Wednesday, September 29, 2004 +

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

From Christian and Oriental Philsophy of Art:

All the arts, without exception, are representations or likenesses of a model; which does not mean that they are such as to tell us what the model looks like, which would be impossible seeing that the forms of traditional art are typically imitative of invisible things, which have no looks, but that they are such adequate analogies as to be able to remind us, i.e., put us in mind again, of their archetypes. Works of art are reminders; in other words, supports of contemplation.

The what of art is far more important than the how; it should, indeed, be the what that determines the how, as form determines shape.

It is luxurious to make mantelpiece ornaments of the artefacts of what we term uncivilized or superstitious peoples, whose culture we think of as much inferior to our own, and which our touch has destroyed: the attitude, however ignorant, of those who used to call these things "abominations" and "beastly devices of the heathen" was a much healthier one.

The vulgarism of humanism appears nakedly and unashamed in all euhemerism.

All possessions not at the same time beautiful and useful are an affront to human dignity. Ours is perhaps the first society to find it natural that some things should be beautiful and others useful. To be voluntarily poor is to have rejected what we cannot both admire and use; this definition can be applied alike to the case of the millionaire and to that of the monk.

...our environment, with its exaggerated standards of living and equally deprecated standards of life.... is a matter of fact that a well made icon will be beautiful, in other words that it will please when seen by those for whose use it was made, but the imager is casting his bronze primarily for use and not as a mantelpiece ornament or for the museum showcase.

"To be properly expressed," as Eckhart says, "a thing must proceed from within, moved by its form." It is just as necesary that the idea of the work to be done should first of all be imagined in an imitable form as that the workman should command the technique by which this mental image can be imitated in the available material. "It is," as Augustine says, "by their ideas that we judge of what things ought to be like."

Beauty is at once a symptom and an invitation; as truth is apprehended by the intellect, so beauty moves the will; beauty is always ordered to reproduction, whether a physical generation or spiritual regeneration. To think of beauty as a thing to be enjoyed apart from use it to be a naturalist, a fetishist, and an idolater.

The collector who owns a crucifix of the finest period and workmanship, and merely enjoys its "beauty," is in a very different position from that of the equally sensitive worshipper, who also feels its power, and is actually moved to take up his own cross; only the latter can be said to have understood the work in its entirety, only the former can be called a fetishist.

We are altogether too busy, and have made a vice of industry.

The modern artist's ambition to be represented in a museum is his vanity, and betrays a complete misunderstanding of the function of art; for if a work has been made to meet a given and specific need, it can only be effective in the environment for which it was designed, that is to say in some such vital context as a man's house in which he lives, or in a street, or in a church, and not in any place the primary function of which is to contain all sorts of art.

...if we need art only if and because we like art, and ought to be good only if and because we like to be good, art and ethics are made out to be mere matters of taste, and no objection can be raised if we say that we have no use for art because we do not like it, or no reason to be good, because we prefer to be bad.... In all normal and humane civilizations the doctrine about art has been that art is...a means, and not a final end.... The fact that a man takes pleasure, or may take pleasure, in doing well or making well, does not suffice to make of this pleasure the purpose of his work, except in the case of the man who is self-righteous or that of the man who is merely a self-expressionist: just as the pleasure of eating cannot be called the final end of eating, except in the case of the glutton who lives to eat.

The workman becomes a patron as soon as he proceeds to buy for his own use. And to him as consumer we suggest that the man who, when he needs a suit, does not buy two ready made suits of shoddy material, but commissions a skilled tailor to make one suit of fine material, is a far better patron of art and better philanthropist than the man who merfely acquires an old master and gives it to the nation.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that a treatment which represents a mystical event as if a current event communicates it not less but more vividly, and in this sense more "correctly," than one which by a pedantic regard for archaelogical precision rather separates the event from the spectator's "now" and makes it a thing of the past.

...the common expression according to which it is said that with the Renaissance interest shifted from the future to a present life is a misleading half-truth; the larger truth is that the interest shifted from an inner presence to an outer present, from the spiritual essence of the very Man to the accidents of his sensitive outer ego, and that whereas it had been held that the very Man is literally capable of all things, the stature of this man was now to be reduced to that of a refined and sensitive animal, whose behaviourism should depend, like that of any other animal, on a merely estimative knowledge. It is the former Man, the God, that was to be represented in the ideal portrait envisaged by tradition; the latter and animal-man that is represented in our art.