Can a Christian Call Art “Degenerate”?

Not in Germany, it seems. Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne made a theological observation about art, about how art is debased and “degenerates” when divorced from a Christian worldview, and all hell broke loose. He was preaching at a mass opening a new diocesan art museum.

His exact words:

Let us not forget that there is an indisputable connection between culture and religion. Where culture is uncoupled from … the worship of God, religion becomes moribund in rituals and culture degenerates….

Another translation:

“When culture is disconnected from divine reverence, the cult descends into ritualism and culture degenerates. It loses its center.”

The original German:

Dort, wo die Kultur vom Kultus, von der Gottesverehrung abgekoppelt wird, erstarrt der Kultus im Ritualismus und die Kultur entartet. Sie verliert ihre Mitte.

(More context; see also the Archdiocesan webpage; full text of sermon).

Why did some get upset? Well, it seems that the Nazis had coupled the adjectival form of that verb with the word art to brand art that they didn’t like as “Entarte Kunst.” So some are accusing him of being a Nazi.

A Jewish organization branded him a “spiritual arsonist” (hmmm … who is using inflammatory speech?).

But the Nazi label is a smokescreen. The critics are speaking from a secularist standpoint that rejects any religious critique.

Theodor Lemper, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s conservative Christian Democrats and responsible for culture in Cologne, said use of the word “entartete” should be taboo.

“In addition, culture does not grow only out of the worship of God,” Lemper was quoted as saying by the Cologne daily Express. “The absolutism preached by Cardinal Meisner is false and inappropriate.”

The critics reject the idea that one’s view of God is related to one’s view of culture. They brand this as “absolutism.” In so doing, they’ve imposed a secularist absolutism. The summary of criticisms in Der Spiegel makes this clear:

German media commentators have weighed in by saying that even ignoring his use of the word ‘degenerate’, Meisner’s statement that art must worship God reflects a medieval and fundamentalist view of the world which the Taliban would have no trouble agreeing with.

Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

“Doesn’t the man sitting on Germany’s most important bishop’s throne realize what he’s doing with his crude comparions which all somehow seem to end up in the Nazi era?”

“Even without the word ‘degenerate’ the cardinal’s thesis that art is only art if it serves the worship of God is unacceptable. Yes, western European culture wouldn’t be feasible without Christendom, and the Christian faith would be a dry affair without the expressive power of art.”

“But art can’t be limited to religion, and it thrives on breaking rules, even church rules.”

“Art as servant of the church — Cardinal Meisner is betraying a medieval understanding of art and a sad perception of the world. It is narrow and frightened and limited” ….

Left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:

“It’s not about a bad word. Meisner’s sermon is an expression of religious fundamentalism.” …

“If one took his sermon seriously just for a second one could immediately detect that it had nothing to do with the notion of a modern and liberal society. So it doesn’t help if Cardinal Meisner complains about the ‘misinterpretation of a single word.’ The whole spirit of his sermon exuded religious fundamentalism. Meisner said that art must worship God to be true art. A member of the Taliban wouldn’t put it any differently.”

Conservative Die Welt writes that Meisner made a “cardinal error:” “The most recent comments of Cardinal Meisner aren’t of any use even if one discounts his reference to the word ‘degenerate.'”

I guess they wouldn’t have liked Francis Schaeffer either.