Thursday, December 29, 2011

“Is Art a Superstition, or a Way of Life?” (Part 1)


“It seems to be a matter of general agreement at the present day that ‘Art’ is a part of the higher things of life, to be enjoyed in hours of leisure earned by other hours of inartistic ‘Work.’ We find accordingly as one of the most obvious characteristics of our culture a class division of artists from workmen, of those for example who paint on canvas from those who paint the walls of houses, and of those who handle the pen from those who handle the hammer. We are certainly not denying that there is a distinction of the contemplative from the active life, nor of free from servile operation: but mean to say that in our civilization we have in the first place made an absolute divorce of the contemplative from the active life, and in the second place substituted for the contemplative life an aesthetic life…. [….] In any case we have come to think of art and work as incompatible, or at least independent, categories and have for the first time in history created an industry without art. [….]

Art having been abstracted from the general activity of making things for human use, material or spiritual, has come to mean for us the projection in a visible form of the feelings or reactions of the peculiarly-endowed personality of the artist, and especially of those most peculiarly-endowed personalities which we think of as ‘inspired’ or describe in terms of genius. Because the artistic genius is mysterious we, who accept the humbler status of the workman, have been only too willing to call the artist a ‘prophet,’ and in return for his ‘vision’ to allow him many privileges that a common man might hesitate to exercise. [….] Whereas it was once the highest purpose of life to achieve a freedom from oneself, it is now our will to secure the greatest possible measure of freedom for oneself, no matter what. [….]

Our theoretical knowledge of the material and technical bases of art, and of its actual forms, is encyclopedic; but we are either indifferent to its raison d’être and final cause, or find this reason and ultimate justification for the very existence of the work in the pleasure to be derived from its beauty by the patron. We say the patron; but under present conditions, it is oftener for his own than for the patron’s pleasure that the artist works; the perfect patron being nowadays, not the man who knows what he wants, but the man who is willing to commission the artist to do whatever he likes, and thus as we express it, ‘respects the freedom of the artist.’ The consumer, the man, is at the mercy of the manufacturer for pleasure (the ‘artist’) and manufacturer for profit (the ‘exploiter’) and these two are more nearly the same than we expect. [….]

It is one of the greatest counts against our civilization that the pleasures afforded by art, whether in the making or of subsequent appreciation, are not enjoyed or even supposed to be enjoyed by the workman at work. It is taken for granted that while at work we are doing what we like least, and while at play what we should wish to be doing all the time. And…it is not so shocking that the workman should be underpaid, as that he should not be able to delight as much in what he does for hire as in what he does by free choice. As Meister Eckhart says, ‘the craftsman like talking of his handicraft:’ but, the factory worker likes talking of the ball game! It is an inevitable consequence of production under such conditions that quality is sacrificed to quantity: an industry without art provides a necessary apparatus of existence: houses, clothing, frying pans, and so forth, but an apparatus lacking the essential characteristics of things made by art, the characteristics, viz., of beauty and significance. Hence we say that the life we call civilized is more nearly an animal and mechanical life than a human life; and that in all these respects it contrasts unfavourably with the life of savages, of American Indians for example, to whom it had never occurred that manufacture, the activity of making things for use, could ever be made an artless activity.”—Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art (New York: Dover, 1956 [originally published in 1943 under the title, Why Exhibit Works of Art?])

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