Friday, June 18, 2010

Traditionalism and art--and perhaps more than art

An important new dissertation has just been defended at the University of Geneva: Patrick Ringgenberg, “Les théories de l'art dans la pensée traditionnelle. René Guénon - Ananda K. Coomaraswamy - Frithjof Schuon - Titus Burckhardt.” It is to be hoped that this dissertation, which is a major contribution to the study of Traditionalism in recent years, will soon be published as a book.

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).


Anonymous said...

Interesting topic! One might note that Frithjof Schuon’s two major books with his paintings, The Feathered Sun and Images of Primordial and Mystic Beauty were only published in 1990 and 1992 respectively. Moreover, Schuon’s paintings can perhaps be seen in a similar light as those of Ivan Aguéli, the Swedish painter and Muslim who initiated René Guénon into Sufism whose work has received acclaim and recognition. One might add that a number of Schuon’s associates, who were likely familiar with his paintings before their publication, have replicated his style.

Also of interest are other forms of art that the traditionalists have influenced. Schuon, Martin Lings, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr each have their own volumes of poetry, which Annemarie Schimmel, Hamza Yusuf, and Luce López-Baralt have respectively praised. The English composer Sir John Tavener also explicitly connects his work and inspiration to Schuon. Discernable traditionalist influence is also felt at The Prince’s School of Traditional Art in London and The Institute of Traditional Art and Architecture in Amman. It is perhaps here that one feels the influence of traditionalists upon art most profoundly. Their new forms of artistic inspirations are not necessary promoted or taught, but sacred and traditional models from the world’s religions themselves. The core texts of the traditionalists such as Burckhardt’s Sacred Art in East and West or his Art of Islam, Lings’ The Quranic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination, or Nasr’s Islamic Art and Spirituality are all referenced to bring out the principles of Islamic art, for example, as well as various historical manifestations. A fine example of how their work has influenced contemporary scholarship is Samer Akkach’s Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam, as well as the works of Keith Critchlow from the Prince’s School. One can also cite the revival of traditional art and architecture through the schools in London and Amman, the latter of which was responsible for the building of the minbar in the Masjid al-Aqsa in Jersusalem and the King Hussein Mosque in Amman. Burckhardt also helped restore and preserve the city of Fez.

The paintings of Aguéli or Schuon may be innovative and of interest to only a few, but the principles of sacred and traditional art and aesthetics that A.K. Coomaraswamy, Schuon, Burckhardt and others have outlined have led to small revivals of art in the world’s religions themselves, especially Islam, which is perhaps why someone such as Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller advises his disciples to avoid to traditionalists when it comes to Ibn ‘Arabi and comparative religion, but take from them regarding the central importance of Islamic art, which most contemporary Muslims, including those in Sufi orders, have basically neglected.

Thank you again for this post. I look forward to reading this dissertation.

Anonymous said...

Is this dissertation available for download?

Mark Sedgwick said...

Not as far as I know, but I will draw the author's attention to this question.

Mark Sedgwick said...

The author says he is revising for publication. The revised book should appear with Harmattan during 2011.

Anonymous said...

I think that the author's criticism of Coomaraswamy is unduly harsh. Why is his deployment of vast erudition a cover for his hermeneutic? Couldn't it just as well be taken as extensive support for his assertions (particularly that this was how art was understood by a wide variety of cultures)? Isn't that how real scholarship is supposed to work--by the accumulation of textual evidence? The use of actual textual support is one of the biggest differences between Coomaraswamy and Guenon (who rarely refers to outside writings or sources of any kind). I do think that it is pretty accurate to say, though, that the highly theoretical nature of Coomaraswamy's views are the reason why they didn't result in much actual artistic activity. As an approach for interpreting and understanding symbolic iconography, on the other hand, Coomaraswamy's is superior to Jung's psychological approach, regardless of what one thinks about the thesis of Perennialism. I'm just curious as to why Prof. Sedgwick seems to agree with the author that the marshalling of wide ranging and disparate historical evidence amounts to the obfuscation of Coomaraswamy's own views.

Mark Sedgwick said...

Anonymous wrote: "Isn't that how real scholarship is supposed to work--by the accumulation of textual evidence?"

A difficult and important question. In one view, scholarship is about the accumulation of data followed by the interpretation of that data: the interpretation follows on the data, rather than the data serving a previously established interpretation.

There is an alternative view, which is that ideological comnmitment properly precedes and informs the research. This was the view of the Marxist historians, for example.

Perhaps in the end it is a question of degree. In reality no scholar can ever completely remove themselves and their pre-existing views from their research, save perhaps in the natural sciences, and hsitory--for example--is in some ways as much an art as a science. But too much of a pre-existing commitment to one agenda or another easily stops a scholar from discovering the unexpected, and that--the discovery of the unexpected--is perhaps what scholarship is really about.

Anonymous said...

"But too much of a pre-existing commitment to one agenda or another easily stops a scholar from discovering the unexpected, and that--the discovery of the unexpected--is perhaps what scholarship is really about."

Well said, and I think in evaluating Coomaraswamy the real question is what exactly he ends up proving. I can't speak to how well he represents traditional Indian views about art not having any independent background on the subject but it does appear that he was well qualified to speak on the subject, given his experience before adopting a Traditionalist perspective. It's interesting, though, to see how his views changed over time. I'm thinking in particular of his book "Dance of Siva" which was published in 1914 (I believe) and in which he expresses some views that are certainly out of line with Traditionalist "orthodoxy"--for instance, he favorably compares the Hindu jivan-mukta to Nietzsche's ubermensch and seems to intimate that Nietzsche might have been some sort of prophet. The conceptual framework in which he places Indian art in those essays isn't as rigid as it would later become, in my opinion. On the other hand, his Traditionalist work ("Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art" and "Figures of Thought or Figures of Speech" are good examples) made Plato's philosophy of art clear to me in a way that it hadn't been previously. Based on the way it was taught to me in my undergrad philosophy courses, I think it's fair to say that Plato's position is often misunderstood by modern philosophers (Plato was not, as is usually said, against ALL art). This is, of course, due to the fact that throughout Plato's works there are some apparently contradictory indications about the nature of art and its value in society, and trying to unify them necessarily requires some interpretation. Coomaraswamy's take is in line with what Plato was actually getting at, though. What is more problematic is when one starts making bold historical claims--that something like the Platonic view has always and everywhere been held until modern times--or value judgments--that this understanding of art is the only one acceptable to men of intelligence. Not that there is absolutely no basis for those views, but it might not be tenable to state them so boldly once they come face to face with historical realities.

Mark Sedgwick said...

Agreed, I think.