Saturday, January 21, 2012

“Is Art a Superstition, or a Way of Life?” (Part 4)

Please note: In the final installment of this series, I will attempt to highlight what I take to be the most compelling propositions of Coomaraswamy’s argument. I also hope to bring to the discussion later works in aesthetics and philosophy of art which treat some of the themes that concerned Coomaraswamy or capture some of the spirit of his critique of the condition of contemporary art and its foremost apologetic theories and ideologies that serve as both cause and effect of that condition (this being not so much the fault of art qua art, but something directly attributable to a post-modern civilizational ethos fashioned largely in the image of high technology and turbo-capitalism).

Here are Parts 1, 2, and 3.

“It is taken for granted that the artist is always working ‘for the good of the work to be done;’ from the coincidence of beauty with perfection it follows inevitably that his operation always tends to the production of a beautiful work. But this is a very different matter from saying that the artist has always in view to discover and communicate beauty. Beauty in the master craftsman’s atelier is not a final cause of the work to be done, but an inevitable accident. And for this reason, that the work of art is always occasional; it is the nature of a rational being to work for particular ends, whereas beauty is an indeterminate end; whether that artist is planning a picture, a song, or a city, he has in view to make the thing and nothing else. What the artist has in mind is to do the job ‘right,’ secundum rectam rationem artis: it is the philosopher who brings in the word ‘beautiful’ and expounds its conditions in terms of perfection, harmony, and clarity. A recognition of the fact that things can only be beautiful in kind, and not in one another’s kinds, and the conception of the formality of beauty, bring back again to the futility of a naturalistic art; the beauties of a living man and of a statue or stone man are different in kind and not interchangeable; the more we try to make the statue look like a man, the more we denature the stone and caricature the man. It is the form of a man in a nature of flesh that constitutes the beauty of this man; the form of a man in a nature of stone the beauty of the statue; and these two beauties are incompatible.

Beauty is, then, perfection apprehended as an attractive power; that aspect of the truth for example which moves the will to grapple with the theme to be communicated. In medieval phraseology, ‘beauty adds to the good an ordering to the cognitive faculty by which the good is known as such;’ ‘beauty has to do with cognition.’ [….] Beauty is at once a symptom and an invitation; as truth is apprehended by the intellect, so beauty moves the will; beauty is always ordered to reproduction, whether a physical generation or a spiritual regeneration. To think of beauty as a thing to be enjoyed apart from use is to be a naturalist, a fetishist, and an idolater. [….]

The intelligibility of traditional art does not depend on recognitions but, like that of script, on legibility. The characters in which this art is written are properly called symbols; when meaning has been forgotten or ignored and art exists only for the comfort of the eye, these become ‘art forms’ and are spoken of as ‘ornaments;’ we speak of ‘decorative’ values. Symbols in combination form an iconography or myth. Symbols are the universal language of art; an international language with merely dialectic variations, current once to all milieus and always intrinsically intelligible, though no longer understood by educated men, and only to be seen or heard in the art of peasants. The content of symbols is metaphysical. Whatever work of traditional art we consider, whether a crucifix, Ionic column, peasant embroidery, or trappings of a horse, or nursery tale, has still, or had, a meaning over and above what might be called the immediate value of the object as a source of pleasure or necessity of life. This implies for us that we cannot pretend to have accounted for the genesis of any such work of art until we have understood what it was for and what it was intended to mean. The symbolic forms, which we call ornaments because they are superstitious for us, are none the less the substance of the art before us; it is not enough to be able to use the terms of iconography freely and to be able to label our museum specimens correctly; to have understood them, we must understand the ultimate raison d’être of the iconography, just why it is and not otherwise.

Implicit in this symbolism lies what was equally for artist and patron the ultimately spiritual significance of the whole undertaking. The references of the symbolic forms are as precise as those of mathematics. The adequacy of the symbols being intrinsic, and not a matter of convention, the symbols correctly employed transmit from generation to generation a knowledge of cosmic analogies: as above, so below. Some of us still repeat the prayer, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The artist is constantly represented as imitating heavenly forms—‘the crafts such as building and carpentry which give matter in wrought forms…take their principles thence from the thinking there’ (Enneads, V. 9). The archetypal house, for example, repeats the architecture of the universe; a ground below, a space between, a vault above, in which there is an opening corresponding to the solar gateway by which one ‘escapes altogether’ out of time and space into an unconfined and timeless empyrean. Functional and symbolic values coincide; if there arises a column of smoke to the luffer above, this is not merely a convenience, but also a representation of the axis of the universe that pillars-apart heaven and earth, essence and nature, and is itself although without dimensions or consistency the adamantine principle and exemplary form of temporal and spatial extension and of all things situated in time or space. [….]

Let us now remind ourselves that the artist is also a man, and as a man responsible for all that his will consents to; ‘in order that a man may make right use of his art, he needs to have a virtue which will rectify his appetite.’ The man is responsible directly, as a murderer for example by intent if he consents to manufacture adulterated food, or drugs in excess of medical requirement; responsible as a promoter of loose living if he exhibits a pornographic picture (by which we mean of course something essentially salacious, preserving the distinction of ‘obscene’ from ‘erotic’); responsible spiritually if he is a sentimentalist or pseudo-mystic. [….] The doctrine of art for art’s sake implies…a sacrifice of humanity to art, of the whole to the part. It is significant that at the same time that individualistic tendencies are recognizable in the sphere of culture, in the other sphere of business and in the interest of profit most men are denied the opportunity of artistic operation altogether, or can function as responsible artists only in hours of leisure when they can pursue a ‘hobby’ or play games. [….]

Under present circumstances, then, art is by and large a luxury: a luxury that few can afford, and one that need not be overmuch lamented by those who cannot afford to buy. The same ‘art’ was once the principle of knowledge by which the means of life were produced, and the physical and spiritual needs of man were provided for. The whole man made by contemplation, and in making did not depart from himself. To resume all that has been said in a single statement—Art is a superstition; art was a way of life.”—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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