Saturday, January 07, 2012

“Is Art a Superstition, or a Way of Life?” (Part 3)

Part 1 is here, and Part 2 here.
“Art can…be defined as the embodiment in material of a preconceived form. The artist’s operation is dual, in the first place intellectual or ‘free’ and in the second place manual and ‘servile.’ ‘To be properly expressed,’ as Eckhart says, ‘a thing must proceed from within, moved by its form.’ It is just as necessary that the idea of the work to be done should first of all be imagined in an imitable form as that the workman should command the technique by which this mental image can be imitated in the available material. ‘It is,’ as Augustine says, ‘by their ideas that we judge of what things ought to be like.’ A private property in ideas is inconceivable, since ideas have no existence apart from the intellect that entertains them and of which they are the forms; there cannot be an authorship of ideas, but only an entertainment, whether by one or many intellects is immaterial. It is not…in the themes of his work, that an artist’s intellectual operation is ‘free;’ the nature of the ideas to be expressed in art is predetermined by a traditional doctrine…. As Aristotle expresses it, the general end of art is the good of man. This is a matter of religious art only in this sense, that in a traditional society there is little or nothing than can properly be called secular;…no distinction can be drawn between the ideas expressed in the humblest peasant art of a given period and those expressed in the actually hieratic arts of the same period. We cannot too often repeat that the art of a traditional society…has fixed ends and ascertained means of production; art is a conscien[tiousness] about form, precisely as prudence is a conscie[tiousness] about conduct—a conscien[tiousness] in both senses of the world, i.e., both as rule and as awareness. [….]
Where an idea to be expressed remains the same throughout long sequences of stylistic variation, it is evident that this idea remains the motif or motivating power behind the work; the artist has worked throughout for the sake of the idea to be expressed, although expressing this idea always in his own way. The primary necessity is that he should really have entertained the idea and always visualized it in an imitable form; and this, implying an intellectual activity that must ever be renewed, is what we mean by originality as distinguished from novelty, and by power as distinguished from violence. It will readily be seen, then, that in concentrating our attention on the stylistic peculiarities of works of art, we are confining it to a consideration of accidents, and really only amusing ourselves with a psychological analysis of personalities; not by any means penetrating to what is constant and essential in the art itself. [….]
[T]he artist turns from intellectual to manual operation or vice versa at will, and when the work has been done, he judges its ‘truth’ by measuring the actual form of the artifact against the mental image of it and that was his before the work began and remains in his consciousness regardless of what may happen to the work itself. We can now perhaps begin to realize just what we have done in separating artist from craftsman and ‘fine’ from ‘applied’ art. We have assumed that there is one kind of man that can imagine, and another that cannot; or to speak more honestly, another kind whom we cannot afford, without doing hurt to business, to allow to imagine, and to whom we therefore permit a servile and imitative operation only. [….]
[W]e begin to see now why primitive and traditional and what we have described as normal art is ‘abstract;’ it is an imitation, not of a visible and transient appearance or ‘effect of light,’ but of an intelligible form which need no more resemble any natural object than a mathematical equation need look likes its locus in order to be ‘true.’ It is one thing to draw in linear rhythms and abstract light because one must; another thing for anyone who is not by nature and in the philosophical sense a realist, deliberately to cultivate an abstracted style. [….]
There is also a traditional doctrine of beauty. This theory of beauty is not developed with respect to artifacts alone, but universally. It is independent of taste, for it is recognized that at Augustine says, there are those who take pleasure in deformities. The word deformity is significant here, because it is precisely a formal beauty that is in question; and we must not forget that ‘formal’ includes the connotation ‘formative.’ The recognition of beauty depends on judgment, not sensation; the beauty of the aesthetic surfaces depending on their information, and not upon themselves. Everything, whether natural or artificial, is beautiful to the extent that it really is what it purports to be, and independently of all comparisons; or ugly to the extent that its own form is not expressed and realized in its tangible actuality. The work of art is beautiful, accordingly, in terms of perfection, or truth and aptitude….; whatever is inept or vague cannot be considered beautiful, however it may be valued by those who ‘know what they like.’ So far from that, the veritable connoisseur ‘likes what he knows;’ having fixed upon that course of art which is right, use has made it pleasant. Whatever is well and truly made, will be beautiful in kind because of its perfection.” [....] 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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