Chicago. -- One of the strangest art shows ever assembled has been partially re-created at the Art Institute of Chicago. Walking through it is a disorienting experience, and it must have been even more weird for those who attended it in 1937. It drew people on a scale no other art show could boast of until the King Tut exhibit of recent memory toured America.
But this show toured Hitler's Germany. Its artifacts were all confiscated goods. It was an exhibition as horror show, the kind of thing one should not look at. It is a paradox, at the least, to show what should not be seen. Jesse Helms, it is true, circulates dirty pictures to his Senate colleagues as a way of proving that he does not exaggerate their perversity. That is what Hitler's minions did on a grand scale in their exhibit of works labeled "Counter-Art" (Entartete Kunst).
What is one to make of things offered for vilification rather than edification? Most art means, at least, to uplift or inspire or ennoble. This was meant to be a demonstration that some art can degrade and disillusion and disgust.
One's first reaction is almost one of hilarity. The Nazis managed to find whatever was best and most promising in the world they were attempting to "purify." Their examples of monstrous degeneracy are works by Klee, Chagall, Kandinsky, Lehmbruck. At the entrance to the exhibit, one originally saw the tortured body of Christ, crucified in neo-Gothic agonies. This wooden sculpture has been destroyed since then, so now we have only a photograph. It is a work of pious anguish, though the Nazis thought of it as blasphemous. It was, to them, what Andres Serrano's inundated crucifix is to Jesse Helms.
How does one react to things offered as despicable? By shying far off from them, or refusing to look at them, which makes a trip to the exhibit rather senseless, by sneaking glances like chaplains stealing looks at the nude statue in "City Lights"?
Luckily, a free-lance American filmmaker did some footage from the original show. It is screened as part of this exhibit, and we see people not conversing with each other. They do not look long at any work -- much as Jesse Helms' colleagues are careful not to peer too intently at any one of his dirty pictures.
Another bit of film on display shows the Nazis burning books. That is what this exhibit was supposed to do to the art works. These paintings were meant to be consumed in a crackle of orchestrated snorts and sneers and ridicule. Slogans smeared on the walls tried to trigger the right resentments. This was a preview of the Five-Minute Hate in Orwell's "1984." Each work was to be given a five-second hate throughout.
A young woman standing before me at the film of burning books said, "How scary." But, on the other hand, many of the works survived to be shown, now, on loan from their proud possessors -- and in a gallery named for a Jewish woman. What a triumph of the spirit that represents.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.