The intrinsic value of art

Four weeks ago, the Louvre Museum presented the largest overview of German painting ever seen in France. De l’Allemagne, 1800-1939 De Friedrich à Beckmann brings together 200 works, most of them not seen in France before. The exhibition was conceived to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Traité de L’Elysée, which is a key symbol of reconciliation and friendship between France and Germany.

It is distressing to many people, therefore, that the exhibition has become a source of anger and controversy, described in Le Monde as ‘Le grand malentendu’ (The great misunderstanding). Several German critics have seen the curatorial narrative as seeking to demonstrate a continuity in German culture of which Nazism is the inevitable, even natural, outcome. They question the concept of nationalism in understanding the art of a people who were not part of the same nation before 1870. Others see too little representation of radical modernists such as Blaue Reiter, Dada and Bauhaus.

The exhibition’s defenders, who include German critics and the German Ambassador in Paris, have tried to show how such essentialism was the very opposite of the curators’ intentions. On the contrary, they argue, its purpose is to open the eyes of the French public to the richness and diversity of an art they barely know. The exhibition’s focus on German culture’s relationship with the past, with nature and with the human was specifically chosen to avoid any risk of interpretation worked backwards from the shadow of the Second World War.

The argument has grown and involved politicians as well as the media: German MPs are planning to visit the show before it closes on 24 June. Existing tensions about the continuing crisis in the Euro and Germany’s role in the EU have crept into the discourse.


This is hardly surprising. An art exhibition is not neutral: if it were, it could be programmed by computer. It is an interpretation, an organising vision of the messy complexity of the actual world. As such, it is always likely to be contested, particularly when it represents one country’s vision of its neighbour, and describes a period in which they were engaged in four terrible wars.

It is not surprising and in many ways, it’s very healthy. Art is one of the ways we talk to one another. It can be how we learn about others and see ourselves in the other’s mirror. It is part of what I mean by The Parliament of Dreams.

At the same time, this row underlines the naivety—or bad faith—of discourse that claims to be concerned only for art’s intrinsic value. De L’Allemagne was curated by world experts in European painting with the stated intention of focusing on artistic and aesthetic history. How could they forget that it also, always, means something?

Hölle der Vögel by Max Beckmann
Hölle der Vögel by Max Beckmann

Update 4 May 2013: There’s a short extract on the BBC website from a series about German art by Andrew Graham-Dixon that highlights some of the interpretative tensions raised by the Louvre exhibition, and the risks of essentialism in considering the ‘national’ aspect of culture.

One comment

  1. Back in the mid-90s the National Galleries of Scotland mounted what seems like a very similar exhibition on The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790-1990

    It seems like the mistake of the present exhibition was in stopping in 1939. By showing a continuity through WWII to the work of Keifer, Richter, Baselitz and the like, taking on directly the legacy of Nazism in contemporary German culture, the earlier show was perhaps more honest and more open to engaging in such dialogue. It certainly didn’t arouse such hostility. A classic error of treating the past as if it was exactly that, past, and not continuous with the present.

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