Possible causes of the current situation

 

1. Artists and men of science are discoverers

 

Should the craze for apparent novelty which has characterized the 20th and early 21st centuries be understood as a simple change in tastes, through boredom with those of the earlier period, and a merely pendular reaction against the aesthetic fossilization of the 19th century academists?

Certainly, they, with their closed-mindedness and immobility, were in effect asphyxiating art. True artists felt a genuine need to seek fresh air, to open doors and windows to nature, and so enrich art with new innovations. Just as the scientist works unceasingly to discover, to reveal the complex and mysterious inner workings of nature, the Impressionist painters, as if by instinct, trained their eyes —as well as their intelligence and sensitivity— on where they might make their own discoveries; unlike the academists, they turned to the immense, open expanse of nature. Men of science and men of art coincided in an attentive “listening” to the profound lessons given —silently— by the near and distant universe. Some among them would taste, again and again, the elixir of wisdom: “Silence is the first stone of the temple of wisdom. Listen and you will be wise; the beginning of wisdom is silence” (Pythagoras).

The new attitude of the Impressionists with regard to academic immobility brought needed changes to art, but most notably it resulted in artistic innovation, and in masterpieces that would prove imperishable (or rather, perennially new). They never forgot that the primary concern of the painter is the search for artistic beauty. External or “ad extra changes (cultural in nature) do not in themselves constitute the path to art. This is more properly the role of internal  or “ad intra” changes; i.e. the progression of the artist, within his individual style, toward perfection. Near the beginning of the text My Painting, which can also be found on this website, is the following quotation by Gustave Thibon: “There is infinitely less novelty in the rapid flutterings of fashion than in the slow, continuous striving for perfection which is proper to truestyle”.1

Lamentably, in the present day, there are many who value works of art —whether paintings or sculptures— for the external (“ad extra”) changes these provoke, and not for the intrinsic artistic substance they contain. The initial impulse toward inevitable change set into motion by the Impressionists has degenerated into a descent accelerated by the downward slope of this same change; the conquest of the imperishable —so often arduous and gradual— is now given little importance; we are content with merely surprising by change itself.

 

2. Opposing attitudes toward nature

 

And what remains of that opening to the wisdom of nature, which has been the teacher of artists and scientists throughout history? Let each judge for himself… but the mood which predominates at present is that of turning one’s back on nature. There are those who feel that an art without any apparent reference to nature is somehow more creative and innovative; well, let them pursue it! It is certainly a path which deserves to be explored… In the texts My Painting and Timeless Painting and “Contemporary  Art”, included here at  www.jrtrigo.es , such attitudes are classed as manifestations of the craze for apparent novelty, analogous —at least some of them— to those found in past eras of historical decadence… And why is this? Is it possible to find a deeper cause which justifies this rejection? we might ask. Is it perhaps because, as the popular saying goes, “he who doesn’t act as he thinks, ends up thinking as he acts”. This distancing from the natural order in one’s own conduct has led more than a few present-day artists to a disrespect, to a stance of arrogance and contempt toward nature, or even to a categorical rejection of it. What a contrast to the almost reverential attitude, filled with love and admiration for nature, which is common to the creators of all of the most excellent art we have known, to those who have demonstrated that the human spirit is on occasion capable of transcending to the most sublime, supra-human heights! Indeed, the radical mutation of a man like Picasso is shocking: the same artist who in his early period painted works of great humanity, later, with the passing of years, seemed to sour and to project into his art the characteristics that I have just enumerated (an attitude —at times— of arrogance and contempt, of denigrating deformations of nature, one would say even a phobia of the human being).

 

3. The natural order and its rejection

 

Our culture’s approach to beauty reveals a distortion: it so often remains at the level of apparent, ephemeral beauty, incapable of achieving transcendence. This is the triumph of an aestheticism sought in mere visual aspects divorced or peripheral to truth and goodness, those values from which beauty could radiate, could be their splendour…; indeed, the trinity of truth, goodness and beauty should not be separated: the three are, in philosophy, transcendental callings of our being. If the icon stands for a beauty, a truth, a goodness which transcends the materiality of a given work of art, the artistic proposals of our modern era are, rather, idols representing nothing. The medium has been substituted for the goal.

A few simple examples may help to clarify this: an individual resides in a lovely place which delights him; however, he has learned to value even more highly the beauty of the human face…: from inanimate beauty to the beauty of mankind, the zenith of material creation. Thus, the wrinkled face of an old woman may serve as a connection to this essential goodness… Those who cannot grasp this beauty are perhaps captivated by eroticism, the mirror of their passions and the image of the immediacy of perception, so often linked with irrational behaviour.

All too frequent in our time is a criticism which limits itself to weighing the visual characteristics of a work of art and completely overlooks its content; or rather, which considers only the formal elements of its appearance. If those who judge art in this way were correct, it would not matter whether a painting were displayed in its intended position, on its side or upside down (with the upper part of the canvas below, and the lower part above), as —according to this idea— art is reduced to the relationships between colours and lines. It is true that the some abstract works would not suffer in the slightest from such a positional change. In the case of figurative works, however, a mutation like this would make the representation of figures practically unrecognizable, and only if the work’s formal elements are seen in relation to its theme, its content, can the accuracy of their visual expression be assessed; consequently, it is only then that the viewer can become aware of the symbolic effectiveness —a dazzling wonder in the case of the great masterpieces!— of those colours, those plays of light and shade, those lines… those sounds.

On the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco, the writer Juan Manuel de Prada published, on 28-01-2014, an article about the painter in the daily newspaper ABC. When asked on the radio about the ideas expressed in this article, Juan Manuel de Prada stated: “Our culture disintegrates and empties everything of meaning”. He was referring to those who wish to portray the painting of El Greco as the mere result of the labours of a humanist with a thirst for notoriety and extravagance, overlooking his profound theological leanings, his theocentric conception of life and of all that exists.

Our culture is said to be rationalistic. This is true only in as much as it is closed to the spirit, to spiritual values and to supranatural realities. It is in fact an emotional and quite irrational culture. Truth is no longer a motivating principle; reason has little weight in contemporary behaviour; logic neither convinces us nor compels our actions. We are easily manipulated by the emotional, by the merely superficial and sensorial… And many of our current aesthetic tastes make this evident.

With Nietzsche, there appeared in the West a mentality which unabashedly despises abnegation and deifies our immediate desires. We now find ourselves submerged in an “ideology of desire”; our culture has idolatrized the subjective desire of the individual as if this were illimitably malleable and extendible beyond the bounds of reality. Reality itself is no longer accepted and therefore all is subjectivism, relativism. If I want something, I will it to exist; if I don’t want it, I will it not to exist. Desires are then confused with rights and by contagion these also become unlimited. But, while what we consider to be rights are defended, obligations and responsibilities are rarely spoken of … It was the neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who described North America as being out of balance: the Statue of Liberty was erected on the east coast; to compensate, there should be a Statue of Responsibility on the west.

“A society is in decadence, definitive or transitory, when common sense has become uncommon” (Gilbert Keith Chesterton).

When men reject the lessons of nature, which reveal an order than the human being is capable of understanding, i.e. natural order, one of whose manifestations is natural law; and when the so-called “state of rights” of nations is not built upon the recognition of that natural law, then the rights of the weakest individuals are threatened. This is what happened, in past centuries, in the laws permitting slavery… as national legislation is easily bent to accommodate the selfish interests of the strongest. In this way, the goal dreamt of by Nietzsche is reached: “A world inhabited and dominated by Supermen who have imposed their will and power on men who are inferior, mediocre and common” 6.  A stench of national-socialism (an ideology supported by Nietzsche’s thesis of the Superman) is invading the earth… Might it be a leak, on a planetary level, from the Nazi gas chambers?

“If the hand of the artisan ruled the cutting of wood, it would always be cut as it should. But if the straightness of the cut were subject to some other rule, it would cut sometimes to the right, and other times crookedly” 7. Man does not invent moral rule, but discovers it… as did those scientists and artists –we read earlier– who coincided in “listening” attentively to the profound, silent lessons of the near and distant universe. And some of them would indeed taste, again and again, the elixir of wisdom!

 

4. The lovers of wisdom

 

Is it not surprising that France, birthplace of Descartes and modern rationalism, would also be that of “Impressionism”, an artistic movement inclined toward the evocation of nature as perceived through the senses, and removed from the application of compositional canons that are more properly rationalist? One member of that group, Cézanne —although he is classed as “post-Impressionist”—, would attempt to correct the excessive dissolution of forms and the taste for eternalizing the instant which are so characteristic of Impressionism, saying: “I want to make of Impressionism something solid and long-lasting like the art of the museums”; “everyone is mad about the Impressionists; what art needs is a Poussin done more in accordance with nature”. The history of the last few centuries has taught us that the great dilemma is not one of reason (discursive reason, logic) versus sensitivity-feeling, but rather, on the one hand, respect, wonder, the discovery of the mystery of the natural order, or  philosophical “realism” (this is indeed the true natural posture of a sane, rational man); and on the other, “immanentism” or extreme rationalism (the anti-natural position of a man who from his own mind attempts to construct all of reality). The art of the Impressionist painters was not irrational; it arose out of wonder at the miracle of nature and an overflowing joy at their discovery: the elixir of wisdom! (referred to in the second paragraph of the present text)… the inverse, perhaps, of the many sombre, rationalistic interpretations that 20th-century man has left us. “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who asks to get the heavens into his head” (Gilbert Keith Chesterton).

In classical Greece, the “sophists” (the so-called “sages”) co-existed with the “philosophers” (who professed themselves to be merely “lovers of wisdom”). Among the latter were some of the most sublime thinkers that Greece, and the world as a whole, has ever produced, in any period of history. The former were sceptics, relativists, who boasted of their ability to persuade —with their rhetorical and dialectical skills— for or against a given argument, who sought fame and riches for themselves. The latter did not consider themselves to be the full possessors of truth, but aspired to this with all of their being. Socrates ―one of this second group― would say that his work consisted of discovering the truth, helping to bring it to light in the minds of men; much as a midwife helps a child to be born, while not creating it herself. The former are, in a way, the forerunners of those modern “artists” who proceed according to an immanentist formalism, decorative perhaps, but not going further toward something deeper, to truth, goodness or that beauty which is in great part ungraspable, who seek simply to surprise, by means of gimmicks or noisy, extra-artistic provocations. Their art seems more an ornamentation painted to decorate a wall, something which does not transcend the realm of immediacy and which has little or nothing to say about the mystery in which man is immersed, and by which he is pervaded, enveloped and exceeded. Transcendent art, on the other hand, recalls the attitude of the “lovers of wisdom”, the “philosophers”; it is like a window thrown open to the great, mysterious and profound reality which challenges mankind… “Philosophers” and true artists, joined together in a restless search for the elixir of wisdom! “Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder”, and it is this which awakens admiration (St Thomas de Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, 1, 3).

For centuries, all lovers of wisdom (the “impressionists” included) approached nature with love and respect. This attitude might be summed up as: How astonishing to stand before such a wonder! The poet Antonio Machado expressed it like this: “Your truth? No, the truth; come and seek it with me. Keep yours to yourself” 8. In the 20th century, however, another type of attitude would appear: “This is art because I say it is; I am an artist!” Which might be translated as: “Be surprised by what I do; I am an artist!” Such behaviour is reminiscent of the Greek “sophists”, sceptical and self-centred, and has been the justification for all manner of arbitrary extravagancies.

 

5. Art which is decorative, entertainment-oriented, superficial

 

By way of summary, we can say now, in the early years of the 21st century, that Western civilization has become distanced both from itself and from the spirit which caused it to flourish; indeed, many of our contemporaries are tired of, bored by, any acknowledgement of the natural order, and still more —as this dwells within the first— by the supra-natural. What kind of art can we expect in circumstances like these? That which we see at present: a complete lack of transcendence, a reduction to pure immediacy, to first impressions; where the desire to impress, to call attention, is pursued —in many cases— by all manner of irrational and outlandish means, resorting even to mere insolent, extra-artistic provocation. What remedy is there for the ennui which afflicts contemporary man when the mystery of reality seems no longer to interest him? He seeks novelties which through surprise might arouse him from his torpor, he rejects any meditation on timeless themes and concerns, he turns his back on nature in art…

The first book published by Mario Vargas Llosa after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature is an essay entitled The Civilization of the Spectacle. The author himself expresses it like this: “The culture of today seeks above all, although this is not stated explicitly, to divert, to entertain. Traditionally, culture attempted to respond to the bigger questions: What are we doing here? Do we have a destiny or not? Are we really free or are we rather beings moved by forces beyond our control? All of this searching, to which culture provided the answers, has been practically extinguished, has disappeared”.9

Indeed, today’s artistic world willfully ignores the profound, the complex, that which the man of vision questions and strives to understand, and instead offers a proliferation of merely decorative objects, those ornaments which are so often ideal —this much is true— for adorning our modern architectural habitats.

Let us turn to yet another testimony, one from a different historical context. When interviewed on the 250th anniversary of the death of J. S. Bach, Reinhard Goebel, founder of the Musica Antiqua Köln group, had this to say:

 ―“There is a certain romanticism in Bach [for his being a man of ideals, rather than conformist, pragmatic or opportunistic] because he kept himself himself aloof from fashions”.
―“I am convinced that Bach composed above all for himself. The proof is in The Musical Offering. I don’t think that anyone else of his time could have written something like that. I can imagine him with an attitude of «if they get it, fine; if not, it’s all the same to me». Bach’s work does not bow before kings or society. That’s what makes it so important and, from a contemporary perspective, so transcendent.”
―“In music one passes easily from success to oblivion. Johann Sebastian Bach, so respected in his day, would drop suddenly into limbo, eclipsed his sons until Mendelssohn brought him back into popularity”.
―“Perhaps what happened to Bach in music was the same thing that happened in painting to Rembrandt, who was rejected for being difficult. This explains the reaction he provoked after his death.”
―“How do you explain the fact that the sons enjoyed greater fame than their father?”
―“The sons were famous for what we might call ‘decorative art’, an almost consumer-oriented music. Of prestige, but without much significance”.10

6. Contemporary nihilism

 

The rejection of nature finds an ally in the rejection of tradition, for it is easier to appear novel by denying our acquired cultural heritage than by adding to it (attaining new heights, ascending to the summit, is arduous; subtracting from these heights, descending, may even be rapid). Thus, the limit between art and what is not art is quickly reached… If in addition the appearance of novelty is confused with artistic quality, that which in fact impoverishes is taken to be progress. This modern nihilistic culture, for which everything is disgusting, seems to be reflected, given form, in countless “artistic” works which deny rather than affirm. In consequence, if we were to rate the artistic value of one of these nihilist, or “negationist” works (those of Mark Rothko come to mind) with an eight, by comparison the artistic value of a painting like Van Dyck’s Seizure of Christ, Titian’s Burial of Christ [no. 440] or El Greco’s Baptism of Christ —all belonging to the Prado Museum— should not receive a ten, but rather ten million, or ten billion. Art is the triumph of order over chaos. And in this the difference is clear: these three paintings from the Prado constitute examples of that supreme order which is art, while those same nihilistic, “negationist” works are situated at the other extreme; that is, closer to chaos, or simply to nothing, than to order… Similarities to the new clothes of the “naked king” in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale should not be overlooked.

 

7. Conclusion

 

Modern art and so-called contemporary art are characterized by a thirst for apparent novelty. Although it is fair to recognize that important artistic achievements have been made in this period (the still lifes of the cubists, for example, figure among the most beautiful of all time), the negative consequences of a mistaken understanding of art are now more obviously perceptible than in the first third of the 20th century. A first consequence: the desire to constantly surprise the viewer with apparent novelty has led to ―i.e. degenerated into― extravagances, extra-artistic provocations and ruptures with tradition that have served only to impoverish ―authentic deconstructions of our European and universal cultural heritage―… and, swept along by this same thirst for change and rupture, we have torn down the very frontiers of what is and is not art. A second consequence: this estimation, in painting, of only what is apparently novel, perhaps in some cases beauty but unconnected to truth and goodness, as has occurred in modern and contemporary art (the search for new forms per se, even if these are meaningless, even if they have nothing to say about the mystery of reality and of man), has contributed to the confusion ―today so frequent― of labelling as works of art (!) objects which are in fact merely decorative. The solution lies in seeking, rather than a beauty which is only ephemeral, that which is lasting, that which is splendour, a radiation of truth and goodness, that which enters into the mystery of reality and communicates something which is transcendent.   

“The more poetic, the more true” (Novalis); similarly, according to Beethoven, truth is the ultimate reason for beauty. In the same way (and here we turn once again to our chosen paradigm), the music of J. S. Bach is an effective antidote to that modern and contemporary formalism which is limited to appearance. “In Bach, everything is thought out and constructed with the perfection of a clock” 11 The sonority of Bach’s music (best appreciated in his choral work) is itself like a body, ordered and constructed to be an expression of a soul, which is akin to the meaning of a text. This obedience to the meaning of a text (to the content or theme of a work) holds truth and goodness to be the ultimate reason for artistic beauty, and for whatever formal splendour can be perceived by our senses.

What an age is this, in which the obvious needs to be demonstrated!

 

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1 Gustave Thibon. L’équilibre et l’harmonie.

6 Nietzsche, The Antichrist.

7 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, 63

8 Antonio Machado, Proverbios y cantares (LXXXV)

9 Laura Revuelta. “Hoy no se escribe para la eternidad” (interview with Mario Vargas Llosa in ABC Cultural, 31-3-2012).

10 Luis G. Iberni. Interview with Reinhard Goebel in El Cultural, 26-7-2000.

11 Alexandro Delgado, A propósito da Música, Antena 2 RTP

 

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