Art, Banned

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Art, Banned

Art that is banned may be found in all types of regimes, ranging from democracies to those that are authoritarian and genocidal. On the one hand, there has been a consistent debate about the use of public funds for the arts, which always has had a low appeal with electorates. On the other, humankind's knowledge of many civilizations has developed through their artistic contributions, even if they are handed down through history in disfigured form. Ancient Egyptian rulers usually mutilated the images of their predecessors. Almost all religions have tried to ban one form of art or another because of the deity or belief depicted. In Christian art, especially the Byzantine variant, biblical images of Christ and the Holy Family had to follow axiomatic rules on the representation of icons. The work of artists and intellectuals that has criticized military policy or underscored political follies has often been banned and even destroyed in gallery settings. The critique of war and patriotism has always been considered bad form, and in the early twentieth century this viewpoint was best expressed in the German government of Kaiser Wilhelm II, which reacted to the extremism of the Dadaists and expressionist artists who painted the horrors of World War I's battlefields and sometimes created images of the ruling elite as soldiers with pig's heads.

From the modern perspective of authoritarian regimes, the former Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin was the first to ban large areas of artistic representation and numerous artists. By the end of the 1920s, after a long period of creative and experimental achievement by Russian artists, the Soviet Union declared that all art must follow socialist realism, meaning it be realist in form, socialist in content. Thus, art in the Soviet Union ceased to be free and became a means of propaganda to prop up the regime. Artists had to choose to conform, emigrate if possible, or opt for "inner exile," which meant avoiding controversial subjects altogether. Many artists died in Soviet prison camps, and it was not until the early 1960s, during a period of Soviet history known as "the thaw," that artists began to confront formerly taboo subjects. By the 1970s and through the end of the Soviet regime in 1991, a substantial unofficial art movement became rooted in many intellectual capitals of the Soviet Union. The critiques of these artists, which ranged from visual puns to pop art and religious themes, were symptomatic of the failing political regime.

Nazi Germany was the only genocidal regime that made aesthetics and art an important component of regime ideology. This unique characteristic may be linked to the Nazi consolidation of power over a six-year period before mass murder and war began. The key word for Nazism was degeneracy, which came to include physical, genetic, and psychological deformations in human beings; abstract and expressionist art; modern forms of music like jazz; and various campaigns to purify the human body, as exemplified by campaigns against white bread, margarine, women wearing cosmetics, and smoking. Adolf Hitler, who had aspired to become an artist earlier in his career, always maintained a keen interest in the arts and future architecture of Germany. In 1933, under the jurisdiction of Joseph Goebbels, Deutscher Kunstbericht (The German Art Report) published a five-point manifesto for purifying German art. The main points included: the removal of all "cosmopolitan" works that were Bolshevist or Marxist in nature, the removal of all museum directors who spent public funds on such works, the condemnation and prevention of construction of "boxlike" buildings (a specific attack on the Bauhaus School of Design), and the removal of all public sculptures not approved by the public. On November 26, 1936, Goebbels, by then Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, banned art criticism. This edict restricted the number of people allowed to write about art and gave the government a monopoly over artistic ideas. A fundamental aspect of this assault, subsequently used in Nazi propaganda, was the belief that Jews controlled the art market and reaped huge profits. Thus, the Weimar Republic was defined by Nazism as a period of Jewish takeover of the arts, with the Jews becoming the scapegoat of antimodernists.

In July 1937 six hundred works of art representing heroic Aryan themes were hung for the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition) that opened in Munich. Hitler himself used this occasion to spell out, in essence, his plan for extermination: "From now on we are going to wage a merciless war of destruction against the last remaining elements of cultural disintegration"(Barron, 1991, p. 17). The alternative to so-called degenerate art was a heroic form linking the body and politics to race. The same month in 1937 the first of many Entartete Kunst (degenerate) art shows opened. These shows, which may have drawn the largest crowds in museum history, juxtaposed degenerate art, as influenced by "Jews and Negroes," against the Aryan ideal, that expressed romanticized themes of German mythology, militarism, productive workers and docile women tending to families in painting and sculpture. Only a small number of the artists shown were, in fact, Jews. Most were German artists who had been part of the avant-garde movement: Ernst Nolde, himself a member of NSDAP—The Nazi Party; Max Beckmann; Willi Baumesiter; Otto Dix; Paul Klee; Max Pechstein; Ernst Barlach; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; Oskar Kokoshka; Kathe Kollwitz; Max Lieberman; Mies Van der Rohe; and Ludwig Gies.

Nazi guidelines on the arts became part of the destruction and regulation of all cultural life in Germany. In a broader sense, a good deal of the Nazi attack on culture might be called a war against imagination and the vision of the other. This became the prelude to genocide on a larger scale. In Germany the misuse of art helped define the victim. The administration of the visual arts came to parallel treatment of the Jews. The military conquests of Nazi Germany during World War II were followed immediately by expropriation of artistic treasures from all over Europe on a scale that was unprecedented. A new German art failed to materialize, as the limited subject matter for artistic concerns—military heroism; a fit body; portraits of the Führer; and seductive, almost pornographic, images of women—became the style of the period. The two major German sculptors who have remained the subject of artistic investigation are Arno Breker and Josef Thorak because of their focus on the human body, considerations of classical form, and a type of slick modernism that crept into corporate commercials and advertising during the 1990s.

Communist regimes in Asia, beginning with Maoist China, also placed a ban on most art forms. Painting immediately after 1948 largely evolved into graphic design adaptable to huge posters that supported the regime's policies. Certain so-called bourgeois concepts, such as Western art, Western music, and the playing of the card game bridge, were prohibited. Once in power, Maoist ideology was instrumental in destroying many of the cultural legacies of the Chinese artistic past, especially when an intersection of the arts and religion occurred. This was especially true in Tibet, where countless Buddhist monasteries were destroyed. The destruction of Tibetan Buddhist art had strong impact on the decline of the religion there. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan went even further by destroying, with artillery fire, two of the largest statues of Buddha in the world in Bamiyan Province.

Denial of genocide by current regimes can also be the basis for a ban on art. Thus, as the Turkish Republic has a state-directed policy about acknowledging the genocide of Armenians under Ottoman rule in 1915, discourse about this subject takes place in Armenia and in the Armenian diaspora.

SEE ALSO Art, Stolen; Art as Propaganda; Art as Representation


Barron, Stephanie (1991). Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. New York: Harry Abrams.

Golomstock, Igor (1990). Totalitarian Art in the Soviet Union, The Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the People's Republic of China. New York: HarperCollins.

Petropoulos, Jonathan (1996). Art as Politics in the Third Reich. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Spotts, Frederic (2002). Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics. New York: Overlook Press.

Welch, David (1993). The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda. London: Routledge.

Stephen C. Feinstein