Degenerate Art Performance Celebrates Freedom of Expression

Kate Hargreaves

Art is powerful.  It can shed light on realities and fictions in the world, give a voice to the voiceless, conjure up strong emotions and challenge authority.  Art can make you feel, and above all else, think, and to some, this notion makes art very threatening.

Literary Arts Windsor is hosting a celebration of freedom of expression on February 12th with “An Evening of Degenerate Art.”  The free event, which will be held at Mackenzie Hall at 8pm, will feature musical performances and readings of art and literature banned in Nazi Germany.

“To be truly human we have to understand the world around us, and we therefore need to be able to express our feelings and knowledge without being suppressed.”

-Anne Beer

There have always been those who seek to censor and silence the artist and the thinker. The Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death in 399 B.C. for allegedly corrupting youths with his criticisms of society.  To this day, groups lobby schools and libraries to remove “offensive” books from their shelves, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and everything in between.

During World War II, Adolf Hitler banned music, art and literature he deemed “un-German.”  This “degenerate” art included works by Jewish artists, and anything else that offended Nazi ideals.  Nazi officials banned 18,000 books, many of which were subsequently burned.  Among these were the works of Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig and Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front.

Adolf Hitler and Adolf Ziegler visit the Degenerate Art exhibition, 1937.

Adolf Hitler and Adolf Ziegler visit the Degenerate Art exhibition, 1937.

The Nazis also raided museums and galleries, removing “degenerate” paintings and sculptures. Whole artistic movements fell under the “degenerate” heading, including Expressionism, Bauhaus, Dada, Surrealism and Cubism.  Hitler even held an art exhibition featuring these works called Entartete Kunst, not to celebrate them but to attempt to prove their degeneracy to the German public.  The Nazis later destroyed over 4000 pieces by “degenerate” painters in massive bonfires.Hitler did not spare music either, banning pieces by Jewish composers, in addition to all modern music, including jazz and swing, which he saw as threatening to “racial purity.”

“An Evening of Degenerate Art” will showcase performances of jazz music, including songs by Kurt Weill, as well as readings from the work of Kafka and others.

Mezzo-soprano Catherine McKeever photo: uwindsor.ca

Event organizer Anne Beer says she came up with the idea for a “degenerate” art performance when she heard a CBC broadcast about a Toronto ensemble performing “degenerate” music across Europe to very positive reviews. “I thought, banned music? Why don’t I put it together with banned books? So I dreamed this up,” says Beer.  She recruited a string ensemble, vocalist Catherine McKeever, and readers including Stephen Pender and Susan Holbrook to present the “degenerate” works.

Beer, who also runs the Bookroom bookstore, is not new to the anti-censorship cause.   In past years, in cooperation with the University of Windsor Bookstore, she has planned freedom of expression events including an eight hour reading of banned and challenged books. “An Evening of Degenerate Art” is her newest way to recognize Freedom to Read Week, the annual celebration of freedom of expression, now in its 25th year, that takes place across Canada every February.

“I don’t like to live in a world where only conformity is acceptable,” says Beer when asked why freedom from censorship is so important.  “To be truly human we have to understand the world around us, and we therefore need to be able to express our feelings and knowledge without being suppressed.”

“An Evening of Degenerate Art” takes place Thursday, Februrary 12th at Mackenzie Hall Cultural Centre (3277 Sandwich St.) at 8pm.  There is no charge, but donations are welcome and there will be a cash bar. For more information, visit bookroomwindsor.blogspot.com.

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1 Comment

Filed under literature, music, visual arts

One response to “Degenerate Art Performance Celebrates Freedom of Expression

  1. thanks for the post. When you think that this all happened only a short time ago!

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