The madness of art: Charlie English traces the congruence of mental illness, modernism, and artistic creation in a history with uncomfortable resonance for our present moment

Shortly after Republican candidate Greg Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s race earlier this month, in part by entering the trenches of the educational culture wars by promising to ban critical race theory in the state’s schools (where it isn’t taught except at the graduate level), a pair of newly emboldened school board members called for the literal burning of books they deemed offensive. Rabih Abuismail and Kirk Twigg, both of the Spotsylvania County School Board, advocated burning books removed from the county’s school libraries after being deemed “sexually explicit.” (This itself, by and large, being code for containing LGBTQ+ themes, subjects, or characters.) Abuismail was unequivocal, saying, “I think we should throw those books in a fire.” Twigg, meanwhile, suggested displaying the books before burning them, “so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.” While backlash to the idea of removing books from school libraries has resulted in the school board walking back its decision, some outlets nonetheless made the association between the expressed intent to burn books and the Nazis.

For those who believe this is an idle or alarmist comparison, bear in mind that the same week members of the Spotsylvania school board called for books to be burned, The New York Times published an article pointing out the increasing willingness on the part of GOP party members and supporters to use menacing language, including death threats, against their political opponents and to agree with the idea that violence may be necessary to get the U.S. back on track. “[H]istorians and those who study democracy say what has changed has been the embrace of violent speech by a sizable portion of one party, including some of its loudest voices inside government and most influential voices outside,” reads the NYT article in part. “In effect, they warn, the Republican Party is mainstreaming menace as a political tool.”

Anyone who still refuses to hear the historical chimes would be well advised to track down a copy of former Guardian journalist Charlie English’s latest book – a book that, given the background context in which it appears, must qualify as one of the most frightening volumes of nonfiction published this year.

The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Insanity, Modernism, and Hitler’s War on Art begins with a thumbnail exploration of the career of Hans Prinzhorn, a relatively little known German psychiatrist who, in the wake of the First World War, decided to examine the confluence between schizophrenia and the artistic impulse. His investigation took him to asylums throughout Germany, from which he collected paintings, sculptures, and other works of art created by various inmates including Franz Karl Bühler, Else Blankenhorn, August Natterer, Paul Goesch, and Joseph Schneller. He collated the best of these works in a monumental volume called Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill), a “virtual art gallery” that was published in May 1922. The images in Prinzhorn’s widely circulated book were marvelled over by artists working in the modes of modernism and surrealism; they ended up heavily influencing Paul Klee, Max Ernst, André Breton, Salvador Dalí, and others.

One artist who was decidedly not impressed by Prinzhorn’s collection was a then unknown watercolourist named Adolf Hitler. The future leader of the National Socialist party had been devastated by the rejection he received from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, “a bastion of artistic conservatism” and a “pompous, old-fashioned, irrelevant institution.” Hitler paid scant attention to modernism, which was the dominant artistic force of the interwar period, producing instead a series of mediocre realist paintings of buildings, many with faulty perspective. His drawing exams for the academy, which he sat in October of 1907, were deemed unsatisfactory for admission, and he spent much of the next few years sketching postcard art for commissions while languishing in poverty. The Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 landed him in jail where he spent a good deal of time composing his memoir, Mein Kampf, which would appear in 1925.

Hitler’s background as a failed artist is inextricable from his envious hatred of the celebrated modernists. Their admiration for Prinzhorn’s volume, in turn, provided an excuse for the Führer’s wanton revenge on the artistic establishment he felt had snubbed him. Assessing the asylum inmates’ art to be examples of degeneracy created by untermenschen – those deemed physically, mentally, or socially disposable – he located modernism as an extension of this unacceptable decadence and deterioration of artistic standards. Those standards, Hitler thought, were embedded in Aryan grandiosity and strict adherence to (what he saw as) realism. Hitler had his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, organize a touring exhibit titled Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), which juxtaposed works from asylum inmates with representative pieces from Klee, Kandinsky, and others. The exhibition, intended to show the irresponsible filth produced by insane artists, ironically became one of the most popular touring shows in history.

But Hitler’s culture war was a mere prologue to his attacks on European citizens, first the artists confined to asylums, and later any artist deemed part of a nonexistent Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy to wrest Germany’s glorious past, and its world-dominating future, away from it. The psychiatric patients rounded up and executed by the Nazis were themselves prelude to the Jewish Holocaust that remains one of the worst instances of genocidal mass murder in history.

What English does in The Gallery of Miracles and Madness, and what makes the book so urgent for our current political moment, is to explore the ways culture wars can seed the ground for actual violence while giving cover to the perpetrators, who are able to claim they are only acting in the service of a patriotic ideal. The suppression of art deemed dangerous to the moral fibre of a people is one short step removed from the elimination of that art’s creators; this process is rendered frictionless if those creators are already members of a marginalized or publicly despised group. Hitler used Prinzhorn’s work to draw a connection between what he considered degenerate art (and here we may read: art he was incapable of producing or appreciating himself) and insanity; it was then easier to argue that those who indulged in this art represented a danger to German civilization.

English also shows how quickly ideas and practices that had once been unthinkable can take hold in a society. When the first exterminations of mentally ill patients took place at Grafeneck castle, the Nazis felt compelled to keep the true nature of the death camp secret, altering the death certificates of numerous victims so that there would be no public inquiry about why so many patients perished on the same day. (And also, not incidentally, so that the administration could engage in fraud by claiming expenses for treatment of patients who were killed weeks before their deaths were made official.) The Nazis’ success in this endeavour allowed them to move forward in only a couple of years to the implementation of their ”Final Solution to the European Jewish question.” This was itself an extension of the so-called T4 Aktion program meant to purge German society of unwanted or unnecessary citizenry.

That this darkest of chapters in modern history began in at least one key aspect with a culture war that involved censorship, ridicule, and destruction of “degenerate” art should give every thinking and feeling person in 2021 pause. The line between willingness to suppress artistic creation and willingness to suppress artists themselves is vanishingly thin; as English ably displays in his important and frightening book, once that line is breached, the road to authoritarianism and state-sanctioned violence is short and terrifyingly direct.

The madness of art: Charlie English traces the congruence of mental illness, modernism, and artistic creation in a history with uncomfortable resonance for our present moment
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