Mein kitsch

Ned Denny on the banality of Nazi sculpture

The defining feature of Nazi sculpture, as with so many other of national socialism's cultural manifestations, is its banality. When you consider the forms the Nazis could have used to embody hatred and murderous desire - Jacob Epstein's The Rock Drill, for example, is far more malevolent-looking than anything Hitler ever sanctioned - it might appear strange that they favoured works that seem to have stepped straight from the pages of a Boys' Own annual.

The real driving force behind Nazism, however, was spectacle. The immaculately staged rallies at Nuremberg were the ultimate expression of its power and its vacuousness. Next to theatre of this scale and potency, the sculpture of the Third Reich was never really more than a series of one-dimensional props. Added to this, one could observe that any artist worth his salt had, by this stage, either fled or been deported (or worse).

But looking at Active Life by Arno Breker (an artist patronised by the Nazis, and who continued to work in Germany until his death in 1991), one is forced to admit that the style has a certain power. Contact with such pieces is usually through the pages of history books; seen in the round, their strengths and weaknesses are clearer. One is reminded of Clement Greenberg's distinction between avant-garde art and kitsch - that, while the avant-garde imitates the processes of art, kitsch imitates its effects.

Here is a piece that seems at first glance to have all the attributes traditionally required of sculpture. An imposing figure, it radiates strength and self-confidence in a manner reminiscent of classical Greek statuary. But is all quite as it seems? In his essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch", Greenberg goes on to describe kitsch as the "debased and academicised simulacra of genuine culture". It uses the techniques of classical art to produce formulaic works whose "lifelike" qualities seem, to the untrained eye, to be miraculous. It flatters the viewer, because no effort whatsoever is required on his or her part. What we have here is a highly skilled parody of figurative sculpture, a statement of physical strength that is, in fact, as bodiless as a ghost.

The reason the Nazis favoured artists such as Breker was not just due to philistinism on their part, but because kitsch had by that time become the dominant culture in all Europe. Commissioning big, brash, easy-to-appreciate images of health and optimism (feel-good art, if you like) was a simple way of pandering to the masses. What unites all kitsch - whether it be the sculpture of Arno Breker, fast food or a film such as Pearl Harbor - is that its effects are immediate, unambiguous and ingratiating. There is no specific danger in letting this somewhat trite sculpture be seen. What might give us pause for thought, though, is how close it seems to the culturally sanctioned ephemera of our own time.

"Taking Positions: figurative sculpture and the Third Reich" is at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds (0113 246 7467) until 26 August

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The slow death of Tory England