Ruins: Art and the Power of Context


What do you do if you find yourself responding positively to the work of a Nazi? Not a sociopolitical policy but something more innocent, like a Hitler-approved statue or sports arena. This is the question I encountered while researching a CultureMap on the value of ruins. Scrolling through hundreds of photos of German artworks created during the 1930s and ’40s—the buildings of Albert Speer created for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the classical nudes by sculptors Josef Wackerle, Karl Albiker, Josef Thorak and Arno Breker—it’s easy to be seduced, for a moment, by their graceful, neo-classical simplicity. After all, thanks to Speer’s love of Greek and Roman architecture and statuary, there’s nothing implicitly hateful or repugnant in the designs’ DNA. These works seem to want to exist outside of time. How can a simple nude, when decontextualized, convey the horrors of Hitler’s regime?

More generally, how much should we allow context—the historical era, the artist’s morality—to color our judgment of paintings or movies or buildings we’re viewing? Do director Roman Polanski’s past sexual transgressions make The Pianist any less powerful? What of composer Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism or author Norman Mailer’s drunken stabbing of his then-wife? Or perhaps most analogously, can viewers appreciate German director Leni Riefenstahl’s sweeping visuals when these groundbreaking cinematography techniques were used deliberately as part of Hitler’s propaganda machine?

The works of Speer and the Hitler-approved sculptors are undoubtedly helped by a viewing devoid of context. If they were created in ancient Greece or Rome or Egypt instead of 1930s Berlin, there’d be something simple and beautiful in these discus throwers, stone horses and Colosseum-like arenas. But as soon as you remind yourself to view them through a 20th-century lens, they immediately read as derivative, regressive and unimaginative. Comparing them to the experiments in Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism and Expressionism that were happening during roughly the same period—and that were banned by Hitler for being “degenerate”—it becomes much more difficult to find anything to admire.

Is it ever possible to experience art outside of its historical context? And if it were possible, would you want to?

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia