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Issue 238
September/October 2006
Celebrating 40 Years of Resurgence

Reviews

THE CREATIVE IMPULSE
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Cover: Painting by John Lane

 

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THE CREATIVE IMPULSE

Every Man An Artist: Readings in the Traditional Philosophy of Art Edited by Brian Keeble Earthscan, UK, 2005, £18.99 On the Nature & Significance of the Crafts Brian Keeble Temenos Academy, UK, 2005, £6.00

PERHAPS NO-ONE is better qualified to edit an anthology of the traditional or Perennial Philosophy as it relates to art, vocation, skill and word than Brian Keeble, who as the editor and publisher of Golgonooza Press published the writings of several of its leading scholars. These include Titus Burckhardt, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Eric Gill, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Philip Sherrard and Kathleen Raine. More recently, Keeble has written and published a book of essays, Art: For Whom and For What? which sets out to explore this philosophy and its relevance to today in depth. Few people have done as much as he to promote an understanding of the arts and crafts in the light of the sacred traditions.

He writes in explanation of it, “The traditional philosophy of art was never extensively formulated except in the way in which it was for centuries practised by the majority of men and women. There was no need to articulate this need sympathetically, until such time as its absence, and the resulting confusion that replaced it, made a call to order imperative. This call to order was accomplished by Coomaraswamy who going back to first principles propounded the true philosophy of art on the basis of the philosophia perennis – the totality of universal truths and metaphysical axioms that underlie the world’s sacred traditions.”

It is a philosophy which I imbibed almost with my mother’s milk. As a schoolboy I had stumbled across the writings of Gill, a prolific sculptor, wood-engraver, letter-cutter and polemicist whose clear-headed arguments inspired in my muddled mind some fresh thinking about the nature and practice of art. In those days I knew nothing about the perennial philosophy of art, but Gill attracted me (as he still does) because of the force and challenge of his arguments – uncomfortable as these could be.

From Gill I was led to his mentor, Coomaraswamy, who through his copious writings made the philosophia perennis of art even more accessible again after half a millennium of forgetfulness. But in the 1950s and 1960s books and essays by Coomaraswamy were far from readily available. In subsequent years I also struggled to discover the writings of other members of the Traditionalist or Perennialist school of thinkers whose insights I found – and continue to find – both deeply appealing and, at times, disturbing. They are appealing because they do so much to explain the glories of the art that was produced in, say, the European Middle Ages and other traditional civilisations. But at the same time I can find them, or at least aspects of them, distressing on account of their dogmatism.

Keeble’s anthology of readings in the traditional philosophy of art, Every Man an Artist, is so valuable because it makes accessible much that I, with extreme difficulty, attempted to discover for myself. As far as I know nothing as yet has anywhere been published that is comparable in scope to the present volume, which forms a truly magisterial introduction to the understanding of the art produced in traditional societies. It is a collection of passages that could be read with benefit by anyone interested in the contemporary arts and crafts.

The book has twenty-eight different contributions and is organised into three sections. The first one, the shortest, is called ‘Intimations’. It includes passages about art and beauty by well-known philosophers and mystics of the classical and medieval periods of Western civilisation, Plato, Plotinus and St Thomas Aquinus amongst them.

The second and much larger section, ‘Formulations’, is the core of the book. It contains writings by all the leading thinkers and metaphysicians of the Traditionalist School including not only Coomaraswamy but René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, Burckhardt and our old friend Gill. The difference between these masters and those chosen to contribute to the earlier section is that they were writing from a position wherein all the religious traditions could be seen from a universalist perspective.

The book’s final section is also fascinating: it has been designed to demonstrate the continuing relevance of the traditional teachings to the modern period. Kathleen Raine, Cecil Collins and Wendell Berry, as well as the potter Bernard Leach, the painter David Jones and the composer John Tavener, are quoted here. Further, in On the Nature and Significance of the Crafts, Keeble writes about the writer and founder of the Central School of Arts and Crafts, W. R. Lethaby, the calligrapher Edward Johnston and (again) Coomaraswamy in the context of the Traditionalist philosophy.

According to this philosophy, to be truly human it is essential to accept the reality of the Divine and reflect its image in our work. Not to do so is to ignore the reality of the human condition and to live in ignorance. Whereas the traditional artist is open inwardly to the realities which transcend the individual realm, the post-Renaissance artist is closed to everything beyond the human. This is an art that is a glorification of the human, while the art of the Traditionalist is, according to Nasr in his foreword to the book, “an art [that] reflects here on earth the wisdom and the beauty of the Divine Artisan, thus making possible the creation of forms that lead to the world of the Spirit and the Formless. This understanding of art has been to a large extent forgotten in the modern world as a consequence of modern man’s forgetting who he is, why he is here on earth, and where he is going.”

This ‘forgetting’ did not happen overnight but was the result of a gradual loss of faith in the Christian religion (Nietzsche’s “death of God”), accompanied by the rise of a materialist philosophy and the concept of the Artist as an autonomous self-centred and uniquely talented individual whose primary role is the creation of works of art. This is the doctrine of art for art’s sake from which followed two consequences. The first was the exclusion of the majority from any effective involvement with art of any kind, and the second, the extreme narcissism (and irrelevance) of the arts whose practice became incomprehensible to the majority.

If we consider the traditional view of creative activity alongside our own view of it, it becomes clear how aberrant our Western concept of art has become. We take it for granted that art has to be innovative; that it is produced by specialists; that it should challenge and disrupt; that its purpose is aesthetic delectation; that it is primarily individualistic rather than communal; and that it is intertwined with ideas of commerce, commodity, ownership and individuality. The importance of reading Every Man an Artist is that it encourages the exploration of an alternative paradigm.

John Lane is author of many books, most recently, The Spirit of Silence.

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