To say that "politics is downstream from culture" is something of an old chestnut, especially in the fast-moving and evolving vernacular of this political sphere. Aside from its well-worn quality, there's also the question of whether or not the statement is even true - many would posit that it isn't. Whether or not it's true isn't my concern, but in a way the statement itself lays the foundation for this article and why it is even worth writing (well, at least it's worth writing, in my opinion).

When attempting to define art which one does not consider "degenerate", it helps to have a solid understanding of what the terms "degenerate" or indeed "art", actually mean. The latter is perhaps better suited for its own article (a series of them, more accurately), although we can tackle the issue at its most basic level to develop a core of understanding in order to broach the topic at hand.

In the spirit of this being an Australian website, we will be using 'The Macquarie Dictionary', rather than Cambridge or Oxford, if only to add some local flavour.

Degenerate, noun:

  • Someone who has retrogressed from a normal type or standard, as in morals or character
  • A person exhibiting morbid physical and mental traits or tendencies, especially from birth

As an adjective:

  • Having declined in physical or moral qualities; deteriorated; degraded
  • Having lost, or become impaired with respect to, the qualities proper to the variety or kind.

Art, noun:

  • The production or expression of what is beautiful (especially visually), appealing, or of more than ordinary significance
  • A department of skilled practice: "industrial art"

It is worth examining these basic definitions in some detail before we move on, especially as certain words reveal more about the prevailing situation in the art world than one might first expect.

Of particular note, is the mention of "having lost" in our second adjective definition of "degenerate", and the use of the word "skilled" in our second definition of "art". I would like to share with you an excerpt from page 32 of 'The Animator's Survival Kit' (2001) by Richard Williams, animation director on 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' (1988) and director of the ill-fated 'The Thief and the Cobbler' (1993).

"One of the problems rampant today is that, in the late 1960s, realistic drawing generally became considered unfashionable by the art world, and no one bothered to learn how to do it anymore."

"...we have two problems. Number one: since classical drawing was rejected years ago, we have no trained teachers who can draw or teach conventional drawing as they never learned it themselves. And number two: our mostly rich students - on whom we count for our funding - don't want to learn how to draw."


These are the problems facing the art world in 2017, and why the concept of "degenerate art" must be explored more deeply within the framework of post-modernism (which must be torn down as an institution of artistic critique and interpretation, as an aside, and replaced with something new which is beyond the scope of a piddly little article written by a semi-literate, drunken Australian). We cannot rely on the antiquated notion employed by the Nazi regime, because the unfortunate truth is that the situation we face is far worse.

An easy example to relay, mostly due to his fame, is that of Pablo Picasso. Picasso's artwork was considered by the Nazis to be degenerate, and when 4,000 artworks were burned outside the Galerie nationale de Jen de Paume in German-occupied Paris on July 27, 1942, Picasso's artworks were among those tossed into the fire. However, Picasso was well-known for having being an extremely skilled painter in his youth. Works such as 'The First Communion' (1896, oil on canvas, Museu Picasso, Barcelona) and 'Science and Charity' (1897, oil on canvas, Museu Picasso, Barcelona) demonstrate the skill and knowledge of a still-teenage Picasso. These works are useful in demonstrating that certain works produced as a part of artistic movements such as Cubism, Expressionism and Futurism were an intentional pushing of boundaries by well educated, skilled artists, who were considered better-than-competent within the traditional, academic perspective of their fields.

(Picasso's Girl With a Mandolin & The First Communion, Tullio Crali's Nose-Diving on the City & Before the Parachute Opens, Sant'Elia's architectural drawings which prove he has at the very least a knowledge of two point perspective, unrelated image of Nazi book burning)

However, this is not the case today. When an "artist" from the National Art School (Darlinghurst, NSW, total degree income $3.6million as of 2015) creates an artwork lacking in any of the basic tenets of artistic composition, perspective or colour theory, it is not because they are "pushing boundaries" as they may purport. It is because they do not know how to express themselves in any other way. These artists are simply doing what they were taught. Sculpture, painting, photography - to the modern NAS or COFA graduate, these are not mediums with objective rules and standards of beauty. These are simply a medium in which to express their feelings - feelings which reflect the degenerate and hedonistic reality that they inhabit on a daily basis. The art is grounded in what is merely human, rather than what may be considered "transcendent" (in the broadly spiritual sense).

(Lyrical 8 by Jenny Green, member of the Board of the National Art School. This piece was being sold for $3,100 in the foyer of the MLC Centre - one of Sydney's many corporate Bugmen Hives.)

These students were never taught these "eternal truths for every artist", as Harley Brown would put it, because not only is it dangerously unfashionable to teach budding art students these things, but because the teachers themselves do not have the knowledge of, or appreciation for, these truths either. These "teachers" (better known as hustlers, snake oil salesmen non-binary individuals, liars) do not teach, and they receive a wage from the Federal government in most cases in order to communicate their farcical conceptions of art to impressionable young minds.

This is why I have earlier stressed the concept of a degenerated system, one with the character of "having lost". The modern Fine Arts student has never been taught soundly or properly, to engage in their craft as one once would. The only way to be taught properly in this country is to learn privately via. an atelier (Julian Ashton Art School) or through certain courses in the TAFE system, which is currently at risk of disappearing due to a lack of enrollments (the Enmore Design Centre 3D Art department employs former professional 2D animators, 3D animators, matte painters, layout artists, etc.). Unfortunately, for the pure-minded the latter option is limited strictly to utilitarian purposes in the entertainment industry, and the former is limited in the during and scope of its teaching.

I will leave you then with what, for now, should hopefully illustrate to some extent what a person might mean when they use the term "degenerate art" without it being some sort of moral condemnation or an objection to the subject matter of a piece, or even the style. While I have broadly held up "degenerate art" as being abstract in nature, I would like to stress that it is not the abstraction which imparts this quality upon the art. Rather, it is the NEED for abstraction due to the inability to do anything else, due to a limited skill-set and incomplete education. I will continue to explore this issue in Part 2 of this essay, which will hopefully be more focused and coherent.