I came to Hans Sedlmayr’s Art in Crisis, first published in 1948, through Roger Kimball’s essay in which he termed the text a “blistering polemic.” I confess a weakness for blistering polemics. Nothing warms the heart faster in these imperiously nonjudgmental days. Morevover, Sedlmayr’s cultural pessimism conforms more convincingly to fallen man and his ever-falling times than our current dalliance with the saving powers of beauty.
For a concise bio of Sedlmayr go directly to the Dictionary of Art Historians. No need to stop at Wikipedia, that erratic first stop of dot-comers. Wiki lifted its data from the Dictionary, abbreviating even further an already scanty outline. As a careful respondent to the previous post wrote to stress, Sedlmayr was a member of the Nazi party. On the face of it, that fact alone tells us less than our recoil would have us think. Party membership had been frequently a pro forma expediency for academics and civil servants who wanted to keep their jobs. In this instance, though, security seems not to have been Sedlmayr’s motive. He joined the Nazi party in Austria in 1932 when membership was still illegal and academics were not yet under pressure to join. Why? However uneasy that makes us, we cannot speculate in the dark.
The man was also a devout Catholic. It is his religious sensibility, not his political affiliation, which marks Art in Crisis and which elicits attention. The crux of his sense of crisis—in its thrust, if not in every particular—bears resemblance to Romano Guardini’s observations in The End of the Modern World. This is Guardini, writing in 1956:
The medieval picture of the world, along with the cultural order which it supported, began to dissolve during the fourteenth century. The process of dissolution continued throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. By the seventeenth century it was complete, and a new picture of reality dawned clearly and distinctly over Europe.
Guardini sought to explain the origins of what he understood to be cultural dissolution. Sedlmayr concerned himself with dissolution’s gradual manifestation in successive styles of art and architecture:
There can be no doubt that many people really feel our age is sick. From 1700 onward we encounter phenomena in the field of art that have no parallel in the whole history of man. These are so intensely eloquent of the disturbance within the world of the spirit that we shall one day marvel at our own failure to learn the full truth simply from what art has made so plain . . . for it needs courage to look at the position we are in and still to resist despair.
Sedlmayr’s rejects modernist art on ground similar to Othodoxy’s rejection of naturalism in sacred art. The icon-maker refuses stylistic change—an earthly value—to insure attention to forms that aspire to transcend the tangible and material. Byzantine tradition seeks forms that prevail over time. It suggests the timeless by turning its back to the timely. It has no interest in the moment; eternal truth does not reside in what we call the nature of the times.
In his way, and broadening his concern to all of art, Sedlmayr concurs:
There is little substance in the argument that seeks to justify modern art on the grounds that, in giving expression to the chaos of our times, it is truthful. . . . A spiritual and moral portrait of man, it has been correctly said, really would look like a piece of sculpture by Epstein or Archipenko, or like a figure by Picasso or Dali. Man has, indeed, lost his true measure and there is no longer any right relationship between the parts.
But one could only accept this argument if one accepted the false thesis [my emphasis] that art is or should be an expression of the time, and that this and nothing else is its true essence—a thesis that is itself simply a symptom of the kind of thought that is incapable of transcending time. Art is, of course, only incidentally the expression of the time, in its essence it is extra-temoral, it is the manifestation of the timeless, of the eternal.
He closes his evaluation of modern art by quoting Goethe’s belief that “only the mediocre talent is always the captive of its time and must get its nourishment from the elements that time contains.” It is a hard statement, one that gives every artist pause—if it does not, indeed, put us all in our places.
Sedlmayr’s prognosis for the future of art relies on an unpredictable swell of trust in man’s capacity for gladness of heart (” a kind of cosmic and liberating humour”), a joy rooted in the only soil capable of retaining life: “the knowledge that we are creatures of God.”
I can think of no other work of art history that ends with what is, in reality, a prayer.