Controversy in Satire

Satire can be controversial, irreverent and easily misunderstood. In this picture, Professor Ottmar Hoerl presents “Dance with the Devil” an exhibition which ran from October 15-19, 2009. The exhibition was displayed in an open market place in the town of Straubing in southeastern Germany. This open space was once the site of Nazi parades, a site in which the local synagogue was once sacked by Nazis and the town’s 42 Jews were deported to concentration camps.
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Professor Hoerl of the Nuremberg Academy of Fine Art is installing 1,250 garden gnomes with their arms outstretched in the stiff-armed Hitler salute in an exhibition that addresses the lingering fascist tendencies in German society.

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Most of the gnomes are black plastic, but about 20 are painted shiny gold.

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The display of Nazi symbols is illegal in Germany but a court ruled in 2009 that the exhibition was clearly satire and thus allowed. Hoerl says: “the fascist idea, the striving to manipulate people or dictate to people … is latently dangerous and remains present in our society.”

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Defining Satire

By the eighteenth century Europe had undergone a series of religious wars. Out of this cultural climate grew a belief that social and political life must be based on reason, not religion. This new program of cultural reform as represented by the “Great Age of Dictionaries” stressed paying attention to all forms of language. Language needed to be purified of passionate rhetoric and misleading metaphors, which, like religion, were seen as promoting discord and divisiveness within society.

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Johnson, Samuel. A dictionary of the English language…London: 1755.

On display is a first-edition copy (one of two volumes) of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the New English Language (1755). It is considered one of the most detailed and comprehensive description of the English language ever compiled. Although it was not the first dictionary in English, it contained 42,279 entries, easily surpassing the number of entries of current rival dictionaries. It formed the foundation of other dictionaries in England and across Europe and was the leading English dictionary until 1884, with the appearance of the New English Dictionary (now the Oxford English Dictionary). In his definition of “satire,” Johnson quotes the most famous satirists of the period, including Alexander Pope, Francis Bacon, and Jonathan Swift. Of particular interest is a quote from John Dryden distinguishing “proper satire” from the emotionally charged and visceral lampoon, perhaps reflecting the new era of reason and emotional restraint that was characteristic of the period.

Gift of William M. Elkins

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Diderot, Denis. Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. Vol. 5. Paris, 1755.


On display is a Volume 5 of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, published in 1755. In this almost comical passage written by Diderot (1713–1784) in the section under Philosophy, Diderot attacks the satiric genre for its inherent inadequacies and literary limitations over time.

I detest satires in a book a hundred times more than I favor praise: personal attacks are odious in any kind of writing; you are sure to amuse most people when you make a point of feeding their mean spirit. The tone of satire is most out of place in a dictionary, and a satirical dictionary, the only kind we lack, would be the most impertinent and tedious dictionary conceivable. In a great book, such offhand remarks, subtle allusions, and dainty flourishes as would make the fortune of a frivolous tale must be wholly avoided; barbs that have to be explained go stale, or soon become unintelligible. It would be quite ridiculous to require a commentary in a work of which the various sections are intended to provide reciprocal interpretation. . . . .

The Encyclopédie originated as a simple French translation of Ephraim Chamber’s Cylopaedia by Jean Le Rond d’Alembert. It eventually became an instrument of radical and revolutionary thought when Denis Diderot joined d’Alembert as chief co-editor and contributor. The Encyclopédie is considered the most influential encyclopedia when it was published. It was written over a twenty-year period and was organized using an alphabetical arrangement. The complete set is comprised of 72,000 entries contained in 35 volumes, including 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of plates, primarily dedicated to technological illustrations. Over 100 authors contributed to the set, including well-known authors such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. At various times throughout its publication history, the Encyclopédie was politically censored and written in secret, contributing to its popularity and widespread circulation.

034 D56

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