, Cornell). Her work has been exhibited in London, Berlin, Vienna, Stockholm, Hamburg, Bergen, Norway, and at many alternative and university galleries throughout the US. She lives in Brooklyn and Aigen, Austria. Her paintings can be seen at www.jeramyturner.com.