Degenerate Art – Art and the power to corrupt. (Theatre Review)

Degenerate Art

Red Line Productions

17 October – 4 November 2018, The Old Fitz Theatre

You can grab your tickets here.

Images: John Marmaras

It is no secret to history scholars that a war exists inside the accomplishments of modernity characterized mostly by a volatile relationship between high art and mass culture. Writers such as T.S. Elliot emphasized time and again that it was their mission to salvage the purity of high art from the encroachments of modern mass culture[1]. Equally passionate, and part of the subject of Toby Schmitz’ new play Degenerate Art was the loathing for the Avant-Garde by the Nazis whose 1937 exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) has been described (and rightly so) as the most virulent attack ever mounted against modern art[2]. Yet, as emerges in Degenerate Art, new aesthetic forms were embraced by the leaders of the party, particularly Joseph Goebbels (Toby Schmitz) such as cinema and montage. A kind of strange positing occurred where aesthetic forms such as montage were adapted to the collective consciousness of the emerging proletariat: as a result, montage and cinema were divorced from the atmospheric properties of older art forms whose completeness potentially gave way to passive contemplation. Aesthetic notions of an unchanging, organic unity whose self-referential value transcends the historical circumstances from which it emerged were transferred to the political realm in order to justify fascism[3]. According to writers like Walter Benjamin, fascism seeks to overcome the sociopolitical dissension caused by capitalism by imposing an aestheticized ideology on the fragmented and pluralized fluidity of contemporary society.

This is brought beautifully to the fore in the actor driven play Degenerate Art written and directed by Toby Schmitz. Hitler (Henry Nixon) and his cohorts Albert Speer (Septimus Caton) Heinrich Himmler (Guy Edmonds) Hermann Goring (Giles Gartrell Mills) Reinhard Heydrich (Rupert Reed) and Joseph Goebbels (Toby Schmitz) are cocky Arian males in black suits throbbing with machismo and hysterical self-assuredness. Achingly familiar, they strut a peacock’s tail of confidence in their own thought processes using a combination of charisma, looks, elegant speech and a smattering of aesthetic quantitative ability to claim an authority they imply as superiority born of genius. They lay confident claims to a Nietzschean ubermensch without the self-reflection, aesthetes without reference or organized thought and cultural commentators without a plan. Toby Schmitz paints these most dangerous of men as perfectly normal, recognizable, even exciting and sexy. Instantly obvious is the fascism. But not fascism as a fixed, stable entity.  Instead this a movement full of internal contradictions with an unstable base composed of individuals and constituencies who endorsed fascism for a variety of reasons and whose allegiance may be transitory. Sound familiar?

These anti-bourgeoise aesthetes machine gunning the sometimes very beautiful words of Toby Schmitz highlight a compliance in the audience that embodies the spirit of fascist control. The anti-rational policies of the left can act as an endorsement of fascism. However, such anti enlightenment can also lead to a disillusionment with the fascist cause, if not with modernism. Fascism is regularly a stop off point on the way to other forms of anti-capitalism. It shares a series of logical relations between different left-wing sets that that is then converted to mythic politics that win over the public through a process of spiritual conversion and psychological transformation. As the charismatic power of Degenerate Art washes over us, we are reminded of the appeal of fascism for the individual and the individuated opinions of the rank and file. It is those below the leaders represented in Degenerate Art, inspired by their superiors’ power who become believers and agents for the spiritual uplifting and psychic conversion of individuals who could then experience fascisms redemptive value as a counter to the socioeconomic upheavals of interwar Europe. To citizens of the Third Reich identification with Albert Speer’s monumental structures carried with it the ascription of the power and might these buildings have evoked. Infused with the ‘sublime inspiration’ under the impact of Nazi art and architecture citizens could further enhance the power of the Reich through their own Promethean actions.

Pulsing at the core of Degenerate Art is the distinctly Aryan aesthetic. Megan O’Connell is a thrilling and welcome reprieve from the perpetual thrust of Degenerate Art’s testosterone, giving rise to the vibrant hope that these neurotic males might have been tempered by some well needed diversity. Her narrator brings the ever-expanding historical perspective on its relentless march to demystify Adolf Hitler and his friends, and Toby Schmitz did well to cast a woman in the role. Above all else Megan O’Connell has us see the ghost of those missing from the room, the decision making, the art and the ideology.

Degenerate Art is an outstanding production, one of those marvelous actor-driven theatre experiences laced with electrifying characters. Toby Schmitz’ skill shines through the vibrant performances revealing characterization written by an excellent actor creating a series of roles one gets a sense he’d love to play. Degenerate Art spirals from these roles outward, drawing the audience into a convoluted intimacy with our own relationship with fascism. It is the overwhelming normal, Arendt-like banality that shocks the most, and this (or course) is one of Toby Schmitz’s most important points. These men are charismatic, laddish, convincing, in-your-face and compelling, but they are not rare.

Contributing to the overall success of this wonderful production is the sure and steady assistant direction of Andrew Henry, the always excellent management of Red Line Productions, the understated yet thrilling set of Maya Keys (the set has a fun anti-art public toilet thing going that enfolds seamlessly with the spirit of the production) evocative lighting by Alexander Berlage and conjuring sound by Ben Pierpoint. A.V. imagery by Aron Murray assists as a road map for an audience focused on performance and language. Overall Degenerate Art is that marvelous success built on great skill that gives every patron a thrilling night at the theatre. It’s wonderful to see such superb locally written work.

[1] After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism by Andreas Huyssen is the work most often cited as researching this idea.

[2] Stephanie Barron from her introductory essay to the 1991 exhibition catalogue “Degenerate Art: The fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany

[3] Fascism, Modernism and Modernity Mark Antiff (The Art Bulletin Vol. 84, No. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 148-169 (22 pages)