The Disintegration of Form in the Arts
Vision and Image (to be published in the fall)
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. By this standard neither the poetry of Homer nor the beauty of the Bible could be appreciated.
Nor will the traditional contrast between the organic whole and the merely mechanical shape stand up to criticism. Professor Kahler contrasts the fortuitous shape of a lake with the coherence of a living form, but Karl Popper showed long ago in The Poverty of Historicism that this type of contrast is illicit. The distribution of pressures and temperatures in a lake are far from fortuitous and incoherent, and if you regard it as an environment, its ecological balance is probably more delicate than that of many works of art. Is it factitious, moreover, to point out that Aristotle could know of neither the wonders of self-regulating mechanisms which have narrowed the gap between the organic and the machine, nor of the miracles of organ transplantation which also tend to belie the traditional metaphor of organic unity? Be that as it may, neither Professor Kahler nor, it would seem, anybody else has ever succeeded in offering criteria for “organic form” which would make it possible to account for that feeling of coherence and of “necessity” which we do indeed experience when we come into contact with acknowledged works of art.
Could one blame anyone who attributed this feeling more to the force of habit created by familiarity than to any principle inherent in the works themselves? It is an old observation that man will call natural whatever he is used to, though nothing in human civilization is really natural as distinct from manmade. To most of us the sequence of courses in a meal may look natural, coherent, organic, and if we were served the dessert first and the soup last we would feel uncomfortable. Psychologically this is not surprising. We have built up expectations which cannot easily be unlearned. Is it not possible that such expectations also play their part in the experience of order and inevitability which Professor Kahler rightly discerns in our reaction to the great art of past ages? If this were indeed the case we could understand more easily why the middle-aged so rarely agree with the young about what is natural in art or in social habits.
To acknowledge this possibility does not mean to lapse into complete relativism. There may still be rich and poor traditions in art, crude or subtle conventions in poetry which we can acknowledge even where we can no longer learn or explore them in all their refinement. In this respect the coming of a new style presents no different problem to appreciation than does the discovery of an exotic idiom. Both have to be mastered and nobody can claim to have mastered them all.
PROFESSOR KAHLER, however, intends to show not only that the artistic idioms of our present age are lacking in form, but that they deliberately embrace chaos. He quotes and illustrates a number of instances of the shock effects familiar to the art of our time and claims that they must be regarded as portents of our impending disintegration. He knows himself that his reading of these portents will not be shared by everybody:
Many people, including intellectuals, are inclined to consider these movements as vogues of folly that will pass. But it seems to me that they are to be taken very seriously. They are the outcome of an evolutional trend, a consistent artistic and broadly human development.
It is this last assertion particularly that must be challenged. The application of evolutionism to the diminutive span of recorded human history rests on a metaphor which is no more valid or convincing than the comparison between organisms and works of art. The interpretation of the changing styles of art as manifestations of the evolving human spirit will not stand up to searching criticism. Like Hans Sedlmayr’s Art in Crisis, and like his own earlier work, The Tower and the Abyss, Professor Kahler’s lectures exemplify an approach which is closely allied to that historicism dissected in Popper’s book which I have noted above. Art, in these and similar works, is treated as a symptom of an “age.” There is no denying that such interpretations can be suggestive, in the hands of skilled practitioners, but they will always suffer from the inherent weakness of what might be called retrospective collectivism. The age itself is personified and its “art” is seen as its inevitable “expression.” But “art” meant different things to different civilizations, and the functions of literature, or even more so of image making, have shifted so radically that we are really not comparing like with like if we try to read the history of collective psychology—if there is such a thing—in the history of artistic forms. On the contrary, it is more likely that the excesses and puerilities in contemporary art which Professor Kahler deplores are the direct consequences of the historicist doctrines he shares with so many contemporary writers on art.
IT SO HAPPENS that these idées reçues are once more propounded and defended with disarming verve in another short book on the situation in contemporary art, Vision and Image by James Johnson Sweeney. It matters little here that Mr. Sweeney’s overt tendency is the opposite of that of Professor Kahler. He takes the orthodox line as a champion of modernism against the Philistine. Admittedly his task is made slightly easier by the fact that his book appears to have been written some ten years ago, before the most extreme tendencies which disturb Professor Kahler had made their full impact. But one doubts whether Mr. Sweeney would have been deterred by them, for if his book expresses one anxiety it is that of falling behind. This preoccupation leads him to a Homeric simile which deserves to be quoted at some length:
I have often thought of living art as a bus rolling down a long boulevard. We run to catch it. It does not stop…. If we do not board it, it gradually draws out of our sight. We are left with only the afterimages of what excited us while we were alongside it…. But if we board it…we can enjoy the new landscapes as they open up on each side and still look back comfortably, from our position, on the art of the past…. Perhaps the figure would be better if one imagined the would-be passenger, hanging precariously outside the rail on the rear of the bus, forced always to make an effort to maintain the position of vantage he has won for himself. For true and courageous art collecting demands this constant effort to keep the view forward and the eyes clear.
There seems to be a confusion here between buses and bandwagons. Not that the comparison between art and vehicular traffic is altogether inspiring, but if it is to be made it is just as well to remember that buses run in many directions and that it is we who decide where we want to go. Mr. Sweeney’s convictions rest on the same fallacious evolutionist beliefs which Professor Kahler expresses with so much more learning and sophistication. He repeats again and again that the artist is an explorer, that “every true work of art bends the frontier of human expression over fresh ground.” Hence to the man in the street, “the unfamiliar inventions and the new terrains of pictorial expression are unintelligible.” He extols what he calls the “tastebreakers” rather than tastemakers, and is naïvely convinced that all great artists from Giotto to the present day belonged to this desirable category.
Perhaps a Sienese layman in Duccio’s time or a simple dweller in Paris in the twelfth century was just as bigoted in his hostility to fresh art developments as our contemporaries are today.
In view of Vasari’s story that Duccio’s Madonna Rucellai (which he attributes to Cimabue) was carried in triumph by the populace of Florence, as we also know Duccio’s Maestà was carried, the example is especially unfortunate. But of course the idea of the rejection of innovations in the past is as much a myth as is the assumption that modern artists lack success. Compared to Picasso’s success story Duccio indeed lived in obscurity.
But innovation, in Mr. Sweeney’s view, must never be confused with a repudiation of tradition. He appeals to the authority of T. S. Eliot and Stravinsky to show that a faith in the avant garde does not exclude a respect for the past. Yet if we were to probe how he can tell whether or not any particular new work of art continues the tradition, we would find his criteria no less elusive than Professor Kahler’s criteria for form. Subscribing as he does to the metaphor of evolution, he can only think of one direction taken by art along that boulevard that extends into the future. It is the artist alone who is the conductor and inspector of this one-way traffic. The critic is explicitly told not to assess values but only to encourage “the adventurous and exploratory in contemporary art.”
IF WE READ and ponder these earnest reflections of an influential figure in the world of art, we shall perhaps be less surprised about the phenomena in contemporary art which so worry Professor Kahler. To put it crudely, artists have become like spoiled children—at least this applies to some of the self appointed “tastebreakers” who must constantly live up to the role of enfant terrible. They are asked to “disintegrate” all existing forms and conventions and they do their best to oblige. Indeed, what can one expect of a group of people who are fed on the idea, from the moment they enter art school, that their products will of necessity be unintelligible, and will only reveal their profound significance to future generations? How is it possible to preserve sanity if you are treated as an oracle revealing the secret essence of our troubled times in words and images the true import of which you yourself cannot yet fathom? Considering the situation into which modern criticism has placed the modern artist one can only be graceful for the amount of serious work that is still produced in our much maligned age.
Professor Kahler nowhere criticizes these assumptions; on the contrary, he shares them. His position, after all, rests, on the belief that the artist is the mouthpiece of the Zeitgeist, the conscious or unconscious revealer of its hidden essence. He quotes with approval the remarks of von Huelsebeck that the Dadaists “—far ahead of their time—were people whose peculiar sensibility made them aware of the approaching chaos and who tried to overcome it….”
Indeed here it may be possible to discern some of Professor Kahler’s allegiances, which are the consequence of his background and generation. His allegiances lie with expressionism, and what worries him most in the pronouncements of contemporary critics and artists, whom he quotes fairly and liberally, is their avowed rejection of expressionist aesthetics. But need we really see this rejection as a symptom of dehumanization? Are there not other grounds for this reaction with which even a humanist might sympathize? The longing for a cold, hard-edged objectivity, a dispassionate “elimination of human sentiment” might, after all, merely represent a swing away from the emotional orgies of the previous generation. Here Mr. Sweeney is more genuinely tolerant in emphasizing the element of playfulness in artistic explorations. Professor Kahler also acknowledges that “artistic ingenuity does not become extinct with the advent of even the most precarious fashion of presentation…even among the products of pop art, and most particularly of op art, with its craft derivations…we encounter…combinations and inventions of a delightful quality.”
HAVE WE A RIGHT to expect more? Was true artistic ingenuity ever widespread? What distinguishes the art of the past from the “precarious fashion” of the present is that nobody in earlier ages thought of art as a bus. Images served a more intelligible, indeed, if the word is to be allowed, a more “natural” or more “organic” function in society than something to be shown to exhibitions and museums as signs of the times, or (in Morse Peckham’s view) to prepare us for the shocks of life in an age of change. In meeting more immediate and more intelligible purposes art remained more human and more intelligible. There certainly exists an historical problem in the decline of these functions and a more pressing social problem in what might be called the lack of a normal ecological niche for art in the life of our times. The propaganda surrounding art, the preaching to the man in the street that he take it on trust, the links with the stock market, the cliquishness, the loneliness of artists who dislike the bandwagon, all this provides a better explanation of the artistic scene today than the alleged psychology of our age. The malaise of the artists is not the same as the malaise of society. Granted that our society is beset by many passing and torturing problems it really has no monopoly of horrors. The historian who remembers Tamerlane in India, Cortez in Mexico, Cromwell in Ireland, the religious wars or the slave trade, even the slums of Dickens’s and Hogarth’s London is unlikely to be nostalgic for the past.
Professor Kahler has emphasized in The Tower and the Abyss that the horrors our age has witnessed are worse. But if one must insist on such questionable comparisons one must not omit all mention of the efforts and of the capacity to alleviate suffering, which are at least equally characteristic of our age. Clearly one must respect and endorse the author’s stand against inhumanity, but does it serve this important purpose to make our flesh creep about the agonies of the human condition in this age of science? Are we really as dehumanized and fragmented as he depicts us? Is there no human warmth left, because our modish art is cool? After all, we can take it or leave it, and many young people who are not philistines have developed a healthy sales resistance against this ballyhoo. There is no reason to think that the psychological balance of the young is less stable now than it was during periods when art may have flourished more luxuriantly. Even that permissiveness in education and in the arts which may be responsible for the less attractive forms of calculated silliness can also be regarded as a sign of strength.
Granted we all have a right to prefer the superlative discipline and artistry with which Velazquez turned his portraits of the dwarfs and jesters of the Spanish Court into poetry. Must we therefore succumb to a Romantic longing for that alleged coherence of life that also produced the institution of the Auto da Fé? Is not the very lack of coherence a source of hope rather than of despair? When Carl Justi, lifting his eyes from Velazquez, attacked the artists of his time for their “amorphism”he could not know that his strictures were refuted by a near recluse who was quietly working in Southern France—Cézanne, who neither wanted nor needed to exhibit. Maybe there is another Cézanne at work somewhere, whose oeuvre will one day confound Professor Kahler’s gloomy diagnosis of our age—unless jaywalking across the Boulevard, he has prematurely been knocked down by Mr. Sweeney’s bus.
A Matter of Form August 22, 1968