The dissertation deals, as its title promises, with the theories on art of the three major figures in the Traditionalist movement, as well as with those of Titus Burckhardt–important for theories on art, if not so much for Traditionalism as a whole–and of Luc Benoist, also important for theories on art, whose views are dealt with more briefly (and so not mentioned in the dissertation’s title).
The dissertation is an impressively detailed and comprehensive study of Traditionalist views on art. Guénon himself was not much interested in art as such, but he was interested in the initiatic function of the métier, and in symbolism, and these interests formed the basis of the Traditionalist theories of art developed by Benoist, Coomaraswamy, and others. Art was important to Coomaraswamy and Benoist because it was their professions–both were art historians.
It is with Schuon that art became really important to Traditionalism as a whole. This was partly because Schuon came from an artistic milieu and had an artistic "temperament," and partly because one major difference between him and Guénon, as Ringgenberg convincingly argues, was that he was interested in areas that Guénon had ignored– the “human content of spiritual phenomena,” areas of life such as emotion and love, and the living phenomenology of religion. This was one reason he was able to transform Traditionalism from a theory into a reality in the form of the Maryamiyya. And it was also one reason why art became so important.
Art was, in Schuon’s view, important for creating a milieu in which other things became possible. Spiritual influences, he wrote, "need a formal ambience which corresponds to them analogically, without which they do not spread, even if they still remain present." For Schuon, following Plato, earthly beauty was a (poor) reflection of a non-earthly reality, and thus a divine emanation. It was central to his spirituality, and so to that of the Maryamiyya. Ringgenberg does not go so far as to suggest that the Maryamiyya was, in a sense, a work of art, but the argument might be made.
Ringgenberg convincingly argues that Schuon's own painting owes rather more to Gauguin than to Traditionalist theory. The problem was that, though claiming to despise and ignore the modern, Schuon’s painting could not overcome the modern, and was itself therefore modern, without acknowledging this and without, as a result, being able to address it.
This may be a problem for Traditionalism as a whole. As Ringgenberg writes, “these authors forget that universalism cannot be expressed as such, that it is always individualized by its expression, and that it is an abstract ideal filtered by human consciousness and by a cultural and historical moment."
One of the central questions that Ringgenberg asks is why all this theorizing on art led, in the end, to nothing. Despite much interest, no artistic movement resulted. The only painters to attempt to implement Traditionalist conceptions of art in painting (as opposed to in art history) were Albert Gleizes, who soon abandoned the attempt, and Schuon, whose paintings were hardly "traditional." Ringgenberg suggests a number of answers to this question, which may (again) be relevant to assessing the record of Traditionalism as a whole, not just in relation to theories on art. One of his answers is that Traditionalist theories were over-theoretical, taking too little account of variety and reality, emphasizing what a symbol should mean so much that there was no space for consideration of what it actually did mean to those who created it. Another answer is that great art has to have some sort of dialectical relationship with the society in which it is produced, which Traditionalist art could not, since Traditionalism condemned and then tried to ignore contemporary society. Traditionalism also did not provide enough room for development, he believes: “founded on the axiom of a universalist metaphysics, by definition unchangeable and beyond time, this intellectual perspective did not permit fundamental questioning, and contented itself with repeating, in different terms, ... the opinions and options articulated by its founders.”
Ringgenberg’s conclusion on Coomaraswamy is crushing, and not without basis, and deserves to be quoted in full:
Lui qui insistait sur l’impersonnalité des artisans, des sages et des philosophes « traditionnels », qui se refusait à toute donnée autobiographique au nom d’une vérité qui dépasse les individus ; lui qui entendait faire parler les textes pour dissimuler sa subjectivité et déployer des trésors d’érudition pour cacher sa démarche herméneutique, qui défendait un universalisme pour échapper à tout particularisme religieux et toute subjectivité confessionnelle, il n’a pas eu conscience que cette volonté d’effacement et cette aspiration au « supra-individuel » révélait, en creux, comme chez Guénon, une personnalité qui a élaboré son image de l’universalisme et dressé son propre miroir (p. 370).With regard to sources for other researchers, Ringgenberg draws attention to the usefulness of Schuon’s poems as autobiographical sources, especially for the period not covered by Erinnerungen und Betrachtungen. He also recommends two books above all for Traditionalist theories of art: Luc Benoist, Art du monde. La spiritualité du métier (Paris: Gallimard, 1941) and Titus Burckhardt, Principes et méthodes de l’art sacré (1958; Paris, Dervy-Livres, 1976).