‘Artists have only one way to occupy their space in society again…’
By VICTOR BRUNO.
MOST ART PRODUCED today belongs to one of two classifications: ironic or insincere. This endangers the qualification of both as art, for true art to exist needs belief. Ironic people do not believe in anything and insincere people, on their part, have false beliefs, so they do not know anything and thus their art has no weight. However, belief in art is not just any belief; it is not belief that this art is true to something the artist is feeling. True belief is the belief that art communicates something that speaks something that all people understand and to which they can relate.
Art, thus, presupposes a common ground of understanding. This is evident for the most part of the history of art. In drama, for instance, we have a host of characters that jump about from one play to another, a running trend in classic theater, from the North, in England, to the Mediterranean Sea—to say nothing of Eastern theater, especially Japanese drama, in which the very number of plays is limited. Molière, Goldoni, and Shakespeare all worked with recurring characters, and they didn’t even need to belong to their own plays; otherwise, the parallels between the anonymous King Leir and Shakespeare’s King Lear wouldn’t exist. Since King Lear is a legendary character, it meant that the Jacobean audience was not unfamiliar with him. His story meant something to them already.
Granted, the case of stock characters is not that radical. Mircea Eliade once described the nineteenth-century novel as a great cemetery of buried myths, but I believe there is no reason why the contention would not hold good for the contemporary novel and romance, or even to the plots of TV series, film franchises, and even video games: Aeneas consummated his marriage to Dido amidst a sea storm in an example of hierogamy. A thousand years later, Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss float on a (marital, shall we say?) bed on a lake on a rainy night during the climax of Men’s Favorite Sport? (1964). Passing from water to earth, usually mountains are the holy places of wisdom where prophets and saints—and even the Messiah Himself, in the Transfiguration—get their revelations or become aware, in a heightened intensity, of Reality and Truth. The archetypal image of the mountain as a place of realization will somehow reappear in popular movies, as is the case of the final scenes of Vanilla Sky (2001) and The Fountainhead (1949).
This is to say that there is an underlying reality when one chooses to make art that binds all creativity as one, and this underlying reality is inescapable. It may translate differently in different cultures, by what we call “tradition,” but it is surely there. It is there, too, in insincere and cynical art; even in works that try to break free from the boundaries of the tradition of the places they belong to. It is so inescapable that those artists who try to circumvent the “norms” or “break the mold” of art are in serious risk of getting the razzooh.
Years ago, Tracey Emin decided to disparage the coldness and lovelessness of modern society by making a heart-shaped neon sign that read, “You forgot to kiss my soul.” Very modern, very industrial—but in fact she was doing nothing more than using a symbol as traditional and as archaic as the image of the dying god; she confirmed the traditional vision of the heart as the seat of the soul. There isn’t a tradition that won’t say that the heart is the center of the body, it’s where the divine spark shines; in the Muslim tradition, to see with the “eye of the heart” is to see verily. To ignore tending it, to ignore “kissing the heart,” is to ignore being human. Christian mysticism didn’t fail to see the importance of the symbolism of the heart, promptly using it in its iconography, the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus being its more glowing example.
Thus, there is nothing modern in Emin’s installation. Not even its multicolored, neon-fused glow is modern. She uses neon to symbolize the inner glow of man, but a work as conservative as Albretch Altdorfer’s The Battle of Issus (1529) did just that. Altdorfer tried to convey in a massive, colorful landscape painting the many lights and states of being man can assume on earth, a strategy that perhaps had its finest hour in Turner. Emin, with her installation, again, was doing nothing more than driving down a well-used and weathered road. Her “originality” relied on the fact that she used industrial materials to do so.
Isn’t it comical to pose as modern, independent, and bold, using more than a pinch of mischievousness disguised as simplicity (a heart!), when you are in fact repeating traditional symbols and languages and motifs, thus speaking in the same “idiom” as your target? This goes to show that you cannot escape from that underlying language.
However, you do not need to fall into this trap and become the punchline of an article on art and originality. There is a way you can circumvent this embarrassment. Consider this: “In terms of significance,” said Northrop Frye, “the poet reflects and follows at a distance what his community really achieves through his work.”1 This is true for Emin as well as for any other artist working in any art. Art and society are intrinsically related because art and life are intrinsically related, and there’s no life but the life in society. Man is a social animal and he lives in social communion with his neighbor; part of that social communion is the acceptance of cultural and social precepts. In other words, is the acceptance of tradition, and to accept tradition you have to embrace a humbling innocence so as to learn principles of that tradition and capture its wisdom.
This is not very modern, but it’s not meant to be. History shows that art always belongs to a common ground and was always purposeful; in technical parlance it was teleological. It served to display and reinforce the basic tenets of its culture. It is not possible to disentangle Dante’s Comedy from his avowed will to remove his reader from a state of damnation to one of blessedness, nor it is not possible to empty Camoëns’s Lusiads from its aim: to the Portuguese Empire as a deputy to the Kingdom of God. Both Dante and Camoëns sincerely believed in their messages. They were not providing delight for delight’s sake; their works are catechetical in kind. Above all there is this principle: art is less about aesthetically pleasing sensations or reactions and more about an action properly executed. Gothic art is aesthetically pleasant, but it was meant to be didactic. When Abbot Suger started building Saint-Denis and wanted it to be built with light as much as it was built with stone, wasn’t he underscoring symbolically the glorious light of the Celestial Jerusalem? Wasn’t he preaching? Was he contradicting anything said in traditional Christianity?
If we contrast Gothic with Romanesque architecture, where do the differences fall: in form or essence? In form, clearly, since both styles are based on a common denominator, expressing different possibilities of exposition of that denominator. Gothic and Romanesque architectures are only variations that work upon the same tradition. Like any art anywhere, they desire to communicate symbolically truths that belong to everyone and that everyone understands. Songs, legends, architectural styles, working tools and methods, calligraphy, etc.—all these elements highlight the bonds that unite the members of a society; they are symbolizations of that common color that identifies everyone as a member of that society or culture. This is the basis of true art; the only difference between art styles rests upon such trivial matters like locality, era, and aesthetics. Reduced to their basic principles, all arts are the same.
Trivial matters, yes, but matters that humans cannot escape. We are bound by time and locality, and we labor with the tools of the time we were born gives us. If we want this labor to be worth its effort, then we have to submit to these conditions and believe that they will reward us like they rewarded our forefathers, who worked under the same conditions. As I said earlier, man is a social animal and his art will reflect the conditions of his society, his polis, developing the bedrock that supports social harmony and understanding. Even fake societies that produce fake art use this framework. Whenever a revolutionary group grabs the steering wheel of the state, that’s one of the first things they make sure to adjust: art in a revolutionary state has to reflect the new political panorama of the nation, because it is art that guides the people in the task of social self-understanding.
True, this kind of art is usually artificial, it is art that has no ties with the real substance of that soil and that people. Christopher Dawson said that culture flowers bottom-up, from the chores of the fisherman and the shepherd up to the finest works of poets, painters, and philosophers. This kind of art goes top-down; it is not flourishing, it is pressing down. It has nothing to do with what Panofsky called “mental habits” of the people. The only people it influences are the partisans of the new politico-cultural constitution. From there on, things assume the same logic culture and art assume in traditional society: they take on a cause-and-effect relation, as Panofsky labeled it. In the same manner, patriarchs in some primitive peoples have “no identity” because they are truly speaking on behalf of their forefathers, going as far as giving their most important utterances within hollow statues carved with the symbolical face of the great patriarch on it, an artist like filmmaker Dziga Vertov, drinking on the industrialized and mechanically impersonal fountain of the Soviet state, could say he was not human: “I am an eye. A mechanical eye. I am the machine that reveals the world to you as only the machine can see it…. I create thousands of different people in accordance with preliminary blueprints and diagrams of different kinds.”2
Today, our own postmodern world is a marriage between the natural, the artificial, and the human—in this blurred vortex of chromed steel and genetically-modified plants, intellectuals and artists set the goal to create works that synthesize all voices, human and non-human. How can this idea not produce artists of the brand of Peter Eisenman, who creates things like the Nunotani Office Building, that looks like it has scoliosis? But it is I who is to blame; Eisenman is just being postmodern. According to Tom Spector, he is attempting “to discard [humanism] in favor of something he can pursue without compromise. He would prefer to engage in post-humanist architecture, where human needs are dislocated from their traditional centrality.”3
If that’s what post-humanist architecture is, then it is nothing at all. I only imagine how amusing it’d be if Eisenman, Benjamin Britton, or Ariane Harisson were master-planners, creating cities and buildings that move the anthropocentric to the side, creating a place where man and animals could live harmonically in the cement and steelwork, even if the latter would rather leave the buildings to live in the forest, where they know they’re better off.
These innovations function in theory only. The very act of creation, be it of a chair or a building, exists to attend to a human need, be it the artist’s or his patron’s. It’s true, however, that a traditionally-created artifact can, like post-human architecture, cause discomfort to the patron: a beautiful but heavy crown might hurt the king’s head and neck, but both the king and the goldsmith know that the weight of the crown symbolizes the heaviness of his majesty’s duty, even as the splendor of the gold symbolizes the magnificence of the throne. True art reflects an actual aspect of the order of nature.
Ever since art and human work moved away from the elements of nature, art has became more and more an endeavor of one’s own and less and less a meeting-point of us all. If people see art today as an elitist occupation, light-years away from the worries and, well, needs of the common man, it is because we have divorced it from our sincere and intuitive beliefs, offering it instead as an oblation to strange, speculative, and “new” ways of thinking, eschewing what we know to be true in life and society, breaking the artist’s contract with his fellow men. By this act, we made the artist an outcast. What is there for them to do? We removed him from his social function. It’s not surprising so many artists today are cynical or insincere.
The only belief most modern artists have now is that they won’t be understood. Most of the time, they’re right. But instead of doing their homework and learning to participate in communal life sincerely, truthfully, and relevantly, they, like bickering teenagers, refuse to make amends with their culture. And just like teenagers too, they use the most shocking and appalling tricks to draw attention to whatever revelry they may be doing now.
This will not do. Artists have only one way to occupy their space in society again, and they can only do that by bearing the burden of tradition. An artist is a worker, even as all workers are artists. Can there be a worker that doesn’t know the principles of his technique? No. Thus, artists have to relearn how to work, to relearn that originality is to make the new with old tools. “Redeem the time, redeem the dream.”
As Roger Scruton said, “The most original works of art may be genial applications of a well-known vocabulary.”4 They have to believe sincerely in their land and have to craft things that speak to the heart of the people by speaking out of their own heart—and that’s something that only a pure heart can pull off. Nevertheless, that’s the artist’s work, and the first step to perform this magnificent duty is cleansing the soul of the scab of the cynicism of the modern age and start believing the artist truly can magnify simple things like land, culture, and harmony by renewing old truths and old wisdom. And just like one must be innocent to cleanse the heart, artists must be a little innocent to believe that they can do this work. But that’s their work and that’s the road they have to take.
Victor Bruno is an author, translator, and scholar who researches on the links between religion, philosophy, and art. He has essays and articles featured in such outlets as VoegelinView, The Political Science Reviewer, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Desistfilm, MUBI’s Notebook, a
- N. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), p. 113.
- D. Vertov, “Kinoks: A Revolution,” in Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, ed. A. Michelson, tr. K. O’Brien (Berkeley, 1984), p. 17.
- T. Spector, The Ethical Architect (New York, 2001), p. 56.
- R. Scruton, Modern Culture (London, 2000), p. 45.