To the editors:
Fred Camper certainly covered many historical and aesthetic issues raised by the show "'Degenerate Art': The Fate of the Avant-garde in Nazi Germany" [August 9]. And though he made it clear that he thought that many of the works displayed were excellent examples of the modern idiom (and far superior to the styles preferred by those wretched Nazis), he never addressed the original concept of the exhibition: "Degeneracy" in the Arts. Could these paintings be considered degenerate? Could the term "degeneracy" even be used in discussing what is important about a work of art?
The idea of degeneracy pops up the immediate question: degenerated from what? Before you can degenerate, you must perceive something of value whose degeneration you can observe. The pseudo-heroic works favored by those evil Nazis would be a fine example. They mimic the great style of Classical Western art--but their organization lacks the internal power and scale that gives Classical art its value. They pretend to display a social ideal, but in their weakness, smallness, and spiritual emptiness, they only reveal the selfishness of their patrons.
The 1930s avant-garde, whose works are exhibited, could only be called "degenerate" in a different sense: they don't mimic a great style of the past; they just don't aim for greatness at all. They see humanity as lost and so portray people as ugly. They see their world as confused and so don't bring order into their paintings. They only accept the authority of their own individual feelings, and so their works, though passionate, feel either desperately small or uncontrollably limitless. The only difference between them and an undistinguished degenerate, like a wino, is that they take their disappointment and anger out on their canvases--while winos take it out on themselves.
Personally, I like these degenerate artists of the 30s. At least they were angry about the alienation to which we had fallen--instead of blithely celebrating it as the avant-garde of the past 40 years has done.
And I doubt that they would share Fred Camper's view that Modernism is "largely about the ways in which each individual is unique. Artists, free to reinvent artistic form and language in whatever terms they wish create unusual and unique worlds." They would more likely believe that Modernism is about presenting "the truth"--a value that a 1990s American art critic can only believe is idiosyncratic.