An Addendum to Ruskin: Didactic Art and Climate Warming.

global warming

To put Ruskin into context regarding the purpose of art, it has to be recognised that art has had a didactic purpose for thousands of years since the very origins of art. Prehistoric cave paintings almost certainly had a ceremonial or spiritual purpose. Some are in such dark inaccessible tunnels that they must have had a ritual meaning. [They were not ‘on show’ as in a public space.]

Religious art has always been made to communicate and promote the doctrines of the religion. On a more sinister note, totalitarian states have used art as propaganda.

The earliest Christian art is to be seen in the catacombs of Rome, dating from the third century. These are underground tombs where families buried their dead. There are over one hundred images of the ‘good shepherd’ in these catacombs; probably influenced by earlier Roman and Greek images. In the Christian tradition it is a symbol of protection in the afterlife.

Later on Christian art was made for cathedrals, churches, palaces, public spaces and private homes. And we mustn’t forget the rich tradition of Illuminated manuscripts. Not so well know is the fact that Illuminated manuscripts were also made to illustrate secular subjects, such as fables or medicinal cures; and there is even one illustrating a game of chess.

In the Mediaeval Period books were hand-made to prepare people for death. They were actually called The Art of Dying manuals! In them, the dying person had to look at pictures representing temptations and, each day, determine to overcome them in order for their souls to ascend to Heaven.

It is often said that Christian imagery in churches are ‘books for the illiterate.’ The origin of the idea, when the majority of the population was illiterate, goes back to Pope Gregory the Great (590 – 604). He wrote a letter to Bishop Serenus in which he says, ‘ What writing does for the literate, a picture does for the illiterate looking at it.’ and ‘Painted likenesses are made for the instruction of the ignorant so they may understand the stories and so learn what occurred.’

As Christianity developed elaborate altarpieces were constructed and painted for churches. They usually had side panels and predellas (a panel beneath the main picture-panel) so that the whole Christian narrative could be told by opening and closing certain panels on different occasions. Private homes would have smaller versions for private contemplation.

Buddhism, particularly Mahayana Buddhism, is rich in iconography. Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism has a large cast of Bodhisattvas, each representing a particular spiritual virtue such as compassion, wisdom or determination. Again, many Buddhists have altars in their homes with a Buddha statue as a central focus to aid meditation.

Let us return to the Ruskin quote. He does say that art is there to ‘please.’ so he isn’t saying all art should be didactic. However, he does say it should ‘exalt and refine.’ Now a quick look in my Oxford dictionary has this entry for ‘exalt.’ 1, praise or regard highly. 2. raise to a higher rank or position. 3. make noble in character; dignify. Now, one phrase which has characterised modernity is ‘the disenchantment of the world.’ [I forget who coined it] The idea is that with the ‘death of God’, and the moral vacuum left, the world has fragmented and art inevitably depicts the subsequent anxiety and alienation. All well and good; we can all respond to Munch’s Scream. However, the danger is that the status of the human being is diminished, we become cogs in an impersonal machine. To go back to that little word, ‘exalt’. One thing most of us will agree about is that we don’t dignify what it is to be human; we hardly ‘raise to a higher rank’ or ‘make noble’ our humanity. If we think of Tracy Emin’s Bed, for example, we can see that we ‘make ignoble’. Many artists glorify, or seem to celebrate our depravity; our various hatreds, greeds and delusions. Ruskin would despair if he returned to our times.

So, what am I suggesting? Is there a place in the twenty first century for a didactic art with a moral purpose? I definitely suggest that there might be. The challenge could hardly be greater. Annihilation of vast numbers of the global population through climate change. Can artists address this problem? Why not? There could even be a ‘re-enchantment of the world’ if such a movement went hand in hand with practical/political change.

Christianity managed to convey a unifying message with its millions of art works created throughout two millennia. Imagine if artists now united under a banner of ‘artists against climate catastrophe’ – how energising and positive such a project would be.

 

 

Advertisements

Rousseau & Kant

kant quote

Both Kant and Rousseau were important and influential Enlightenment thinkers. They both believed in the primacy of free thinking and in progress (although Rousseau had doubts about the latter). Kant would, no doubt, have gone along with Rousseau’s “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains.” and Rousseau would no doubt, have agreed with Kant’s “Dare to know. Have the courage to use your own reason.” Here, though, the similarities end. In the remainder of this essay, I hope to show that Rousseau was writing from a predominantly visceral, emotional position and that Kant from a more restrained, abstract intellectual position. Moreover, Rousseau was anti-Enlightenment in many respects. I also think Rousseau’s legacy is more relevant to us today.

In A Discourse on the Arts & Sciences, Rousseau writes:

“What is philosophy? What is contained in the writings of the most celebrated philosophers? To hear them, should we not take them for so many mountebanks, exhibiting themselves in public and crying out, Here, Here, come to me, I am the only true doctor? One of them teaches that there is no such thing as matter. . . Another declares that there is no other substance than matter, and no other God than the world itself.”

Clearly, he has a low opinion of philosophers who sit in ivory towers and debate about abstract concepts unrelated to real life. He would surely have applauded Marx’s dictum:

“Philosophers have only given different interpretations of the world; the important thing is to make it different.”

Unlike Kant, who believed in a kind of benevolent despotism, Rousseau saw the very institutions of society as rotten and corrupting. We can be sceptical today about his ‘noble savage’ but his belief in the essential goodness of humanity can be upheld. He wrote about a kind of Edenic life: the ‘state of nature’, where we were innocent and honest and before artificial self-love compelled us to compare ourselves with others. This belief of his was exemplified in his Emile and his criticism of state education. Far ahead of his times, he believed that the child was naturally curious and seeks to know about the world on its own terms. However, it must be pointed out, he farmed out his own children into a foundling institution; gross hypocrisy, I’m afraid!

Rousseau ends his essay with these words:

“Virtue! Sublime science of simple minds, are such industry and preparation needed if we are to know you? Are not your principles graven on every heart? Need we do more, to learn your laws, than examine ourselves and listen to the voice of conscience, when the passions are silent? This is the true philosophy.” Clearly, his self-awareness had not gone deep enough in regard to his fatherhood but he is, nevertheless, aligning himself with Socrates’, ‘know thyself’ and eschewing abstract philosophy.

Rousseau’s default position, that our original virtue is corrupted by society, means that he is at odds with the Enlightenment programme with its absolute belief in rationality and progress. Kant is more representative in this respect. He believed in free thinking and challenging institutional thinking, but he also ‘made room for faith.’ He wanted the institutions to become more enlightened and believed this could come about through reason alone.

Kant wanted to steer a middle way between science and religion, between the phenomenal world and the noumenal world and also wanted a synthesis of empiricism and reason. His famous ‘categorical imperative’ said that a law should only be accepted if the people could have imposed that law on themselves. However, he was clearly still talking about the elite; at this time much of the population was still semi-literate. Unlike today, with the likes of Trump’s tweets and instant social media, ideas could only circulate amongst the intellectual elite. Therefore, they would have a limited effect. Although he advocated the emancipation of the people, he thought, for example, women and the masses lacked courage to manage their own affairs. His conservatism in this respect was reassuring to the church and crown. He said that The Enlightenment was about gradual progress and not revolution; again this was reassuring to the establishment. He made a distinction between private and public use of free thought. For example, in his private role of clergyman the man of God should obey the church doctrines whereas in his public sphere he could debate and criticise doctrines. Today, we would understand this as ‘academic freedom.’ Nowadays, ideas first explored in academic papers are often taken up by journalists. Think for example about how ‘mindfulness’ has become widespread, or how the devastation of plastic in the environment has filtered down to some supermarkets taking action. In the 1700s ideas would filter down into the public arena more slowly. Of course, revolutions would speed the process up but Kant was eager to disengage himself from such radicalism.

I think, in conclusion, that the legacy of Rousseau can be seen today in such disparate areas as child-centred education, alternative life-styles, responses to the environmental crisis, spirituality and holistic living. Kant’s legacy is more general and circumscribed but can be seen in the move to the democratisation of societies and the spread of freedom of speech.

Bruegel for today

 

 

artists_126 bruegel self portrait

Most people have admired the widely reproduced paintings of Bruegel the Elder. Paintings such as Children’s Games have even been made into jigsaw puzzles. However, his worldview and naturalistic style are no longer in favour so much. This is a pity as I believe his paintings and drawings still have much to say to us.
In 16th century Netherlands proverbs which illustrated the vices and foibles of humanity were popular. And this is our main stumbling block. Nowadays we don’t like being told what to think, let alone how to live! Some of the proverbs of Bruegel’s day may seem quaint to us but I’d argue that his broader worldview has a timeless quality more akin to Shakespeare’s view of humanity. In particular the notion of Theatrum Mundi (Theatre of the World), in which all human life is seen as an absurd spectacle acted out on a vast stage, is a view just as appealing today as in the 16th century.
In a short article it is impossible to do justice to Bruegel’s fecund imagination and vision. I’m only going to discuss two of his small drawings but would urge those interested to carefully examine in particular such works as Netherlandish Proverbs, Allegory of Pride, Allegory of Lust, Allegory of Avarice and Battle Between Carnival & Lent.

Bruegel’s countrymen and women were well aware of the moral temptations of a commercial society, particularly where greed and selfishness were concerned. Folk theatre of the age dramatized such follies. Elck was a sort of Everyman figure popular at the time. Elck’s spiritual blindness is depicted in a drawing of Bruegel’s done in 1558. In this exquisitely detailed 8×11 inch drawing an elderly man searches through a pile of barrels, tools, a chessboard and other objects – all of which represent the distractions of the world and the danger of too much ambition and insatiable greed. The broken globe at Elck’s feet is a traditional symbol of vanity. The drawing illustrates two sayings, Elck seeks himself in the world, and Elck tugs the longest end. This latter is depicted by two figures tugging on a strip of cloth. Elck’s lack of awareness is further illustrated by a picture hanging in the background. A fool gazes at his image in a mirror. He is Nemo or Nobody, another popular folk character. The inscription below translates as, Nobody Knows Himself. Pageants of the day portrayed Elck in a series of tableaux and moreover, the saying, Elck seeks himself and comes to grief because he cannot judge himself clearly, was one of the tableaux. Here we are far from quaint proverbs; we are more in the spiritual and psychological realm of Socrates’ Know Thyself.

 

 

Elck2

 

The Alchemist (12×17 in) is another drawing done in the same year. Alchemists were held in low esteem by the Netherlands’ increasingly rational, humanist intelligentsia and merchants. Stories circulated about people being fleeced and losing life savings.

 

 

 

bruegel alchemist
The drawing depicts an ill-clothed alchemist seated at his ‘laboratory’ bench; his wife sits behind him pointing to her empty purse showing that in spite of her husband’s occupation, it is not a money-spinner! Her child sits in a cupboard with an empty cooking pot on its head, further evidence that the family is trading in nothingness. A scholar sits at a desk and tells a fool to pump bellows on a charcoal burner. The learned man points to an entry in his large book which is a pun on the word, ‘alchemist’- all is lost! Through an opening in the back of the room we see the alchemist taking his family to a poorhouse. Exposing fraudulent merchants and enterprises was a popular pursuit in Europe. Today we see the same appetite for ridicule in expose-journalism and the satirical cartoons depicting politicians and celebrities. Also, although there are no alchemists around nowadays, all we have to do is switch on the TV to see yet another scam where someone has fleeced someone else out of thousands (or millions) of pounds. And there are many more kinds of exploitation nowadays where gullibility is involved.
In this short article I have focussed on the message or ‘moral’ of these two drawings as if they were literary forms instead of visual. I think it goes without saying that Bruegel shows his many draughtsmanship and compositional skills in these pictures; skills which would serve him well in his later paintings. (There are, of course, many other qualities to admire in Bruegel, his use of striking composition and colour for example. He was no mere moralist.) It must be remembered that he was working at a time when narrative and literary ideas figured strongly in paintings, etchings and prints.
It is a cliché that human nature never changes. I think that is why Bruegel’s work can still resonate today if we make the effort to really look. We may not know whether to laugh or cry at the world’s follies (Democritus was the optimist in the ancient world and Heraclitus the pessimist!) Perhaps there is a third choice; to see ourselves in the Theatre Mundi, to have compassion for ourselves and others, and live the best we can without causing too much mayhem.
In case it is thought that Bruegel was an out and out pessimist focussing on vice rather than virtue, he did depict The Seven Virtues too, and I should emphasise that his work, above all, celebrates life in all its richness, humanity and folly.
I would recommend using a magnifying glass to examine Bruegel’s work reproduced in books. If you are fortunate to see the originals you could always go armed with a magnifying glass! (I’m sure in Bruegel’s day people would spend considerable time ‘reading’ his paintings. In our world of instant-sensation we may spend a few minutes in front of a painting in a gallery if we are lucky.)
I am indebted to Walter S Gibson for the light he sheds on Bruegel in his excellent Thames & Hudson book, Bruegel, published in 1977.

Eric Nicholson – Cert Ed.
https://erikleo.wordpress.com
Twitter@erikleo8