‘We stand in the midst of a serious spiritual national disease, a black plague of degeneration and hysteria.’
The cultural avant-guarde has always managed to strike fear into the self-proclaimed guardians of high culture. The prose of poetry and pigments of painting for some hide the devil himself. Apparently, the safety of society is forever under threat from dangerous, delinquent, depraved artists. The vision of the gentile, melancholic, delicate figure of creation merely disguises a malicious and destructive creature, hell bent on undoing the progress that humanity has built over its entire existence. Driven by irrationality and desire these degenerates are out to get you.
Or so said, Max Nordau, cultural critic and philosopher of scarce humour. Nordau was born in 1849, and during his career he witnessed the flowering of new and rebellious artistic forms now famed as the first works of modernism. The subversion and experimentation that characterized this new art filled Nordau with an anxiety so great that he set out to expose it for the aberration he thought it really was. In his book ‘Degeneration’, 1892, Nordau aimed to map the degenerate and his species.
The key purpose of what now seems a overtly obsessive and hysterical critique was to defend the Enlightenment project. From the 17th Century intellectuals, philosophers and scientists had rapidly began to abandon the reliance on the dogma and superstition that ruled society at the time, instead favouring the Scientific method. The position of Church and Monarchy were being challenged all over Europe, and with that the unquestioned nature of their thought. Nordau held faith with the instigators of this change, believing that the advancement of thought and knowledge through reason was a noble goal for humankind.
Nordau may be easily type-cast as a grumpy old man,shocked by the new, and resenting the changing times, but his concerns were more than generational grumbles. The reason for his polemics is that he believed that the rationalism that supports the morals and ethics of society could be destroyed by the egotistical acts of artists. There was evidence to him that the humanity was becoming exhausted in its quest for progress and consequently was threatened by disintegration. Nordau identified what he believed to be the vulnerability of modern society, being that it is susceptible to internal mutiny. Artists that propagated indulgence and hedonism of emotionalism were therefore a threat to the stability of society itself, and the Enlightenment project.
In this way Nordau falls into a tradition of ‘art vs.society’ philosophy initially realised by Plato – where the passion of art can threaten the rationality of civilized life. This is why Nordau deemed himself messianic saviour of society and identified the enemies of his mission as ‘degenerates’.
‘That which really all degenerates lack is the sense of morality, and right of wrong. For them there is no law, no decency, no modesty.’
Nordau obsessed about the ‘degeneracy’ spreading over the late 19th Century that he was theorizing, and he offers one of the first explorations of the term. Degeneracy is not just a form of disintegration, a process of falling into disrepair, but is an active undoing. The instance of backwards evolution, unpicking complexity, and reducing humankind to a simpler state. Society was not in his opinion falling apart, but being pulled backwards by the tendencies of degenerates and those seduced by their works.
So, his book was a moralist tirade against subversive acts that he genuinely believed could cause the regression of human achievement, and he saves his most passionate denouncements for artists.
‘Ought art to be at present the last asylum to which criminals may fly to escape punishment?’
Nordau described many artists and writers as ‘degenerates’ among them were Wilde, Ibsen, Zola, Wagner and Nietzsche. Nordau doesn’t see the work of these artists as an alternative perspective on life, or experimentation with their mediums, but states the propagators of this new art are physically and mentally disabled. They are also extremely emotional, which feeds into their irrationality. He pictures degenerate artists, as people who have become unconstrained, essentially mentally unhinged.
‘He laughs until he sheds tears, or weeps copiously without adequate occasion; a commonplace line of poetry or of prose sends a shudder down his back; he falls into raptures before indifferent pictures or statues, and music especially, even the most insipid and least amendable arouses in him the most vehement emotions.’
Their works are at least conscious criminal acts committed by immoral agitators and at worst manifestations of deformities that cripple their perception and cognitive abilities. Nordau described the paintings of the Impressionists as manifestations of optical disease. According to Nordau quivering optic nerves created a alternative vision of the world to the Impressionists that they stupidly imparted on others.
Simply, agitating artists should be classified as, in some way, deformed. As progress depends on rationality, unchecked art is threatening because it propagates the irrational: passion, spontaneity, ego, desire and the unconscious. Without a firm grasp on rationality these artists have lost sight of the moral. Consequently they may inspire the immoral in others and ultimately destruction. They are a profound threat to the sanity of mankind in that their work is visible to the masses and attracts like-minded degenerates to it. In this way schools of degeneracy could arise and cause regression.
‘They corrupt and delude; they do, alas!’
Nordau was ridiculed for his conservative tirade against art and artists by critics like Bernard Shaw, but his descriptions of alternative vision and expression had a darker impact. Despite being an ardent Zionist, Nordau’s detailed explorations of the the possible physical and mental disabilities of artists found sway with the Nazi’s. Nordau’s description of the destructive possibilities of rebel aestheticism echoed with the Nazi’s as they wanted a prescribed, perfect Aryan state. The degenerate artists undermined this by: 1. existing and creating as disabled, biologically inferior beings and 2. exposing the public to a delinquency that may inspire delinquency in themselves. As Facism seeks to control all sections of society, quashing such forms of art were essential to its success. Therefore, in June 1937, the Nazi’s put an exhibition of degenerate art. The show hung the work of Expressionist artists, Picasso, Ensor, Van Gogh, Matisse and many more. Among the works were various descriptions of the inferiorities of the artists and the insults they cause the Third Reich. It was a accessible mocking piece of Nationalist propaganda that sought to alienate the avant garde and gain public support for the Nazi project.
Today the artists that were victims of Nordau’s and Nazi scorn are thought of as masters of modernism, but there is still a tendency to identify radical art with degeneracy. Some countries more explicitly censor or quash material that they deem offensive, blasphemous and unpatriotic; they identify its makers as inferior human beings. However many democratic societies still seem to demean in the face of challenging work. There is – especially among the popular media – routine discussions on the character of the artist in relation to controversial works. From accusations of stupidity, childishness and delusion that often accompany the Turner Prize, to the derision of makers of explicitly sexual works as overemotional, licentious and sadistic, some creative material material when new, challenging or contentious can still seem to inspire a defensive reaction; one that involves the act of demeaning and relegating for the sake of preserving what is considered normal.