In fall 2012, Paul Jaskot was the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art. The fellowship supports research in the history, theory and criticism of the visual arts. In spring 2013, he was the Autrey Fellow for the Humanities Research Center at Rice University. Here, Jaskot—a professor in the history of art and architecture program—talks about his work studying the architecture of National Socialist Germany.
I’ve always been interested in the relationship between art and politics, and I decided early on that I wanted to study the extremes, which in my period of modern architecture means either Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany.
Of the two, I found the Third Reich more compelling for the kinds of political questions I was interested in. Of course, most art historians studying this period focus on the artists oppressed by the Nazis, such as Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Max Ernst and others shown in the Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937. Yet, very few have studied the perpetrators and the people who stayed and tried to make an artistic career in Nazi Germany.
I’m a bit of an unusual art historian. In the United States, only two of us, maybe three, focus on the Nazi period from the perspective of the perpetrators. When I was looking for a teaching position 18 years ago, DePaul was the university that was willing to roll the dice. Here, I found an environment in which a scholar can explore topics that are unpopular, that are on the edge.
Art and Politics
Perhaps the most obvious way that art and politics are connected is patronage. But sometimes it’s easy to forget the role or intent of the patron. If state-sponsored art is considered transcendent, is it no longer propaganda of a type? Just because many people think of art as “pure” beauty, it’s not free from a political agenda. In fact, art and architecture can show the investment of politics in every aspect of our lives.
If we’re going to take the intersection of art and politics seriously, we have to look not only at the left but also at the right. People like to separate some political art and architecture—such as that produced by the WPA—from that made under dictators and tyrants, but in reality they’re dynamically related art historical problems.
For example, we think of Mies van der Rohe as an architect of pure modernist form, the opposite of what Hitler was sponsoring. Yet, Mies didn’t come to the United States until 1937. What was he doing before then? Trying to get commissions from the Nazi state. He saw his work as compatible with the Nazi ideal and even produced a plan for the Brussels International Exhibition in 1935 in which swastika flags hung in front of a steel-and-glass building. It was only after he came to Chicago that people started saying, “Oh, this is democratic architecture.” Indeed, Hitler and his main architect, Albert Speer, didn’t oppose modernist architecture; they just said that it belonged in industrial and institutional buildings.
Which Comes First?
In the study of art and architecture, we have two factors: the artist and the political/economic system. Which is primary? If it’s the artist, then the context helps explain the work. If it’s the system, then the work helps clarify the context.
This distinction teaches us that the connection is complicated. When I show students photos of “neutral” neoclassical buildings—some Roosevelt’s, some Hitler’s—without telling them anything, right away they think "government": They get that message. But as soon as I tell them which were built during the Nazi period, these buildings suddenly seem ugly, or oppressive or dark.
In my current research, I’m studying the architecture of Auschwitz—that’s a tough topic to bring up in art history circles. But even barracks have to be designed by someone. While they’re not about beauty, they are about function and efficiency, which are certainly architectural concerns.
That said, there is actually quite a bit that is aesthetic in Auschwitz, which is not just the camp with its 400 buildings, but also a major urban site that was “Germanified” by the SS. So, we’re talking about thousands of buildings. From our post-war perspective, it’s natural to think of Auschwitz as only the camp, but before 1945, it was the perpetrators’ living space. At one point, the project of building Auschwitz included 300 architects (half of them forced labor); in one month alone, the construction crew swelled to 10,000 forced laborers.
The Nazi architects must have thought, “We are building a perfect world; we are building a vision of the future,” as they designed housing estates, a shopping district, theaters and restaurants; they built huge industrial facilities that required very, very sophisticated calculations. It’s quite unnerving, really, but we must realize that inhumane goals and cultural aspirations can serve the critical perspective that we associate with art.
Questions beyond the Obvious
I’m also part of a larger Digital Humanities collaboration of 10 historians and geographers from around the world. The question we’re trying to answer is “What do the spaces of the Holocaust—the ghettos, the transports, the camps—mean?”
Because we’re creating different visualizations (e.g., 3-D renderings), this is an opportunity to see whether digital mapping can help address historical problems. When we started mapping Auschwitz, I could finally see the true scale of the operation: All the vernacular, everyday structures came into focus.
I’ve always felt that my research and teaching are celebrated by DePaul because the questions I ask go beyond the study of architecture and urban environments; they touch on social justice, ethics, politics and economics. Even though my work seems outside of what most art historians do, it’s actually quite inside many of the questions we associate with the DePaul ethos.