November 27, 2000
By Fr. Matthew Raphael Johnson, Ph.D.
Originally Published in Modern Age, Spring 2000
Art is a microcosm of civilization. If, as Plato was to say, justice consists in a certain ordering of parts according to their nature, then art is an idealization of this arrangement, one anticipating its coming into being. Pieces of the whole are found naturally there, manifesting themselves as such a part. An aesthetic manifesting the idea of justice is the human intellect striving to realize the pieces of a whole subsumed under the concept of justice itself. Both the parts and the whole are shown as manifesting what they truly are. Art, as Plato would not say, is an understanding of justice as an idealization of the real. These are two quite distinct things. The former is the anticipation of the Good under the medium of an artistic expression. The expression itself takes its beginning from the concept of justice itself. The latter takes its starting point from the real, from natural objects and states of affairs. By “idealization” one means the concept of justice itself, a concept immortalized in the definition of Logos, or the arrangement of elements forming a whole. Art seeks the elements of justice within natural objects, and attempts to bring out its defining features in ways currently not socially grasped. Artistic creation is the ability to see potential for further ethical growth in the natural and social order. It is the realization of essence, if only in symbolic form. Art can find no separation from this. Art apart from the Logos is degeneracy.
The lack of vision in modern art is one of the most painful and most obvious signs of American and Western social collapse. It is such that even the most untrained minds can see the lack of any hope in society’s most subtle modes of self-expression. Art is a window to society, and much can be learned through an examination of art, or the collective social expression. Much is learned about social cohesion and collective values through art. Classical Byzantium and its successor state, Imperial Russia —perhaps two of the most healthy societies in world history—expressed themselves in that antithesis of decadence, iconography. Iconography is the aesthetic of counterrevolution. Even at the start of the “Enlightened” revolution with Thomas Hobbes and the Renaissance (of which he was the intellectual apogee), art had an evocative nature, even a transformative one. However fleshy, sensual, and hyper- realistic, Gothia showed mankind at its essence, in a powerful relationship with the Creator of all things —humanity, that is, as reaching fulfillment only in such a relationship. Mankind’s essence as a rational being is actualized only in communion with its creator. Religious art was the poetry of the soul, in that it could transcend the mundane and show mankind’s final resting place. This was the repose of the human soul, and poetry could capture it as theological speculation never could. This is the aesthetic of the liturgy, and even of scripture itself.
After the great El Greco attempted the fusion of the icon with Western realism—certainly one of the greatest experiments in art history—the residual transcendent understanding of art had a rather short life. As liberalism and utilitarianism took over the realm of ethics, art no longer had any metaphysical base from which to proceed. Decadence and decay were soon to follow.
If art is the expression of the Logos, or the arrangement of elements in a whole according to the fullness of their essence, then modernity was the death of art. The ideology of modernity declared that essences were non-existent. Following the ideas of the English Schoolman, William of Occam, Enlightenment philosophy considered objects as merely a bundle of properties. An essence was merely something invented by the observer to make sense out of the properties themselves, to bring unity to that which was brought to the senses. Essences had no independent existence. There were no “objects” strictly considered, but merely an understanding of universal causality. There was no central purpose to man, the human intellect was reduced to a bundle offeelings and impulses. No art worthy of the name can proceed from such a psychology.
It was mankind, according to Francis Bacon and John Locke, that was to impart meaning to objects, rather than science being a study of objects in themselves. Rationality, vis-à-vis a just social order, concerned the scientific establishment applying the understanding of universal causality to the social realm—the birth of the social sciences, reaching its apogee in Comte. The concept of a social science was the elite arrangement of social entities (self-moving pieces of matter idealized into “human beings”) in such a way that the response to stimuli was to lead the entities in the preordained direction —it was the social planners who were to define justice, and, if the human intellect was a fiction, then all that was needed was a skillful manipulation of sentiments and impulses. The greatest and most unfortunate expression of this idea is within the pages of Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651).
The effect on aesthetics was nothing short of revolutionary. With the concept of an object fully expressing its essence now dissipated in Enlightenment social science, objects were merely to reflect the moods and drives of the viewer. Classical art was not something that essentially extended from the intellect of the artist, or, more accurately, the sentiments and “will to power” of the artist, but from the object itself, the object expressing an intrinsic essence through the medium of the intellect.
That essence being fully actualized in direct communion with God is the very aesthetic of iconography, reflecting faithfully the philosophy of a fully Christian social order as well as a Christian psychology. The iconographer, usually a monastic, would fast for extended periods of time before attempting to capture this concept. Fasting was to release the spirit at the expense of the flesh, bringing the artist into a fuller communion with the essence of all essences, pure being itself, God. This is the aesthetics of the spirit, the aesthetics of Christian civilization.
Enlightenment social science created an aesthetic that merely reflected the drives of the artist, for there was no essence to be actualized, no spirit to soar above the ever earthbound flesh. Art became the “idealization” of the piece of matter-in-motion of the Leviathan. Mankind was expressed in art, eventually, as the tortured and imprisoned bundle of passions at the mercy of drives. Soon, this idea was to reach its fullness in the Existentialist school; that school of thought that still haunts Western man to this day. Art and music began to express dread and fear. Mankind had no purpose and the universe was absurd, but man was still forced to make moral judgments, still forced to live in society and cherish his pathetic modicum of earthly contentment.
There can be no question, with exceptions such as Goya, that the Enlightenment ushered in the age of decadence in aesthetics. No longer was the human form illumined from outside, but humanity was seen, following the Weltgeist of scientism, to possess this for itself, as itself. This myth was not to last long. Mankind, quite the contrary from proving it was the bearer of the “divine spark,” showed that it was capable of the basest evil. Such ideas came into painfully sharp focus as World War I began.
Artistic creation was to become blurrier and blurrier as humanity was severed from any transcendent purpose. By the end of the nineteenth century, van Gogh, Sickert, Seurat, Prikker, van de Velde, and so many others had severed humanity from its origin—and, explicitly so, had Gauguin. Mankind was not renewed, as in classical iconography and sculpture, but distorted, taken away from its transcendent origin and place of repose; the human form became the plaything of arbitrary will. Art became the idealization of the bureaucracy. Ovid’s Metamorphosis had reasserted itself in the age of the social sciences. The onslaught of Comte, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, as well as their famous predecessors such as de Sade and LeMettrie, posited man not only as lacking purpose and ethical basis, but subject to forces beyond human control. Humanity became something to administer, to regulate, to place in arbitrary units for its own good. This culminated in the communes of Paris and in the collectivization of the Soviet period.
The will of the artist imitated the will of the bureaucrat and the will of the industrialist. The structures of modern social science replaced the human essence as the final resting place of artistic creation. If
mankind was to be manipulated according to its passions, impulses, and drives (the only realities in modern psychology), then it became an inevitability that art reflected the powers of the new order. Art Deco became the symbol of bureaucratic art, the art of the social scientist, the aesthetic expression of John Dewey and John Maynard Keynes.
World War I, of course, eliminated the human form altogether, giving birth to a true Existentialism, one that is still the official creed of the modern mass man. The destruction of the aristocracy, by those who protected classical culture (in, however, a vulgar fashion), came simultaneously with the destruction of the human form in aesthetics. It was just a few years until Picasso distorted the human form by following the ebb and flow of his own libido—the very apogee of arbitrary, that is, non-rational, will in art. E. Michael Jones, in his Degenerate Moderns, clearlyshows Picasso as merely being the reflection of his own sexual lust and extremely short attention span.
The connection with Enlightenment—and Existentialist—metaphysics should be clear. The manipulation of the properties of the human form, truly the only relevant subject of artistic creation given the demise of the human essence (or the human form in the highest sense), became the only purpose of artistic creation, reflecting fully the bureaucratization of social life in accord with the final victories of the social sciences and their patron, the techno-bureaucratic and industrialized state. As masses of humanity were herded to death in war and into the factories, art reflected this new reality in the lifeless and meaningless depictions of mankind. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864) became one of the greatest artistic creations of social protest, both affirming and denying human freedom and the human intellect, depicting a mankind that both loved and hated freedom, or the idea that mankind possesses an intellect.
On the other side of the canvas, art was exemplified by the drives and carnal desires of the artist. The Enlightenment had won and mankind was now completely a material object, a purposeless, functionless blob of desires and passions meant to be shaped into a harmonious whole by the scientist and the bureaucrat. Art had followed the new idea of mankind as well as the new idea of justice.
All of this falls into the perennial danger of the essayist, that is, a stultifying simplicity, and one that I admit. A solid essayist, however, is interested in essences, not in chronology. I notice one interesting thing, however. As the human form was gradually destroyed between 1890 and 1918—though the origins go back at least to the early Enlightenment—the concept of sculpture remained highly realistic and romantic, with horrible exceptions like Rosso. People like von Hildebrand and Gerome did maintain a classical understanding of sculpture. Dalou in sculpture and Liszt in music may well have found a second but not entirely unrelated spur to the glorification of the human form in the idea of the nation.
Dalou’s Triumph of the Republic (1899), however much it included that prostitute “goddess” of reason at its head (the ever present revolutionary symbol and a mockery of human rationality, and indeed its death sentence), finds its clarity in the idea of the nation. Hegel’s concept of the nation as the divine- historical manifested on earth, or the concept in all its terrestrial fullness, may have well breathed new life into the concept of humanity and its eternal purpose. The idea of the nation, particularly in its more conservative aspects, created a super- reason of the national patrimony. It created a new man, the nation, or the collective man, from which art could spring. One must understand, however, that even this was not to last. The wars of the twentieth century put an end to that.
We need look no further than Picabia’s Girl Born Without a Mother (1915) to find the final guttering out of Western aesthetics. Mankind has completely become a machine, and the traditions of the past no longer existent for European humanity. The lack of a “mother” was not only the lack of an intelligible patrimony but also the consummation—long anticipated by Hobbes—of fear into a fundamental idea of human life. This fear was the fear of Existentialism: the existence of moral ideas in a person supposed
to be merely material; the absurdist contradiction between mankind as allegedly material with the idea that mankind can consider the future. This was the fundamental contradiction of modernism and the fullest explanation of the fear that gripped twentieth-century man—reflected faithfully by the Existentialists. It finally took Toorop and Brauner to view humans—including themselves—as corpses, or at least as possessing a corpse-like countenance. Mankind without an essence, mankind without a final and transcendent purpose, mankind as being merely a bundle of properties (externally) and a bundle of passions (internally) showed itself to the artist as form without a life, function without a purpose. The corpse became the living symbol of Enlightenment philosophy through its art.
The simple fact of meaning here is that modernity has made it intolerable to be human; Existentialism itself quickly followed upon the debris of the broken promises of modern science. The promises of the Enlightenment—well-placed by Goya and others—went unfulfilled as science failed to impart meaning to the human community. Science was never to replace what classical philosophy had, without exception, understood: an intrinsic meaning and purpose to the human function and form, or an understanding of function through the form.
Socialist realism rediscovered the human form buttressed by ideology, but art on orders from the state cannot be interpreted except through the demands of the state system itself, and contains nothing but the ever present demands for propaganda only. Indeed, art in the twentieth century reflected the socialist school in that it was a product of the New Order of mass capital and state manipulation. The proof of this can be found in the dragooning of art into the service of mass advertising, reflecting, in the most vulgar way imaginable, a mankind that the scientific class considered as merely a tool for the enrichment of mass capital and as cannon-fodder for the newly formed and entrenched total warfare state.
Socialist realism understood the classical function of art much better than the various schools at the time. For Marxism, art was the reaching for human justice, a fullness of man’s “being”—a “being” that was entirely self-created through the various new technologies. It stood to reason, however, that once “paradise” had come to earth, art lost its function; it was merely to report what it had seen, for there was nothing to “idealize” since ideals were already manifested within the socialist state. Thus, ordinary human forms doing ordinary human things became the sole domain of artistic expression, in other words, socialism had claimed to have transcended art in bringing it into reality. The socialist state system, then, demanded the dissemination of “realism” in art to show, if nothing else, that the paradise had indeed arrived on earth. Socialist realism is a necessary outgrowth of socialist theory, and served not the reality of socialist life, but merely the demands for propaganda by the socialist elite.
What, then, is the aesthetic of counterrevolution? It is the perennial aesthetic of the icon. What makes this the rock of anesthetics—a true aesthetic of civility—is its vision of human destiny, a final repose outside of earthly desires and fleshly passions. It was the eros of Plato rather than the erotica of Picasso. Humanity does not contain its “own light,” as the neo-gnostic Enlightenment assured us; nor does science have the ability to recreate the “divine spark” in its own image. The classical aesthetic of the apostolic Christian world is that humanity, first, is fallen, and, second, is capable, through communion with the Creator, of recapturing the glory of his nature manifested to the fullest extent. This is the aesthetic of iconography. The psychology of iconography is to be found in the final victory of the spirit (or the upper reaches of the intellect in Orthodox Christian theology) over the flesh. This victory is not found in the radical suppression of the flesh, as the ancient gnostics taught, but rather in that fundamentally Orthodox notion of the transfiguration of the flesh.
What Plato understood, in spite of himself, was that the flesh was an intrinsic part of the human person. His view of justice was not the elimination of the flesh, but rather its being brought into subjection to powers that are naturally superior to it. The spirit and intellect were, by nature, superior to the flesh in that they could generalize about natural contingency and understand the universal hidden therein. Only
then could the flesh find its proper function in the world. The passions, or the active principle of the flesh, were not to be eliminated, but placed in the service of the intellect. This is the psychology of civility, and was productive of an artistic vision that idealized the final victory of the spirit.
One must, however, not forget the idea of the nation. The very concept of the Christian collective, reinforced by its national idea, is the true spur for considering the eventual human glorification in the super-nation of heaven. Following Vladimir Soloviev, artistic beauty is the divine light penetrating the material humanity. One can extrapolate, first, the idea of the nation as the material condition for the divine penetration, collectively speaking, of divine grace, and second, the Christian society as its light. The life of the nation, in other words, can be transformed by the church, and society can become actually Christian. Christian society takes on the look of a large church, and it is the light of Mount Tabor that makes a nation a theological organization rather than merely a mundane one, as Saint Augustine taught.
This is to say that, if the entire collective is transformed, there is no object of nature that cannot be considered transfigured, and thus, a thing of beauty. Beauty for those like Soloviev and the classical tradition in general follows from the Holy Transfiguration of Christ. Art represents the transfiguration of nature. It is not the slavish imitation of nature, nor is it its nullification, but rather its fulfillment. This is the purpose of art, this is the artistic genius. Justice, then, is the Christianization of the collective because only it can redeem man from his intrinsic fallenness, manifested by the predominance of human passion and impulse. Justice follows from the Transfiguration, for only when the flesh of man and his community is transformed can mankind live as he should, according to his essence.
But if nature is to be receptive of this transformation, then the collectivity itself must be transformed. This is to say that the society in general must be dedicated to manifesting the supremacy of the spiritual and intellectual over the carnal. The Christian nation, then, becomes a work of art, for it is the transfiguration of social life. It is the idealization of the famous seal of the Byzantine Empire, or the two-headed eagle, the joining of the mundane to the spiritual in one transformative and transformed unity, the highest aspiration of social theory.
Even the architecture of the church itself speaks of the idea of the Transfiguration. The church itself, in its state closest to the ground, or the earth, is square. This represents the mundane world with its boundaries, pain, limitations. Above it and expressing a unity with the square is the dome, and within it, the icon of the Pantocrator, the creator and maintainer of all things. The divine circle rests upon the human square. The circle transforms the limitations of the mundane world, making pain and limitation necessary ingredients to one’s spiritual transformation, itself a precursor to the final glorification of the church in heaven. The altar itself is always a square (tetrapod), while the body of Christ, offered upon it, is in the form of bread baked in a circle. The circle has no beginning or end, while the square is well defined by its intrinsic limitations.
The lack of the rational state of justice—the transformed human collective—is the end of artistic creation worthy of the name. If the collective is not dedicated to this state of affairs, or the spiritualization of the collective, then nature cannot be seen as transfigured, but merely as the object of human desire. This is the very definition of decadence and is the ground for abstraction—or the nullification of nature—in artistic creation. Nature is “conquered” by the spirit and made to be seen anew, as expressing value in itself. Outside of this, nature is viewed as Locke viewed it, merely a means to mankind’s passions.
Nature can be three things in artistic representation: abstract, real, or transfigured. Imitating nature as it is makes little sense—no one needs an artist for this, but merely eyes. This is the art of socialist realism that claims that idealization is unnecessary because the ideal is now the real. Abstraction is the view of nature as the object of technical manipulation, nature as nullified, subject to outside powers.
Transformation is the glorification, through the light of the Transfiguration, of nature to its original state, a state of cooperation, abundance, and humanness.
This is the meaning of art, and it has a spiritual as well as social component. The social life is to reflect the Church in its demand for the supreme rule of the spiritual and the intellectual, as the Church imparts the grace needed to make this a reality, not a part of the dreams of the Platonists or the Stoa. The church is the true spur to art in its fullness in that it is the mystical body of Christ itself, thus redeeming us from our base passions. Humanity can finally be represented in its wholeness, in its place of repose. In classical times this ideal existed, but remained a distant object of speculation, something Plato painfully took to his grave. There was no “bridge” between the current passionate state of humanity and the ideal of the rational life. This is, further, the aesthetic of counterrevolution, the art of anti-decadence, the art against carnality.
Simply put, then, art is about transformation, collective as well as natural. The Christian nation is an icon of heaven, as the monarch is the icon of Christ; it is the transformation of collective life. Art seeks to capture this transformation and present it to those who find difficulty in comprehending a mass transformation as a theological matter. Christian faith, in its highest and most complete expression, is a collective phenomenon; when it becomes an individual phenomenon solely, the end of Christian society is near if not present. The nation has, in both East and West, been the repository of the Christian collective. Its health—as Blessed Augustine was to say—is the health of the Church. Both are necessary to the transformation of human life, and thus, to the existence of true art. The light of Tabor enlightens and transfigures the collective life as the national expression encourages all to acts of penance and repentance. Christianity does not exist with a series of monasteries or hermitages alone, but as a vibrant collective phenomenon in the nation taking on the externals of a Church in itself. The nation participates within the mystical body of Christ on earth, and is not something foreign to it. This is the beginning of transfiguration, and also the impetus to aesthetics. It is the aesthetics of civility, the aesthetics of the new man.