The whole Logos of God is neither defuse nor prolix but is a unity embracing a diversity of principles, each of which is an aspect of the Logos. Thus he who speaks about the truth, however fully he deals with his subject, speaks always about the one Logos of God.
–St. Maximos the Confessor, Second Century on Theology, Chap. 20.
Though not in the same power as in the people of God [the Hebrews], nevertheless the presence of the Spirit of God also acted in the pagans who did not know the true God…both in the holy Hebrew people, a people beloved by God, and in the pagans who did not know God, there was preserved a knowledge of God…
-St. Seraphim of Sarov, On the Acquisition of the Holy Spirit.
So far we have looked at the difficulty of finding a balance within Tradition, the challenge of avoiding both meaningless innovation and meaningless copying. As we have said, in icon painting we find timeless pictorial principles that are for the most part unalterable, since they efficiently manifest Tradition. Nevertheless, all the local schools or styles show that these principles are very flexible, lending themselves to interpretation according to temperament, although not in the sense of willful “self-expression.” But let us now look at the confluence of tradition, art and culture, from a more panoramic perspective. A question arises, can it be said that there is a “traditional doctrine of art” that encompasses both the Orthodox icon and the sacred art of other world civilizations?
There is another factor to observe, regarding pictorial principles, that can help answer this question and shed light on the presuppositions we take for granted as to what is generally meant by “art.” That is, it is good to remember that the pictorial principles of icon painting also have parallels in the sacred art of non-Orthodox cultures. For example, the use of the halo, nimbus and gold, as symbols of divine light; the flattening of space, frontal, hieratic and symmetrical composition; the subordination of naturalism to the idea; simplification as a means to arrive at the essence; the use of abstraction and ornament as significant of metaphysical meaning; line as the structuring agent of intellect in composition, etc.
There are theological and aesthetic factors that make an image a uniquely Christian image, an icon. Nevertheless, we should not forget the features that, in spite of religious differences, reveal our common humanity, created in the image and likeness of God. In other words, if we look closely, there appears to be a common noetic intuition, a universal agreement among ancient world civilizations, that is, premodern traditional cultures with integrated societies[i], regarding the function of art in society. Especially in regards to its role as a support of contemplation and the pictorial means which most efficiently convey the Sacred. Moreover, this sacred art arises, as with the icon, from revelation or divine intervention. Consequently, it communicates and is grounded on metaphysical first principles. These principles form the given culture’s tradition, thereby giving it its integrated character.
Therefore, it can be said that in traditional societies, often referred to as “primitive,” we have an understanding of art as the mirror of noetic apprehension, rather than the mere reproduction of surface appearances.[ii] In other words, art (techne or manufacturing skill), guided by nous, functions as the demiurgic ordering, reshaping and transfiguring of nature, whereby the Unseen is unveiled in the seen and man encounters the Sacred.
Today, in most cases, “art” is a term designating the concept of “fine art,” as distinct from, what we have been taught to consider to be, mere utilitarian craftsmanship. But, in a traditional society this distinction does not exist[iii], it makes no stark differentiation between artist and artisan.[iv] Moreover, this art has nothing to do with our ideas of “self-expression,” “originality,” the autonomous art object, or aesthetic pleasure for its own sake. Nor do we find in it the stark separation of the sacred and profane planes of existence, the religious and the secular, the metaphysical and practical, or symbolic and functional.
It then starts to become clear how the traditional or normal philosophy of art[v], as it has been called, is in contradistinction to the secular worldview, which only regards the horizontal (temporal, empirical, historical) at the expense of the vertical (immutable, supra-human, noetic) ontological spheres. Consequently, the cruciform and incarnational balance is shattered and the Sacred is forgotten. We are left instead with all the symptoms of a mechanistic, materialistic and dehumanizing civilization, lacking in spiritual values and aspirations, all of which is clearly reflected in most of its art. And this, of course, is not a blatant denial of all the obvious problems and injustices that have arisen within the traditional context. Even so, for us Orthodox, it would be a sign of our succumbing to secularization not to uphold the noetic intuitions of Truth found in traditional societies, which in many respects far outstrip the twilight of our postmodernity.
This philosophy of art is the fruit of societies that seem lost to the ancient past, nevertheless, vestiges of them are still here with us today. In fact, in many ways this understanding of art is what we find in the Orthodox Church. After all, let us not forget, the Church, although threatened by the waves of secularism, is still a witness to living Tradition, and therefore, in many respects a traditional integrated society, akin to what we have described.
So, for the sake of clarity, let us pause for a moment and summarize some of the main features of the function of art within a traditional society, most of which we have already mentioned. They have been described as follows:
-The end of art is the “good of man.” This good consists in his spiritual as well as material well-being. Art without use is luxury, and utility without art is subhuman.
– Art is not for mere delectation or pleasurable sensation or feelings. There is no essential difference between the fine arts and the useful arts, or between an artist and a craftsman. Nor is there any basic distinction between classical and popular art.
– Self-expression is not the main aim of art in traditional societies. What the artist expresses is not that which is “characteristic” but that which is universal and imperishable. Glorification of, or obsession with, one’s own personality is a sign of superficiality in art.
– Artistic “freedom” does not mean absence of responsibility or commitment. The true artist reflects and strengthens the harmony between the different sides of human life and between man and nature. Unbridled “freedom” interrupts this harmony.
– The value attached to genius, inspiration or originality is in inverse proportion to the true understanding of the purpose and function of art. The artist is not a special kind of man, nor is he entitled to a privileged position superior to that of the workman.
-There is no absolute distinction between religious and the secular in art. Everything in nature and human life is pervaded by the Divine Ground, and all art is religious to some extent. The final goal of art is to reach Divinity. God is the Supreme Artist.
-Through contemplation, the artist can visualize Perfection…[vi]
-Art in a traditional sense is symbolic, not illustrative or [merely] historical. Symbols constitute the language of art. Realism or “likeness” is not the primary concern of art. True representation is that of the idea, the form, not the substance [matter or outward appearance] of the perceived object.
-Beauty is the “attractive power of perfection.” It is objective. It is analogous to truth. It is Reality perceived by the artist.[vii]
This cursory list gives us a sense of how our ideas of “art” differ greatly from those of art in a traditional society ordered according to metaphysical principles. It is not difficult to see how these features might relate closely to an Orthodox understanding of the liturgical arts. Herein we also find an abbreviation of what has also been called “The Christian and Oriental, or True, Philosophy of Art.”[viii] Although the Orient and Orthodoxy might not meet eye to eye in all details when it comes to this philosophy, especially in regards to obvious and irreconcilable religious differences, nevertheless, there are enough parallels worth considering. These show that in traditional cultures, prior to the rampant secularization of postmodernity, there is a universal agreement as to what constitutes art and its social function. Considering these features can help us wake up to, and shake off, our predominantly secular presuppositions.
Ironically, in this regard, some Orthodox, if I can be so bold to say so, claiming to be “traditional,” are in fact the most secular, whereas the “pagans” appear to be more Orthodox. And it makes me wonder, who is worse off? The secularist or pagan? Perhaps the former, since he has lost all sense of the vertical dimension and awareness of the Sacred.
To be continued…
[i] As Eliade notes: “The premodern or “traditional” societies include both the world usually known as “primitive” and the ancient cultures of Asia, Europe, and America. Obviously, the metaphysical concepts of the archaic world were not always formulated in theoretical language; but the symbol, the myth, the rite, express, on different planes and through the means proper to them, a complex system of coherent affirmation about the ultimate reality of things, a system that can be regarded as constituting a metaphysics.” Micea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return or, Cosmos and History, Princeton University Press/Bollingen, Princeton, N.J., 1974, p.3.
[ii] Art, in so far as it is not the thing that it re-presents, will always be “abstract.” That is to say, it is a visual articulation that, to one degree or another, seeks to “draw from,” hence “abstract,” an interpretation from Reality. The articulation can mainly rely, focus, and be a reflection, of revelation, noetic intuition, psychic feeling, or sense perception. Perfect mimesis, or assimilation of representation and model is untenable, since in this case the image would completely disappear in becoming one with its prototype. This, of course, is obviously absurd. Therefore, all periods of art that subordinate the intelligible to the sensible or psychic, fixating mainly on naturalism or subjective feeling, can be said to be “decadent.” Nevertheless, this does not in any way mean that all forms of naturalism and suggestions of emotion should be disdained. It is a matter of degree and approach. Both, positivism in science and slavish mimesis in art, amount to a looking-without-seeing of the One at play in the phenomenal. Yet, even “illusionism” or “naturalism” have a place in the pictorial symbolism of sacred art, as they paradoxically point to the Unseen when used judiciously. That is, as long as a sense of the essential or “inward,” and meditative restraint, are maintained. An outright denial of the phenomenal in pursuit of the Real, can only lead to a negation of the Incarnation and its bearing on art. The illusion lies not in what is seen but on the way of seeing, the filter through which we see.
[iii] Regarding the art versus craft dichotomy we have created and the modern use of the word “art,” Larry Shiner says, “What has been effaced in ordinary usage [of the word “art”] is not only the fracturing of the older idea of art/craft into art versus craft, but a parallel division that separated the artist from the craftsperson and aesthetic concerns from utility and ordinary pleasures. Before the eighteenth century, the terms “artist” and “artisan” were used interchangeably, and the word “artist” could be applied not only to painters and composers but also to shoemakers and wheelwrights, to alchemists and liberal arts students. There were neither artists nor artisans, in the modern meaning of those terms, but only the artist/artisan who constructed…according to techne or ars, an art/craft.” See how this is confirmed by Coomaraswamy below. Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art: A Cultural History,The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 2001, p.5.
[iv] About this understanding of art in a traditional society Coomaraswamy notes, “The concept “art” is not in any way limited to the context of making or ordering one kind of thing rather than another: it is only with reference to application that particular names are given to the arts, so that we have an art of architecture, one of agriculture, one of smithing, another of painting, another of poetry and drama, and so forth. It is perhaps with the art of teaching that the mediaeval philosopher is primarily concerned…”Ananda K.Coomaraswamy, ‘Mediaeval and Oriental Art’, in Selected Papers Vol.1: Traditional Art and Symbolism, (ed.) Roger Lipsey, Surrey, Princeton University Press, 1989, p.51.
[v] Coomaraswamy says, “There exist in fact, as has often enough been pointed out, two very different kinds of art, of which one is constant and normal, the other variable and individualistic. The traditional and normal arts are, broadly speaking, those of Asia in general, those of Egypt, those of Greece up to the close of the Archaic period, those of the European Middle Ages [including the Byzantine sphere], and those of the whole world which are collectively referred to as the arts of primitive peoples and as folk-art. The abnormal arts are those of the classical decadence and of post Renaissance Europe.” Ananda K. Coomaraswami, On the Traditional Doctrine of At, Golgonooza Press, Ipswich, U.K., 1977, p. 5.
[vi] This idea pertains to “seeing with the soul’s eye” the perfect and invisible pattern, the imitable prototype, to be followed and given material form in the work of art. We can interpret the reference here to Perfection as meaning that the visualized prototype, or archetype, finds its ground in the Logos. Philo alludes to this visualizing when speaking about the building of the Tabernacle, “the construction of which was clearly set forth to Moses on the Mount by divine pronouncements. He saw with the soul’s eye the immaterial forms (ideai) of the material things that were to be made, and these forms were to be reproduced as sensible imitations, as it were, of the archetypal graph and intelligible patterns…So the type of the pattern was secretly impressed upon the mind of the Prophet as a thing secretly painted and moulded in invisible forms without material; and then the finished work was wrought after that type by the artist’s imposition of the impressions on the severally appropriate material substances.” As quoted by Coomaraswamy, Ibid., pp. 19-20.
[vii] This summary is given by Vishwanath S. Naravane in his overview of Coomaraswamy’s work on the traditional view of art. Vishwanath S. Naravane, “Ananda K. Coomaraswamy,” Twayne’s World Leaders Series, Vol.75, Twayne Publishers, G.K. Hall & Co., Boston, 1977, p. 98.
[viii] See Annanda K. Coomraswamy, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers PVT. LTD., India, 1974.