Posts Tagged ‘art’

Where do we go from here?

How odd it is that the paradoxical creature called Man ever acts to destroy himself at the very point when one would expect him to burst into a bloom of a sublime civilisation.  Wherever we look, advanced civilisations bring themselves down.  China, India, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Byzantium, Rome.  It is as if we can take only so much civilised life ; then, if we take just one more step, we are overwhelmed by the desire to destroy ourselves – as if the goodness is just too good to be true ; too good to be allowed to live.

Of course, the details of the fall of each of those great civilisations differ ; but that leads us to conclude that there must be some general principle at work.  Perhaps a close inspection of each of them is needed ; and also a close inspection of our own rise and fall.  And we would be wise to assume that we shall indeed fall.

Are there signs that our civilisation is falling?  Do we see writings and deeds that indicate it?  Do our own thoughts show it?

The rise of Christendom, especially in Northern Europe was spectacular.  Just eighteen-hundred years ago we were brutal.  Within four-hundred years we were on the path to civilisation.  We may see that by examining the writings and the arts of those times.  The rise continued, with many fits, starts and relapses, right up until the early nineteenth century.  Then we peaked.  The best – in science, writing, poetry, painting, sculpture, music and singing – was all but over.  We had ceased to produce inspired architecture.  The aristocracy had ceased to be of the best.  The age of the industrialist had arrived, and these men copied the achievements of their predecessors and cheapened them, making unimagineable fortunes in the process. 

By the late twentieth century, almost all art was banal (at very best) and otherwise utterly vulgar.  Science consisted of footnotes to the great, and was, itself, subordinated to manufacturing.  All was done in the name of money and profit.  Today, you cannot see a reference to a work of art without its price being highlighted.  Even our great historic buildings have their value reckoned only in terms of cash and, perhaps, utility.

Possibly the last straw for our civilisation was burned in this late period.  For now, such is our love of cash, that we have exported the most profitable of our business – because foreign labour is cheaper.  And we are left with the sterile occupation of simply managing other people’s money as our most edifying industry – but without the energy and art of Florence.  It is a travesty of all that our ancestors struggled to achieve.

Is our civilisation in decline?  I doubt if this generation knows how to answer such a question.


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Long ago I read a newspaper article which beautifully praised the life and works of a famous artist.  I have forgotten his name but that is of no consequence, for similar articles appear from time to time describing such clever people.  What struck the writer of the article most strongly was the ability of the artist to visualise ideal scenes – the sort that idealise Nature to a seemingly impossible degree.  Thus it was that he could paint a scene (real or fictional) not as it would normally appear, but as it seemingly ought to be if only the faults and vagaries of Nature were removed or rectified.  But perhaps that, in itself, was not the true genius of the artist ; rather, his genius showed itself in what he described as the perfect clarity of his visions, and in his wonderful ability remember and to paint exactly what he saw.

I expect there are many artists who share this gift in some measure ; and many more people who have the vision but lack the artistic skill to reproduce it.

And I expect there are just as many who have the visions (and maybe the artistic skill) but of a kind that are not at all beautiful – visions of perfect awfulness.  And it may well be that just about everyone has had such visions (both beautiful and horrid) in dreams.  Perhaps the great artists manage to enter into a dreamlike state whilst remaining fully awake.  Those with experience of hypnosis will have a good idea of what I mean.

One also hears occasionally of people who experience vivid impressions of scents and tastes, and even bodily feelings such as tensions and pains, though these are not so easily conveyed as art.

So four of our senses may be directly and vividly stimulated without any involvement of the organs of sense.  And generally this is accounted a good thing, a mark of genius.

When we turn to the fifth sense we find, first, something similar.  For example, it has been said that Beethoven could hear an entire symphony before he even set pen to paper or toyed with his piano keys to confirm his hearing.  Perhaps his profound deafness sharpened his imagination, but I don’t think that wholly accounts for his ability here, for Mozart also had the gift or genius.

I suspect also that great poets may vividly hear their lines before they begin to write ; as if their muse (or genius) is instructing them on what to put on the paper ; so as to ensure that the sounds, the rhythm, the rhyme, the metaphor and the meaning are all quite perfect for the context.  Again all this is generally marked as a gift of great price.

But then, the general opinion changes markedly in a certain respect.  For if the person who hears the voice in his head is not an acknowledged literary master, then his voices are taken to be signs, not of genius, but of madness.

There only so much that might be written about many things in the world ; but when it comes to people, the possibilities for discussion are endless.

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It has been said that all good art is imitative, if only because it is a rendering some real object in a different medium. Art is a wonderful thing.  And it is a mystery.   It is wonderful because we wonder why we do it ; why on earth should we make an imitation of something when the thing itself already exists?  and when the thing itself is better than our imitation of it?

Suppose I were to paint a portrait of somebody ; my efforts at imitation amount to no more than some lines drawn on a piece of paper or canvas ; perhaps I might add some coloured paints to try to make the portrait more lifelike.  To a viewer, my effort is obviously artificial.  Nobody is fooled into thinking that it is the real person.  It is obviously art.

I might be unsatisfied with my effort so, in order to achieve a more lifelike portrait, I might take a photograph.  This portrait will likely be much more lifelike ; but a viewer will not be deceived into thinking it is the real person, if only because he will see the edges of the photograph and the sheen of the paper.  It is obviously art.

But there are ways of displaying a photograph which conceal such giveaways as the edges and the sheen ; you can display the photograph so that the image does appear somewhat lifelike.  In this case, the portrait and its setting are trying to pass themselves off as real life ; as something other than art.  It is not obviously art.

You can imagine that, with a really good photograph and a really clever display, it is possible to deceive a viewer as to what he is really looking at.  You can, in effect, tell a big lie to the viewer, so that he thinks he is looking at a person when, in fact, he is only looking at a picture.

There is a general saying in art, “The better the likeness, the bigger the lie.”

Our mediaeval ancestors knew this better than we do.  That is one reason why they made their pictures with deliberate mistakes in them.  For example, they knew that God is pure spirit and that it is ridiculous to try to make an accurate portrait of Him.  So, to avoid making silly mistakes, to avoid supreme idolatry, they painted God as a man (suitably old and therefore wise!).  Also they knew that the spiritual world was not this everyday world ; so they drew the Old Man high in the sky to make that point quite clear.  But the main point is that everybody knew that these representations were metaphorical.  Nobody in those days ever believed that God was an Old Man in the sky.

The Church also encouraged artists to avoid trying to portray angels as they believed them to be.  That is why many mediaeval paintings portray heavenly angels as ordinary-looking people in ordinary dress ; no white robes, no wings, no luminous eyes.  Thus they avoided being drawn into falsity.

Today then, much art is a mystery that needs explaining.  Our ancestors would be puzzled at why we need such explanation.

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Christianity began with its founder suffering a bloody crucifixion ; continued to where its followers were persecuted even unto death ; and then progressed to develop the greatest civilisation the world has ever seen.  Christians have produced the best paintings, the best sculptures, the best music, the best literature ever ; even now there is no equal to them.  They also produced the scientists who established the best methods for examining the physical world – methods  which are used to this day.

Why do so many people now wish to get rid of such a productive system of beliefs?  I fear that one reason is  because they do not have a developed concept of progress.  They desire perfection, and think they can merely dream up a blueprint for it, forgetting that many such blueprints have been drawn before ; and then, so they think, they can merely legislate for it – forgetting that such has been tried in ages past.

They look back to their notions of what the Middle Ages were like, and feel repelled – forgetting that their medieval ancestors were repelled by what went before them ; and forgetting also that their own descendants will look back on this politically correct, amoral, sink-state age and feel an even greater repulsion, not simply because it is awful but because it is actually a regression from the heights once tentatively trodden.

So, why do they want to rid themselves of their religion and all that goes with it, including the best that goes with it?

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