CONCERNING FORMS IN ART
It may seem surprising that we should introduce a subject which not only appears to have little or no connection with anything that has gone before, but also in itself seems to be of secondary importance; in fact, however, this question of forms in art is by no means a negligible one and is closely connected with the general questions dealt with in this book. First of all, however, there is a matter of terminology which calls for a few words of explanation: in speaking of ‘forms in art’ and not just ‘forms’, our purpose is to make it clear that we are not dealing with ‘abstract’ forms, but, on the contrary, with things that are ‘sensible’ by definition; if, on the other hand, we avoid speaking of ‘artistic forms’, it is because the epithet ‘artistic’ carries with it, in present-day language, a notion of ‘luxury’ and therefore of ‘superfluity’, and this corresponds to something diametrically opposed to what we have in mind. The expression ‘forms in art’ is really a pleonasm, inasmuch as it is not possible, traditionally speaking, to dissociate form from art, the latter being simply the principle of manifestation of the former; however, we have been obliged to use this pleonasm for the reasons just given.
If the importance of forms is to be understood, it is necessary to appreciate the fact that it is the sensible form which, symbolically, corresponds most directly to the Intellect, by reason of the inverse analogy connecting the principial and manifested orders.(1) In consequence of this analogy the highest realities are most clearly manifested in their remotest reflections, namely, in the sensible or ‘material’ order, and herein lies the deepest meaning of the proverb ‘extremes meet’; to which one might add that it is for this same reason that Revelation descended not only into the souls of the Prophets, but also into their bodies, which presupposed their physical perfection.(2)
Sensible forms therefore correspond with exactness to intellections, and it is for this reason that traditional art has rules which apply the cosmic laws and universal principles to the domain of forms, and which, beneath their more general outward aspect, reveal the ‘style’ of the civilization under consideration, this ‘style’ in its turn rendering explicit the form of intellectuality of that civilization. When art ceases to be traditional and becomes human, individual, and therefore arbitrary, that is infallibly the sign—and secondarily the cause—of an intellectual decline, a weakening, which, in the sight of those who know how to ‘discriminate between the spirits’ and who look upon things with an unprejudiced eye, is expressed by the more or less incoherent and spiritually insignificant, we would go even as far as to say unintelligible character of the forms.(3) `
In order to forestall any possible objection, we would stress the fact that in intellectually healthy civilizations—the Christian civilization of the Middle Ages for instance—spirituality often affirms itself by a marked indifference to forms, and sometimes even reveals a tendency to turn away from them, as is shown by the example of St. Bernard when he condemned images in monasteries, which, it must be said, in no wise signifies the acceptance of ugliness and barbarism, any more than poverty implies the possession of things that are mean in themselves. But in a world where traditional art is dead, where consequently form itself is invaded by everything which is contrary to spirituality and where nearly every formal expression is corrupted at its very roots, the traditional regularity of forms takes on a very special spiritual importance which it could not have possessed at the beginning, since the absence of the spirit in forms was then inconceivable.
What has been said concerning the intellectual quality of sensible forms must not make us overlook the fact that the further one goes back to the origins of a given Tradition, the less those forms appear in a state of full development. The pseudo-form, that is to say an arbitrary form, is always excluded, as already stated, but form as such can also be virtually absent, at least in certain more or less peripheral domains. On the other hand, the nearer one draws to the end of the traditional cycle under consideration, the greater the importance attaching to ‘formalism’, even from the so-called ‘artistic’ point of view, since the forms have by then become almost indispensable channels for the actualization of the spiritual deposit of the Tradition.(4)
We may perhaps be allowed to add a remark here which seems to take us rather outside our subject, though some readers, at least, will understand its appropriat eness: an objection might be raised to what we have just been saying on the grounds that Shri Chaitanya bestowed initiation not only on Hindus but on Moslems as well; this objection, however, is pointless in the present case, for what Shri Chaitanya, who was one of the greatest spiritual Masters of India, transmitted first and foremost, was a current of grace resulting from the intense radiation of his own holiness; this radiation had the virtue of in some degree erasing or drowning formal differences, which is all the more admissible in that he was ‘bhaktic’ by nature. Besides, the fact that Shri Chaitanya could accomplish miracles in no wise implies that another guru, even if he were of the same initiatory lineage and therefore a legitimate successor of Chaitanya, could do the same; from another point of view which, though less important, is by no means negligible, one must also take into consideration should never be forgotten is the fact that the absence of the formal element is not equivalent to the presence of the unformed, and vice-versa; the unformed and the barbarous will never attain the majestic beauty of the void, whatever may be believed by those who have an interest in passing off a deficiency for a superiority.(5) This law of compensation, by virtue of which certain relationships become gradually inverted during the course of a traditional cycle, can be applied in all spheres: for instance, we may quote the following saying (hadith) of the Prophet Mohammed: ‘In the beginning of Islam, he who omits a tenth of the Law is damned; but in the latter days, he who shall accomplish a tenth thereof will be saved.’
The analogical relationship between intellections and material forms explains how it became possible for esotericism to be grafted on to the exercise of the crafts and especially architectural art; the cathedrals which the Christian initiates left behind them offer the most explicit as well as the most dazzling proof of the spiritual exaltation of the Middle Ages.(6) This brings us to a most important aspect of the question now before us, namely, the action of esotericism on exotericism through the medium of sensible forms, the production of which is precisely the prerogative of craft initiation. Through these forms, which act as vehicles of the integral traditional doctrine, and which thanks to their symbolism translate this doctrine into a language that is both immediate and universal, esotericism infuses an intellectual quality into the properly religious part of the tradition, thereby establishing a balance the absence of which would finally bring about the dissolution of the whole civilization, as has happened in the Christian world. The abandoning of sacred art deprived esotericism of its most direct means of action; the outward tradition insisted more and more on its own peculiarities, that is to say, its limitations, until finally, by want of that current of universality which, through the language of forms, had quickened and stabilized the religious civilization, reactions in a contrary sense were brought about; that is to say, the formal limitations, instead of being compensated and thereby stabilized by means of the supra-formal ‘interferences’ of esotericism, gave rise, through their ‘opacity’ or ‘massiveness’, to negations which might be qualified as ‘infra-formal’, resulting as they did from an individual arbitrariness which, far from being a form of the truth, was merely a formless chaos of opinions and fancies.
To return to our initial idea, it may be added that the ‘Beauty’ of God corresponds to a deeper reality than His ‘Goodness’, no matter how paradoxical this may appear at first sight. One has only to recall the metaphysical law in virtue of which the analogy between the principial and manifested orders is reversed, in the sense that what is principially ‘great’ will be ‘small’ in the manifested order and that which is ‘inward’ in the Principle will appear as ‘outward’ in manifestation, and vice versa. It is because of this inverse analogy that in man beauty is outward and goodness inward—at least in the usual sense of these words—contrary to what obtains in the principial order where Goodness is itself an expression of Beauty.
It has often been noticed that Oriental peoples, including those reputed to be the most artistic, show themselves for the most part entirely lacking in aesthetical discernment with regard to whatever comes to them from the West. All the ugliness born of a world more and more devoid of spirituality spreads over the East with unbelievable facility, not only under the influence of politico-economic factors, which would not be so surprising, but also by the free consent of those who, by all appearances, had created a world of beauty, that is a civilization, in which every expression, including the most modest, bore the imprint of the same genius. Since the very beginning of Western infiltration, it has been astonishing to see the most perfect works of art set side by side with the worst trivialities of industrial production, and these disconcerting contradictions have taken place not only in the realm of ‘art products’, but in nearly every sphere, setting aside the fact that in a normal civilization, everything accomplished by man is related to the domain of art, in some respects at least. The answer to this paradox is very simple, however, and we have already outlined it in the preceding pages: it resides in the fact that forms, even the most unimportant, are the work of human hands in a secondary manner only; they originate first and foremost from the same supra-human source from which all tradition originates, which is another way of saying that the artist who lives in a traditional world devoid of ‘rifts’, works under the discipline or the inspiration of a genius which surpasses him; fundamentally he is but the instrument of this genius, if only from the fact of his craftsman’s qualification.(7) Consequently, individual taste plays only a relatively subordinate part in the production of the forms of such an art, and this taste will be reduced to nothing as soon as the individual finds himself face to face with a form which is foreign to the spirit of his own Tradition; that is what happens in the case of a people unfamiliar with Western civilization when they encounter the forms imported from the West. However, for this to happen, it is necessary that the people accepting such confusion should no longer be fully Conscious of their own spiritual genius, or in other terms, that they should no longer be capable of understanding the forms with which they are still surrounded and in which they live; it is in fact a proof that the people in question are already suffering from a certain decadence. Because of this fact, they are led to accept modern ugliness all the more easily because it may answer to certain inferior possibilities that those people are already spontaneously seeking to realize, no matter how, and it may well be quite subconsciously; therefore, the unreasoning readiness with which only too many Orientals (possibly even the great majority) accept things which are utterly incompatible with the spirit of their Tradition is best explained by the fascination exercised over an ordinary person by something corresponding to an as yet unexhausted possibility, this possibility being, in the present case, simply that of arbitrariness or want of principle. However that may be, and without wishing to attach too much importance to this explanation of what appears to be the complete lack of taste shown by Orientals, there is one fact which is absolutely certain, namely that very many Orientals themselves no longer understand the sense of the forms they inherited from their ancestors, together with their whole Tradition. All that has just been said applies of course first and foremost and a fortiori to the nations of the West themselves who, after having created—we will not say ‘invented’—a perfect traditional art, proceeded to disown it in favour of the residues of the individualistic and empty art of the Graeco-Ro mans, which has finally led to the artistic chaos of the modern world. We know very well that there are some who will not at any price admit the unintelligibility or the ugliness of the modern world, and who readily employ the word ‘aesthetic’, with a derogatory nuance similar to that attaching to the words ‘picturesque’ and ‘romantic’, in order to discredit in advance the importance of forms, so that they may find themselves more at ease in the enclosed system of their own barbarism. Such an attitude has nothing surprising in it when it concerns avowed modernists, but it is worse than illogical, not to say rather despicable, coming from those who claim to belong to the Christian civilization; for to reduce the spontaneous and normal language of Christian art— a language the beauty of which can hardly be questioned—to a worldly matter of ‘taste’—as if medieval art could have been the product of mere caprice—amounts to admitting that the signs stamped by the genius of Christianity on all its direct and indirect expressions were only a contingency unrelated to that genius and devoid of serious importance, or even due to a mental inferiority; for ‘only the spirit matters’—so say certain ignorant people imbued with hypocritical, iconoclastic, blasphemous and impotent puritanism, who pronounce the word ‘spirit’ all the more readily because they are the last to know what it really stands for.
In order to understand better the causes of the decadence of art in the West, one must take into account the fact that there is in the European mentality a certain dangerous ‘idealism’ which is not without relevance to that decadence, nor yet to the decay of Western civilization as a whole. This ‘idealism’ has found its fullest, one might say its most ‘intelligent’ expression in certain forms of Gothic art, those in which a kind of ‘dynamism’ is predominant, which seems to aim at taking away the heaviness from stone. As for Byzantine and Romanesque art, as well as that other side of Gothic art wherein a ‘static’ power has been preserved, it might be said that it is an essentially intellectual art, therefore ‘realistic’. The ‘flamboyant’ Gothic art, no matter how ‘passionate’ it became, was nevertheless still a traditional art except in the case of sculpture and painting which were already well on the way to decadence; to be more exact, it was the ‘swansong’ of Gothic art. From the time of the Renaissance, which represents a sort of ‘posthumous revenge’ on the part of classical antiquity, European ‘idealism’ flowed into the exhumed sarcophagi of the Graeco-Roman civilization. By this act of suicide, idealism placed itself at the service of an individualism in which it thought to have rediscovered its own genius, only to end up, after a number of intermediate stages, in the most vulgar and wildest affirmations of that individualism. This was really a double suicide: firstly the forsaking of medieval or Christian art, and secondly the adoption of Graeco-Roman forms which intoxicated the Christian world with the poison of their decadence. But it is necessary here to consider a possible objection: was not the art of the first Christians in fact Roman art? The answer is that the real beginnings of Christian art are to be found in the symbols inscribed in the catacombs, and not in the forms that the early Christians, themselves in part belonging to the Roman civilization, temporarily borrowed in a purely outward manner from the ‘classical’ decadence. Christianity was indeed called upon to replace this decadence by an art springing spontaneously from an original spiritual genius, and if in fact certain Roman influences have always persisted in Christian art, this only applies to more or less superficial details.
It has just been stated that European ‘idealism’ allied itself to individualism and ended by identifying itself with the crudest expressions of the latter. As for those things that the West finds crude’ in other civilizations, they are nearly always only the more or less superficial aspects of a ‘realism’ that scorns delusive and hypocritical veils. However, one should not lose sight of the fact that ‘idealism’ is not bad in itself inasmuch as it finds its place in the minds of heroes, always inclined towards ‘sublimation’; what is bad, and at the same time specifically Western, is the intrusion of this mentality into every sphere, including those in which it has no place. It is this distorted ‘idealism’, all the more fragile and dangerous because it is distorted, that Islam, with its desire for equilibrium and stability—in other words ‘realism’—wished to avoid at all costs, having taken, moreover, into consideration the restricted possibilities of the present cyclic period, already far removed from its origin; herein lies the reason for that ‘earthly’ aspect with which Christians are wont to reproach the Islamic civilization.
In order to give an idea of the principles of traditional art, we will point out a few of the most general and elementary ones: first of all, the work executed must conform to the use to which it will be put, and it must translate that conformity; if there be an added symbolism, it must conform to the symbolism inherent in the object; there must be no conflict between the essential and the accessory, but a hierarchical harmony, which will moreover spring from the purity of the symbolism; the treatment of the material used must be in conformity with the nature of that material in the same way that the material itself must be in conformity with the use of the object; lastly, the object must not give an illusion of being other than what it really is, for such an illusion always gives a disagreeable impression of uselessness, and when this illusion is the goal of the finished work, as it is in the case of all ‘classicist’ art, it is the mark of a uselessness which is only too apparent. The great innovations of naturalistic art can be reduced in fact to so many violations of the principles of normal art: firstly, as far as sculpture is concerned, violation of the inert material used, whether it be stone, metal or wood, and secondly, in the case of painting, violation of the plane surface. In the first example, the inert material is treated as if it were endowed with life, whereas it is essentially static and only allows, because of this fact, the representation either of motionless bodies or of essential or ‘schematic’ phases of movement, but not that of arbitrary, accidental or almost instantaneous movements; in the second example, that of painting, the plane surface is treated as if it had three dimensions, both by means of foreshortening and by the use of shadows.
It will be appreciated that rules such as these are not dictated by merely ‘aesthetic’ reasons and that they represent, on the contrary, applications of cosmic and divine laws; beauty will flow from them as a necessary result. As regards beauty in naturalistic art, it does not reside in the work as such, but solely in the object which it copies, whereas in symbolic and traditional art it is the work in itself which is beautiful, whether it be abstract’ or whether it borrows beauty in a greater or lesser degree from a natural model. It would be difficult to find a better illustration of this distinction than that afforded by a comparison between so-called ‘classical’ Greek art and Egyptian art: the beauty of the latter does not, in fact, lie simply and solely in the object represented, but resides simultaneously and a fortiori in the work as such, that is to say in the ‘inward reality’ which the work makes manifest. The fact that naturalistic art has sometimes succeeded in expressing nobility of feeling or vigorous intelligence is not in question and may be explained by cosmological reasons which could not but exist; but that has no connection with art as such, and no individual value could ever make up for the falsification of the latter.
The majority of moderns who claim to understand art are convinced that Byzantine or Romanesque art is in no way superior to modern art, and that a Byzantine or Romanesque Virgin resembles Mary no more than do her naturalistic images, in fact rather the contrary. The answer is, however, quite simple: the Byzantine Virgin—which traditionally goes back to Saint Luke and the Angels—is infinitely closer to the ‘truth’ of Mary than a naturalistic image, which of necessity is always that of another woman. Only one of two things is possible: either the artist presents an absolutely correct portrait of the Virgin from a physical point of view, in which case it will be necessary for the artist to have seen the Virgin, a condition which obviously cannot be fulfilled—setting aside the fact that all naturalistic painting is an abuse—or else the artist will present a perfectly adequate symbol of the Virgin, but in this case physical resemblance, without being absolutely excluded, is no longer at all in question. It is this second solution—the only one that makes sense—which is realized in icons; what they do not express by means of a physical resemblance, they express by the abstract but immediate language of symbolism, a language which is built up of precision and imponderables both together. Thus the icon, in addition to the beatific power which is inherent in it by reason of its sacramental character, transmits the holiness or inner reality of the Virgin and hence the universal reality of which the Virgin herself is an expression; in contributing both to a state of contemplation and to a metaphysical reality, the icon becomes a support of intellection, whereas a naturalistic image transmits only the fact—apart from its obvious and inevitable lie—that Mary was a woman. It is true that in the case of a particular icon it may happen that the proportions and features are those of the living Virgin, but such a likeness, if it really came to pass, would be independent of the symbolism of the image and could only be the result of a special inspiration, no doubt an unconscious one on the part of the artist himself. Naturalistic art could moreover be legitimate up to a certain point if it was used exclusively to set on record the features of the saints, since the contemplation of saints (the Hindu darshan) can be a very precious help in the spiritual way, owing to the fact that their outward appearance conveys, as it were, the perfume of their spirituality; but the use in this limited manner of a partial and ‘disciplined’ naturalism corresponds only to a very remote possibility.
To come back to the symbolic and spiritual quality of the icon: one’s ability to perceive the spiritual quality of an icon or any other symbol is a question of contemplative intelligence and also of ‘sacred science’. However, it is certainly false to claim, in justification of naturalism, that the people need an ‘accessible’, that is to say a platitudinous art, for it is riot the ‘people’ who gave birth to the Renaissance; the art of the latter, like all the ‘fine art’ which is derived from it, is on the contrary an offence to the piety of the simple person. The artistic ideals of the Renaissance and of all modern art are therefore very far removed from what the people need, and, in fact, nearly all the miraculous Virgins to which people are attracted are Byzantine or Romanesque; and who would presume to argue that the black colouring of some of them agrees with popular taste or is particularly accessible to it? On the other hand, the Virgins made by the hands of the people, when they have not been corrupted by the influence of academic art, are very much more ‘real’, even in a subjective way, than those of the latter; and even if one were prepared to admit that the majority demand empty or unintelligent images, can it be said that the needs of the elite are never to be taken into consideration?
In the preceding paragraphs, we have already implicitly answered the question as to whether sacred art is meant to cater for the intellectual elite alone, or whether it has something to offer to the man of average intelligence. This question solves itself when one takes into consideration the universality of all symbolism, for this universality enables sacred art to transmit— apart from metaphysical truths and facts derived from sacred history—not only spiritual states of the mind, but psychological attitudes which are accessible to all men; in modern parlance, one might say that such art is both profound and ‘naïve’ at the same time, and this combination of profundity and ‘naivety’ is precisely one of the dominant characteristics of sacred art. The ‘ingenuousness’ or ‘candour’ of such art, far from being due to a spontaneous or affected inferiority, reveals on the contrary the normal state of the human soul, whether it be that of the average or of the aboveaverage man; the apparent ‘intelligence’ of naturalism, on the .other hand, that is to say, its wellnigh satanic skill in copying Nature and thus transmitting nothing but the hollow shell of beings and things, can only correspond to a deformed mentality, we might say to one which has deviated from primordial simplicity or ‘innocence’. It goes without saying that such a deformation, resulting as it does from intellectual superficiality and mental virtuosity, is incompatible with the traditional spirit and consequently finds no place in a civilization that has remained faithful to that spirit. Therefore if sacred art appeals to contemplative intelligence, it likewise appeals to normal human sensibility. This means that such art alone possesses a universal language, and that none is better fitted to appeal, not only to an elite, but also to the people at large. Let us remember, too, as far as the apparently ‘childish’ aspect of the traditional mentality is concerned, Christ’s injunction to be ‘as little children’ and ‘simple as doves’, words which, no matter what may be their spiritual meaning, also quite plainly refer to psychological realities.
The monks of the eighth century, very different from those religious authorities of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries who betrayed Christian art by abandoning it to the impure passions of worldly men and the ignorant imagination of the profane, were fully conscious of the holiness of every kind of means able to express the Tradition. They stipulated, at the second council of Nicaea, that ‘art’ (i.e. ‘the perfection of work’) alone belongs to the painter, while ordinance (the choice of the subject) and disposition (the treatment of the subject from the symbolical as well as the technical or material points of view) belongs to the Fathers. (Non est pictoris—ejus enim sola ars est-rerum ordinatio et dispositio Patrum nostrorum.) This amounts to placing all artistic initiative under the direct and active authority of the spiritual leaders of Christianity. Such being the case, how can one explain the fact that during recent centuries, religious circles have for the most part shown such a regret table lack of understanding in respect of all those things which, having an artistic character, are, as they fondly believe, only external matters? First of all, admitting a priori the elimination of every esoteric influence, there is the fact that a religious perspective as such has a tendency to identify itself with the moral point of view, which stresses merit only and believes it is neces sary to ignore the sanctifying quality of intellectual knowledge and, as a result, the value of the supports of such knowledge; now, the perfection of sensible forms is no more ‘meritorious in the moral sense than the intellections which those forms reflect and transmit, and it is therefore only logical that symbolic forms, when they are no longer understood, should be relegated to the background, and even forsaken, in order to be replaced by forms which will no longer appeal to the intelligence, but only to a sentimental imagination capable of inspiring the meritorious act—at least such is the belief of the man of limited intelligence. However, this sort of speculative provocation of reactions by resorting to means of a superficial and vulgar nature will, in the last analysis, prove to be illusory, for, in reality, nothing can be better fitted to influence the deeper dispositions of the soul than sacred art. Profane art, on the contrary, even if it be of some psychological value in the case of souls of inferior intelligence, soon exhausts its means, by the very fact of their superficiality and vulgarity, after which it can only provoke reactions of contempt; these are only too common, and may be considered as a ‘rebound’ of the contempt in which sacred art was held by profane art, especially in its earlier stages.8 It has been a matter of current experience that nothing is able to offer to irreligion a more immediately tangible nourishment than the insipid hypocrisy of religious images; that which was meant to stimulate piety in the believer, but serves to confirm unbelievers in their impiety, whereas it must be recognized that genuinely sacred art does not possess this character of a ‘two-edged weapon’, for being itself more abstract, it offers less hold to hostile psychological reactions. Now, no matter what may be the theories that attribute to the people the need for unintelligent images, warped in their essence, the elites do exist and certainly require something different; what they demand is an art corresponding to their own spirit and in which their soul can come to rest, finding itself again in order to mount to the Divine. Such an art cannot spring simply from profane taste, nor even from ‘genius’, but must proceed essentially out of Tradition; this fact being admitted, the masterpiece must be executed by a sanctified artist or, let us say, by one in a state of grace’.(9) Far from serving only for the more or less superficial instruction and edification of the masses, the icon, as is the case with the Hindu yantra and all other visible symbols, establishes a bridge from the sensible to the spiritual: ‘By the visible aspect’, states St. John Damascenus, ‘our thoughts must be drawn up in a spiritual flight and rise to the invisible majesty of God.’
But let us return to the errors of naturalism. Art, as soon as it is no longer determined, illuminated and guided by spirituality, lies at the mercy of the individual and purely psychical resources of the artist, and these resources must soon run out, if only because of the very platitude of the naturalistic principle which calls only for a superficial tracing of Nature. Reaching the dead-point of its own platitude, naturalism inevitably engendered the monstrosities of ‘surrealism’, The latter is but the decomposing body of an art, and in any case should rather be called ‘infra-realism’; it is properly speaking the satanic consequence of naturalistic luciferianism. Naturalism, as a matter of fact, is clearly luciferian in its wish to imitate the creations of God, not to mention its affirmation of the psychical element to the detriment of the spiritual, of the individual to the detriment of the universal, of the bare fact to the detriment of the symbol. Normally, man must imitate the creative act, not the thing created; that is what is done by symbolic art, and the results are ‘creations’ which are not would-be duplications of those of God, but rather a reflection of them according to a real analogy, revealing the transcendental aspects of things; and this revelation is the only sufficient reason of art, apart from any practical uses such and such objects may serve. There is here a metaphysical inversion of relation which we have already pointed out: for God, His creature is a reflection or an ‘exteriorized’ aspect of Himself; for the artist, on the contrary, the work is a reflection of an inner reality of which he himself is only an outward aspect; God creates His own image, while man, so to speak, fashions his own essence, at least symbolically. On the principial plane, the inner manifests the outer, but on the manifested plane, the outer fashions the inner, and a sufficient reason for all traditional art, no matter of what kind, is the fact that in a certain sense the work is greater than the artist himself and brings back the latter, through the mystery of artistic creation, to the proximity of his own Divine Essence.(10)