March 18, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Ars et Arma: Art in the Occident, Part I
LET US exert our retrospect. Let us imagine for a moment that all the painters following the great Giotto in what later was known as the Renaissance, had restrained themselves to reproducing “Giottoesque” canvases and frescoes, had sought never to express their own “styles,” their own “personalities,” but instead had dedicated themselves to mimicking, with all the skill at their disposal, the archetype of the great master. Let us envision the next several centuries as the expression of this “decision,” so that, looking back on the Italian Renaissance, or visiting its museums, we would see a long and unbroken procession of the Giottoan style applied by dozens if not hundreds of different hands to thousands of different subjects. Let us imagine that the same precedent was established in poetry, after the model of Dante, sculpture, after the model of Donatello, and music, after the model of Palestrina. What would we, with our sensibilities, perceive, looking on such a history?
We would perceive principally two things: stagnation and slavery. Stagnation, on account of the stylistic monotony of the tradition; its visual, its verbal, its auditory uniformity. We, who are accustomed to viewing the years between about 1300 to 1600 as a time of the most remarkable explosion of colors, forms, sounds, would find the alternative history presented above as a most striking dearth and poverty. Its uniformity would appear to us as monotony, its fidelity would strike us as slavish. It would seem to us an incredible waste, and if we were pressed to say just what had been wasted, we might instinctively blurt out—why, talent! Genius!
What would we mean? Just that the great personalities, the great souls, who made their mark so distinctly on our actual history, had been in this alternative history enslaved, subjugated to another’s artistic vision. Masaccio and Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli, Boccaccio and Petrarch, Tasso and Aretino, Monteverdi and Rossini—what, all the stableboys in another’s stalls? And these but a handful of names, in a list as long as you please! All that great, nay, impossible wealth of power and ability, squandered in servile imitations, parrot or echo-like repetitions—but is this not tragic?
Quite, my dear reader—truly, I could not agree more. But that is a most striking reaction on both of our parts, the more striking as we are not wont to perceive it as such. Truly, it says an enormity about you, about me, and many times more importantly, about the Occidental Tradition to which we belong, and the crisis in which it presently finds itself.
For note it well—the “alternate history” proposed above is in fact but the abridged and somewhat caricatured artistic history of the entire world beyond the borders of the West. Choose you the civilization you will, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Indian, the Egyptian—its artists all dedicated themselves taste and soul to a single rigidly defined, tyrannically moderated, artistic style. They dedicated their lives, often anonymously, to the perfection of a single exemplar, the refinement and ever more excellent representation, not even of an ideal so much as an archetype. Or take what tribal people you please: the same tendency makes itself seen; the same obedient and loyal reflection of what came before, albeit without the elegance, the refinement, the consummate skill which characterizes the later periods of the afore-mentioned civilizations. The natural condition of the arts, it would appear, is one precisely of “stagnation and slavery;” it is anything but Western.
To be sure, matters have somewhat changed since the global dominance of the West; the West itself has changed matters. But these changes, it might well be argued, have been more superficial than profound. Look to the new Chinese school of painting, if you will, or to the incomparable technical skill of so many Oriental musicians and instrumentalists. Therein you will perceive, in general and with notable exceptions, a stunningly competent and admirable capacity for the reproduction of Western models. This new tradition cannot be too highly praised for its proficiency, but it is nonetheless nothing Western, nothing new…
Then, of course, there is Russia—that eternally problematic and enigmatic Russia, which has had to struggle in its soul, and often enough even in the souls of its greatest artists, between East and West. Russia—that case unto itself, that glorious neither here nor there, which perhaps not even after the interminable, unconscionable nightmare of the past century has terminated its incredible stores of energy, power, promise, because notwithstanding all that has transpired it has never learned to feel ashamed of them— No, this is not the place to speak of Russia. Russia is an exception to every rule, and can but confound the present discourse. Then we lay Russia out of sight for the present, though never out of mind.
As for the East, or the tribal peoples of the South and of the pre-New World Americas—they all of them adopted a traditionalist style which almost worshiped that which had come before, and sought diligently and with all due reverence to preserve and continue the sacred greatness of the past. Often enough in such cultures as these, the art of the present is seen as being the perpetuation of the gift of some god, the extension into the present moment of a far distant and almost forgotten donation from heaven to humanity. That infuses the very idea of “art” in such places with a sense of duty and responsibility—duty and responsibility to a more divine past. This art could therefore best be called by a name usually reserved to the Egyptian style, but which in truth encompasses the vast majority of artistic traditions in all the world, in a pattern whose only major exception is our own. The art of the non-Occidental world, we may say, is hieratic.
But this is true not only of the non-Occidental world. Look as well closer as well to home. The Renaissance, as everyone knows, was a rebirth. That implies that what was reborn had succumbed, had died: the culture of antiquity in Europe had “gone under,” had been buried by—by what? By Christendom. What was the nature of this death, this going under? This period we call the Dark Ages, for the degree to which it obscured the genius and the achievements of classical antiquity—what was it, finally? Not, to be sure, a time in which “nothing was done”; not even artistically is this the case. There are many who object to the very idea of the “Dark Ages,” and to an extent they are right to do so; they would rechristen that period as “dark,” not indeed for being inactive, backward, and without sunlight, but for being forgotten, lost, by a world which is blinded by the brilliance of the Renaissance. They speak, and rightly so, of the High Middle Age.
But no one who looks on the history of the West, even from such a vantage, can fail to see that there was a rupture in its history. No one can believe that the arc cast from Athens to Florence, from the Greek classics to their Italian rediscovery, was unbroken, no one can perceive anything like continuity there. The break is represented everywhere one looks, be it in the old statues defaced by the Vandals, or the old architecture left to crumble and to rot; be it the fragments and whispers of the ancient gods which appear radically reinterpreted within the Christian tradition or the palimpsests of classic philosophy and poetry which survived consumption because some monk scrawled his shopping list on them. It is represented more palpably yet by absences—by all we have lost in those centuries of intercession—by the missing verses of Sappho and Anachreon, the forgotten dialogues of Aristotle and vanished writings of the pre-Socratic sages, the invisible sculptures of Phidias and Praxiteles, the whole constellation of ancient music which no modern ear has ever heard, or the accents of old tongues we struggle to reconstruct always somewhat in vain, always somewhat as the deaf trying to imagine the human voice. The West came back to us through the Middle East: but that means, it had gone away.
What do we see when we gaze upon the Middle Ages? Speaking to our themes, speaking aesthetically, artistically, we see—generations and generations of artists, each attempting, often anonymously, almost always humbly, to refine, perfect, and render more fully the noble archetype of the Christian tradition. We find an incredible lineage of iconography, all bound to a rigid style and untransgressable rules: we find the falsely-named Gregorian chant, its forms, scales, and rules imposed tyrannically from above, via religion and via politics, to the exclusion of other competing and innovative developments; we find long centuries of a poetry metered out to the poets line for line and measure for measure, and chained generally to religious themes. We find, in short, hieratic art, an imposition on the spirit of the West from without—we find the Orient within the Occident.
Speaking artistically, the Middle Ages appear then truly as dark ages, as the intercession and interruption of a truly and uniquely Western tradition. They represent the slumber of the Western spirit, its long deep sleep, finally broken in the Renaissance, which latter age was as much a reincarnation as a rebirth, an awakening and a remembrance and, most essentially and most importantly, an innovation on an elder theme.
And thus the question that shall spur us as we proceed: what is the nature of this nature, this purely Western nature? In what does Western art, born to us in classical antiquity and requited to us in the first act of modernity, finally and most profoundly, consist?
Continue to Ars et Arma, Part II