Commentary Magazine


Art in Crisis, by Hans Sedlmayr

God and Modern Art
Art in Crisis.
by Hans Sedlmayr.
Regnery. 266 pp., ill. $6.50.

 

Panel discussions in academic circles are rarely characterized by violent outbursts of emotion. But in the summer of 1950, when Hans Sedlmayr, professor of art history at the University of Munich, appeared at a Darmstadt gathering to defend his thesis that contemporary art was the symptom of a universal disease, he was booed and even interrupted with ironic shouts of “Heil Hitler!” Sedlmayr was challenged by another speaker, Professor Willi Baumeister, known for his non-objective paintings, and a teacher (from 1946 till his death in 1955) at the Stuttgart Academy of Fine Arts. It was, perhaps, not sporting to inject a political and personal note. But Baumeister, as an anti-Nazi and a protagonist of abstract art, had been fired from a teaching job in 1933, and for twelve years thereafter had, like other modernists, lived a rather precarious life. He did not refrain from reminding the audience that Sedlmayr, self-styled champion of sanity and morality, had, as a teacher at the University of Vienna under Hitler, happily endorsed the Nazi philosophy!

Austrian-born Sedlmayr was invited to Darmstadt because two years earlier he had published a best-selling volume, Verlust der Mitte (“The Lost Center”). The German title refers to the author’s main point—that, having lost their center in God and Man, the arts of the last two centuries also lost all reality and comprehensibility—and therefore is more apt than the title supplied by the British translator, Brian Battershaw. This book, though neither well written nor well illustrated, has sold more than 100,000 copies in Germany and Austria since its publication ten years ago at Salzburg.

Whatever he may have been in the past, Sedlmayr is now a staunch Catholic, and indeed the dominant idea of this book—that man’s fall is the cause of his presumptuous endeavor to be autonomous, to replace God as the center of all things—comes from St. Augustine. Unfortunately, the fruits of collaboration with the Nazis peer through the historian’s Christian terminology, in the frequent use of words like zersetzend (“decomposing”) or untermenschlich (“subhuman”) more reminiscent of Streicher’s newspaper, Der Stuermer, than of serious art history. Echoes of Mein Kampf are present too. In 1924, Hitler described cubist, futurist, and dadaist art as “the morbid excrescences of insane and degenerate men,” as “cultural decay,” and warned that it was the state’s business to “prevent a people from being driven into the arms of spiritual madness.” Perhaps Sedlmayr, lecturing on the subject to Viennese students during the last war, also endorsed state control and punishment for artists painting skies green or trees purple, but in rewriting these lectures for publication, he assumed the role of an unpolitical scholar, observing and weighing the world from the quiet of his study. And whereas Hitler found no faults with the 19th century, Sedlmayr suggests that the sickness of our age, of which modern art is only one symptom, began its work of corroding society long before the French Revolution.

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In Sedlmayr’s view the arts were healthy so long as they were all united in the creation of great cathedrals. The trouble started when the related forces of Enlightenment, Deism, Democracy, and Industrialism set man up as the center of all things, which led to the arts breaking away from each other and to the appearance of pure architecture, pure sculpture, and pure painting. Richard Wagner (“undoubtedly the genius of the century”) vainly tried to arrest this process of disintegration by advocating a return to the Gesamtkunstwerk, but he was an exception, for much 19th century art was “quite peculiarly dishonest and insincere.” Sedlmayr’s bêtes noires are not the shallow academicians (like Bouguereau who was, indeed, quite peculiarly dishonest and insincere) but rather all artists who emphasized color, and masses in shadow or in light, rather than line and contour. His negative judgment includes Goya (one of the “great depulverizing agencies”), Constable, Turner, the Impressionists, the Pointillists, and so forth.

Not only did these artists desert linearism, they also dared to free themselves from theological and mythological subject matter. Worse still, man no longer was portrayed as the glorious creature of the Renaissance masters—in Seurat’s work he is “like a wooden puppet,” and in Cézanne “an apple has the same physiognomic value as a face.” How this dethronement of man jibes with the arrogance of modern man (who wishes to replace God), Sedlmayr does not bother to explain.

This is not the only inconsistency in the book. The 19th century is seen as a period of eclecticism, weakness, and lack of conviction (what about the rebellious spirits, from Courbet to Toulouse-Lautrec?). The 20th century, on the other hand, is attacked for being just the opposite—iconoclastic, forceful, and contemptuous of tradition. Formal distortion (practiced, I believe, by all good artists in all lands and all ages) suggests to him the broken universe; other symptoms of decay are the influence of Negro sculpture and of primitive and pre-Columbian art, the predilection for “demoniac” art (from Bosch, Brueghel, and Goya, to Ensor, Kubin, and the Surrealists), and the elevation of caricature to the status of a legitimate art form. He is upset by an abstract painting because it does not permit immediate recognition of space relations, by the “instability” of Rodin’s Tumblers, by a Le Corbusier villa which, instead of resembling the traditional type of house, “suggests a spaceship that has just landed.”

Sedlmayr is living proof that a very learned man (he has done first-rate scholarly work on Baroque architecture) can be a philistine at heart. He seems to resent all art that is new, complicated, mysterious. Admitting that he had never read a line Ezra Pound wrote, an American Congressman recently explained: “I like things that are clear.” Sedlmayr says the same thing, but he requires more than two hundred pages to make this statement.

The most offensive feature of the volume, perhaps, is the author’s assumption that he knows precisely what God likes and dislikes. He exclaims: “The disrupted relationship with God is at the heart of the disturbance,” and “All suffer because God has become distant, or, perhaps, is dead.” But what does this tell us concerning the present state of art? Is art exclusively religious? Wasn’t da Vinci in conflict with the Church? Wasn’t Perugino a non-believer? Didn’t art thrive in the civilizations of India and the Far East, to which Sedlmayr’s concept of God must be alien, and isn’t it conceivable that art could flourish in a society of atheists?

Sedlmayr, with his resonant catchwords—“egalitarian craze,” “degradation,” “materialism,” “nihilism,” “chaos”—sounds more like a revivalist preacher than a sober historian. He loathes everything that is dynamic, expressionist, irrational—in other words, all that goes beyond pretty illustration. He denounces modern art as escapist, but how much more escapist is a critic like Sedlmayr who, having lived under the Nazis, nevertheless resents Franz Marc for saying that man was “hideous,” Barlach for seeing man as “one of nature’s experimental failures,” and George Grosz for declaring that man was “a beast!”

It may have been bad manners on the part of Willi Baumeister to remind Sedlmayr of his Hitlerite past. For my part, I wondered whether a repentant Sedlmayr was not thinking of Auschwitz and Dachau when he declared that contemporary funerals showed “the contempt for man . . . the absence of any true culture.” But, I quickly noted, he was only concerned about modern funereal architecture.

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