The Disintegration of Form in the Arts
by Erich Kahler
Braziller, 144, 32 plates pp., $2.95 (paper)
Vision and Image (to be published in the fall)
by James Johnson Sweeney
Simon & Schuster, 192 pp., $4.95
Sixty-six years ago the German art historian Carl Justi, author of masterly monographs on Winckelmann, Velazquez, and Michelangelo gave a lecture in Bonn under the title, Der Amophismus in der modernen Kunst (Amorphism in Modern Art). He denounced the lack of form in the paintings produced by the younger generation, by which he principally meant the Impressionists. The title of professor Erich Kahler’s series of three lectures, now published in book form, is almost identical. He speaks of the “disintegration of form in the arts,” and raises his voice against what he calls “the triumph of incoherence” in concrete poetry, contemporary music, and the visual arts.
In the apologetics of contemporary art it is usual to point to such precedents as Justi’s lecture in order to argue that the earlier critic is now seen to have been wrong and the present one will surely share his fate. The validity of this argument is open to doubt. After all, it is possible that both critics will ultimately prove to have been right, or it is possible that one of them was wrong and the other right. Professor Kahler himself would not, perhaps, condemn Justi’s diagnosis of Impressionism out of hand. He is convinced that what he calls the disintegration of form is a process of long standing which can be traced at least as far back as the origin of romanticism in the eighteenth century, but he also thinks that it is only during the last decade or so that this development has accelerated to such a frightening degree that it is time to sound a warning. For in his view the antics and excesses of the avant garde are symptomatic of the same tendencies toward dehumanization which have produced the crimes against humanity in our age.
PROFESSOR KAHLER is not a conservative in the arts. He knows how to appreciate twentieth-century movements, but his appreciation does not alleviate his anxiety about the direction art and mankind are taking. It is difficult not to share these anxieties and yet it could be argued that Professor Kahler’s reasoning in these lectures can be faulted. Steeped as he is in the philosophical tradition of aesthetics, he takes as his starting point Aristotle’s comparison of a work of art with an organism. This organic character he describes as “form,” which in its turn he finds increasingly lacking in modern art. He quotes with emphasis and approval Aristotle’s assertion that in such a structure nothing can be taken away or changed without destroying the whole. Strangely enough neither he nor the many other critics who have repeated his assertion appear to have noticed that if it were strictly true, there would be very few works of art indeed left to us. It would be hard to find a single building, temple, or cathedral we could still appreciate as a work of art nor would there be many ancient statues or old paintings which would stand up to this criterion …
A Matter of Form August 22, 1968