Degenerate

The Tower of Blue Horses by Franz Marc
The Tower of Blue Horses – Franz Marc – 1913
Degenerate: late 15th century: from Latin degeneratus ‘no longer of its kind’, from the verb degenerare, from degener ‘debased’, from de- ‘away from’ + genus, gener- ‘race, kind’.

The Tower of Blue Horses disappeared after World War 2. Franz Marc was a German expressionist painter who died during World War 1 but his death, nor that it was in service of Germany during wartime didn’t prevent the nazis from labeling him a degenerate, confiscating his paintings from galleries, and displaying this one at the degenerate art exhibition. Marc had two strokes against him: first he came from a family of Jewish ethnic origin (they had converted to Catholicism, you know, because of all the antisemitism in Europe). Second, his work, which was steeped in mysticism and a visceral response against the violence of war was seen as being actively debasing to the aesthetic purity the Nazis strove toward.

Degenerate, in the context of aesthetics, carries a lot of connotation. It implies art that is no longer art (no longer of its kind) it is debased art – art that moves art away from what it should be. It implies a movement out of its genre: painting that is like sculpture or like a wood print. It implies a mixing of races, and it is no surprise that much of the art at the Degenerate Art exhibit was art that was affected by the exposure to foreign aesthetics brought about by colonialism. Matisse’s fauvism was heavily influenced by Japanese printmaking, as were many post-impressionists prior. The flattening of perspective these styles preferred moved art away from the renaissance preference of depth of field. Cubism, like that of Picasso, owed a deep debt to the art pillaged from Africa and its colonies and abstractionists also drew heavily on middle-eastern motifs. Fellow degenerate and expressionist painter Marc Chagall was Jewish and Jewish mysticism pervades his work.

The Fiddler – Marc Chagall – 1912

I bring this up mostly because I want it to be clear that, first off, degeneracy has always principally been an aesthetic accusation rather than an ethical one. Those who hate the degenerate do so because they find it ugly. Second, it’s important to situate that art called “degenerate” is art that is inseparable from the impact of colonialism. Between the advent of the impressionists in the mid-1800s and the end of WWII, visual art in Europe underwent a transformation the scope of which had not been seen since the Renaissance, and just as the Renaissance was brought about by the reintroduction of classical ideas via expanded contact with the Middle East, so too was modern art explicitly informed by the impact of colonialism. Matisse took from Japanese art freely and Picasso from African art but it wasn’t a moral reaction against those appropriations but rather a revulsion to what these appropriations entailed that upset the fascists. This situates the Nazi revulsion for the degenerate aesthetic as being a clear and obvious expression of their fear that the colonial project would change the imperial core and make those seats of empire no longer like their genus.

The deterritorializing and nomadic quality of modern art is not intrinsically moral either. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is, in my eyes a work of transcendent beauty but it is also a product of theft. Degenerate art goes out beyond the boundaries of its genre and brings in the new. But what is new within the imperial core was the legacy of a thousand years elsewhere.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – Pablo Picasso – 1907

The conservativism of the Nazi remains, unsurprisingly, a perfect example of bad faith. The art they called degenerate was a product of the imperialism they championed. The empires of Germany, France, Spain and England sewed the seeds of modern art that revulsed the Nazi. They were unprepared to reap the whirlwind. They believed somehow they could go out and take from the world and somehow make everything German. This is the same phenomenon that the Wachowskis so masterfully commented upon in the Matrix Sequels via the solipsism of Smith.

I say all this because I want to point out that when supposed leftists speak of the degeneracy of, “transgenderism,” or when they try to lionize Socialist Realism over degenerate, ugly, decadent (rotting or decaying) art, they are speaking with the tongue of Nazis. I have always been proud to call myself a degenerate. These paintings I shared are, in my eyes, some of the greatest ever produced by Europeans explicitly because they went beyond the boundaries of European art and expanded the realm of the aesthetic in doing so. I have no desire to show fidelity to my genre. But this is not an ethical position. All these men, even Chagal, were thieves as for all that his Jewish mysticism shone through his canvases, they did so in the smiling simulation of an African mask.

But why say all this? Why simultaneously claim the term degenerate, announce that its enemies are Nazis and undermine it by laying bare its colonialist framework? Because the moral and the moralizing should be banished from art. It is critical to recognize that the attacks levied against “degenerates” in the present age has no grounding in ethics. It does not live there. For all that self-deceiving liars might harp on the safety of children, on the idea of harm, on the dubious proposition that this or that aesthetic position represents a violation of consent we must recognize that what is being said by these fork-tongued descendants of the Nazis isn’t, “this is evil,” but rather, “this is ugly.” And beauty is not intrinsically good nor ugliness evil.

There is cruelty and danger and wrath in our beauty. The Nightbreed of Midian crave flesh. There is beauty in the skull and the ruin as much as in the flower and the sunrise. The Nazis were immoral butchers. They slaughtered their way across Europe, committed genocides against anybody perceived different from them: Jews, Roma, Gays, Communists. But they were also narrow-minded ugly people who inured themselves against any beauty they didn’t recognize as being of their genre. It’s too easy to flatten these two perspectives, but this leaves us vulnerable.

When we hear people speaking sweet moralizing words, when they talk about liberating workers and organizing the working classes, when they claim revolutionary intent and then turn around and say Nazi things about sex and art it can be disorienting because they’re not Nazis. They said so, right?

But it’s important to remember that the reactionary current is as much an aesthetic position as a moral one. The reactionary is unwilling to accept that our concept of beauty grows as our concept of “us” does. They call for a mass movement then lock the door and say, “not you, you’re too ugly.” So, especially this month, when you encounter some petty person, even a putative leftist, calling kink at pride or trans people degenerate, decadent, or ugly, black their eyes and call them a fucking Nazi. They’ve earned it.

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  1. Pingback: Reterritorialization and Overcoding – the creative bankruptcy of reaction | Simon McNeil

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