Wind received a thorough training in mathematics and philosophical studies, both at his Gymnasium in Charlottenburg, and then at university in Berlin, Freiburg, and Vienna. He completed his dissertation in Hamburg, where he was Erwin Panofsky's first student. He left to teach briefly in the US for financial reasons (he had a two-year appointment at the University of North Carolina from 1925-7), but then returned to Hamburg as a research assistant. It was there that he got to know Aby Warburg, and was instrumental in moving the Warburg Library out of Germany to London during the Nazi period. Warburg's influence on Wind's own methods were significant.
Once in London, Wind taught and became involved with the Warburg Institute, helping found the influential Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute in 1937. During the war he returned to the US and held several teaching positions, at New York University, University of Chicago, and Smith College. Finally, in 1955 he went back to England and became Oxford University's first Professor of art history, a position he maintained until his retirement in 1967. He now has a reading room in Oxford's new Sackler Library dedicated to him, where his works are stored. Wind, although considered a classicist and Renaissance expert, staunchly defended modern art, unlike many of his colleagues: "If modern art is sometimes shrill, it is not the fault of artist alone. We all incline to raise our voices when we speak to people who are getting deaf.
Wind was an enthusiastic and respected lecturer at many institutions. He was a key example of the phenomenon of the "Warburgian scholar" in the American academic scene,, seemingly equally at home in art, literature, history, and philosophy, giving "pyrotechnical lectures." Says one student of Wind's at Smith, "...his Hamburg accent and his puckish smile...remain the most delightful memories...his...charisma...is the quality that made the greatest impression... [His] utterly charming European manner, urbane, intellectual must have been stimulating and encouraging to [his colleagues.]"
Wind's two most famous works are Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance and Art and Anarchy.
Mysteries' chief aim was to "elucidate a number of great Renaissance works of art". He maintained that "ideas forcefully expressed in art were alive in other areas of human endeavor". His thesis was that "the presence of unresolved residues of meaning is an obstacle to the enjoyment of art", and he attempted to "help remove the veil of obscurity which not only distance in time...but a deliberate obliqueness in the use of metaphor has spread over some of the greatest Renaissance paintings."
A series of radio lectures that Wind delivered in 1960 was later compiled into a book entitled Art and Anarchy. In it he notes that, over time, public audiences have lost their capacity for an immediate and visceral response to art. The production and appreciation of art, he observes, has become marginalized and domesticated to a point where it can no longer significantly and lastingly move its addressees. Wind’s impulse in the piece is apparently restorative; he seeks to impede the observed tendency toward apathy and recover some of art’s latent anarchic quality.
Wind begins his argument by presenting the long-standing conceptual correlation between art and forces of chaos or disorder, citing a lineage of thinkers and artists including Plato, Goethe, Baudelaire and Burckhardt. Particular emphasis is placed on Plato’s distrustful view of the imagination as fundamentally uncontrollable; Plato explicitly denied the true artist a place in his imagined ideal republic, not for lack of respect for the artist’s talent but out of fear for his capacity to upset the social balance. Wind also notes the repeated historical coincidence – in Greece at Plato’s time and in Italy during the Renaissance – of peaks in artistic accomplishment with political turmoil and breakdown.
Wind notes, however, that the recent surplus of artwork available to the public eye has to some extent anesthetized the audience to art at large. Wind is quick to acknowledge that society maintains a broad and active concern with art as well as increasingly refined faculties with which to interpret such work. Yet this interest is a significant dilution of the passion with which art was received in the past: “We are much given to art, but it touches us lightly…art is so well-received because it has lost its sting.”
Wind refers frequently to Hegel in isolating the particular change that art has undergone: “when art is removed to a zone of safety, it may still remain very good art indeed, and also very popular art, but its effect on our existence will vanish.” Art has thus, according to Wind, moved to life’s periphery. Again, Wind notes that this distance carries with it certain benefits for the scholarly approach to art; “detachment brought freshness and breadth, and a freedom from prejudice, a willingness to explore the unfamiliar, even the repulsive, and to risk new adventures of sensibility.” At the same time, however, art has lost its ability to resonate at levels deeper than the intellect, to incite the passions. Engaging with a work of art has become an act of mere observation as opposed to “vital participation.” Art has, for Wind, gained interest at the expense of potency.
By way of resolution, Wind suggests an intermediate and integrative approach, supplementing the tolerance afforded by aesthetic detachment with an insistence on personal assessment on behalf of the work’s audience: “We should react to a work of art on two levels: we should judge it aesthetically in its own terms, but we should also decide whether we find those terms acceptable.” As such, Wind indicates that the intellectual advantages of the contemporary approach to art may be retained without sacrificing the “directly [felt]” quality that is so fundamental to it.