Art and Society

“St. Sebastian”, Peter Paul Rubens, 1614.

Nothing is more difficult for the natural man than to understand a culture or social tradition different from his own, for it involves an almost superhuman detachment from inherited ways of thought and education and the unconscious influence of his social environment. Indeed the more highly educated he is in his own tradition the less he will be able to appreciate all that diverges from it. It is the old contrast between Hellene and Barbarian, Jew and Gentile which reappears today in the mutual incomprehension of American and European, or Latin and Teuton, or Occidental and Oriental. We cannot bridge the gulf by a purely scientific study of social facts, by the statistical and documentary methods that have been so much used by modern sociologists, for these can never grasp the essential difference of quality that makes a culture what it is. No amount of detailed and accurate external knowledge will compensate for the lack of that immediate vision which springs from the comprehension of a social tradition as a living unity, a vision which is the natural birth-right of those who share in the common experience of the society, but which members of other cultures can only obtain by an immense effort of sympathetic imagination.

It is here that Art comes to our help, for Art, in the widest sense of the word, is the great bridge which crosses the gulf of mutual incomprehension that separates cultures. To understand the art of a society is to understand the vital activity of that society in its most intimate and creative moments. We can learn more about medieval culture from a cathedral than from the most exhaustive study of constitutional law, and the churches of Ravenna are a better introduction to the Byzantine world than all the volumes of Gibbon. Hence an appreciation of art is of the first importance to the historian and the sociologist, and it is only by viewing social life itself as an artistic activity that we can understand its full meaning.

It is true that this point of view is not an obvious one for men of our age and civilization. In modern Europe Art has become a highly specialized activity entirely divorced from the practical needs of ordinary life. We are accustomed to look for Art not in the workshop and the market place, but in the galleries and private collections where the artistic achievements of different ages and cultures are collected like the bones of extinct animals in a museum. The sightseer goes to gaze on a Madonna by Rafael or a Greek statue in the same spirit that he visits the lions at the Zoo. They are something outside our daily life and they owe their value to their strangeness. Modern artistic production has been almost entirely parasitic on wealth, and the little world of artists, the collectors, the dealers and the critics lives its own life apart from the main current of our modern civilization.

It would be a mistake to suppose, however, that this state of affairs is normal: it is the peculiar product of an exceptional society. Throughout the greater part of history the art gallery, the critic, and the collector have been unknown, though artistic production has been continuous and universal. It is in fact one of the most fundamental of human activities. It is common to the savage and the civilized man. It goes back to paleolithic times, and it is from the artistic record of the human race that almost all that we know regarding the cultures of prehistoric times has been derived. It is indeed difficult to separate the beginnings of Art from the beginnings of human culture, for as I have said, social activity is of its very nature artistic; it is the shaping of the rough material of man’s environment by human skill and creativeness. Man has been defined as a tool-using animal, and the tool is from the beginning that of the artist no less than the labourer. Like other forms of life, man is subject to the control of geographical and climactic factors, but he differs from the lower animals in the independence and creativeness of his response to the stimulus of natural conditions. He is not limited to a single type of climate or vegetation; to a large extent he is even the creator of his environment.

We can scarcely imagine a more complete dependence on natural conditions than that which governs, for example, the life of the Esquimaux. Man is here a parasite upon the Arctic fauna, the reindeer, the seal and the whale. Everything he has-food, light, warmth, clothing, tents and means of transport-comes from them. And yet his culture is not a necessary result of climatic and economic determinism. It is a triumph of human inventiveness and skill, a work of art not without its own perfection and beauty, the result of an age-long process of social co-operation and creative endeavour.

If we study any actual community, whether it be an Esquimaux or an English village, we shall find that every function of the social organism expresses itself in some significant material form. To every way of life, there corresponds a whole cycle of the arts of life. In the case of a simple village economy there is the craft of the mason and the carpenter, the blacksmith and the wheelwright, the potter and the weaver, the thatcher and the hurdler, and many more; and each of them has its value and significance from the artistic as well as the economic point of view. Even the village settlement as a whole with its church and manor house, its outlying farms and its core of inn and cottages centring in the village green or street, has the form and unity of a work of art. In the past this was all so much a part of men’s common experience that it was not consciously realized. It is only now when the English countryside is being submerged by the stereotyped uniformity of the modern house-manufacturer and when the local tradition of craftsmanship is dying or dead, that we have come to recognize the inexhaustible richness and variety of the old rural tradition. We see how every region of England produced its peculiar tradition and characteristic types, so that the stone houses of the Cotsworrlds, the timber work of Cheshire and the cot and thatch of Devonshire or the Down lands are as intimate a part of the landscape in which they have grown up as the trees and the crops.

But popular art does not only mirror the diversities of regional life, it also expresses the differences in functional type. There is an art of the Peasant, and an art of the Hunter, an art of the Warrior and an art of the Priest, so that it is possible to judge merely from the cursory examination of an artistic style what is the dominant social or economic element in the civilization that produced it. Indeed the greatest authority in prehistoric art, the late Professor Hoernes, used the criterion as the main basis of scientific classification in dealing with primitive styles.

But is this also the case when we come to a more advanced stage of culture? Hitherto it has been the tendency of writers on art to admit social control in the domain of primitive art and craftsmanship, but to deny it in the case of the more advanced types of art. The Fine Arts, to use the aristocratic Renaissance expression, are looked upon as something absolute, standing on a plane far removed from social and economic categories. Artistic creation is essentially the work of an individual genius, who is independent of the milieu in which he works. He is a kind of Melchizedech appearing ouf of the void, “without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life.”

This view has been handed down from the days of the Renaissance, and it has its roots in the individualism of fifteenth-century Italy, when the artist and the Humanist, like the successful tyrant, transcended the bounds of the narrow world of the mediaeval city state. It is itself the product of an exceptional and highly specialized type of society, which has few parallels in the history of the world. It would never suggest itself to a critic who was familiar only with the art of India, or Persia or Byzantium. But this idea has a special attraction in our modern industrial societies where Art is usually thought of either as a refuge from life, or as the privilege of a cultural minority. Of late years, however, there has been a marked reaction against this aristocratic individualism.

In reality a great art is always the expression of a great culture, whether it be manifested through the work of an individual genius or embodied in a great impersonal tradition. For society rests not only on the community of place, the community of work, and the community of race, it is also and before all a community of thought. We see this in the case of language, which is fundamental to any kind of social life. Here ages of thinking and acting in common have produced a terminology, a system of classification and even a scale of values which in turn impose themselves on the minds of all who come under its influence, so as to justify the old saying that a new language is a new soul. There is also a common conception of reality, a view of life, which even in the most primitive societies expresses itself through magical practices and religious beliefs, and which in the higher cultures appears in a fuller and more conscious form in religion, science  and philosophy. And this common view of life will also tend to embody itself in external forms and symbols, no less than do the material and utilitarian activities of the society. As a matter of fact we know from the magnificent cave paintings of paleolithic times that man already possessed a religious or magical art of no mean order long before he had learnt to build houses, to cultivate the ground or to domesticate animals.

Thus side by side with the simple arts of life which spring from man’s relation to his environment and the labour by which he lives – the domain of craftsmanship – there also exists from the beginnings another type of art which is the direct expression of man’s psychic life, and of his relation to the hidden powers which he believes to control his destinies. It is in the religious life of primitive peoples that we must look for the origins of conscious artistic endeavour and indeed of human culture itself.

The social character of Art is of course most obvious in the case of a simple unified state of society, such as we find in modern Islam or our own Middle Ages, but it is essentially true of all Art. A great art is the expression of a great society, as much as of a great individual, or rather is the expression of a great society through a great individual. It has been said that a committee has never painted a great picture, but it is surely undeniable that great works of art are often the expression of a corporate tradition. Take the Homeric poems, or the Gothic cathedrals. Of the latter Professar Lethaby writes “The work of a man, a man may understand; but these are the work of ages, of nations . . . They are serene, masterly, like the non-personal life work of nature”; and the same may be said of the great achievements of religious art all over the world-in acient India and Ceylon, in Buddhist China and Java, in the Byzantine churches and the early Syrian mosques-where the personal element is merged in an ancient and impersonal tradition.

Nor is it difficult to correlate, for example, the artistic outburst of the Gothic period with the other manifestations of medieval genius, whether in thought or action. The rise of Gothic architecture corresponds both in time and place with that of the communal movement in northwestern Europe, so that it is hardly an exaggeration to speak of it as the art of the French communes. So too with the development of medieval philosophy. This-like medieval architecture-falls naturally into two periods, the second of which, like Gothic, attains its full development in the middle of the thirteenth century and in the North of France, It is true that we cannot trace that any one of these movements is the cause of the others. Each of them is autonomous and follows its own law of life. Yet each is but an aspect of a real unity-that common social effort which we call medieval civilization.

After the Renaissance when European civilization becomes increasingly complex, and art is dominated by individualism on the one hand and the rules of formal criticism on the other, its social character naturally becomes less obvious. Yet even the spirit of individualism itself is a characteristic social trait of the period, and the attempt to regulate life according to abstract rational canons obtains in politics and thought no less than in art. In this as in other things art is the faithful mirror of society.

Moreover, under the cosmopolitan veneer of this conformity to the canons of criticism, society continues to exercise a deep subconscious influence on the mind of the artist and the poet. The great individual artist, Leonardo da Vinci or Velasquez, is essentially the great Italian and the great Spaniard; each expresses that which is deepest and most characteristic in the mind of the people and the age from which he springs. When a man seems to escape from all such categories and to be a stranger in his age, it is usually because he is a stranger in literal fact-one who brings his social past with him into an alien environment; like Theotocopuli the Cretan who learned his craft from the great Venetians, and developed his individual genius in the theocratic and mystical atmosphere of Philip II’s Spain, yet remained to the last essentially “El Greco,” the Byzantine Greek. So too with the typical deracines of nineteenth century literature (e.g. Heine, half German, half Parisian, but at bottom a Jew). These were in their time powerful influences of fermentation and change, just because they were able to see life with eyes alien to those of the society in which they lived, and thus fertilized the mind of one people by perhaps unrealized contact with the soul of another. They talked the language of the people among whom they dwelt, but their deeper thoughts and instincts were those of the people from whom they had come.

– “Art and Society”, Dynamics of World History, Christopher Dawson, pages 71-77

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