Monday, September 15, 2014

Art & Beauty Part I, Section VI: A Creating Creature

'The artist is not a special kind of person, but every man is a special kind of artist' (Ananda Coomaraswamy).

If art traditionally understood is something much different than our contemporary understanding of art, naturally the artist was equally someone very different than that person whom we currently call an 'artist'. First of all, as we have already touched on, the world of tradition was something hierarchically organized; just as a work of art has its own specific telos or purpose, so too does man have his particular vocation for which he is best suited, for which he is made: 'In the normal society envisaged by Plato, or realized in a feudal social order or caste system, occupation is vocational, and usually hereditary; it is intended at least that every man shall be engaged in the useful occupation for which he is best fitted by nature, and in which therefore he can best serve the society to which he belongs and at the same time realize his own perfection' (Coomaraswamy, 'Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art', p.67). Thus conceived, man is not dissimilar from a work of art himself, and indeed he is precisely that, a creature created by God. Like any work of art, he has a first and a second perfection, a telos for which he is made, and a capability to achieve that telos; unlike any work of art, however, he himself is the artist and artwork, the free agent who seeks to realize his own perfection and place in the world.

As we mentioned at the beginning of Section III, the artist was actually an artisan, a craftsman, simply a man who played a part in the making of things. A blacksmith was as much of an artist as an architect or a poet, and all of them were vocations to which men suited to those positions naturally found themselves, either hereditarily or by apprenticeship and guilds or some other circumstance; while in feudal society there was not a great amount of movement vertically, say from serfdom to landed gentry, but horizontally there were great opportunities of someone of any social standing to gravitate towards the vocation for which he was created. This was possible because this was a society that recognized the indispensable value of becoming what one is; in order to direct the talents of men toward their maximum potential, men needed to be doing what they do best, even if that meant the majority of men need to be doing something as 'mundane' as tilling a field or fishing the shores.

The purpose of the artist, then, was hardly to 'express himself', to proudly put himself forward as someone specially important or unique, but simply to locate himself in the world as a willing and productive member of its community - and find contentment therein. By working according to one's vocation, man inserts himself as a functioning, meaningful contributor to society, and 'perfects' himself thereby; he becomes the piece of the cosmic puzzle for which he was born, and attains that perfection that every work of art aspires to be: 'The man devoted to his own vocation finds perfection.... That man whose prayer and praise of God are in the doing of his own work perfects himself' (Bhagavad Gita XVIII). Man therefore is not simply an artist, but a work of art as well, one which he himself can perfect by the accomplishment of God's will.

In this way, the artist becomes someone 'anonymous'. This is because, unlike modern artists who reach celebrity status for their acclaimed 'genius' (often after they die for some morbid reason) and the charm of their personality, the artist is seamlessly ingrained into society as merely someone else who is doing his work successfully. In the Medieval era, aside from a few of the more prominent architects and poets, there is a remarkable absence of known medieval artists, which is due to this fact, that his work was ultimately no more or less important than that of the burgher or the baker. Everyone has work to perform, and every vocation is essential to the fluidity of social life: '[It] is not inasmuch as he is ''such and such a person'' that the artifex produces his work, but inasmuch as he fulfils a certain ''function'' that is properly ''organic'' and not ''mechanical''....' (Rene Guenon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, p.64). (There is a definite reason for the deification of 'celebrity artists', namely that the artist has in some ways been the modern substitute for the priest, a point which demands additional explanation at some later date.)

Nevertheless, despite this character of 'anonymity', the artist, along with any other productive member of traditional civilization, possessed a personal identity, which was the representation of who he really was: 'the ''person'' is that which man presents concretely and sensibly in the world, in the position he occupies, but always signifying a form of expression and manifestation of a higher principle in which the true center of being is to be recognized' (Julius Evola, Ride the Tiger, p.109). Man is, in pagan society, the living symbol of some archetype; insofar as man succeeds as a person he succeeds in representing something impersonal, the immutability of which provides him with the meaning that he craves. The traditional person is therefore in stark contrast with the modern individual: 'So man as person is already differentiated thereby from the mere individual; he has a form, is himself, and belongs to himself.... Unlike the individual, the person is not closed to the above. The personal being is not himself, but has himself' (Ibid.). The personal being is more than himself because he is privy to something transcendent, which allows him to 'possess' himself in a sort of self-understanding that eludes the chaotic grasping of the rootless individual.

While this was unquestionably true in the ancient world prior to Christ's arrival, this was one of the things which the Incarnation changed on a fundamentally metaphysical level. In pagan society man is reduced to being essentially nothing more than any of the works of art, a walking, breathing, bipedic mimesis, the mere imitation of a form he is incapable of fully understanding; this was necessary, this was the perfectly organic means of attaining order in a chaotic cosmos. But what Evola failed to understand was that Christ changed everything, or how Christ changed everything. Man was no longer a 'persona', a mask of some god or rigid archetype as the word's etymology defines it; man is the Imago Dei, the embodied image of God himself. The person was no longer a servant of something impersonal; the person became a child of something superpersonal. To paraphrase Chesterton, God is not, like the pagans of every race have always thought, incomprehensible because he is impersonal; God is incomprehensible because he is superpersonal. God is too personal for us to comprehend, much like his mirth is too great for us to enjoy:

'We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear' (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy).

We do not, of course, mean to equate the personal with the vagaries of what one might call 'personality', but with the totality of the human being, the gestalt of his psyche, the very essence of what makes man himself. The true nature of personality is not the malleable, protean shape of the human character as he makes his way through life; personality is the inner determinant that shapes the human character. Personality is not conditioned; personality conditions. Personality is not altered; it is discovered: 'Personality is spirit embodied in nature' (Georg Nicolaus, C.G. Jung and Nikolai Berdyaev: Individuation and the Person, p.34), which means that personality is the link connecting us to the spiritual and to God. Being made in God's image, we share in his spiritual completion at the core of our being. But we are also fallen, which means that that completeness is disintegrated, and from the deepest provinces of our soul we yearn to be complete again: 'Personality... is God's idea of man, and that idea is the Gestalt man is called to realize, not a general idea, but an absolutely unique and yet universal content' (Ibid., p.58). If we are made in the image of God, and that image is the Person, then God must indeed be personal himself. God is not impersonal, not suprapersonal, but superpersonal - a being so like ourselves we cannot quite recognize him.

Evola is right when he says that 'the person needs a reference to something that is more than personal' (Evola, Tiger, p.109), but he is wrong in that the reference needs to be something impersonal. The human experience is necessarily founded on the subject, the inner consciousness that conditions our perception of reality - of what use is it to the needs of the subject to refer to something fundamentally objective? Man needs to integrate the objective into himself, not vice versa. If man is indeed the image of God, it follows that any 'reference to the above' means a reference to God; it follows that the health of the subject depends on our imitation of the Subject, the omnipotent mind whence we roughly, distantly, but assuredly do derive. It is the power of the subject, the power of the person that enables us to unite objective reality with ourselves. We exist in a world of objects, an inescapable matrix that conditions us in unpredictable channels, but the world of objects exists also in us; the way that we engage with them depends on how much of a hold they have over us, and how much of God, the supreme Subject, we have in us.

We bring God into us by imitating him. Now, the foremost activity that pertains to God is love, for the crux of his relationship with us is a 'going out of himself', and that is the essential definition of love. The result of this love is creation, for something needs to be outside of God for him to really love it; in his love, in his emergence beyond himself, he creates a necessarily imperfect mirror that is the world. He does this because it is his nature to love selflessly. Strictly speaking, he does not need us, since he is self-sufficient; God created us out of a divinely mysterious charity and an incomprehensibly free will, We, and everything else we see or know in the world, are the consequence of love; creation is the consequence. Love equals creation, so imitating God is simple: I love, therefore I create.

This is where the personal dimension in the artist is felt: in the recreation of God's most personal act, which is the continual creation of the world we live in. As we discussed in Section II, however, we create in different ways: God creates ex nihilo, he creates something from nothing whereas we can only mould the raw, primal matter of his creation into something worthier both of ourselves and of God. He sets everything up, provides us with a virtually infinite array of material, and we are tasked with the art of putting it all together according to the ideas of order and beauty that are imprinted in our mind. Despite this difference, the imitation is intact; we lack the might of God, so we act in the way that we can, in respect of our own limited technique. There is one further difference. In creating something, we proceed out of a love that is simultaneously selfish and selfless. It is selfish in that we create so that we may see an inner part of ourselves in projection in a fruitful attempt to capture the other part of ourself and thereby achieve completion; it is selfless in that it is a genuine going out of oneself, an earnest love that unites the thinking, feeling subject with the beauty that we perceive in the objective, outside world. In the selfish creation we reveal our human restrictions, but in our selfless creativity we reveal that we are indeed the children of God.

As this was all well understood in the Christian tradition, art (or what we would call 'fine art') was naturally substantiated with the unequivocally  personal, the unprecedentedly human character that graced the Gospels. The stories of saints became legends of mythical truth, endearing figures worth appealing to in prayer and in song; the icons of Christ and his apostles were concentrated into an intensely personal characterization, warm images of human virtue at the moment of its victory over sin; the liturgy something serenely evocative of heaven's splendour, using exclusively human voices to sing hymns and Holy Writ; cathedrals were each the entire Church in themselves, united congregations sharing communion with God and each other in a fraternal joy; saints like St. Francis personified the natural world, calling the sparrow his sister and the crow his brother. Nature was no longer something for man to identify with or recoil from or possibly lose himself in; it was something that man could enjoy to the full, because he recognized his place above it in the Chain of Being.

The only distinction to be made between the 'sacred' and the 'secular' was in the former being used to designate those deeply, vocationally involved in ecclesiastic life, while the latter designated the laity. In the modern use of the word, there was no such thing as the 'secular', because the sacred permeated everything, lathering the entire society with the brilliant array of colours that the medievals loved so well. Yes, of course there were atrocities and all sorts of the moral abuses such as you would find in any society, but the medieval world was naive enough to love man and yet humble enough to recognize the extent of his depravity. Earth was sanctified by man's presence, who referred to God's wonder through the natural world, adapting her own beauty to create a vivid and dynamic symbolism in which they housed God's Word. We had received the New Testament, the poetry of God, and we responded to the best of our ability - we responded with Boethius and Dante, Ss. Dominic and Francis, and all the men in between who conspired to make their home worthy of its Creator.

Every man is creative in potentia because to create is man's foremost need. The impulse to create springs from the existential well of man's soul; the obedience of these impulses determines what or who a man will be. Man's central, most persistent desire is to complete himself, but to complete himself he must create himself; to create himself he must love, and to love he must imitate God. The imitation of God is the key to the re-integration of man with himself. Creativity is the perfection of the person, because it is the sincere appeal to the perfect Person; to share and participate in the love of the objective world is to make abstract ideals one's own pillars of personality. Christ is the symbol par excellence of this fact because he represents the bridge between God and man, between subject and object: 'God does not mingle himself with man, it is uniquely by means of Love... that there is dialogue and intercourse between the gods and men' (Plato, Symposium). Plato did not conceive of God's humanity, or how it was possible for God to also be man, but he nevertheless spoke the truth, a truth that Christ, whom Plato called Love, fulfilled. Christ, the God-man, suffered the weight of the world out of love for us, and created that selfsame bridge that allows us actual union with God. It is his example of love that we must imitate to fulfil the most urgent needs of the human experience; we show this love through creativity, through acting in the world to redeem the world.

'Man's creativeness is his duty before God and the fulfilment of his will: not to be creator and not to live creatively, not to take part in God's unceasing creative action in the world, is disobedience to God, and in the last resort rebellion against him' (Evgueny Lampert, Berdyaev and the New Middle Ages, p. 48).

Every man, therefore, is an artist; every man needs to create for his own sake as well as that of God. Whether it be the creation of an English madrigal, inter-city highways, a hearty breakfast, a half-dozen children, or simply a monastic silence, so long as it is done out of love man comes through creation to a profound satisfaction. The fundamental vocation of our species is a contribution to the reality in which we participate, which includes its spiritual as well as its physical dimensions. Guenon, Coomaraswamy, the Greek and Hindoo platonists were all right when they said that man is only man when he acts in the world according to his corresponding vocation (and remains 'anonymous'); Evola was right when said that man was only truly alive and truly personal when his life corresponds to something above himself. But all of this is only really brought together when we remember that we are all made in God's image, and purposed to do his will, and what is God's vocation? What is God's will? Simply, to Be, which evidently means also to create, or none of us would exist. The true vocation for any child of God, therefore, is to do as his Father does - to create.

'A Poet, a Painter, a Musician, an Architect; the Man or Woman who is not one of these things is not a Christian' (William Blake).

1 comment:

  1. Any word on part 2 and 3? Really looking forward to them.