"Art in Crisis"

By Kimball, Roger | New Criterion, December 2005 | Go to article overview

"Art in Crisis"


Kimball, Roger, New Criterion


[Today] we find a pursuit of illusions of artistic progress, of personal peculiarity, of "the new style," of "unsuspected possibilities," theoretical babble, pretentious fashionable artists, weightlifters with cardboard dumb-bells.... What do we possess to-day as "art"? A faked music, filled with artificial noisiness of massed instruments; a failed painting, full of idiotic, exotic and showcard effects, that every ten years or so concocts out of the form-wealth of millennia some new "style" which is in fact no style at all since everyone does as he pleases.... We cease to be able to date anything within centuries, let alone decades, by the language of its ornamentation. So it has been in the Last Act of all Cultures.

--Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West

Beauty is the battlefield where God and the devil war for the soul of man.

--Fyodor Dostoyevski, The Brothers Karamazov

Among the more remarkable books I first encountered in graduate school was a blistering polemic called (in English) Art in Crisis: The Lost Center. It is by Hans Sedlmayr, an Austrian art and architectural historian whose primary field of expertise was Baroque architecture. Sedlmayr (1896-1984) was a founding member of the "New Vienna School" of art historians, a group that flourished in the late 1920s and 1930s and included Fritz Novotny and Otto Pacht (whose book The Practice of Art History is a neglected classic). Their chief intellectual inspiration was another Austrian, Alois Riegl (1858-1905), whose idea of Kunstwollen--"art will" or "art impulse"--was one of those omnivorous explanatory concepts that set susceptible academic hearts beating faster for two or three generations. Riegl believed that there was an intrinsic evolutionary logic to the development of artistic styles, one whose career (or careers) he and his successors proposed to trace and ruminate about.

It was a fertile idea--fertile, anyway, in the production of papers and books. Sedlmayr edited a collection of Riegl's essays in 1929 and, in 1931, published an essay called "Zu einer strengen Kunstwissenschaft"--Toward a Rigorous Study of Art--which distinguished between two approaches to the study of art. The first, empirical approach focused on such pedestrian issues as provenance, chronology, influence, and patronage. The second, more exciting approach endeavored to ride the wave of the Kunstwollen, to intuit the "inner organization" of the work of art. Both approaches, Sedlmayr said, were necessary to the discipline of art history, but the second (surprise, surprise) was "more 'essential' and more 'valuable' than the first."

Many art historians wondered how "rigorous" Sedlmayr's new approach really was. For example, in "The New Viennese School" (1936), Meyer Schapiro acknowledged the "intensity and intelligence" that Sedlmayr and his colleagues brought to the table, but he also complained about Sedlmayr's use of "spiritualistic conceptions and ... allusions to qualities or causes that we have no means of verifying." Moreover, Schapiro objected, Sedlmayr unfairly deprecated the usual procedures of art history: "Anyone who has investigated with real scruple a problem of art history knows how difficult it often is to establish even a simple fact beyond question."

Schapiro scored some palpable hits, above all, perhaps, in his observation that the new Vienners sometimes tended to substitute their discovered "principles" or "structures" for the "work itself." (An objection to which many art historians, Schapiro included, might profitably attend.)

I knew nothing of Sedlmayr's other work when reading Art in Crisis--his highly regarded book on Francesco Borromini's churches, for example. Nor did I know that Sedlmayr had joined the fledgling Nazi party in Austria as early as 1932, a moment when the party was still outlawed. Sedlmayr was not a committed Nazi. But he did not behave honorably. He kept and flourished in his job during Hitler's rise and throughout the war while Jewish colleagues, including his friend Pacht, lost their positions and (those that were lucky) had to flee the country. …

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