Purges, Exclusions, and Limits: Art Policies in Germany 1933-1949

February, 2000

During the period 1933-1949 Germany experienced two massive art purges. Both the National Socialist government and OMGUS (Military Government in Germany,U.S.) were highly concerned with controlling what people saw and how they saw it. The Nazis eliminated what they called "Degenerate art," erasing the pictorial traces of turmoil and heterogeneity that they associated with modern art. The Western Allies eradicated "Nazi art" and excluded all military subjects or themes that could have military and/or chauvinist symbolism from pictorial representation. Both the Third Reich and OMGUS utilized the visual arts as instruments for the construction of new German cultural heritages. The fact that such dissimilar regimes used visual strategies both for political education and for the construction of new national identities and collective memories, highlights the importance of images in modern mass politics. It also underlines the importance of the political control of the visual sphere in situations that call for the creation of new paradigms of normalcy and self-understanding.

In this paper I will discuss OMGUS art policies in the post WWII period (1945-1949). Painting, at least as much as film, was conceived as a strategic element in the campaign to politically reeducate the German people for a new democratic internationalism. Modern art allowed the establishment of an easy continuity with the pre-Nazi modernist past, and it could serve as a springboard for the international projection of Germany as a new country interacting with its new Western partners. In the rhetoric of the period, painting emerges as an escape from time, a way to bypass the period 1933-1945. However, I will begin with some preliminary remarks about National Socialist art policy. This seems necessary not only to give a context --OMGUS actions were in many ways reactions to the policies of its predecessors­, but also in order to introduce some ideas about the Nazi use of art as a political tool for the construction of a new German cultural patrimony.

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