Joseph Goebbels' famous claim about the connection between politics and art in his letter to Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1933 epitomizes Nazi theories concerning the cultural benefits of art. In it he attempts both to legitimize and cunningly obscure an underlying reactionary agenda: We who are giving form to modern German politics, see ourselves as artists to whom has been assigned the great responsibility of forming, from out of the brute mass, the solid and full image of the people. Though there are many studies of post-World War I cultural aesthetics, especially in the context of Hitler's final solution, little has been done to trace that concept back to its nonreactionary, Wilhelmine roots. This paper, which looks at the discourse on cultural aesthetics as it emerged in the first decade of the twentieth century, also challenges some received notions about the Werkbund, an organization of artists, architects, and industrialists founded in 1907. With the Werkbund, the utopian potential of cultural aesthetics that emerged in the context of liberal bourgeois theory long before it was co-opted by the right wing revealed itself for the first time as a powerful instrument of cultural definition. This paper will also discuss some of the early formulators of Wilhelmine cultural aesthetics in various disciplines, Karl Scheffler (art critic), Heinrich Waentig (economist), Hermann Muthesius (architect), and Georg Fuchs (playwright), among others.
- Copyright 1994 The Society of Architectural Historians