Category Archives: Art

Aesthetic Value

We need to teach more selectively, searching for the few who have the capacity to become highly individual readers and writers. The others, who are amenable to a politicized curriculum, can be abandoned to it. Pragmatically, aesthetic value can be recognized or experienced, but it cannot be conveyed to those who are incapable of grasping its sensations and perceptions. To quarrel on its behalf is always a blunder.

Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, 1994

Arabesque

Samarra stucco Style A (Abbasid era)

There is a curious parallel between the flowering of an art with geometrical motifs like interlacement, double spirals, triple vortices, continuous swastikas and so on in Northern Europe, and particularly in the British Isles, and the almost simultaneous appearance of these same forms in the nascent art of Islam. These two manifestations of art differ in only one respect: in northern countries, it is the stylized animals that seem somehow to be the first element of the ornamentation; they are entwined in spirals, fold into knots and form interlacements of facing pairs, whereas it is the stylized plant, in Islamic surroundings, from which most of the ornamental motifs are fashioned. The analogies are occasionally striking, as, for example, between one page of the Lindisfarne Gospel (698 A.D.) and a certain mosaic pavement in the Umayyad palace of Minya on Lake Tiberias (705 A.D.), but it would be pointless to attempt to explain everything by exchanges that might have taken place on the periphery of a Europe overwhelmed by barbarian invasions, between the Northern Isles and the Near East. The parallel in question is all part of a much vaster phenomenon, namely the emergence at the confines of the Graeco-Roman world of an archaic art whose elements, abstract, rather than descriptive, are linked to a universal and primordial symbolism: These elements lose their immediately symbolic character. on contact with the ‘civilized’ world or, more exactly, this character is suddenly obscured by the flowering of ornamental possibilities inherent in them. This metamorphosis is directly perceptible in the Christian art of Ireland, where it is calligraphy that lays hold of, and transforms most naturally, the ancient heritage of forms; but here, again, there is an analogy and a kind of anticipation of what was to come about in Muslim art.

Christian art in abstract forms was of only brief duration; its extraordinary genius crumbled as the northern islands gradually became reintegrated into the Latin world. The art of Islam, on the other hand, worked out a synthesis between the broad current of archaic forms, which flourish in popular art and that of the nomads, and the more rational requirements of urban art; it assimilates archaic motifs by reducing them to their most abstract, and and general formulae. In a certain way, therefore, it levels them out and, in so doing, takes away every magical quality; but, in compensation, it endows them with a new lucidity, almost, one could say, with spiritual elegance. Let us not forget that Islam is the religion of return to the beginning, and that this return shows itself as a restoration of all things to unity.

Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, 1976

Wilde’s Failings

Wilde and his school professed to stand as solitary artistic souls apart from the public. They professed to scorn the middle class, and declared that the artist must not work for the bourgeois. The truth is that no artist so really great ever worked so much for the bourgeois as Oscar Wilde. No man, so capable of thinking about truth and beauty, ever thought so constantly about his own effect on the middle classes. He studied them with exquisite attention, and knew exactly how to shock and how to please them. Mr. Shaw often gets above them in seraphic indignation, and often below them in sterile and materialistic explanations. He disgusts them with new truths or he bores them with old truths; but they are always living truths to Bernard Shaw. Wilde knew how to say the precise thing which, whether true or false, is irresistible. As, for example, “I can resist everything but temptation.”

But he sometimes sank lower. One might go through his swift and sparkling plays with a red and blue pencil marking two kinds of epigrams; the real epigram which he wrote to please his own wild intellect, and the sham epigram which he wrote to thrill the very tamest part of our tame civilization. This is what I mean by saying that he was strictly a charlatan – among other things. He descended below himself to be on top of others. He became purposely stupider than Oscar Wilde that he might seem cleverer than the nearest curate. He lowered himself to superiority; he stooped to conquer.

One might easily take examples of the phrase meant to lightly touch the truth and the phrase meant only to bluff the bourgeoisie. For instance, in “A Woman of No Importance,” he makes his chief philosopher say that all thought is immoral, being essentially destructive; “Nothing survives being thought of.” That is nonsense, but nonsense of the nobler sort; there is an idea in it. It is, like most professedly modern ideas, a death-dealing idea not a life-giving one; but it is an idea. There is truly a sense in which all definition is deletion. Turn a few pages of the same play and you will find somebody asking, “What is an immoral woman ?” The philosopher answers, “The kind of woman a man never gets tired of.” Now that is not nonsense, but rather rubbish. It is without value of any sort or kind. It is not symbolically true; it is not fantastically true; it is not true at all.

Anyone with the mildest knowledge of the world knows that nobody can be such a consuming bore as a certain kind of immoral woman. That vice never tires men, might be a tenable and entertaining lie; that the individual instrument of vice never tires them is not, even as a lie, tenable enough to be entertaining. Here the great wit was playing the cheap dandy to the incredibly innocent; as much as if he had put on paper cuffs and collars. He is simply shocking a tame curate; and he must be rather a specially tame curate even to be shocked. This irritating duplication of real brilliancy with snobbish bluff runs through all his three comedies. “Life is much too important to be taken seriously”; that is the true humorist. “A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life”; that is the charlatan. “Man can believe the impossible, but man can never believe the improbable”; that is said by a fine philosopher. “Nothing is so fatal to a personality as the keeping of promises, unless it be telling the truth”; that is said by a tired quack. “A man can be happy with any woman so long as he does not love her”; that is wild truth. “Good intentions are invariably ungrammatical”; that is tame trash.

But while he had a strain of humbug in him, which there is not in the demagogues of wit like Bernard Shaw, he had, in his own strange way, a much deeper and more spiritual nature than they. Queerly enough, it was the very multitude of his falsities that prevented him from being entirely false. Like a many-coloured humming top, he was at once a bewilderment and a balance. He was so fond of being many-sided that among his sides he even admitted the right side. He loved so much to multiply his souls that he had among them one soul at least that was saved. He desired all beautiful things—even God.

G.K. Chesterton, “Oscar Wilde,” 1909

Dada

Dada left its traces in America, but never struck deep roots there. It never acquired the criticality, the indignation or the longing for social subversion that marked it in Europe. It devolved into amusing in-jokes and tended to preciosity and quirkiness. This grew out of the tiny clique of self-professed illuminati that sustained it. Its sense of humor never grew as robust as the work of the professional funny guys who helped inspire it, like Rube Goldberg or the Marx Brothers. In America the Dadas were plagued by the thought that American popular culture was more Dada than Dada could be. And in fact they were right.

Robert Hughes, “Days of Antic Weirdness,” 2001

Hope

Matthaeus Grünewald

In Italy, Germany, Flanders, especially the latter, these artists had revealed the unsullied self-sufficiency of pious souls; their subjects, caught in life-like postures amid entirely authentic settings, with not a detail out of place, were rendered with mesmerizing sureness; from these heads, many of them common enough in themselves, and these physiognomies, often ugly but powerfully evocative as a group, emanated celestial joy or acute anguish, spiritual calm or turmoil. The effect was somehow of matter transformed, whether by distention or compression, an incomprehensible flight into remote infinity.

Durtal had been introduced to this form of Naturalism the year before at a time when the ignominious spectacle of the fin de siècle could hardly have been further from his thoughts. It had occurred in Germany, before a crucifixion by Matthaeus Grünewald.

He shuddered in his armchair and closed his eyes as if in pain. He could revisualize the picture there before him with extraordinary lucidity; and here, in his study, he mentally repeated the gasp of admiration which had escaped him as he had entered the little room in the Cassel museum as the Christ rose before him, impressive, on a cross, the trunk crudely transversed by an untrimmed branch by way of arms, which bent like a bow under the weight of the body.

As taut as a spring, it was as if this merciful branch was ready to propel the suffering flesh, transfixed to the world by the great nails which pierced the feet, far away from this cruel, sinful planet.

Dislocated, almost ripped from their sockets, the arms of the Christ seemed bound their entire length in bulging cords of muscles; the tortured tendons of the armpits looked ready to snap; the hands, wide open, brandishing fingers contorted in a confused gesture of benediction and reproach; the trembling pectorals greasy with sweat; the rib-cage standing out of the torso like a row of staves; the flesh, swollen and bruised, speckled with flea-bites, pockmarked by the pinpricks left in the skin by the scourges. Purulence was setting in; the seeping wound in the side dripped thickly, inundating the thigh with blood that was like congealed blackberry juice; a milky pus tinged with a pinkish hue, similar to those grey Moselle wines, oozed down the chest and over the abdomen with its rumpled loin-cloth. The knees had been forced together, twisting the shins outwards over the feet which, stapled one on top of the other, had begun to putrefy and turn green beneath the seeping blood. These congealing, spongiform feet were terrible to behold; the flesh swelled over the head of the nail, while the toes, furiously clenched, with their blue, hook-like horns, contradicted the imploring gesture of the hands, turning benediction into a curse, as they frantically clawed at the ochre-coloured earth, as ferruginous as the purple soil of Thuringia.

Above this erupting cadaver rose the head, tumultuous and huge. Encircled by a ragged crown of thorns, it hung down lifeless, one lacklustre eye half-open in which a shudder of terror and sorrow could be detected; the face was furrowed, the brow craggy, the cheeks blanched; the features, crushed and defeated, weeping, while the sagging mouth, with its lower jaw racked by tetanic contractions, laughed atrociously. The torture had been unendurable, an agony which had forced the joking executioners to take to their heels.

Now, against a dark sky the colour of night, the cross seemed to descend until it barely hovered above the ground, while two figures, one on each side, kept watch over the Christ. One was the Virgin, wearing a blood-red hood cascading in tight waves over a blue robe with long pleats in it. Her face was rigid and pale, swollen with tears, like that of someone digging their nails deep into the palms of their hands. The other was Saint John, some species of vagabond, a sunburnt Swabian peasant, very tall, his beard crimped into little corkscrews, dressed in a garment that looked like it had been cut out of bark. Over this he wore a scarlet tunic with a mantle of yellow chamois, puckered at the sleeves to reveal a lining of feverish green like unripened lemons. Exhausted from weeping, but possessed of more endurance than Mary, who though broken and spent was still standing, he joined his hands and swept forward towards the corpse which he contemplated with filmy red eyes, and he sobbed and choked silently in his mute outrage.

How far removed one is when confronted by this bloody and tear-stained Calvary from those debonair Golgothas adopted by the Church ever since die Renaissance! This lockjawed Christ is no Christ of the rich, no Galilean Adonis, no dandified picture of health, no handsome youth with curly brown tresses, divided beard and insipid, equine features, such as the faithful have worshipped for the last four centuries. This is the Christ of Saint Justin, Saint Basil, Saint Cyril, Tertullian, the Christ of the early Christian Church, the common Christ, made ugly by the assumption of the whole burden of our sins and clothed, from humility, in the most abject manner. This is the Christ of the poor, the Christ who is one and the same with die most wretched of those He has come to save, the beggars and outcasts, all those whose indigence and helplessness redeem mankind’s cowardice; but it is also the most human of Christs, frail of flesh, abandoned by the Father until every torture has been exhausted; the Christ, like all those who are in agony, with no recourse except to His mother who, though heeding of His childish cries, is powerless to help.

In His infinite humility, He had agreed to suffer the Passion to the utmost extent of the human capacity to bear pain; and, in obedience to an order beyond our comprehension, He had cast off His divinity at the time of the scourging and the blows and the insults spat in His face, from those wanton preliminaries right through to the unspeakable torment of an endless agony. Nor did He spare himself, so that the fall might be the more complete, during this lingering death, a death such as a thief or a dog might suffer, so vile and base was it, even the final ignominies of pustulence and putrefaction.

Never, neither before nor since, had such a subject been broached from a Naturalist perspective; never before had a painter depicted the divine charnel-house so thoroughly, or dipped his brush so brutally in running sores and bleeding sockets. It was extreme and it was horrifying. Grünewald was the most uncompromising of realists; but to regard this Redeemer of the doss-house, this God of the morgue, was an inspirational experience. A gleam of light filtered from the ulcerated head; a superhuman expression illuminated the gangrened flesh and the convulsed features. This crucified corpse was truly that of a God, and, without aureole, without nimbus, with only the blood-sprinkled crown of thorns for accoutrement, Jesus appeared in His celestial Super-essence, between the grief-stricken Virgin, blinded with tears, and a Saint John whose burning eyes could shed no more tears. These faces, by nature vulgar and commonplace, were resplendent, transfigured by suffering. The common criminal, the beggar-woman and the peasant had vanished; these were now supraterrestial beings in the presence of their God.

Grünewald was the most uncompromising of idealists. Never before had an artist so magnificently captured such rapture, never before had an artist leapt with such determination from the topmost peak of the spirit into the very sphere of heaven. He had gone to the two extremes and he had, in the triumphant depths of squalor, extracted the very essence of charity and despair. In this canvas a masterpiece of the impossible was revealed, an art ordained to render the invisible and the tangible, to make manifest the lamentable impurity of the flesh, and to make sublime the infinite distress of the soul.

No, there was no equivalent in any language. In literature, some pages of Anne Emmerich on the Passion approached, though in an attenuated manner, this ideal of supernatural realism and documentary disclosure. Perhaps, too, certain effusions of Ruysbroeck, leaping forth in twin jets of black and white flame, were worthy of comparison with Grünewald’s divine abjection. Yet no, Grünewald’s masterpiece was unique, for it was at one and the same time totally out of reach yet entirely of the earth.

“But,” thought Durtal, rousing himself from his reverie, “if l am consistent, that means I shall have to embrace the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, a mystic Naturalism: that’s absurd, and yet, why not?”

J.-K. Huysmans, Là-Bas, 1891

Astonishing

Henri Matisse

In order to test the Queen of Sheba, and ultimately to demonstrate his superiority over her, Solomon orders the construction of a sarh covered with or built of slabs of glass or of crystal (27. 45). The exact meaning of the word sarh is the subject of much controversy and it may be easier to think of it as some sort of constructed space, without trying to be more precise. The peculiarity of whatever it is that Solomon built is that it is supposed to be interpreted by the Queen of Sheba as a body of water, as something different from what it really is. The pious implications of the story need not concern us here, but what is important is that a work is manufactured in order to create an illusion of reality. Two aspects of the story are pertinent to Islamic attitudes toward the arts, in partial contradiction with each other. One is that a work of art is something to wonder about, to be amazed by; it belongs to the category of wondrous things that became known as the ajaib (pl. of ajib, “wonderful” or “astonishing”), a term used constantly to praise manufactured items of all sorts. The other implication is that a work of art is a falsehood, a lie, because it gives you the impression of something that it is not.

Oleg Grabar, “Art and Culture in the Islamic World” in Islam: Art and Architecture, 2004

Big Tent

The fourteenth-century North African philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun singled out tents as one of the emblems of royal authority and luxury. Certainly, they could be of palatial dimensions. According to Clavijo, the Castilian ambassador, one of Timur’s tents, pitched on the plain of Kani-Gil outside Samarqand, was large enough to shade ten thousand people. Clavijo, who was in Samarqand in 1404, described another of Timur’s tents as having gates, a domed ceiling, upper galleries, a turret, and battlements. A fortune was spent on the inner furnishings, including tapestries, silks, and gold brocade; and it is illuminating to know that Timur, who had grown up among the nomadic Chagatay Mongols, relegated the Gok Saray, his palace in Samarqand, to the role of a storehouse and prison.

Robert Irwin, Islamic Art in Context: Art, Architecture, and the Literary World, 1997

Sacred Art

The love of ‘formulae’, that is, of formal syntheses which are both concise and rich in possibilities, is characteristic of every sacred art. Buddhist iconography is made up of type images of this kind, and the same is true of Hindu and Taoist art, as well as of the icons of the Eastern Church , whose colouring and composition are fixed by tradition. In each case the imagination of the individual artist is subordinated to the traditional model; his imagination is free only in an inward sense in that he endeavours to attain to the spiritual kernel of his model and to remake the image from that. In the case of Islam, it is in architecture and ornamentation that one must look for the formulae of prototypes which the artist ceaselessly reproduces and varies according to circumstance. These prototypes are inexhaustible because they are true.

This fidelity to models, which religion does not actually prescribe but which the consensus of believers has in a sense consecrated, has earned for Islamic art the stigma of being the victim of ‘stagnation’, as if its stability over the centuries had been the result of inertia or lack of awareness. In reality, the alternatives of stagnation are highly inapplicable to sacred art, which is either faithful to its principles, and hence active and aware, or forgetful of them, thus entailing decadence and collapse.

Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, 1976

Islamic Art

The methodological importance and intellectual interest of Islamic art, at least in its formative stages, lies in the encounter between extremely complex and sophisticated uses of visual forms and a new religious and social system with no ideological doctrine or behavioural need for them.

Richard Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar, The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250, 1987

The New Shit

Paul McCarthy

Novelty is a quality independent of the intrinsic value of the commodity. . . . It is the quintessence of false consciousness, whose indefatigable agent is fashion. The illusion of novelty is reflected, like one mirror in another, in the illusion of perpetual sameness. The product of this reflection is the phantasmagoria of “cultural history,” in which the bourgeoisie savors its false consciousness to the last. The art that begins to doubt its task and ceases to be “inseparable from utility” (Baudelaire) must make novelty its highest value. The snob becomes its arbiter novarum rerum. He is to art what the dandy is to fashion.

Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” 1939