“Degenerate” art?

As the resident World War II maven on ScienceBlogs, I noted with interested PZ’s mention of a story from Germany about a German Cardinal’s jaw-droppingly bad choice of words:

A German cardinal has triggered a storm of criticism in Germany by describing atheist art as “degenerate” — a term usually avoided in public discourse because of its association with the Nazis.

Cardinal Joachim Meisner was speaking at the blessing of his archdiocese’s new art museum, the Kolumba, in the heart of Cologne, on Friday.

“Wherever culture is separated from the worship of God, the cult atrophies in ritualism and culture becomes degenerate,” he said.

The word “degenerate” is hardly ever used in Germany today because of its known association with the Third Reich.

The National Socialists’ aggressive persecution of artists whose works did not conform to their ideology culminated in 1937 with the infamous Munich-exhibition called “Degenerate Art” in which a collection of modernist artworks was displayed, accompanied by texts deriding the works.

Clearly, Cardinal Meisner has a tin ear for terminology. For one thing, to the Nazi, “degenerate art” or culture was virtually synonymous with “Jewish art” or culture.

If you really want to get an idea of how the Nazis classified art into “Aryan” art versus “degenerate art,” you might want to take a gander at this post by an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier, entitled Jewish vs. Aryan Art and Another Example of Jewish Art vs. Aryan Art. (These two posts are safe for work, but the rest of the blog should be viewed with care, as it contains, not unexpectedly, some seriously racist and anti-Semitic material in its other posts, far worse than the comments about how “Jews do not produce art” found in the two posts that I linked to above.) In essence, to the Nazi way of thinking, “Jewish” or “degenerate” art was anything that was adventurous and not “realistic.” In contrast, Nazis preferred so-called “Aryan art,” which was generally photo-realistic and often portrayed heroism and war or glorified the peasant life of the Volk.

Obviously, the word “degenerate,” although insulting elsewhere, doesn’t have quite the same nasty connotation outside of Germany as it does in Germany. One would think that Cardinal Joachim Meisner, being German, would have known the connotation of the word when used to describe culture or art. Indeed, I’m guessing that he knew the connotation quite well. In essence, as PZ pointed out and I’ll take one step further, Meisner described atheists and agnostics using exactly the same terms that the Nazis used to refer to Jews (i.e., unable to produce any art or music of beauty or value) and thought nothing of it. Indeed, he seemed rather taken aback that anyone would be offended.