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.)

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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.

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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