Culture vultures: Degenerates, looters, and war profiteers in The New York Times, 1933-1948



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



As a piece that necessitates interaction, art created a dynamic in which the official power could convey its ideology to the public; specifically for the 1930s and 1940s, art as a vehicle of power allowed Adolf Hitler to connect the National Socialist ‘generation’ with a ‘German’ past, creating a new national memory, culture and identity. However, the Nazi regime was not alone in its efforts to use art as a conduit for its new nationalism; the United States also politicized art to legitimize American democracy and the United States’ place as a world power, this according to the New York Times’ coverage of 1930s and 1940s art events. In response to Nazi purges and exhibitions of ‘non-German’ or ‘degenerate’ art and Hitler’s attempts to loot Europe of its culture treasures, America led the efforts to salvage European culture and art from the clutches of the Nazi dictatorship. Historians have primarily discussed the war for culture only as individual aspects, i.e. analyzing the motivations for Nazi purges of ‘degenerate’ art only within a discourse of totalitarianism or antisemitism. However, in considering the Times’ coverage of ‘degenerate’ exhibitions, purges, Nazi looting and the responding Allied art recovery efforts, Germany and America were both participants in an autonomous conflict over the physical and symbolic control of art: a war for culture. The Times characterized the war for culture ultimately as an example of Nazi totalitarianism, opportunism and barbarism, for the most part neglecting to contextualize the war for culture with Nazi antisemitism and the Holocaust. In this discourse, the newspaper vilified the Nazis by their dictatorship and idealized America as the savior of art and freedom. Art then, according to the New York Times, legitimized democracy in the battle against the Nazi dictatorship, a significant affirmation in the years immediately following World War II as tensions rose between America and Communist Soviet Union, culminating in the Cold War.