Of all questions confronting the art generated during the Third Reich, one takes on special resonance: is there aesthetic value beyond its ideological function?
The issue gets even more entangled when the emotions of recent history still pulsate like cinders of a dying fire. Take the case of the German Arno Breker, a vocational sculptor lured like many of his generation by the rich art scene in Paris after the Great War. There, he befriended Picasso, Isamu Noguchi and Maurice de Vlaminck, all representative of what the Nazis called “degenerate art”. It is ironically a Jew, Max Liebermann, who convinced him to return to Germany where he was appointed at the age of 37, Director of the Akademie der Künste. He had already entered art competitions sponsored by the National Socialist regime back in 1933. His involvement with the regime went from seduction to full -blown embrace.
Hitler singled him out as one of his favorite artists, commissioning him to decorate monumental public works and appointing him official state sculptor. The Führer had a double interest in shaping the aesthetics of the regime: as a frustrated artist and as a keen decoder of the force of art in the collective subconscious. He singled out artists whose production was forceful and energetic. Arno Breker, Leni Riefenstahl and Albert Speer came to represent the trinity of the Third Reich art value, carrying meaning and feeding the imagination of the masses with all the choreography of the triumph of the race and the force of destiny.
Oddly enough, post-war Germany and the U.S. Intelligence agents were lenient with them. Of all three, Breker was never condemned and during the de-nazification period, he managed to be considered as a category four individual, in other words, just a fellow traveler. This treatment helped him re-invent his past as that of a victim of the regime and therefore free of guilt. He was able to resume his career and receive commissions from emerging German corporations and rich individuals. He always considered himself a genius and hoped that his art would transcend politicization. As Goethe wrote in 1832, “ to the extent an artist would be politically effective, he must commit himself to a party, and as soon as he does that, he is lost as an artist”. Breker might never have read those prophetic words of his compatriot and if he did, his cynicism prevented him from gaining enough self-knowledge to understand them