Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy
Chapter 1 :: Why Exhibit Works of Art?
Answering a very basic question when it comes to Art, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy does not waste any time to clarify “Why Exhibit Works of Art”; the name of chapter one in his book Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, 1956. Taking care to walk the reader through the true concept of a museum, which is to house and protect ‘ancient or unique’ (p.7) works of art that are in danger of destruction and worth saving, he proceeds to distinguish why living artists have no place in museums. Unless the museum itself is actively promoting the artist in the unpaid position of an art dealer, there is a stark contrast between most contemporary art and art which the museum and the rest of society actually profit from. These classical or ‘ancient’ works of art that are considered important to human history and belong in museums, albeit they serve no longer the function they were created for, because they remind us of the obligation for contemplation of ourselves and the creation as well as ourselves within the creation. Now living as endangered species’ in a world that needs educating as to why they are significant and what it is exactly they tell us about who we are, so many famed works have become relics perhaps more cherished today then they were in their time due to the retrogression of art in our time.
At the time of our life, we live in a sentimental culture where emotions and passions (no matter how dull) run rampant without check or recrimination. Our desires are fed incredulously and indiscriminately until we are ready to be stuck and put on a spit over a fire. “Need and vanity”(p.7) of not only individual artists, but the entire art world pushing for works of the living to be placed in museums for that which is notably out of line with the note of curation, is sprung from the indignation of rebellion and greed that has come to define this modern world. The misunderstanding of why to exhibit a work of art has detached us as a society from any real sense of culture. This lack of culture has eroded the understanding of why we create art in the first place. To exhibit a work of art, you must have a point to make. You must have something to say which is worth being heard. Which must mean there is a reason behind the work itself as to why it should be known. “The purpose of art is always one of clear communication.”( p.17) though that is rarely the case with modern art. Modern art tends to be an abstraction of symbolism due to lack of knowledge of symbology, or an abstraction of shape over generously comparing itself to the structure and formality of primitive art, which Coomaraswamy says, “the likeness is altogether superficial.” (p. 12) It is merely a splattering of expressive emotion that satiates what aesthetics have come to mean for generations grown on hallowed consumption.
Reaching back to the Classical philosophers and touching Plato’s thought that “[wholesome art will provide at the same time] for the souls and bodies of your citizens” gives the reader a backdrop for purpose in creation and function of art. That it is not simply for an interior decoration or a show of stylistic prowess, but for the betterment of humanity through the development of idealism that speaks to the human endeavor. But today the how has become more important than thewhat and the why so contemporary artists are focused more solely on the production method, lacking a message to convey through the pride of said production method (think Damien Hirst The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,(Shark in Formaldehyde)), which only brings up the point of production versus creation. Creation implies made by hand, production implies made by machine. Coomaraswamy asks, “What underlies the deterioration of our environment? Why should we have to depend as much as we do on ‘antiques’?” (p.14) A poignant thought that is answered simply as the degradation of the value of knowledge and the dismissal of the necessity of art through mass production and mass consumption – the withdrawal of spirit for the sake of financial profit. Art held in museums was created for a specific use, meaning its functioning was the mechanism of its form and the function of art for the vast majority of human history was the projection of spirit for a specific means of dissemination or instruction. Its meaning was embodied through the artist themselves bringing about a true representation of whatever archetypal state or being or idea was to be given through the work to serve the purpose of its commission. Made for use versus made for sale, creation versus production. Human being being valued versus machine being valued.. When the human being is valued, there is integrity in the work. There is dignity in the freedom to work for purpose, and satisfaction knowing the effort is respected. When the human being is removed from the actual creation or building of the thing itself, the spirit of the work, whatever it is, is disconnected if not all together removed making the being servile to the method of production. The ‘maker’ thus becomes a salesperson for something they have had manufactured for them to sell as their own to make an individual profit. The purpose is then not the benefit or betterment of humanity, but the betterment and advancement of oneself. And this form applies now to almost all forms of artistic creation be it painting, dance, music, fashion design, architecture, interior design and so on; they all have become templated ideas easily reproduced without much prerequisite of fundamental knowledge or originality. Some proceed because they do not know any other way, others do so because they know they do not have what it takes to produce a formal, beautiful work of art. Most are categorically ignorant of the active purpose of art and the mantle of the artist.
“If the artist is to represent the eternal reality, he must have known them as they are.” (p.14) The eternal reality is the primordial form. It is that which guides us through the tumult of rapturous love that is life itself; the pattern on which all things are fashioned. If you want to know a thing in its entirety, you must begin with its internal structure to see how it is held and how it moves. That internal structure will be repeated and duplicated in increasingly complex and complimentary ways as time and space create room for growth and from there infinite representations can be made of the infinite forms in existence. However, it is the fundamentals, the universals that should concern the artist as they go beyond specified culture and language to reach the humanity in all to share the treasures of the cosmos. The perpetuation and profit of the universe is the physical definition of the Greek word ‘cosmos’ which means ‘well ordered’ or ‘ornament’. Ornament in the sense of characterization and attributes; what dresses the structure? What do its many faces look like? Why are they like us? All of this the artist must know, for the role of the artist is to “grasp the primordial truth, to make the inaudible audible, to enunciate the primordial word, to reproduce the primordial images” ~Andrae the Assyriologist (p.11) This is what artists of the past have known and the knowledge that has created the work now hanging protected from the insignia of aesthetic illiteracy.
Coomaraswamy’s providential point in “Why Exhibit Works of Art” is to differentiate the display of art in museums and the display of art in the contemporary world and expound on the real duty of the museum aside from just housing the fine, applied art. The duty of the museums is to educate the modern public that knows so little of its own humanity and history through the exhibition and explanation of the what and the why of the artwork being preserved. It is by answering the what and the why that societies have been culturally rich. A nourishment come through the black night of the soil to hold and grow the seed of the unknown in multitude to create a garden of wealth and form. “If it is uninformed, it will be shapeless, [so] everything must be in good form.” (p.18) Form as an idea or spirit is what shapes the substance of any age and shapeless indeed have we become as a society, culturally devoid and spiritually malnourished as the winds of emotional storms have blown us hitherto and fro, washing us abashed on a desert island of unintelligible creations. Education is the only raft to bring us back to civilization and culture, and not simply an education to the understanding of the how, but that of the what and why. The Upanishads said, “one comes to be of just such stuff as that on which the mind is set” (p.10) and it is the time of our life that we thank Ananda K. Coomaraswamy for bringing about such a piece to shift our focus back to the why and the whatinstead of the how that we might again see a golden age of art and cultural heritage.