Should the craze forÂ 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 âas well as their intelligence and sensitivityâ 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 âlisteningâ to the profound lessons given âsilentlyâ by the near and distant universe. Some among them would taste, again and again, the elixir of wisdom: âSilence is the first stone of the temple of wisdom. Listen and you will be wise; the beginning of wisdom is silenceâ (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. ExternalÂ or âad extraâ changes (cultural in nature) do not in themselves constitute the path to art. This is more properly the role of internal Â or âad intraâÂ 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: âThere is infinitely less novelty in the rapid flutterings of fashion than in the slow, continuous striving for perfection which is proper to truestyleâ.1
Lamentably, in the present day, there are many who value works of art âwhether paintings or sculpturesâ for the externalÂ (âad extraâ) 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 âso often arduous and gradualâ is now given little importance; we are content with merely surprising by change itself.
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 âContemporary Â Artâ, included here atÂ www.jrtrigo.es , such attitudes are classed as manifestations of the craze forÂ apparent novelty, analogous âat least some of themâ 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, âhe who doesn’t act as he thinks, ends up thinking as he actsâ. 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 âat timesâ of arrogance and contempt, of denigrating deformations of nature, one would say even a phobia of the human being).
Our cultureâs 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.Â 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 âaccording to this ideaâ 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 workâs 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 âa dazzling wonder in the case of the great masterpieces!â 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: âOur culture disintegrates and empties everything of meaningâ. 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 âideology of desireâ; 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 donât 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 âŠ 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.
âA society is in decadence, definitive or transitory, when common sense has become uncommonâ (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 âstate of rightsâ 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 slaveryâŠ 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: âA world inhabited and dominated by Supermen who have imposed their will and power on men who are inferior, mediocre and commonâÂ 6. Â A stench of national-socialism (an ideology supported by Nietzscheâs thesis of the Superman) is invading the earthâŠ Might it be a leak, on a planetary level, from the Nazi gas chambers?
âIf 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 crookedlyâ 7. Man does not invent moral rule, but discovers itâŠ as did those scientists and artists âwe read earlierâ who coincided in âlisteningâ 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!
Is it not surprising that France, birthplace of Descartes and modern rationalism, would also be that of âImpressionismâ, 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, CĂ©zanne âalthough he is classed as âpost-Impressionistââ, would attempt to correct the excessive dissolution of forms and the taste for eternalizing the instant which are so characteristic of Impressionism, saying: âI want to make of Impressionism something solid and long-lasting like the art of the museumsâ; âeveryone is mad about the Impressionists; what art needs is a Poussin done more in accordance with natureâ. 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, orÂ philosophical ârealismâ (this is indeed the true natural posture of a sane, rational man); and on the other, âimmanentismâ 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)âŠ the inverse, perhaps, of the many sombre, rationalistic interpretations that 20th-century man has left us. âThe poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who asks to get the heavens into his headâ (Gilbert Keith Chesterton).
In classical Greece, the âsophistsâ (the so-called âsagesâ) co-existed with the âphilosophersâ (who professed themselves to be merely âlovers of wisdomâ). 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 âwith their rhetorical and dialectical skillsâ 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 âone of this second groupâ 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 âartistsâ 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 âlovers of wisdomâ, the âphilosophersâ; it is like a window thrown open to the great, mysterious and profound reality which challenges mankindâŠ âPhilosophersâ and true artists, joined together in a restless search for the elixir of wisdom! âPoets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonderâ, and it is this which awakens admiration (St Thomas de Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotleâs Metaphysics, 1, 3).
For centuries, all lovers of wisdom (the âimpressionistsâ 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: âYour truth? No, the truth; come and seek it with me. Keep yours to yourselfâÂ 8. In the 20th century, however, another type of attitude would appear: âThis is art because I say it is; I am an artist!â Which might be translated as: âBe surprised by what I do; I am an artist!â Such behaviour is reminiscent of the Greek âsophistsâ, sceptical and self-centred, and has been the justification for all manner of arbitrary extravagancies.
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 âas this dwells within the firstâ 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 âin many casesâ 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: âThe 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 disappearedâ.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 idealÂ âthis much is trueâ 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 KĂ¶ln group, had this to say:
Â ââThere 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 fashionsâ.
ââI am convinced that Bach composed above all for himself. The proof is in The Musical Offering. I donât think that anyone else of his time could have written something like that. I can imagine him with an attitude of Â«if they get it, fine; if not, itâs all the same to meÂ». Bachâs work does not bow before kings or society. Thatâs what makes it so important and, from a contemporary perspective, so transcendent.â
ââIn 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 popularityâ.
ââPerhaps 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.â
ââHow do you explain the fact that the sons enjoyed greater fame than their father?â
ââThe sons were famous for what we might call âdecorative artâ, an almost consumer-oriented music. Of prestige, but without much significanceâ.10
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 reachedâŠ 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 âartisticâ works which deny rather than affirm. In consequence, if we were to rate the artistic value of one of these nihilist, or ânegationistâ works (those of Mark Rothko come to mind) with an eight, by comparison the artistic value of a painting like Van Dyckâs Seizure of Christ, Titianâs Burial of Christ [no. 440] or El Grecoâs Baptism of ChristÂ âall belonging to the Prado Museumâ 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, ânegationistâ works are situated at the other extreme; that is, closer to chaos, or simply to nothing, than to orderâŠ Similarities to the new clothes of the ânaked kingâ in Hans Christian Andersenâs tale should not be overlooked.
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 âi.e. degenerated intoâ extravagances, extra-artistic provocations and ruptures with tradition that have served only to impoverish âauthentic deconstructions of our European and universal cultural heritageââŠ 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 âtoday so frequentâ 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. Â Â
âThe more poetic, the more trueâ (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. âIn Bach, everything is thought out and constructed with the perfection of a clockâÂ 11 The sonority of Bachâs 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!