THE EVOLUTION OF ART
I believe it was Winklemann who once wrote that the moderns had failed to attain to the perfect aesthetic beauty of the ancients; that the Christian civilization of the West had not equalled, let alone surpassed, the ideal beauty achieved by the ancient Greeks in their, for the most part, sculptural traditions. Now if I am not mistaken, it was with a critical and not altogether sympathetic eye that the great German aesthetician looked upon this fact. And looked upon it even with regard to the Renaissance, when, as we all know, ancient values were resurrected and geniuses of the stature of da Vinci and Michelangelo endeavoured to equal, if not surpass, what was regarded as an art superior in beauty to the Christian.
I shall not attempt to disagree with Winklemann's assertion
concerning the aesthetic pre-eminence of Greek sculpture. But I do see reason to question the
contention that because Christian sculpture, even in its neo-pagan guise, was
less beautiful than the finest works of ancient
No, contrary to Herr Winklemann's assumption, the Christians did not fail to emulate or surpass the ancient Greeks. On the contrary, they concentrated, if not exclusively then at any rate partly, on a creative dimension and objective, namely truth, for which the Greeks not only had little respect ... but no real understanding, and precisely because it would have been alien to their level of civilization, a level that required unbroken fidelity to pagan criteria. Morally considered, the Christians were somewhat superior to the ancient Greeks; for the sculpture half-beautiful and half-truthful can only arise at a later juncture in evolutionary time than the sculpture exclusively or predominantly concerned with beauty - evolution being a struggle from appearance to essence, which is to say, from the absolute beauty of the stars to the absolute truth of transcendent spirit. Even with the Renaissance - a half-hearted attempt to rival the ancient Greeks - the leading sculptors, not excepting Michelangelo and da Vinci, managed to avoid producing works as beautiful as their pagan prototypes, and this largely in spite of themselves and because they, no less than everyone else, were inheritors of a thousand or so years of Christian civilization, in which truth had come to supplant beauty in the scale of moral worth. Admittedly, they were Italians, and thus arguably part-descendants of the ancient Romans. So one could to some extent speak of a recrudescence of pagan civilization in defiance of Christian values and the (compared with certain other European countries) relatively thin veneer of Christianity that had been imposed on a traditionally pagan people from without. Certainly, the fact that the Renaissance broke out primarily in Italy and in rebellion against the Gothic ideal (to truth) of Northern Europe, suggests that a vein of paganism remained firmly embedded in the Italian psyche and only required the relaxation of cultural pressure ... for it to bubble-up, like molten lava, and gush forth in the neo-pagan effusions of the Renaissance - a movement mistakenly identified, in my opinion, with one of the greatest periods in the history of Western civilization!
Yet, much as they sought to rival the ancients, the leading sculptors of the Renaissance were no ancient Greeks or Romans but modern Italians, the inheritors of Christian values. Their sculptures, detached from Christian iconography and free-standing, were very often beautiful, but by no means as beautiful, fortunately, as the works upon which they had been partly modelled. The human soul had made some progress in the meantime, and neither da Vinci nor Michelangelo were content to carve sculptures the faces of which resembled soulless masks! After all, the closer one approximates to Absolute Beauty with the use of the human form - a form which, by definition, will preclude all but a relative approximation to it - the greater the emphasis one must place on appearance alone, and the more lifeless the facial features of the sculpture in question will become, since expression is a concession to soul and thus to essence, albeit, in its emotional manifestation, to the lower essence of the subconscious rather than, as with spirit, to the higher essence of the superconscious. Such higher essence would, however, be beyond appearance altogether, and so could never be defined in terms of the Greek ideal of mask-like vacuity, which, by contrast, is necessarily beneath essence conceived as soul. It could be defined, as I hope to demonstrate presently, in terms of biomorphic or abstract sculpture, such as one encounters in the twentieth century. But the men of the Renaissance had no desire to completely forsake the soul, which is why their works, though morally inferior to much Gothic and subsequent Baroque sculpture, remained morally superior to the pagan masterpieces they sought to emulate and, if possible, excel. Unadulterated appearance appertains to the Diabolic Alpha!
In tracing the history of art's development, we find that the ancients preferred sculpture to anything else - indeed, were predominantly and for long periods almost solely concerned with sculpture. Why was this? I think the answer must be: because sculpture, besides being the most materialistic mode of artistic endeavour and therefore the one most suited to a pagan age, is the art form that permits the closest possible approximation to nature and, by implication, to Absolute Beauty, irrespective of the limitations inherent in the (anthropomorphic) medium itself. A civilization the ideal of which is 'the Beautiful' will find, in sculpture, its appropriate medium of expression, and the ancients took this medium to unprecedented and, as we now know, unsurpassed levels of aesthetic perfection - a truly diabolical perfection of pagan classicism.
Painting, on the other hand, is less well-suited to the emulation of nature because it is inherently two-dimensional and partly transcendental, which is to say, detached from the material, utilitarian world in a creative realm unique to itself. Of course, painting in the sense that we generally understand the term, i.e. oils on canvas, did not arise and could not have arisen in the pre-atomic age of the ancient Greeks, for the simple reason that the degree of spiritual evolution necessary to the adoption of such a partly transcendental medium didn't exist in pagan times. Even the Romans, late pagans though they were, never took painting beyond the wall, where it existed in conjunction with utilitarian ends and reflected a largely materialistic bias. The mural and the mosaic, which the Romans took to a very high level indeed, are the precursors of painting as we generally understand it and, to a significant extent, the successors to sculpture and amphora painting, both of which particularly appealed to the Greeks. For the evolution of art is from the materialistic to the spiritualistic, from the mundane to the transcendent, and although the co-existence of sculpture and painting over a given period of time - never more consistently so than in a Christian, or atomic, age - may lead one to infer equal though separate status to each medium of expression, nevertheless the sculptural must eventually be transcended by an art form stemming from painting and, to a greater extent, light art, which yet transcends both painting and light art at the same time.
Such an art form will, I believe, be holography, and it should become the principal and, ultimately, sole mode of artistic expression in the future transcendental, or post-atomic, civilization. For what light art was to painting and painting to murals, namely a step away from the mundane in the direction of greater transcendentalism, holography must one day become to light art, as connections with the mundane are entirely severed in a wholly transcendental art form or, at any rate, in one which gives the impression of being wholly transcendental, such as should bring the evolution of art to completion in maximum spiritualization.
Thus what began in three-dimensional sculpture as the closest possible approximation, using representational means, to Absolute Beauty, will culminate in three-dimensional holography ... as the closest possible intimation, using abstract means, of Absolute Truth. The development of vase painting at a later stage than sculpture, of murals at a later stage than vase painting, of canvas painting at a later stage than murals, of light art at a later stage than canvas painting, signify but intermediate realms of creative evolution between the two extremes - that of pagan sculpture on the one hand, and of transcendental holography on the other.
What, then, of modern sculpture, considered in its biomorphic or largely abstract guises? Surely there exists an antithesis of sorts between, say, a Phidias and a Henry Moore, between a Greek youth or warrior and a nondescript biomorphic shape? Yes, of course there does! And such an antithesis appertains solely to sculpture, that is to say, to extremes of sculptural development rather than to extremes of artistic development per se. At its best, modern sculpture intimates of truth - a thing, incidentally, which Moore doesn't always do; for, like Barbara Hepworth, he also inclines to a form of extreme naturalism, and thus approximates to varying degrees of natural beauty, not, of course, to anything like the same extent as the ancient Greeks (which is just as well), but certainly to an extent which makes one conscious of a particular work being partly beautiful rather than simply profound or true (though some intimation of truth there will probably be, if for no other reason than that the overall semi-abstract or non-representational shape of the work will suggest transcendental implications). For what transcends nature, by going beyond it, necessarily intimates of truth. The disadvantage with sculpture doing so is that it can never transcend its own materiality and is thus limited, to the degree that it is material, as a medium for intimating of spiritual truth. Admittedly, there have been experiments with extremely lightweight sculpture, not least of all by Naum Gabo, and such experiments undoubtedly mark a progression in the evolution of sculpture from its crudely material beginnings. But no matter how lightweight sculpture becomes, it cannot transcend its basic materiality or cease to have a tactile appeal, the sort of appeal which sculpture must retain if it is to do proper justice to itself as sculpture.
By contrast, light art, although often mistaken for or identified with sculpture, has no tactile appeal but stems from painting in the overall evolution of art, being a better intimation of truth to the extent that it is even more detached from materiality, i.e. canvas, oils, walls, frames, etc., and consequently suggestive of spirit by dint of the impalpability of electric or neon light. Of course, the use of artificial light to intimate of truth is inherently unsatisfactory, because transcendent spirit would not, when it eventually emerged from matter, i.e. collectivized new brains, be glaringly bright and therefore aligned with appearance. On the contrary, it would be an entirely essential emanation. Artificial light differs from natural light as an electric fire from an open fire - in degree rather than kind. This is especially true of electric light, though the electron bombardment of phosphor (which is the metaphysical principle underlining fluorescent lighting) bespeaks a considerable evolutionary progression in the development of artificial light and is, by definition, better suited to intimate of pure spirit. Yet, even then, art must necessarily fall short of that which it is intended to be an intimation; for the use of apparent means, no matter how refined upon, can never be anything more than a loose guide to essential ends. If, judged objectively, art is inevitably a failure, it is nevertheless a necessary failure, inextricably linked to man's destiny. And this is no less so at the pagan end of the spectrum of human evolution, where approximations to Absolute Beauty were never less than crude.
Returning to sculpture, it should be possible for us to clearly distinguish between extreme petty-bourgeois sculpture, whether lightweight or biomorphic, and light art, which stems not from sculpture (as a higher manifestation of sculptural development) but from painting and, needless to say, a particular kind of painting - namely, that which one would associate, in its abstraction, with the most extreme form of petty-bourgeois transcendentalism. Now whereas even the most radically biomorphic or lightweight modern sculpture stems from the fundamentally pagan tradition of sculptural development, and thus signifies the tail-end, as it were, of this art form's evolution, light art marks a fresh creative development in the overall evolution of art and may be defined as a post-atomic medium of expression, a medium forming an antithetical equivalent with the vase painting of the pre-atomic Greeks, and being but one evolutionary stage from the ultimate transcendental art ... in the abstract holography of the future post-atomic civilization.
Thus sculpture cannot actually extend beyond a bourgeois/proletarian phase of evolutionary development, for its materiality would be incompatible with an exclusively transcendental age, an age free of the pagan root and of any art form, including painting, which stemmed from that root in fidelity to natural beauty. Even art that was purposely ugly, as much modern art in the West certainly appears to be when judged by traditional standards, would be irrelevant to a civilization solely concerned with truth. For while such art may be relevant to and even, by a curious paradox, meritorious in a bourgeois/proletarian (transitional) age or society, it would be quite unnecessary in a society that had ceased to concern itself with aesthetics or their anti-beauty negation, having gravitated to higher concerns in loyalty to transcendental criteria. Whether it would be acceptable, from the historical standpoint, in a post-atomic age ... must remain open to debate. But it certainly wouldn't be created in such an age. For, as I hope to have demonstrated, creative endeavour would have progressed to a positive and altogether superior level - one diametrically antithetical to that of the ancient Greeks.
As for the culmination of the sculptural tradition in the two main types of petty-bourgeois sculpture we have witnessed this century, it is doubtful that Winklemann, if he could return from the grave to witness certain typical examples of it, would appreciably modify his opinion concerning the failure of Western art to attain to the high level of beauty achieved by the ancients. Confronted by a Giacometti, which, to my mind, aptly signifies the negative or anti-beauty side of this culmination, he would probably be appalled by the extreme slenderness and knobbliness of the figure, the facial expression of which was far too redolent of soul to satisfy even a crude approximation to human, let alone absolute, beauty. Confronted, on the other hand, by an Arp, which, as biomorphic sculpture, seems to aptly signify its positive or pro-truth side, he would be at a loss to establish any formal connections between such sculpture and nature, and would have to confess that Arp, no less than Giacometti, was an abysmal failure by ancient Greek standards, as well as a further example of the lamentable decline in aesthetic merit which Western sculpture appeared to signify. Ah, poor Winklemann! He could never have understood the truth. He died facing Hell. His spirit, fortunately, cannot be resurrected!