Arthur Szathmary

Arthur Szathmary

Arthur Szathmary (1916-2013) was a member of the Philosophy Department at Princeton University 1947-1986.

Born in 1916, Szathmary was one of six children born to a Hungarian father and an American mother from Rhode Island. After growing up in Quincy, Massachussetts, he attended Harvard University where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree (1937), a Master of Arts degree (1939), and a PhD (1942). He joined the Philosophy Department at Princeton as Assistant Professor in 1947, became Associate Professor in 1953, and Full Professor in 1970, a position he held until his retirement in 1986.

Szathmary's family included some notable personalities from the world of entertainment. One of his brothers, Al, played a taxi driver in Rosemary's Baby. His oldest brother Irving, a composer and arranger, wrote the original theme music to Get Smart. Another, Bill Dana, a comedian, actor, and screenwriter, is best known for his characters José Jiménez, as whom he appeared on the Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, and Smothers Brothers shows, and Papa Angelo, as whom he had a recurring role in The Golden Girls. Also a scriptwriter on Get Smart, Dana is credited with having invented that show's series of running jokes: "Would you believe...?"

Immediately after completing the PhD, and with the Second World War in full flight, Szathmary began service with the United States Navy, rising to the rank of Lieutenant. Fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese, he served as an interpreter and interrogator. At the end of the war in the Pacific, he was shipped to the Marianas Islands to help with the repatriation of the many Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean civilians who remained there, interned by US forces.

In 1944, after his discharge from the Navy, Szathmary returned to philosophy, gaining a position as Instructor at Columbia University. He had already attracted considerable attention as a promising philosopher of art, as Harvard University Press had published his Phi Beta Kappa prize-winning essay, The Aesthetic Theory of Bergson, in 1937. He only stayed at Columbia for three years, as after bettering an offer from Swarthmore, Princeton convinced him to move in 1947. The Philosophy Department needed someone to be the backbone of its offerings in aesthetics, and Szathmary was the clear choice. 

Szathmary's classes attracted a large and diverse group of students. He taught them about a variety of philosophical theories of art, drawing on a remarkably varied and well-selected array of illustrative material from the visual arts, music, and literature. He published another booklet, Scholar, Critic, and Layman in 1955, and began work on a more substantial book on the theory of artistic expression. He was given a Fulbright Fellowship in 1957-8 to spend a sabbatical year in Italy working on the book project, and, while there, lectured in Italian at the University of Rome and elsewhere to great acclaim. 

When he returned to Princeton, Szathmary was appointed chair of the Creative Arts Committee, a position he held until 1967. Together with the program director, R. P. Blackmur, he brought an exceptionally large, diversified, and exciting group of creative artists to Princeton. His contributions were, however, punctuated when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1962. Against all odds, the surgery to remove the tumor was successful and Szathmary traveled to the tiny island of Bequia in the Caribbean to recuperate. The task was formidable, as both his speech and mobility had been severely affected. Despite his best efforts, he was left with permanent damage to his voice and a slight limp, and needed to use a cane.

 In the years that followed, Szathmary shifted his research interests towards Chinese and Japanese calligraphy as an art, a topic in which he had first become interested when he worked as an interpreter in the navy. His idea was that such characters provide an example of physiognomic expression—that they possess emotional and, more broadly, psychological characteristics (they can be passionate or cool, elated or reserved), without implying that these are felt either by their makers or by their audience. He also relied on calligraphy as evidence for his view of the cross-cultural significance of non-representational art. With the passage of time, he dedicated himself more and more to his teaching, regularly offering many more precepts than was required. He had a reputation for being a demanding teacher, but kind and generous with his time. 

It is ultimately through his students that Szathmary has had some of his greatest influence. While earning a master's in architecture and urban planning, Jeffrey Ng *76, who remained friends with Szathmary right up until the time of his death, took two of his courses on the philosophy of art. Ng, an architect based in Fairfield, Connecticut, credits Szathmary with having instilled in him an all-important and necessary skepticism of conventional ways of thinking about art and aesthetics. Ints Silins '65 says that it was Szathmary who persuaded him to make his own life in international affairs. After leaving Princeton, Silins became a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, and Ambassador to Latvia under George H. W. Bush. And Gregory Callimanopulos '57, a noted art collector, donated the first Picasso painting to enter the University Art Museum's collection, "Tête d'homme et nu assis ("Man's Head and Seated Nude"), in Szathmary's honor in 2008.