Erwin Panofsky’s memoirs on “Three Decades of Art History in the United States” contain a story of how Walter Cook, then director of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, described the process by which the NYU art-history faculty suddenly became the most prestigious in the world: Hitler “shakes the tree and I collect the apples.” When one considers the equally impressive displacement of German artists and architects, including Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius—who managed to effect a sea change in American architectural education by the mid-1950s—it becomes evident that the American experience with the visual arts since the early-1930s contains a rich and vibrant Teutonic strain. Needless to say, most intellectuals concerned with the arts today would be loathe to explore the consequences of this historical fact.

Over the course of the last two decades I...


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