Cloud 42

at the Theatre Building

Comparisons, they say, are odious. I’m sure it would be odious to compare Bush’s America to Hitlerite Germany. And Tom Jacobson never does it–explicitly. Jacobson’s play Degenerate Art remains conscientiously faithful to period as it documents the passion of Emil Nolde–a German expressionist painter who was Aryan chauvinism’s fair-haired boy until the Nazis turned on him in the late 30s and early 40s, confiscating 1,052 of his canvasses and forbidding him to paint more.

And yet when the Reich’s culture police come to Nolde’s studio during the play to take away still more of his work, and he cries out “Arresting art!” the equation’s simply there. We naturally flash on any number of more recent art arrests. On the Harold Washington portrait bust at the School of the Art Institute. The Robert Mapplethorpe photo bust in Cincinnati. The ongoing NEA artists bust in Washington, D.C. Comparisons don’t seem odious at all by that point. Only accurate.

There’s echo upon echo here. Jacobson’s play is being offered by Cloud 42 as a complement to “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany”–the touring exhibit now at the Art Institute that documents the monstrous state of culture under Hitler. The play and the exhibit take their common title from the Nazis’ own 1937 show, “Entartete Kunst,” which was supplied by confiscations from proscribed artists like Nolde and calculated to discredit those artists before the public. “Entartete Kunst,” in turn, suggests the entire atrocity of the Third Reich. As Heinrich Heine said, 100 years before the Holocaust: “Whenever books are burned men also, in the end, are burned.”

Over this entire chain of associations hover echoes from America’s own decade-long cultural witch-hunt. Like the Nazis, our leaders understand the importance of controlling images. Also like the Nazis, they thrive on the social ennui of a nation that’s basically just tired of democracy. And so they can restrict coverage of our wars in Central America and Iraq. Portray leftist scholars as barbarians and petty fascists. Trash the NEA. Order doctors not to mention abortion. Threaten to cut funding to the Smithsonian Institution when it presents a vision of the American West that doesn’t jibe with their Zane Grey/Ronald Reagan paradigms. And so on down the inevitable, horrific line.

Like I say, Jacobson doesn’t mention any of this. And doesn’t have to. On the contrary, he refuses even to indulge in what must have been the natural temptation to apotheosize his artists–to turn them into heroes and martyrs. Sure, the brave socialist artist Kathe Kollwitz appears here; and so does Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a “degenerate” painter and sculptor driven to suicide by the Nazis. But Jacobson’s chosen to focus instead on the bigoted, arrogant, politically imbecilic, but talented Nolde, who joined the Nazi Party in 1920 because it shared his preoccupation with an alleged Nordic purity–with “the German soul, gods and heroes, the mystical past.”

The choice is polemically effective precisely because it’s antipolemical. It’s also dramatically strong, since Nolde’s initial–and to some extent continuing–ugliness makes his story less a triumphal progress toward artistic sainthood than a journey toward an understanding of himself, of his work, and of his guilt.

Donald D. Renaud is the perfect Emil for this approach. With his unremarkable looks and his slightly gawky manner, Renaud’s neither the picture of Aryan masculinity nor the ideal of the romantic sufferer. Just an excitable guy: alternately brilliant and stupid, loving and profoundly foolish. Paul Myers impresses in somewhat the same way, as a Nazi whose sweet manner and lively enthusiasm obscure his essential viciousness. By contrast, the women in the play tend heavily toward the archetypal: not so much characters as objectifications of Nolde’s conflicts. When the first words out of Nolde’s wife’s mouth are, “Emil, it was just a miscarriage; I’m fine,” we know we’re somewhere in the province of Mother Teresa and Donna Reed.

The slide projections by R.J. Karlstrom are almost too good, occasionally drawing our attention away from what’s happening onstage. Still, when a Nazi curator points at slides of various avant-garde paintings and the screens immediately go white, the fate of art in a totalitarian state is made emphatically, frighteningly, achingly clear.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anthony May.