Man and Art
The vocation sine qua non of man is to be spiritual. Spirituality manifests itself on the planes which constitute man, namely intelligence, will, affectivity, production: human intelligence is capable of transcendence, of the absolute, of objectivity; the human will is capable of liberty, and thus of conformity to what is grasped by the intelligence; human feeling (affectivity), which is joined to each of the preceding faculties, is capable of compassion and generosity, by reason of the objectivity of the human mind, which takes the soul out of its animal egoism. Finally, there is the specifically human capacity for production, and it is because of this that man has been called homo faber, and not homo sapiens only: it is the capacity for producing tools and constructing dwellings and sanctuaries, and if need be for making clothes and creating works of art, and also for spontaneously combining in these creations symbolism and harmony. The language of harmony may be simple or rich, depending on needs, perspectives, and temperaments; decoration too has its purpose, both from the point of view of symbolism, and from that of musicality. This amounts to saying that this fourth capacity must also have a spiritual content on pain of not being human; its role moreover is simply to exteriorize the three preceding capacities by adapting them to material needs or the needs of worship, or let us simply say by projecting them into the sensible order otherwise than by rational discourse or writing. Exiled on earth as we are, unless we are able to content ourselves with that shadow of Paradise that is virgin nature, we must create for ourselves surroundings which by their truth and their beauty recall our heavenly origin and thereby also awaken our hope.
What the people need in order to find meaning in life, hence the possibility of earthly happiness, is religion and the crafts: religion because every man has need of it, and the crafts because they allow man to manifest his personality and to realize his vocation in the framework of a sapiential symbolism; every man loves intelligible work and work well done. Now, industrialism has robbed the people of both things: on the one hand of religion, denied by scientism from which industry derives, and rendered implausible by the inhuman character of the ambience of machinery; and on the other hand of the crafts, replaced precisely by machines; so much so, that in spite of all the “social doctrines” of the Church and the nationalistic bourgeoisie, there is nothing left for the people which can give meaning to their life and make them happy.
The elements of beauty, be they visual or auditive, static or dynamic, are not only pleasant, they are above all true and their pleasantness comes from their truth: this is the most obvious, and yet the least understood truth of aesthetics. Furthermore, as Plotinus remarked, every element of beauty or harmony is a mirror or receptacle which attracts the spiritual presence to its form or color, if one may so express it; if this applies as directly as possible to sacred symbols, it also applies, in a less direct and more diffuse way, in the case of all things that are harmonious and therefore true. Thus, an artisanal ambience made of sober beauty—for there is no question of sumptuousness except in very special cases—attracts or favors barakah, “blessing”; not that it creates spirituality any more than pure air creates health, but it is at all events in conformity with it, which is much, and which, humanly, is the normal thing.
In spite of these facts, which would seem to be quite obvious and which are corroborated by all the beauties that Heaven has bestowed on the traditional worlds, some will doubtless ask what connection there can be between the aesthetic value of a house, of an interior decoration, or of a tool and spiritual realization: did Shankara ever concern himself with aesthetics or morality? The answer to this is that the soul of a sage of this caliber is naturally beautiful and exempt from every pettiness, and that furthermore, an integrally traditional environment—especially in a milieu like that of the brahmins—largely if not absolutely excludes artistic or artisanal ugliness; so much so that Shankara had nothing to teach—nor a fortiori to learn—on the subject of aesthetic values, unless he had been an artist by vocation and profession, which he was not, and which his mission was far from demanding.
To be sure, the sensation of the beautiful may in fact be only a pleasant experience, depending on the degree of receptiveness; but according to its nature and of course by virtue of its object, it offers to the intellect, in parallel with its musicality, an intellectual satisfaction, and thus an element of knowledge.
Art in the broadest sense is the crystallization of archetypal values, and not a literal copy of the phenomena of nature or of the soul; and that is why the terms “reality” and “realism” have another meaning in art than in the sciences; the latter record phenomena without disdaining accidental and insignificant contingencies, whereas art, on the contrary, operates by abstraction in order to extract gold from “raw material.” Positive originality cannot arise from our desires; it proceeds from a combination of our traditional environment and our legitimate personality, a combination pregnant with archetypes susceptible of manifesting themselves in it, and disposed to doing so. In a word, art is the quest for—and the revelation of—the center, within us as well as around us.
Certainly the artist does not fashion his work with the sole intention of producing a spiritually or psychologically useful object; he also produces it for the joy of creating by imitating, and of imitating by creating, that is to say, for the joy of elucidating the existential intention of the model, or in other words, of extracting from the latter its very quintessence; at least this is so in some cases, which it would be pretentious and out of proportion to generalize. In other cases, on the contrary, the work of the artist is an extinction through love, the artist dying, so to speak, in creating: he performs an act of union by identifying himself with the admired or beloved object, by recreating it according to the music of his own soul.
At all events, the “sensible consolation” is in the work before being in the result; the sanctification of the religious artist precedes that of the spectator. Every legitimate art satisfies both emotivity and intelligence, not only in the finished work, but also in its production.
There is likewise in art a desire to pin down the visual, auditive, or other forms which escape us, and which we wish to retain or possess; to this desire for fixation or possession there is added quite naturally a desire for assimilation, for a quality must not only be beautiful, it must also be entirely ours, which brings us back directly or indirectly, depending on the case, to the theme of union and love.
For God, His creature reflects an exteriorized aspect of Himself; for the artist, on the contrary, the work is a reflection of an inner reality of which he himself is only an outward aspect; God creates His own image, while man so to speak fashions his own essence, at least symbolically. On the principial plane, the inner manifests itself in the outer, but on the manifested plane, the outer fashions the inner, and a sufficient reason for all traditional art, no matter of what kind, is the fact that in a certain sense the work is greater than the artist himself, and brings back the latter, through the mystery of artistic creation, to the proximity of his own Divine Essence.1
1 This explains the danger, so far as Semitic peoples are concerned, that lies in the painting and especially in the carving of living things. Where the Hindu and the inhabitant of the Far East adores a Divine reality through a symbol—and we know that a symbol is truly what it symbolizes as far as its essential reality is concerned—the Semite will display a tendency to deify the symbol itself; one of the reasons for the prohibition of plastic and pictorial arts amongst the Semitic peoples was certainly a wish to prevent naturalistic deviations.