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Luther and LACMA: An amazing response from an Off-Ramp listener

Lucas Cranach the Elder (Workshop of), Portrait of Martin Luther, 1532
Lucas Cranach the Elder (Workshop of), Portrait of Martin Luther, 1532
© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister/ Hans-Peter Klut

To bring you up to date if you haven't been following the minor saga ... In a piece that aired at the end of November, Off-Ramp arts commentator Marc Haefele criticized the LA County Museum of Art for omitting mention of Martin Luther's anti-Semitism in its celebration of the Reformation.

The art is glorious, but the tone of the show uncomfortably exults the Reformation. ... For one thing, the religious battles that followed the Reformation killed off 40% of Germany’s population alone. ... For another, the great Martin Luther, simply by being the most prominent Anti-Semite of the 16th Century, inspired the centuries of German bigotry against Jewish people that culminated in Hitler.

On December 14, LACMA changed the exhibit's audio tour and that main didactic to say, in part:

This exhibition is a celebration of the Reformation and of its impact on European culture. Martin Luther was the key figure in the Reformation. His ideas and actions were marked by controversy, and his writings could be particularly virulent to groups beyond the Roman Catholic Church. Particularly unacceptable were his anti-Semitic feelings, which he expressed in several pamphlets. Although Lutheran churches have over the years distanced themselves from Luther's positions on the subject, there is no denying that Luther's anti-Semitism was used by the Nazis to foster their own.

While we don't think this is the biggest art story ever, it is a victory for a intelligent, nuanced art criticism, and I said as much in Off-Ramp's weekly email newsletter. And got this passionate, intelligent, nuanced reply, from the Rev. Dr. Tom Eggebeen, a retired Presbyterian minister, which I've only edited slightly, with permission:

Well, yes, and maybe some questions …

Luther had plenty of issues, especially toward the end of a most difficult life, beset with illness and depression, the death of two of his children, and the constant state of siege under which he lived since 1517 - an outlaw of the Holy Roman Empire - though safe in Wittenburg under the watchful eye of Elector Frederick.

From the tone of this note, it’s as if Luther was mostly a monster … I fear that this is the result of trying to impose upon him the sensibilities and paradigms of 2017 … which can only result in two things: 1) missing the whole point of the Reformation and the Renaissance and Luther’s role in setting his world free in ways that you and I can only dimly, if at all, imagine; 2) walking away with pride that we’ve scolded LACMA and now have set things right with the world. 

And, for many folks reared in 20 Century Roman Catholicism, Luther was a monster, as were Catholics for many a Protestant.

Yes, Luther’s writing were marked with controversy, but so was the Renaissance as a whole. The debates of the Middle Ages, often limited by the power of the papacy, which along with various princes, suppressed freedom of thought and faith on every hand - the papacy held the threat of hell over everyone’s head, by denying the person the sacrament (excommunication) or denying it to an entire region as punishment (if they deemed the prince in violation of the church, and so the prince would relent under pressure from the people), and did so while raising huge sums of money to build lavish palaces and sustain a life style that both the likes of Erasmus and Luther came to despise, and so did much of the population, but what could they do. 

Nor was Luther alone - preceded, as he was, by Huss and Wycliffe … their efforts were quickly lost amidst the vicious attack of the papacy … Luther, too, would have lost, if it were not for two things: 1) the printing press (movable type) and 2) the threat of “the Turks” pushing into Europe from the east and France in the west, distracting the Holy Roman Emperor, and causing the Emperor to rely upon the German princes, a number of whom were sympathetic to Luther, less for his religious beliefs, and more for his opposition to papal influence over Germany. These princes offered their help to Charles in exchange for their local freedom.

But it wasn’t just political - all along the way, Luther, who received a first-rate education, was counseled by brilliant men, many of whom came to stand with him … he wasn't alone, any more than Martin Luther King, Jr., was alone in his struggle for Civil Rights.

To suggest that 40% of Europe’s death toll in the wars that followed was the result of Luther alone is ludicrous … the wars of Europe were bitter and bloody affairs, and no doubt they would have found plenty of reasons to keep on killing one another. 

Nor did it birth the original scurrilous mass media … that was already well in place in the Western World - this was opponents labeled one another … it was, however, the printing press that enabled the wide-spread dissemination of such ideas.

Anti-semitism has its roots, not in Luther, but in Western Christianity for a thousand years before the Reformation - but it was in Spain where the fateful shift was made from anti-Judaism to anti-Semitism (1492) … after large numbers of Jews, under threat of death, converted to Christianity, but that still wasn’t enough for the church; after this point in time, then, it no longer about religion, but about blood.

Marc Haefele’s article is rather well balanced ... but I think your email note is a bit heavy handed on the matter. Yes, if LACMA failed to mention such things, that’s an oversight that needs to be corrected. But if folks fail to grasp Luther’s genius, and the brilliance of those who lived with him in the struggle to free Germany from the clutches of Rome and religious superstition, then the exhibit will have truly failed. It’s not just about the art, but the ideas that drove that art to give expression to human longing.

It’s our task to understand history, neither whitewashing it nor getting uppity about it. They did their best, and it's our task to be both encouraged by Luther’s courage and humbled by his frailties and his errors.

And I quite agree with the curator’s assessment - the Reformation changed the world for the better … nothing is pure and clean … but the Reformation and the Renaissance brought about the modern world, with all of its ills, certainly, and all of its scientific and political achievements.

BTW, some of my energy on this comes from my current reading on a new bio of Luther, "Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer."


Keep up the good work.

Happy New Year.