The Culture of the Case
Madness, Crime, and Justice in Modern German Art
432 pp., 6 x 10 in, 39 color illus., 80 b&w illus.
- Published: June 13, 2023
- Publisher: The MIT Press
How artists in twentieth-century Germany adapted the idea of the medical or legal case as an artistic strategy to push to the fore sexualities, scandals, and crimes that were otherwise concealed.
In early twentieth-century Germany, the artistic avant-garde borrowed procedures from the medical and juridical realms to expose and debate matters that society preferred remain hidden and unspoken. Frederic J. Schwartz explores how the evocation or creation of a “case” provided artists with a means to engage themes that ranged from blasphemy to Lustmord, or sexual murder. Shedding light on the case as a cultural form, Schwartz shows its profound effect on artists and the ways it dovetailed with methods used by these figures to exploit fundamental changes taking place across the mass media of their time.
As Schwartz shows, the case was a common denominator that connected seemingly disparate works. George Grosz and Rudolf Schlichter drew on it for their violent visual art, as did architect Adolf Loos when he equated ornament with crime. Expressionists, meanwhile, approached the question of whether the so-called “mad” shared a right of public expression with those deemed sane, and examined medical and legal approaches to what society labeled as insanity. The case also took on a personal dimension when artists found themselves confronted with, or chose to engage with, the legal system. German courts prosecuted John Heartfield and others for their provocative works, while Bertolt Brecht created publicity for himself by suing the firm to whom he sold the film rights to The Threepenny Opera. Provocative and insightful, The Culture of the Case offers a privileged view of the spaces of representation in which images—in some instances, as cases—functioned at a key moment of modernity.
“Once again Frederic Schwartz trains his bright light on the unstable frameworks of judgment: in early twentieth-century Germany they assumed a particular form – legal cases unveiled to the public. Aesthetics squirm and yield up new orders of morality. Political questions rise up, unbidden. One cannot ask for more. This is a most timely book.”
Molly Nesbit, Professor of Art on the Mary Conover Mellon Chair at Vassar College; author of The Pragmatism in the History of Art
“This magnificent book cuts through the history of early-twentieth-century culture with a new epistemological instrument—the case—and shows what it meant to perceive the social world in cases. Everyone interested in the art and science of the 1920s has to read it.”
Anke te Heesen, Professor and Chair of the History of Science, Humboldt University, Berlin