One of the best books I know of on this subject is Hans Sedlmayr’s Art in Crisis. In this greatly underappreciated work, Sedlmayr examines the disciplines of architecture, painting, and sculpture as they have developed over the last three centuries, and calls attention to a number of destructive trends emerging during this period. For a while, in artists like Goya or Daumier, these tendencies are checked or balanced by more traditional elements in their disciplines, elements that could be traced back to a residual belief in man’s grandeur. But by the beginning of the twentieth century, such considerations had lost all purchase on the imagination of most western artists, and all that was left was the destructive tendencies. Among these tendencies is the fact that the arts become increasingly isolated from one another and from any public function, making “pure art” or “absolute art” a novel – if altogether vain – pursuit. Art begins more and more to depict the nightmarish emanations of psychology – “whatever belongs to horror and to night, to disease, death and decay, whatever is crass, obscene and perverse, whatever is mechanical and a denial of the spirit.”[i] Architecture starts to demonstrate a loathing for nature through its inorganic shapes and materials; painting begins to demonstrate a loathing for human nature through its distortions of the human form. Taken together, all of these tendencies can best be understood as a loss of aesthetic equilibrium …What Sedlmayer calls "destructive trends" are the eventual characteristics of every style of art. And what he calls "traditional elements" are simply the result of artists of integrity exercising sound aesthetic judgment. As for those "destructive tendencies," if we are talking about the modernism of the '20s, it must be born in mind that these were artists chronicling a society laid waste by a war of unparalleled destruction. There was no tradition for this, and it is altogether possible to look at their work — Eliot's, for instance — and marvel over how much of the traditional they managed to retain.
Saturday, August 31, 2013
… The Continuing Tyranny of Modernism Mark Anthony Signorelli. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)