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
. . . what is called the Renaissance was in reality not a rebirth but the death of many things; on the pretext of being a return to the Greco-Latin civilization, it merely took over the most outward part of it, since this was the only part that could be expressed clearly in written texts, and in any case, this incomplete restoration was bound to have a very artificial character, as it meant the re-establishment of forms whose real life had gone out of them centuries before. As for the traditional sciences of the Middle Ages, after a few final manifestations around this time, they disappeared as completely as those of long distant civilizations long since destroyed in the cataclysm; and this time nothing was to arise in their place. Henceforth there was only “profane” philosophy and “profane” science, in other words, the negation of true intellectuality, the limitation of knowledge to its lowest order, namely, the empirical and analytic study of facts divorced from principles, a dispersion in an indefinite multitude of insignificant details, and the accumulation of unfounded and mutually destructive hypotheses and of fragmentary views leading to nothing other than those practical applications that constitute the sole real superiority of modern civilization–a scarcely enviable superiority, moreover, which by stifling every other preoccupation, has given the present civilization the purely material character that makes of it a veritable monstrosity.
The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut. Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.
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