More cultural and spiritual analysis than art history or theory, Art in Crisis,
was originally published in Germany in 1948 under the title Loss of the Center: The Fine Arts of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries as Symptom and Symbol of the Times
. Though art historian Hans Sedlmayr (1896-1984) certainly did believe that modern art was in crisis, he viewed this crisis as a manifestation of a deeper cultural and religious disintegration. Surveying architecture, drawing, painting, and sculpture of the modern era, he chronicles the birth of the 'aesthetic' as an independent enterprise, separate from its traditional religious roots. Sedlmayr finds this attempt at autonomy both dangerous and destructive. Writing as an Augustinian Catholic, he believed autonomous man -a nd therefore autonomous art - 'does not, and cannot, exist.Man is fully human only insofar as he is a repository of the divine spirit.' Theological convictions aside, Sedlmayr's argument is an important critique of modernity. Art that ignores the human element is mere aesthetic, implying autonomy without regard to man. And lest we find Sedlmayr's polemic too blistering, his postscript offers a balancing remedy: 'The whole diagnosis of our time can.only yield results if it is used to refer back to ourselves, so that we may see what manner of men we are - and become different men from these.'
An Eighth Day View:
The history of art from the early nineteenth century on- ward is commonly viewed as a succession of conflicts between innovatory and established styles that culminated in the formalism and aesthetic autonomy of high modernism. In "Art and Crisis," first published in 1948, Hans Sedlmayr argues that the aesthetic disjunctures of modern art signify more than matters of style and point to much deeper processes of cultural and religious disintegration. As Roger Kimball observes in his informative new introduction, " Art in Crisis" is as much an exercise in cultural or spiritual analysis as it is a work of art history. Sedlmayr's reads the art of the last two centuries as a fever chart of the modern age in its greatness and its decay. He discusses the advent of Romanticism with its freeing of the imagination as a conscious sundering of art from humanist and religious traditions with the aesthetic treated as a category independent of human need. Looking at the social purposes of architecture, Sedlmayr shows how the landscape garden, the architectural monument, and the industrial exhibition testified to a new relationship not only between man and his handiwork but also between man and the forces that transcend him. In these institutions man deifies his inventive powers with which he hopes to master and supersede nature. Likewise, the art museum denies transcendence through a cultural leveling in which "Heracles and Christ become brothers" as objects of aesthetic contemplation. At the center of " Art in Crisis" is the insight that, in art as in life, the pursuit of unqualified autonomy is in the end a prescription for disaster, aesthetic as well as existential. Sedlmayr writes as an Augustinian Catholic. For him, the underlying motive for the pursuit of autonomy is pride. The "lost center" of his subtitle is God. The dream of autonomy, Sedlmayr argues, is for finite, mortal creatures, a dangerous illusion. The book invites serious analysis from art critics and theological thinkers alike. "Hans Sedlmayr "(1896-1984) was a founding member of the New Vienna School of art historians. His books include "The Architecture of Borromini, The Revolution of Modern Art, and Austrian Baroque Architecture." "Roger Kimball" is co-editor and publisher of "The New Criterion" and president and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is "The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art. "