Art Censorship in Post World War 1 Europe and America

Art has always been held in high regard since ancient times. Ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Plato as the Catholic Church held art in high regard. Popes were for example known for commissioning expensive works for artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael (Novitz 83). The ability of shape the opinions of a people can therefore never be denied. Even governments recognize the huge role played by art and that is why they spend a lot of money trying to support art that is moulded in a certain way. The importance of art is also shown in the high prestige held by artists and the huge prices that some of the art works fetch.

The huge psychological and cultural importance of art has resulted in governments trying to control the type of art within their bodies. While there is a common belief that art is controlled only in totalitarian regimes, the truth is that censorship of art takes place in democratic countries as well. Ways in which this is achieved include framing the art syllabus in schools in a certain way that gives preference to a certain type of art and not the other one that is deemed unwanted. It can also been done through selective support to the artists (Michalski 129).

The reason why art is feared so much is also not a recent development. While it is Karl Marx who fully explained how art could be used for social engineering, the idea was ancient as art itself. While art is thought to be primarily the mirror of the society reflecting what goes on in the society, it can also be powerful hammer that shapes and moulds the society. In fact this was the role Karl Marx envisioned art playing in the Communist Utopia he hoped for (Schmied 44-45). It is therefore no accident that Stalin, a communist, once described artists as engineers of the human soul. Yet such role of art was not just envisioned by Communists alone. Plato himself had burned poets in his Republic.

Censorship of art by governments is therefore recognition of art to serve as a powerful moulder of public opinion. A case study of this government censorship is the censorship of George Grosz’s Christ in Gas Mask by the Weimer Republic that took over Germany after the First World War. First of all however it is important that we get acquainted with some background of this artist who rattled a regime that was on the death bed. George Grosz was a born a German to an owner of a pub. After the death of the father in 1901 he had enrolled in drawing class and later learnt painting from of the well known painters of his town and Berlin’s College of Arts and Craft (Grosz 89).

At the outbreak of the First World War he volunteered for military service in order to avoid being conscripted. According to the law of the time those conscripted had to be sent to the front. Volunteering on the part of George Grosz could therefore have been a way of avoiding this. His experiences during the war made to him to permanently turn against German Nationalism that was rampant at the time. So profound was this revulsion that he changed his name to make it less German sounding. Having become a communist during the war he immediately joined the German Communist party led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Following the failure of the communist revolution in Germany after the war he was arrested but managed to escape. It was after this that he was able to meet the two top Russian leaders at the time, Vladimir Illyich Lenin and Leo Trotsky (Grosz 109).

These experiences left a bitter taste in him. From then onwards he became a fanatical opponent of the German Right. He particularly developed a bottomless hatred for the leader of the extreme right wing party which was then strong in Germany, Adolf Hitler. Following the ascent of Adolf Hitler to power he moved to the United States where he was made a citizen by naturalization. In 1930 when his painting was banned Germany was being ruled by the Weimer Republic which had taken over Germany after the fall of Kaiser Wilhelm II following Germany’s defeat in the First World War in 1918. By 1930 international finance in chaos caused by the Stock Market Crash in the USA had left Germany in chaos as well. The Weimar Republic was greatly weakened by this and was almost on its deathbed. With the collapse of the government only a matter of time, Communists and National Socialists (NAZIS) violently vied for power increasing chaos in the already weakened Germany. Amidst these chaos George Grosz, a communist, used his painting skills to lay bare the moral corruption that was then afflicting Germany (Grosz 136).

One of the great paintings that he produced in these chaotic times was called ‘Shut and Do Your Duty’ better known as ‘Christ with a Gas Mask’. The then government had seen this painting as extremely offensive and had George Grosz and his publisher Wieland Herzfelde stand trial for the same (Grant 37).

This drawing by Grosz had shown Jesus Christ wearing a gas mask while crucified. While he intended  to use the drawing to criticize war profiteers who made for themselves huge money while sons of poor families fought, suffered and died in wars to defend the country the government had a different idea of the drawing. Using Germany’s 1872 Penal Code charges of blasphemy were brought against him. This law stated that any abuse whatsoever of a religious organization legally recognised carried with it a penalty of a three year prison sentence. This was law had been passed with time since in 1918 the Weimar Republic had written its own constitution whose Article 118 had clearly banned censorship of exhibits of art and theatre performances (Grant 57).

The case however took a different turn when it was taken up by Hans Albrecht who was from the Religious Society of Friends. Appealing in three courts George Grosz was ordered to get a deposition of the three controversial pictures in question including ‘Christ in Gas Mask’ in order to find out the effect they may have on truly devout Christians. This tactic was meant to determine whether the charge of blasphemy carried weight. Following this tactic George Grosz was acquitted by all the three courts.

When the National Socialists got into power they reinstituted the charges against but Grosz was acquitted again. The Nazis did not give and when they demanded that the judge start a retrial again the judge was forced to burn the ‘Shut Up and Soldier on’ drawing. With the Nazis extreme hostile policy on the Communists and other leftists, George Grosz was forced to immigrate to the USA upon which Joseph Goebbels labelled him ‘Cultural Bolshevik Number 1’. They then terminated his citizenship and had all of his works banned. Goebbels went as far as to classify his works as degenerate art and was exhibited in the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibit.

This case was neither the first nor the last of George Grosz brush with the censors. His trouble with the censors had began in at the First Berlins International Dada Fair. His paintings and drawings had been deemed insulting to the German establishment then. His caricature ‘Off Duty’ was found so insulting to the Germany army the defence minister, Otto Gessler, himself had to bring charges against George Grosz. The charges brought were that the caricature, which showed a soldier leaning against a tree in an idle manner while having a look at a mutilated corpse that was almost fully immersed in water, was deeply disrespectful to the honour of the army. For this offense George Grosz had been fined 300 marks. Another brush with the law came in 1923 when he published another controversial drawing called “Ecce Homo”. This drawing was deemed too erotic and was seized by the authorities. Grosz and his publisher were taken to court and charged with drawing and displaying indecent piece of art. They were found guilty and told to pay 6,000 marks and the offensive drawings taken for destruction.

Five years down the lone in 1928 another of his painting elicited lots of controversy. In that year a famous theatre director planned to stage a play and approached George Grosz to ask him to design for him a set for the play “The Good Soldier Sveik” (Grosz and Becker 102).  Grosz had produced drawings that were both anti-clerical and anti-pacifist that were published in the ‘Background’ of the portfolio. The church naturally took exceptional offense at these drawings and immediately instituted proceedings against him as has been described above.

Despite the USA being far much freer than Germany Grosz still faced censorship. The Post-World War II tension between the USA and USSR, historically called the Cold War, had devastating effects on freedom of expression in America (Grosz et al 33). Joseph McCarthy’s fanatical anti-communist rhetoric did much to alienate and make vulnerable many leftists. George Grosz having been himself a communist was particular targeted especially his works of art like drawings and caricatures.

It all started in 1955 when the director of a museum which housed his work wanted to remove it from the museum. Works of other Communists were also to be removed. Far away in Italy the director of a museum was fined and imprisoned after he published a catalogue that contained many of George Grosz’s works that were deemed erotic (Jentsch, 89). This was followed by the banning of the works in the catalogue. Back in the USA gallery organizers exhibiting Grosz’s works continued being harassed. In 1969 for example police seized his works from a gallery and a year later The Customs department did the same thing to another gallery (Kranzfelder 67).

This spate of censorship that started in Germany and Russia and continued in other countries was a common occurrence at that time of political turmoil in both Europe and to some extent in the USA as well after the Second World War. Most of these artists reacted by moving to countries that might be freer and more sympathetic to their. This therefore has remained a very vital issue among most writers today.

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