Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.
It is the irrational impulses that yearn for innovation.
In a recent correspondence with a friend I was told: “Take the many interviews you have done with modern iconographers. Many of them display stylistic (oft gratuitous IMHO) “innovations”, that are exactly the thing you criticize in Modernist art. Tempering one’s words with a kind of benevolence which I obviously have no knack for does not change the double standard.”
So, is there a “double standard” going on here? In a way I can see how the approach I’m taking in my various posts can come off as “double standard” or “speaking with both sides of the mouth,” as they say. But, believe me, in no way am I expounding “innovation” as an end in itself in icon painting; nor am I interested in somehow “legitimizing” the icon on the grounds of “modernism,” while at the same time reviling Modern art. It’s not that simple. Let me try to clarify the matter a bit.
First of all, the notion of “innovation” has to be qualified. It need not be thought of solely as merely hankering after “novelty” for its own sake, in the way this notion has come to play a role in the history of Modern art, wherein the “individualistic” statement is of prime importance. Innovation in this sense is embraced at the expense of traditional principles for the sake of “self-expression,” whereas in the context of icon painting it is to be understood as a stylistic “development” in conformity with traditional principles. It arises from an actualized participation in the ever-new and ever- renewing source of Tradition. As a living spring Tradition never stagnates but flows continually, remaining the same in its inner depths and yet always bringing about the transformation of what it touches as it courses through time on the surface.
Moreover, traditional icon painting presupposes the doctrine of art as skill. The icon painter is to realize the intended idea of the work at hand in its perfection. The degree to which the work successfully accomplishes this end determines its quality. Speaking of the doctrine of art as skill Brian Keeble notes:
Nothing in the doctrine of art as skill forbids or even excludes the possibility, the desirability, even the necessity of innovation. It certainly denies that innovation is itself the purpose and justification of art. It does so in the context of an understanding that sees innovation as naturally arising out of any particular need to guide the application of skill towards the realization of an idea. But innovation in this case would have no license to do more than what is required to realize the perfection of the idea in question. This integral perfection is not only what is compromised whenever innovation is pursued for its own sake; it is also at the vacuity at the heart of the pursuit of “creative freedom”.[ii]
The pursuit of “creative freedom” Keeble speaks of is to be understood as the willful casting aside of the traditional principles, which leads to the kind of irrationality ‒ the arbitrary whims and meaninglessness ‒ now rampant in most contemporary art.[iii] But, on the other hand, the embracing of these principles is what in fact brings about true creative freedom. In looking at so-called “innovation” (using the term for the sake of convenience) in contemporary icon painting, I have sought to emphasize how the principles of traditional icon painting do not exclude the possibility of stylistic and interpretive creativity and variety. These factors take into consideration, inevitably, the temperament of the painters, along with their cultural and historical contexts. So stylistic development or “innovation,” although secondary in importance to the icon’s theology (as the body is to the soul), is not to be undermined as inconsequential ‒ the one cannot exist without the other. It, in fact, demonstrates how icon painting is part of living Tradition. We see this clearly in the whole history of icon painting, in all the diversity of national and local schools. So emphasizing this fact is hardly a “modernist” stance from my part.
Modernism & Abstraction.
Second, when I speak of “modernism” I mainly have in mind an array of symptoms that point to nothing other than a spiritual disease: apostasy, revolt, anthropocentrism, the myth of “progress,” evolutionary progressivism, the cult of “originality,” subjectivism, individualism, “art for art’s sake,” rationalism, materialism, positivism, scientism, nihilism, historicism, relativism, etc. All is flattened, the idea of an ontological hierarchy is abandoned ‒ the Absolute is placed at a lower level. In short, what we have here is a general disdain for Tradition and betrayal of Revelation. Joseph Chiari aptly describes how this general tendency manifests itself in art:
The modernist attitude in art became self-consciously coherent and vocal towards the end of the nineteenth century and is a typical product of western society, afflicted by the peculiar dichotomy due to the fundamental opposition between Christianity and anti-Socratic rationalism which has turned more and more into scientism and pure and simple phenomenalism. This dichotomy has resulted in the partial disintegration of Christianity and in the growth of a type of rationalism which has finally reached the stage of being an end in itself.[iv]
And, ironically, once rationalism becomes an end in itself, at the expense of the nous, the more do things become irrational. Hence, the ever increasing absurdity of conceptual art.
However, modernism is not just a 20th century phenomenon. It’s a “state of mind” that has tempted us from millennia and which cyclically overtakes and destroys cultures in its desacralizing decadence. We see it first in the fall of Satan from Heaven in his self-exaltation against God. Then, in the fall of Adam and Eve in their disobedience to the divine commandment in Paradise. And again, in the wicked state of civilization, in which man became “flesh” estranged from the Spirit, just prior to the Flood. In other words, it’s nothing other than Promethean hubris and the rejection of divine principles; symbolically represented by the “young man” in the parable of the prodigal son, who leaves behind his father’s house, and the Tower of Babel ‒ man’s delusional attempt at self-deification.
Nevertheless, let’s not forget, that all of this comes in different doses in Modern art. Not everything in it is to be shunned and reviled as evil, not all is lacking in beauty, and not all is doom and gloom. There are exceptions (although they might prove the rule), in particular those aspects in which we find a yearning for the Sacred, and the positive value placed on folk, “Primitive,” Medieval and Oriental art. A salient feature of this general orientation is the important role played in the development of abstract art by the avant-garde’s strong interest in the pictorial significance of the icon. I believe that all of this betrays an unconscious desire for the traditional doctrine of art. Moreover, the avant-garde’s critique of post-Renaissance naturalism and academic art has its parallel in the thought of the pioneers of the icon revival (P. Kontoglou, L. Ouspensky, P. Florensky), albeit the later having its own distinct goals and premises. Indeed, as I’ve mentioned before, there are some aspects of “convergence” between the aesthetics of modernism and the icon. So, whether we like it or not, the irony is that Modern art in fact contributed in the revival of traditional icon painting and the icon, on the other hand, in the development of the avant-garde. It suits no one to deny this historical fact. The question is how we’re to interpret it. And, in turn, our interpretations will inevitably play a role in the current debates surrounding the icon. Be that as it may, speaking of the icon of the Transfiguration and its abstraction Aidan Hart comments on the convergence just mentioned. I think it’s worthwhile quoting him in length:
This icon shows a world shot through with God’s light and glory, a world seen with not just the eyes of the body but with the eye of the spirit. This is surely one of the great callings of art, to unveil and manifest in material form things that are hidden to most of us…
He then goes on to describe how this is accomplished pictorially in the icon through abstraction and then adds:
This abstraction and manifestation of inner reality was the stated aim of the founding abstract artists of the twentieth century, foremost among them being Constantin Brancusi (1826-1957), the founder of abstract sculpture, and Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), the founder of nonfigurative abstract painting. Others could also be mentioned, such as Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), all of whose work was inspired by his belief that there was a spiritual way of understanding nature that was deeper than scientific, empirical knowledge. Like many of his time, he was much influenced by the theosophical movement, an esoteric salad of eastern philosophies and religions. Nevertheless, he was on a spiritual journey. The majority of our art historians’ books have, from embarrassment it seems, omitted the central role that spiritual quest played in early abstractionism. We may or may not like what these artists came up with, but it cannot be denied that what motivated them were consciously held spiritual aims. Novelty was not their object, but the embodiment of objective truths. It was not until the latter half of the twentieth century that novelty seems to have become an end in itself, the fad for “Shock of the New” as the late critic Robert Hughes dubbed the trend. When art loses its way, it loses it because it severs itself from its spiritual role, as a quest for God, a quest for a transfigured world, a quest for timeless truth in the midst of suffering.
Moreover, Hart also clarifies what is meant by the term “abstraction”:
We tend now to think of abstraction as a departure from reality. But most early abstractionists understood their venture in the literal and more original meaning of the word abstract, which is to draw out. True abstraction in art is to draw out and make hidden reality manifest in physical form.[v]
I completely agree with Hart on the point of convergence between the icon and Modern art’s aim in manifesting an inner reality by non-naturalistic pictorial means. However, I tend to be a bit more critical on the pioneers of abstraction and have expressed, in a previous article which goes into my involvement with abstract painting, an interpretation that is somewhat negative, focusing mainly on the dualist and dis-incarnational implications of their work; tendencies which of course reflect their lack of ecclesial grounding. Nevertheless, I still appreciate their work as an aspiration towards the divine and I’m grateful to them as partly responsible in preparing my way and leading me to the practice of icon painting. Anyhow, I just mention this as a way of pointing to the complexity of the matter. Be that as it may, depending on the issue at hand and the angle through which we’re analyzing Modern art, the glass could be perceived as either halfway empty or halfway full. Regardless, modernism does not cease to be a malaise, and today’s abstract painting has mostly, if not completely, lost its metaphysical aims. It gradually became formalistic aestheticism and hence purely “sensational,” and now, with the onset of postmodernism, cynical, ironic and self-referential pastiche. From the lofty attempt at manifesting the Real, it has now sunk into the banality of reveling under the spell of the alluring seductions of simulacra. Just take a look at the samples of my own abstract paintings (Fig.12-16) and you’ll understand what I mean. But this is hardly surprising, as it’s only the fruits of “art for art’s sake.”
Therefore, this is why I do not hesitate to both criticize modernism as a general ideological stance or set of assumptions, since in it we find, among other ills of our civilization, the seed of all the vacuous decadence which passes today by the name of “art”; and yet, at the same time, quote or speak positively of some modern painters, whenever they helpfully expound on pictorial facts and practical issues of painting, or exhibit a yearning for the Sacred and Tradition. It’s all about nuance. Sometimes it’s not a question of either/or but one of both/and. So I think this sufficiently shows that I’m not just “speaking from both sides of my mouth.”
As I constantly reiterate, icon painting is not an ossified specimen of the past, it’s a living art, and as such in constant interaction with its historical context, whether we accept this fact or not. Yet, the painter should proceed in this dynamic without, in fickleness, falling prey to the allure of temporal fluctuations in an attempt to “keep up with the times.” Herein lies the challenge. Icon painting has to be engaged creatively if it is to escape the simplistic pseudo- traditionalist misconception which thinks of its form as completely unchangeable for it to be legitimate. Stagnation leads to death. Tradition flows. Tradition presupposes creativity. This point cannot be overstated. Yes, there is a timelessness in the icon, mainly its principles, whether theologically or pictorially speaking, but there are aspects that are also very time specific. This is the paradox. So today contemporary icons can hardly avoid taking into account the history of 20th century art. The icon painter can glean from it whatever is in conformity with Tradition, just as the iconographers of late antiquity gleaned from the Greco-Roman world its painting conventions and mythological motifs and transfigured them. So, were they modernists in doing so? Speaking with both sides of their mouth, one pagan the other Christian? Yes, the letter is to be revered and respected, but not at the expense of the spirit of Tradition. We’re not interested in turning back the clock in romantic and utopic nostalgia for the Middle Ages. The point is to tap into the Source they tapped into and enabled them to produce the great monuments and artifacts we now hold in museums and revere, meanwhile being too blind to see that they stare back at us accusing our own cultural decadence. In differentiating Tradition from “traditionalism,” which I think is more accurate to call “pseudo-traditionalism,” Cornelia A. Tsakiridou says:
Tradition may thus be likened to a flowing river in which different forms of life arise and to which they belong collectively while retaining their uniqueness and distinctive forms. Unlike traditionalism, it is a witness to its own emergence, rather than a dictating, regulating matrix of expression ‒ hence its inherent freedom. Immersed in this river of grace the artist is not asserting a self-originating, self-centered vision. Rather, he emerges as the unique carrier of a dynamic trajectory of charistmatic energy and vitality that actualizes yet unformed possibilities inherent in the art, ideas, literature and music of a past that opens its full life to the present. Here historicism becomes irrelevant because the now and the forever, the nun and aei, converge.[vi]
The danger is that this nuanced approach is susceptible to misinterpretation. The so called “traditionalist” (conservative) will think I’m being a modernist in pursuit of “self-expression” in defiance of so called “canons,” while the modernist (liberal) will think I’m just condoning the hankering after “novelty,” “innovation” for its own sake ‒ the subjugating of the icon to a constant “updating” according to the zeitgeist. Both are missing the point. They forget that Tradition both transcends time and is to be found here and now. Both are failing to discern the principles of Tradition, which are to be found, by those who have eyes to see, in the mean between extremes and present in the most unexpected places, even in Modern art. Therefore, let’s not forget that the iconographer as the, “…scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven…brings out of his treasure things new and old.”
[i] A.K. Coomaraswamy, Why Exhibit Works of Art, http://www.studiesincomparativereligion.com/public/articles/Why_Exhibit_Works_of_Art-by_Ananda_Coomaraswamy.aspx (accessed, July 20, 2017).
[ii] Brian Keeble, “Of Art and Skill,” Sacred Web: A Journal of Tradition and Modernity, Vol. 17, Summer 2016, pp. 23-33.
[iii] As Keeble notes, “Plato, in stating in the Gorgias that he could not fairly give the name ‘art’ to anything irrational, was no more than restating a teaching of Pythagoras who is said to have taught that ‘art’ is a habit of co-operating with reason. Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, extended the same line of thought in teaching that ‘art’ is the capacity to make, involving a true course of reason. This doctrine makes clear that the creative principle that is art is a rational habit or disposition of the mind to pursue a true course of action in making something. Thus art stays inside the artist, being understood in terms of the imposition of form upon substance or matter – sound if he is composer, stone if a mason, and so on. But at the higher level it was understood as an analogue of a cosmic principle, whereby the Logos, the Divine Reason, manifests itself in the world of created things.” ibid. The icon arises from this traditional understanding of art as skill. But it should be understood that the emphasis placed on “reason” in this doctrine of art is not to be confused with “rationalism.” In this context it presupposes man as higher than irrational creatures and therefore logikos (rational), which in the platonic and patristic sense includes both nous (man’s highest faculty) and dianoia (discursive reason). Hence here Keeble is not merely upholding the kind of “rationalism” as an end in itself that Joseph Chiari (note iv) sees as symptomatic of the modernist mentality.
[iv] Joseph Chiari, The Aesthetics of Modernism, Vision Press Limited, London, 1970, p. 9.
[v] Aidan Hart, Holy Icons in Today’s World: A Living Tradition’s Insights Into Contemporary Issues in Modern Art, Ecology and Community. A talk given in Austin, Texas, December 12th, 2013, at St John the Forerunner Orthodox Parish. https://aidanharticons.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Austin-Icons-in-Modern-World-1.pdf (accessed July 20, 2017).
[vi] Cornelia A. Tsakiridou, Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity: Orthodox Theology and the Aesthetics of the Christian Image, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013.