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Art History and its Discontents

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Month: November 2016

Toward a Rigorous Study of Art

The gentleman in the center of this photograph, obscured behind a cloud of pipe smoke, is Hans Sedlmayr. In 1931, he published a methodological manifesto entitled Zu einer strengen Kunstwissenschaft (Toward a Rigorous Study of Art, available to English readers in the essential Vienna School Reader).

Sedlmayr posits two orders of Art History. The first is the most familiar and agreeable to art historians. Using documentary evidence, the first order establishes the facts surrounding the work of art and its production — who produced it, who paid for it, when it was produced, and where. These facts, Sedlmayr reminds us, are dependent on the accidental presence of documentation, and are always fragmentary.1Sedlmayr, Hans. “Toward a Rigorous Study of Art” in The Vienna School Reader. Christopher Wood, ed. and trans. (New York: Zone Books, 2000), 134.

Scientific, documentary proof, as rigorous as it may seem, leaves immense gaps of knowledge. These gaps, Sedlmayr argues, can be bridged by an Art History of another sort, one that seeks to understand the work of art itself, and the traces of its production which it contains. The second order studies not just form, but form as motive of a concrete “gestalt.”2Sedlmayr. 135-6. The second order can answer not just “what?” but also the “why?” that provides art’s core.

For Sedlmayr, this second order is the kernel of a “genuine” study of art. The first order leaves the art object dead and lifeless, and leaves Art History as a deep disappointment. He writes:

You come from some robust, lively thing that has affected you, look up the existing scholarship about it, you read and read […], and afterward you have the distinct feeling that you have accumulated a great deal, yet it amounts to nothing. Somehow that which had seemed most important and most essential — the heart of the matter — has gotten lost in the process.3Sedlmayr. 138.

As the first order of Art History reveals its limits, the second order, seemingly speculative and subjective, offers its own problems. Will it veer into emotional, arbitrary, incomplete, unverifiable, belletristic nonsense? It doesn’t have to, Sedlmayr argues. He suggests a number of methodological strategies to establish a rigorous, genuine, and complete study of art, many of which seem like common sense scholarship. No arguing from the individual case to a generality. Comparisons are the antidote to speculation. Collaborate and cooperate with other fields.

The notions of artistic attitude and object world are fundamental concepts of his theory. The appropriate artistic attitude is not just a way of seeing, or a theoretical “reading,” but a mode of a properly sensitized viewer experiencing art with his full perceptive abilities — physical, psychological and intellectual. Isn’t this merely subjective musing? No. Sedlmayr writes:

“On the contrary: just as works of art are repeatedly re-created and formed anew by viewing subjects, each work of art is itself, in its totality, an objective reality, a separate object world that can be examined and accepted like any other concrete reality and that can be penetrated through contemplation or conceptualization.”4Sedlmayr. 145.

Sedlmayr’s method would become known as New Vienna School Strukturanalyse, which seeks to find meaning in not only the “structures” of the artwork itself, but structures within the object world the artwork inhabits, and the relationships within. For example, Sedlmayr’s method seek to find the transcendent character of the work of art. In other words, the artwork indicates other, external manifestations of its own “formal organization.” The orientation of artwork is its temporality. Sedlmayr writes that each artwork “carries within itself traces of its prehistory and the seeds of future transformations.”5Sedlmayr. 170. The radical kernel of these concepts is that they operate within the object world, not through external academic art historical constructs such as artistic influence and period style.

Sedlmayer’s Strukturanalyse requires a rigorous empathy for the work of art, a doubled perspective, and an acquiescence to the schitzophrenic possibility of multiple realities, and then the preference of one outside our own comfortable, subjective self. It sounds impossible, or somewhat daffy. But, I think Sedlmayer gets close to Art History’s tragic core, its inability to fully embrace the object of its study. The avoidance of this tragedy is one of the engines of the discipline, and repelling ideas such as Sedlmayer’s — contingency, nonlinearity, insight — is a driving force. Sedlmayr’s theory is still radical, still marginalized. (Though, there is an additional reason for that.)


In a recent seminar, we read what I think is an example of a method that hews close to Sedlmayer’s Strukturanalyse. The essay, published in 2011 by Debora Silverman, concerned Belgian Art Nouveau and found in its form and materials a collective, cultural anxiety — a Gestalt — brought out by the horrors of Belgium’s rapacious colonial rule of the Congo Free State.6Silverman, Debora L. “Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness: African Lineages of Belgian Modernism, Part I,” West 86th 18, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011): 139-81

The author upped the “structure stakes” over the course of the entire essay. First, she analyzed the source materials of Belgian decoration, then she found the transcendent character of the sinuous Belgian forms pointing to the tendrils of the rubber plant, a source of vast wealth which became a pretext for atrocity. And, finally, she found further formal resonance in the tremor of the colonial lash. It was a thrilling read.

None of these insights came with enough documentary evidence for our dear professor. He told us that the essay had severe problems, none of her connections between art and the art’s “world” could be proven. Entertaining, but a failure as Art History, he determined. He asked for our opinions and agreement murmured through the room. Then I asked him what would happen if we tried to write something that aspired to this essay. He responded, “You would be shot.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked.

Before I got the words out, he responded by repeating himself, slowly and impatiently, as one does when addressing an insolent child. “You. Would. Be. Shot.”

And that’s how I got a venerable, provincially notable Professor of the History of Architecture to articulate a minor murder fantasy in class one day. Remember, art history students: insight is treason, a capital offense.


No discussion of Sedlmayr can be had without acknowledging his membership in the Nazi Party from 1933 to 1945. Sedlmayr’s biography and the problems it presents to art historians is discussed in Christopher Wood’s introduction to The Vienna School Reader. Sedlmayr compounded his problems with the publication of Verlust der Mitte in 1948. That book, published under the title Art In Crisis here, has to be on the top of any top 10 list of most reviled art books. Ask Benjamin Buchloh.

For our purposes, Sedlmayr’s biography should provide one important lesson, one unfortunate truth about the academy: being an art historian does not necessarily make you a good person.

— Michael Westfall

Notes   [ + ]

1. Sedlmayr, Hans. “Toward a Rigorous Study of Art” in The Vienna School Reader. Christopher Wood, ed. and trans. (New York: Zone Books, 2000), 134.
2. Sedlmayr. 135-6.
3. Sedlmayr. 138.
4. Sedlmayr. 145.
5. Sedlmayr. 170.
6. Silverman, Debora L. “Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness: African Lineages of Belgian Modernism, Part I,” West 86th 18, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011): 139-81

Scab Trashmen

Art History’s long, slow slide towards oblivion made the news again recently. Back in 2014, the UK’s Education Secretary announced new, more rigorous and demanding standards for arts education. Educators then created and approved a new, globally inclusive syllabus expanding the course beyond its previous limits of Western art. This presented an insurmountable problem. The board that oversees the exams reported that they could not find enough specialist examiners to cover the newly expanded subject, and, besides, only 839 students took the exam this year. (By way of comparison, 43,000 sat the Art and Design exams.) Confronted with a crisis of both supply and demand, last month the board axed the Art History A-levels altogether.

This, in turn, led to much hand-wringing. Those who cared valiantly defended Art History as something valuable, something more than just a class-appropriate avocation for posh girls. As one wit has it, “There could be no clearer example of the extent to which we have lost our way than the abandonment of art history and archaeology. Unless perhaps the new education secretary, Justine Greening, were to go on a long symbolic quest to seek the mythical holy grail and, having found the talismanic object, ancient vessel of incalculable wisdom and understanding, shat in it.”

On this side of the ocean, the crisis in Art History takes a far less operatic tenor. Here, Art History is just the prime example of useless academicism, as President Obama once glibly noted. In response to this off-the-cuff slight, the College Art Association defended an education in the humanities, reminding the President that “It is worth remembering that many of the nation’s most important innovators, in fields including high technology, business, and even military service, have degrees in the humanities. Humanities graduates play leading roles in corporations, engineering, international relations, government, and many other fields where their skills and creating (sic) thinking play a critical role.”

While this may be true, this argument is not even close to a defense of Art History. At best, it is an oblique defense of Art History professorsWhat is missing in the CAA response is any indication of Art History’s telos. Through the testimony of its own practitioners, Art History is reduced to a discipline in search of a purpose.


I find myself falling into this image of old New York. My mind’s eye is cast back a hundred years. A gent in a bowler hat stares out with Stenburg eyes — a blur, a ghost, a rushing time-flâneur. It’s the animals that dominate this frame, the equine magnificence of the twinned grays – all muscle, bone and hoof – their majesty reigned by tack and sullen men. A boy looks out, witness to our witnessing. The image is hyperreal, uncannily precise, a function of the magic of glass and silver, handmade optics and albumen.

I sense a tension. Is it there in the men’s faces, their awkward bearing, their obliviousness to the camera, their attention paid to other, more pressing concerns?




A second frame from that day, from a vantage across the street, shows a hectic scene. A crowd has gathered. The garbage men and their horses are a spectacle, the target of a potential mob, and the police are on hand to keep the peace. In the center of the frame, an act of kindness, my punctum: a man in the crowd reaches up to pat a horse behind its ear, whispering to it, calming the animal amidst the nervous, hostile air. A garbage strike threw the city of New York into chaos almost exactly one hundred and five years ago, a forgotten moment in my city’s history. In November, 1911, thousands of street cleaners and ashmen walked off the job. Mountains of rotting garbage choked the city streets, and hundreds of strikebreakers were brought in to clean up. Riots erupted across Manhattan, bottles and bricks rained down on the strikebreakers and their horses from tenement rooftops, bonfires burned in the streets, and a child was killed in a fracas on E. 107th Street, run over by a garbage cart as the driver whipped his horse to escape the projectiles.


Like the striking garbagemen, art historians, it seems to me, have walked off the job. Whether rampant careerism and the attendant willful mediocrity that produces, or brittle ideology and the attendant willful blindness that produces, or the congenital intellectual deformities produced by inbred academicism, or creative malaise, or simple exhaustion, or some toxic cocktail of the preceding is the cause, art historians have not been taking out their garbage, so to speak.

The dreadful state of Art History reveals so much opportunity! The scholars have left treasures amongst the trash, so I’ll shovel through it. I’ll be Art History’s scab trashman.

— Michael Westfall

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