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Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics

by Frederic Spotts

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If there is one person who turns my stomach at the mere mention of his name or the image of his face, that man is Adolf Hitler. Of course, I am hardly alone here as millions of people judge the Nazi Führer as the most cruel, evil, destructive, murderous person of the entire 20th century. So, when I saw Frederic Spotts’s Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, I had mixed feeling.

However, since I love anything insightful written on art and aesthetics, I went ahead and took the plunge. I’m glad I did – the book, which could be subtitled ‘Portrait of an Artist as a Demonic Dictator’ is absolutely riveting. If anybody has the misguided notion aesthetics is only on the periphery of culture and society, this is the book that will convince you the truth is otherwise.

The author begins by outlining how as a young man in his 20s with no artistic training and limited talent, Hitler eked out a meager existence selling his paintings of the city where he was living – Vienna. But then things took a radical shift for the young artist. After a stint as a messenger in World War 1, knowing his career as an artist was going nowhere, Hitler joined the tiny German Workers’ Party in 1920 and soon realized that although he lacked talent as a painter, he did have an ability as an orator to electrify an audience with his mesmeric charisma.

Thus, via his oracular charisma, he was propelled into a position of authority and quickly transformed a band of ragtag beer-drinking anti-Semitic chauvinists into the National Socialist Worker’s Party. And by so doing, he quickly grasped how psychological manipulation was more powerful than reasoned argument and how (years before Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote) the medium can be the message.

And, as Frederic Spotts explains, once Führer, for Hitler, control of culture was as important as the control of the economy. Hitler held a deep and genuine interest in music, painting, sculpture and architecture and he linked his concept of artistic creativity and government. Indeed, for him, politics was a means and art was the end. But, as the author cautions, this link between art and government can’t be taken too far, when he writes, “Many of Hitler’s key policies – such as racial genocide and the military domination of Europe – did not grow out of his aesthetic ideals. Hitler the ruler and Hitler the artist sometimes coincided, sometimes not. But at all times he used culture to buttress his power, while power opened the way for him to realize himself through grandiose cultural projects. To that extent power and art merged, and he could as he repeatedly did, define his historic mission in artistic terms.”

The author then details how Hitler combined gobbledygook notions of biology, race, history and national identity into his version of a philosophy of culture. Actually, such gobbledygook was ‘in the air’ in Germany for some time. Spotts cites Max Nordeu, who wrote in 1893 on what he labeled as degenerate art and their creators: “By the same token, degenerate painting was the product of biologically degenerate painters, who suffered from, among other ailments, brain debilitation and optical disease. Impressionists, for example, were victims of disorders of the nervous system and the retina. Such degenerates were enemies of society, ‘anti-social vermin’ who must be mercilessly crushed, who should be tried as criminals or committed to insane asylums.”

And Hitler picked right up on this when he fumed in one speech how artists of modernism were ‘criminals of world culture’, ‘destroyers of our art’, ‘facile smearers of paint’ ‘fools or knaves, ‘imbecile degenerates’ deserving the ‘prison or the madhouse’, ‘incompetents, cleats and madmen’ not to be let loose on the public, ‘pitiable unfortunates who clearly suffer from defects of vision’ and who should be turned over to the police or the criminal court.

Later in the book, the author devotes an entire chapter to the Third Reich’s tragic destruction of Modernist works of art, including the infamous 1937 Degenerate Art exhibit, where works of such German artists as Chagall, Grosz, Kandinsky, Klee, Marc and Nolde were put on display for public ridicule.

So, what art did Hitler like? There is an entire chapter on this subject entitled ‘The Failure of National Socialist Realism’ spotlighting Hitler’s creation of The House of German Art to exhibit the best of Third Reich painting and sculpture. But, alas, even Hitler had to admit his National Socialism failed to inspire great painting. And Third Reich sculpture wasn’t much better. Some technical proficiency but such as Arno Breker and Josf Thorak creating Nazi versions of cartoon superheroes left most people cold.



There is also an entire chapter dedicated to Politics-as-an-art, framing how Hitler orchestrated nearly all the details of his mass rallies (documented by hundreds of photographs and famously captured in Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will). Indeed, Hitler the artist: designer of the Nazi party standard and party flag with swastika and official Nazi colors of red, black and white, spread wing eagle over swastika as official Nazi insignia, verbal cues (Sieg heil! and Heil Hitler!), signature Nazi hand salute, calculated use of voice, gestures and delivery as speaker/performer, calculated employment of location (space enough for tens of thousands), time (night was great for emotional effect) and use of all aspects of lights, action, camera for the optimal theatrical impact so as to bring such a great mass of people under his will, that is, to have each individual surrender their personhood to him as Führer/God-man. Even visitors from other countries reported how moved they were by such a spectacle. Reading this chapter sends a shiver up my spine.


This is a detailed book, covering Hitler’s vision and influence in the worlds of architecture, music, opera, art collecting, city planning and transport (he had a big hand in creating the Volkswagen). However, as the author notes, “But even a dictator could not alter the fact that by ignoring the huge and widening gap between high culture and mass culture Hitler suffered a serious flaw. Radio, phonograph, photography, illustrated magazines and cinema had created new art forms with a vast and varied audience. Two cultures had evolved – highbrow and lowbrow, elitist and popular. This he could not accept. . . . He wanted the public to enjoy the sort of art he himself enjoyed. And so for the remainder of his life it was his aesthetic ideals and taste that he sought to impose on the German people, whether or not they shared them.” Fortunately for the German people and for the world, the aesthetic vision of Hitler as Nazi Führer ended with the fall of the Third Reich. We all can breathe a sigh of relief.

( )
1 vote Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |


If there is one person who turns my stomach at the mere mention of his name or the image of his face, that man is Adolf Hitler. Of course, I am hardly alone here as millions of people judge the Nazi Führer as the most cruel, evil, destructive, murderous person of the entire 20th century. So, when I saw Frederic Spotts’s ‘Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics’, I had mixed feeling. However, since I love anything insightful written on art and aesthetics, I went ahead and took the plunge. I’m glad I did – the book, which could be subtitled ‘Portrait of an Artist as a Demonic Dictator’ is absolutely riveting. If anybody has the misguided notion aesthetics is only on the periphery of culture and society, this is the book that will convince you the truth is otherwise.

The author begins by outlining how as a young man in his 20s with no artistic training and limited talent, Hitler eked out a meager existence selling his paintings of the city where he was living – Vienna. But then things took a radical shift for the young artist. After a stint as a messenger in World War 1, knowing his career as an artist was going nowhere, Hitler joined the tiny German Workers’ Party in 1920 and soon realized that although he lacked talent as a painter, he did have an ability as an orator to electrify an audience with his mesmeric charisma. Thus, via his oracular charisma, he was propelled into a position of authority and quickly transformed a band of ragtag beer-drinking anti-Semitic chauvinists into the National Socialist Worker’s Party. And by so doing, he quickly grasped how psychological manipulation was more powerful than reasoned argument and how (years before Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote) the medium can be the message.

And, as Frederic Spotts explains, once Führer, for Hitler, control of culture was as important as the control of the economy. Hitler held a deep and genuine interest in music, painting, sculpture and architecture and he linked his concept of artistic creativity and government. Indeed, for him, politics was a means and art was the end. But, as the author cautions, this link between art and government can’t be taken too far, when he writes, “Many of Hitler’s key policies – such as racial genocide and the military domination of Europe – did not grow out of his aesthetic ideals. Hitler the ruler and Hitler the artist sometimes coincided, sometimes not. But at all times he used culture to buttress his power, while power opened the way for him to realize himself through grandiose cultural projects. To that extent power and art merged, and he could as he repeatedly did, define his historic mission in artistic terms.”

The author then details how Hitler combined gobbledygook notions of biology, race, history and national identity into his version of a philosophy of culture. Actually, such gobbledygook was ‘in the air’ in Germany for some time. Spotts cites Max Nordeu, who wrote in 1893 on what he labeled as degenerate art and their creators: “By the same token, degenerate painting was the product of biologically degenerate painters, who suffered from, among other ailments, brain debilitation and optical disease. Impressionists, for example, were victims of disorders of the nervous system and the retina. Such degenerates were enemies of society, ‘anti-social vermin’ who must be mercilessly crushed, who should be tried as criminals or committed to insane asylums.”

And Hitler picked right up on this when he fumed in one speech how artists of modernism were ‘criminals of world culture’, ‘destroyers of our art’, ‘facile smearers of paint’ ‘fools or knaves, ‘imbecile degenerates’ deserving the ‘prison or the madhouse’, ‘incompetents, cleats and madmen’ not to be let loose on the public, ‘pitiable unfortunates who clearly suffer from defects of vision’ and who should be turned over to the police or the criminal court. Later in the book, the author devotes an entire chapter to the Third Reich’s tragic destruction of Modernist works of art, including the infamous 1937 ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibit, where works of such German artists as Chagall, Grosz, Kandinsky, Klee, Marc and Nolde were put on display for public ridicule.

So, what art did Hitler like? There is an entire chapter on this subject entitled ‘The Failure of National Socialist Realism’ spotlighting Hitler’s creation of The House of German Art to exhibit the best of Third Reich painting and sculpture. But, alas, even Hitler had to admit his National Socialism failed to inspire great painting. And Third Reich sculpture wasn’t much better. Some technical proficiency but such as Arno Breker and Josf Thorak creating Nazi versions of cartoon superheroes left most people cold.


There is also an entire chapter dedicated to ‘politics-as-an-art’, framing how Hitler orchestrated nearly all the details of his mass rallies (documented by hundreds of photographs and famously captured in Leni Riefenstahl’s film ‘Triumph of the Will’). Indeed, Hitler the artist: designer of the Nazi party standard and party flag with swastika and official Nazi colors of red, black and white, spread wing eagle over swastika as official Nazi insignia, verbal cues (Sieg heil! and Heil Hitler!), signature Nazi hand salute, calculated use of voice, gestures and delivery as speaker/performer, calculated employment of location (space enough for tens of thousands), time (night was great for emotional effect) and use of all aspects of lights, action, camera for the optimal theatrical impact so as to bring such a great mass of people under his will, that is, to have each individual surrender their personhood to him as Führer/God-man. Even visitors from other countries reported how moved they were by such a spectacle. Reading this chapter sends a shiver up my spine.


This is a detailed book, covering Hitler’s vision and influence in the worlds of architecture, music, opera, art collecting, city planning and transport (he had a big hand in creating the Volkswagen). However, as the author notes, “But even a dictator could not alter the fact that by ignoring the huge and widening gap between high culture and mass culture Hitler suffered a serious flaw. Radio, phonograph, photography, illustrated magazines and cinema had created new art forms with a vast and varied audience. Two cultures had evolved – highbrow and lowbrow, elitist and popular. This he could not accept. . . . He wanted the public to enjoy the sort of art he himself enjoyed. And so for the remainder of his life it was his aesthetic ideals and taste that he sought to impose on the German people, whether or not they shared them.” Fortunately for the German people and for the world, the aesthetic vision of Hitler as Nazi Führer ended with the fall of the Third Reich. We all can breathe a sigh of relief.


( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
While most people who have some knowledge of Hitler are aware of his pretensions to cultural mastery, what did this mean in practice? The answer according to Frederic Spotts is that Hitler's aesthetic capabilities, if narrow, were beyond that of a diletante, with the irony being that this made him even more capable of doing damage to the cultural heritage of German society; a "reverse King Midas" if you will. Examining most forms of cultural endeavor apart from dance, Spotts depicts a Hitler quite capable of acting as his own minister of culture and who was prepared to go to great lengths to return to prominance the late-19th century German cultural complex that had been eclipsed by the explosion of modernity. The irony is that Hitler's real talent might have been his own self-creation as that most modern of creatures, the mass-media star, as all the will, fury, and money in the world could not resucitate a fading culture. In fact, one of the revelations of this book is just how little use Hitler had for the "blood and soil" German primitivism so beloved by men such as Himmler. ( )
  Shrike58 | Jan 25, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0712667881, Hardcover)

Hitler's aim was the Aryan super-state, but it was to be expressed as much in Nazi art as in politics. Culture was not only the end, to which power should aspire, but the means of achieving it. This reassessment of Hitler's aims and motivations examines his perverse obsessions and shows how his artistry - expressed in spectacles, festivities, parades, rallies and political dramas, as well as in architecture, painting and music - destroyed any sense of individuality and linked the German people with his own drives. In a wide-ranging argument which covers topics as varied as Wagner's operas and the German Autobahn system, Spotts provides a key to the understanding of the Third Reich which has hitherto been missing in more straightforwardly political and military studies.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:43 -0400)

"In a remarkable synthesis of key scholarship and historical resources, Frederic Spotts portrays the "National Socialist revolution" as much less a social than a cultural revolution. Spotts maintains that Hitler viewed himself first and foremost as an artist, that his activities were largely directed to the promotion of the arts, and that his driving ambition was to create a supreme culture state, while at the same time using the arts to disguise the heinous crimes that were the means to fulfilling his ends." "Unlike the traditional biographical view that Hitler was an "unperson," who had no life outside politics, Spotts, author of the distinguished Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival, shows that Hitler's interest in the arts was as intense as his racism. Spotts offers the first analysis of Hitler's own work as a painter as well as of his art collection - one Hitler intended to make the finest in the world. Spotts's argument is punctuated with evocative photographs and reproductions from Hitler's 1925 sketchbook." "Hitler's vision of the Aryan super-state was, as Spotts points out, to be expressed as much in art as in politics. Culture was not only the end to which power should aspire, but the means of achieving it. This fundamental assessment of Hitler's career and artistic life in the Third Reich boldly shows how the arts were at the center of his life and that he was at the center of the arts. He dissolved the line between art and politics and - through the notorious spectacles, parades, festivals, films, rallies, Wagner's operas and (late in life) Lehar's operettas, political theatrics, monumental architecture, even the autobahn and the Volkswagen - turned the entre German populace into participants in his National Socialist drama." "A revealing, detailed, and highly conceptual work, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics provides an additional key to an understanding of the Third Reich - in many ways the key to the first lock on the first door. It has, until now, been only noted in the more speculative psychological portraits, biographies, and straightforward histories of the Third Reich."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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