Book Review by Alyson Lai

Frederic J. Schwartz, The Culture of the Case

The Culture of the Case: Madness, Crime, and Justice in Modern German Art. Cambridge, MA; London, England: MIT Press, 2023. 432 pp., 39 colour + 80 B/W illus., hardcover, 6 x 10 in, $45. (ISBN: 9780262047708)

The heterogeneity of twentieth-century German art is indisputable. There have been few efforts to find a common denominator connecting various strands of art despite many shared aspirations among disparate artists, resulting in scholarly literature with a focus on specific -isms.[1] Frederic J. Schwartz’s The Culture of the Case: Madness, Crime, and Justice in Modern German Art takes on this herculean task, proposing the uniting shared concern to be the German artistic avant-garde’s interest in judicial and medical realms, or what Schwartz calls the “culture of the case.” Schwartz's notion of a “case” encompasses not simply the law and its intersection with medicine and psychiatry, but also considers the public sphere surrounding “cases.”[2] He writes that the cases’ exposure of institutions of control to the public “opened up the possibility that roles could switch, making the very forms, institutions, and apparatuses of social discipline themselves subject to scrutiny.”[3] Only with a broader definition of the case is Schwartz able to draw up a convincing constellation of disparate individuals and the different mediums of their works. As the first scholar to make this connection, his innovative approach to the field of modern German art history will not go unnoticed.

The book is organised around five chapters, which include as its objects of study both “high” and “low” art – traditional paintings, poems, theoretical texts, penny dreadfuls, feuilletons, periodicals, and more – all of which, for Schwartz, serve as symptoms of the wider social context in which law, power, and publicity converge. In the first chapter, Schwartz convincingly demonstrates that Adolf Loos’s personal involvement in the 1905 trial of his patron Theodor Beer was consequential to the development of his “publicistic strategy.”[4] Loos used the tropes of a contemporary murder case to draw attention to his lecture “Ornament and Crime,” as well as vehemently defended his design of a building façade – devoid of ornaments – in the public sphere: lectures, statements, and articles.

The second chapter focuses on psychiatrist and author Oskar Panizza’s exploration of what is publicly representable in the artistic space between insanity and the law. It goes further to establish how Panizza’s explorations served as a reference point not only for George Grosz (who was dedicated to Panizza’s case), but also for the Expressionist generation. Schwartz’s ability to draw from a diverse range of sources and biographies to formulate the complex web of relations between Grosz, Otto Gross, and Anton Wenzel Groß makes this a standout chapter. The biographical and progressive structuring of what would otherwise be a difficult-to-follow chapter further strengthens Schwartz’s insightful argument.

The third chapter is an examination of the Lustmord phenomenon, referring to images of sexual violence. Schwartz argues that understanding these images simply as gendered violence is insufficient and that we must take into consideration their visibility, circulation, production, manipulation, and publicity, in order to understand the field of representations in modernity. Schwartz traces Lustmord images from John Heartfield to Otto Dix and examines how these images manoeuvre around and test the limits of German censorship laws. They not only emerge from cases but become cases in themselves, for they call attention to and prompt interventions to specific problems. 

The following chapter is a meticulous study of the close correlation between Rudolf Schlichter’s erotic obsessions and fetishistic images with the literature of sexual psychiatry and his self-identification with the sexual deviancy cases found in such literature. Schwartz expands upon Schlichter not only as a case of sexual psychiatry but also delineates his interactions with institutions of criminal justice and changing political affiliations. 

Finally, Schwartz expounds on Bertolt Brecht’s fascination with legal proceedings. Schwartz focuses in particular on Brecht’s “The Threepenny Lawsuit,” which Brecht viewed as a “sociological experiment” using the procedures of law to make public “the way the institutions of the judiciary worked under conditions of late capitalism” and “putting on trial the very institutions of social order and discipline.”[5] Although I find the case study of this chapter to be the most far removed from the traditional art-historical object of knowledge, I am intrigued by Schwartz’s analysis of Brecht’s practice of montage in the material form of “The Threepenny Lawsuit.” He makes a persuasive comparison between its related materials located in newspaper clippings in private diaries, and the “files” of a criminal case. 

The originality of Schwartz’s argument is clear, and the book is most timely. However, as Schwartz admits in the introduction, I find the fixation on case studies and lack of attention to a methodical approach result in a book that could benefit from more cohesion. Each chapter focuses on an individual or a set of individuals and the very specific circumstances surrounding them. In the end, the book as a whole feels fragmented. A more systematic approach would not only make this convoluted subject matter more digestible for the reader, but it could also perhaps strengthen Schwartz’s theory about the case being a common denominator for seemingly disparate modern German art. 

This book lays a solid groundwork for further investigation into the culture of the case and modern German art. Interested scholars could utilise this relationship in the study of art of other nations. For readers of Aspectus, Culture of the Case will be compelling for Schwartz’s sophisticated analysis of the continuities and discontinuities in the works and biographies of individuals critical to the cultural development of modern Germany. Although sometimes hard to read due to dense academic language, this persuasive and beautifully illustrated book will be of interest to all scholars interested not just in modern German art history, but more broadly in the interwoven relationship between institutional powers and artistic practice.

Alyson Lai is a PhD candidate in the History of Art Department at the University of York, specialising in early twentieth-century German modernism. Her thesis aims to show that the artistic strategies developed by Expressionist artists active in the first two decades of twentieth-century Germany (circa 1905–1919) used 'time work' to combat contemporary problems of autonomy posed by political, social, and economic unrest.


Article Information
Alyson Lai, "Book Review: Frederic J. Schwartz: The Culture of the Case,” Aspectus, no. 5 (Fall 2023): 6870. DOI: 10.15124/yao-xs3j-5759