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Two years ago, some 1,500 works of art were found in the home of a reclusive old German. The son of a Munich art dealer, he was selling them off piecemeal whenever he ran out of money. His father, who was classified as Jewish, had acquired them, by fair means or foul, in the Nazi era. Now the world knows about them, and something has to be done.
Somebody has to work out who owned them first, owned them next, owns them now, and will own them in future. They are worth €1 billion (some £844 million), but who should get it? Cornelius Gurlitt, in whose flat they were found, is being charged with tax evasion; but most of the paintings appear to have been legally, if immorally, acquired.
One of the interesting things about this discovery is that the most valuable pieces were considered by the Nazis to be worthless. They are examples of so-called “degenerate art”, which is how we translate entartete Kunst. Hitler loathed non-representational and expressionistic art. “Entartete Kunst” was the label attached to a famous exhibition in Munich in 1937, which showcased and denigrated all the stuff the Nazis found threatening: abstraction, non-European influences, unedifying subject matter and so on. A second exhibition lauded the stuff they liked: blonde people in heroic settings, like Stalin’s Socialist Realism but with less emphasis on machinery and the colour red. But the Nazis did not invent the “degenerate” tag.
Entarten, the verb from which entartete is formed, means to deviate from the norm, in a negative way; its roots are in the word Art, which means things like type, manner, kind, but also race. The word achieved prominence in 1892, when Max Nordau published a book called Entartung (“Degeneration”). His
thesis was that humanity was suffering from a kind of moral and physical decay, visible in people’s faces and bodies and reflected in art. Entartete Kunst both illustrated the effects of degeneration and caused it. It was an influential book, and the far Right took up the idea with enthusiasm. The art they attacked was untamed, corporeal, primitive and instinctual. But Hitler also objected to the fact that it needed explaining. It represented a terrifying alliance between the primal and the intellectual, aimed at destroying the Aryan race. Few Jewish artists were represented in the “Entartete Kunst” exhibition. Nordau himself had not used the Jews as representatives of degeneration. He was a Jew himself.
Our word, “degenerate”, is similar to entartete, but it is Latin rather than Germanic, and comes from the word genus, meaning race or kind. The idea that a people could degenerate, was not, of course, confined to Germany. We now say “the service has degenerated” when our cappuccino arrives without chocolate sprinkles, but in the past the word was often about race: the Latin degenerare means to fall below the standards of one’s forebears. The OED citations, which begin in 1553, involve plants becoming “evill plantes”; languages falling apart; morals slipping away; nations
acquiring bad habits and being destroyed.
Some unfortunate people were themselves described as “degenerates”. These were people with mental frailties (“illness” and “handicap” were usually bundled together, as they were in the asylums) and criminals; their deviation from the norm was clearly visible – to an expert – in their faces. Even as late as the 1950s, whole troublesome families were sometimes dismissed in this way.
“Degeneration” is the evil twin of that other nineteenth-century idea, improvement through evolution. I know which I prefer.