Catching Sight

Don Cupitt takes a long perspective of European art.

My eyes are failing now, but for most of my life I had excellent vision. There were two reasons for this: one was that I had good visual acuity — 'better than twenty-twenty' as optometrists put it — and the other was that as a schoolboy I was taught to use my eyes by Ian Fleming-Williams, the very notable art master at my school, Charterhouse. Fleming-Williams had in his time toured all the art galleries and architectural monuments of Europe, buying all the picture-postcards and bringing them home to be assembled into a massive card-index. If he had a lesson to give about Rheims or Goya, he simply opened the big drawer containing the Index, picked out the relevant block of cards, and put them one-by-one beneath the epidiascope. We were riveted: I later went to Nikolaus Pevsner, but Fleming-Williams was better. He taught us to see at a glance the differences between Signorelli and Botticelli, Raphael and Perugino, Titian and Veronese. It was a wonderful training in the use of one's eyes; and almost equally good was the instruction I got from my housemaster, Bob Arrowsmith, on how to look at a medieval English church and read its history. He drove me round Hampshire, drilling the sequence of styles into my head.

Since those early days, nearly sixty years ago, I have always looked at pictures and at buildings. One's taste gradually changes, and it is only in later life that I have begun to respond more warmly to classical architecture and to sculpture. But this lifelong attraction to art has also caused me intellectual problems. Religion, the most important concern of my life, has always been both art's chief patron and art's fiercest enemy. All three of the 'Abrahamic' faiths, the Jewish, the Christian and the Muslim, have strong iconoclastic traditions going back to their earliest beginnings. You must not make nor worship idols, nor be led astray by what pleases the senses. The austere introvertive 'Negative Way', which rejects the images, is loftier than the Affirmation of the Images in popular Hinduism and in Catholicism.

So it has long been felt, and philosophy has had a similarly suspicious attitude to art ever since Plato. For Plato, a painting was a mere 'copy of a copy of a copy', because a painting depicted something presented to the artist's eye, which itself represented something out there in Nature, which itself in turn was a mere copy or image of things that belong to the world of eternal Forms. You could perhaps allow that painting was like the myths of popular religion: it was a way to God via images and stories that might be suitable for ordinary people, but philosophy was the royal road to Eternal Truth.

Notice that Plato assumes the normality of realism in art. A painting is a painting of something, a representation. It gets its merit and its interest from the way it copies something that it is about. It was only very gradually — beginning with people like Titian in the sixteenth century — that an artist could begin to be thought of as a creative person, and indeed as a major cultural figure. Before then, God was the only creator, and man merely copied. Just about the only secular use of the verb 'to create' was legal: a king might 'create' a dukedom or some other institution. But then gradually during the Enlightenment the conception of human creativity, and especially of the human creative imagination, becomes clearer and stronger. In time, the creative artist comes to be seen as a world-builder. Poetry, for example, is seen as ordering and even brightening the world, by strengthening the language in which we describe things. Poetry can question, refine and sharpen our perceptions, and it is right to see a great poet as a major teacher of humankind.

So it comes about that around the year 1800 or so in the West a new philosophy and a new understanding of art develop at the same time. People begin to give up the old idea that we find ourselves to be readymade selves in a finished and readymade world. We don't see the world just as it is, nor do we see ourselves just as we are, and the human eye is not a simple Brownie camera. We are ourselves the world builders. No non-human being ever taught us what we are, and what our world is. On the contrary, we have slowly evolved amongst ourselves and through our own ceaseless conversation all our ideas about what the world is and what we are. Our cultural traditions are like traditions of folk art. The human world is a great humming conversation, a buzz of varied interpretations and evaluations, through which we develop and maintain a consensus world-picture — a consensus that we are all the time questioning, revising and elaborating.

In the Bible a traditional society pictures the world as having been made and finished once and for all by a series of staccato utterances of God. The new story is rather different. It says that we and we alone build and rebuild all we know. We have always been inside our own heads, knowing only our own human angle. We can never have absolute knowledge of any so-called 'real world', so we should forget the Real World. Instead, we should accept that our world, a provisional communal interpretation, is all we can or will ever have. It is not worthless. On the contrary, because it is always and at every point open to criticism and revision, it has a certain flexibility, and so a strength and beauty of its own. Indeed, when we fully understand the new situation, we become able to see that critical thinking is much stronger than the old dogmatic kind of thinking, just as liberal democratic politics is much stronger than the old politics of absolute monarchy. The extraordinary creative energy and power of modern Western culture is entirely due to our being always and on principle ready to talk, ready to hear criticism and to revise our ideas about the world we have made. The mark of modern post-Christian culture is this spirit of continuous self-criticism and striving for reform which is the legacy of Christianity.

Having said all this, you can now guess what I want to say about the meaning of art in modern culture. Until about 1800 or 1850, most Western art celebrated the Establishment. Patronage came chiefly from the Church, and from the Crown and the nobility. Art was 'realistic'. It glorified the powers that be, following standard iconography and treating standard topics. But during the nineteenth century the leading artists steadily moved away from the academies and the old forms of patronage. They did not wish to do grand portraits of kings and aristocrats any more, and traditional religious themes gradually became less attractive to them. Instead, painting became critical, secular and more democratic — especially in the great school of Paris. Through their work, artists sought to develop each his or her own artistic personality — often finding that it could take ten or twenty years fully to find one's own distinctive voice. Art became a way of refreshing, questioning, criticising and revising the ways in which we all see and build our world.

Thus in the modern period art has become democratised, and in the process has become popular and intimately relevant to every ordinary person. In general philosophy we now see that there is only one world, the human life-world, a world that is always seen from our human angle, shaped by our human language, and coloured up by our human feelings. There is no Real World any more: there is only the outsideless human world. And within this human life-world of ours religion and art have very closely-related functions. Religion should help us to face the truth about life and about the human situation as we now understand it, helping us to commit ourselves joyfully to the only life we will ever know or can know. Art will help to refresh our senses and our feelings: it will help us to see how we can enjoy life more and build our world better.

Notice that on the view I am proposing neither 'life', nor religion, nor art have any permanently-fixed nature or essence. On the contrary, there is a sense in which for modern people all art is always anti-art, and all religion anti-religion. We must always begin by questioning what we have inherited from the previous generation. Our whole culture has become perpetually self-criticising and self-reforming, to such an extent that like the fashion industry we all of us live by continual innovation. We don't want to allow ourselves to become gradually numbed by habit: we want to keep ourselves fresh. We need novelty in order to get turned on.

This typically-modern or even post-modern desire, to be perpetually recovering a freshness that we are constantly in danger of losing, has been very well spelt out for us by two great figures, Wordsworth and Nietzsche. Nietzsche in particular links it with the pursuit of new and fresh metaphors in poetry, metaphors that have the power to galvanise our imagination and our feelings. This sudden surge of life and feeling within us that good art provokes helps us to love life and feel that life is worth living.

So far so good. I think we see how it is that modern art has now finally found its vocation and won the hearts of the general public. Think, for example, of the Angel of the North. At first it met general scorn and resentment, but today coachloads of ordinary folk travel to see it every day from all over the old industrial North of England. They love it. Somehow it refreshes their own pride in their own cultural tradition, which is tough and industrial but also has wings — is both steely and spiritual. That's good popular art, and a sight for sore eyes.

Art has somehow got itself up to date, and religion quite clearly ought to update itself along the same lines. So, at least, I have been arguing in recent years. Unfortunately our established religious institutions, leaden and mediocre, have no desire at all to get themselves up-to-date and serve the people better. They are moribund, and they intend to remain so. It's a great shame. Perhaps Europe's long history of suspicion of the senses — 'the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life' (I John 2:16) — holds us all back. We all of us need art education that will teach us to enjoy our senses and use them more constructively to build a better world.

Don Cupitt made the original BBC 1984 television series 'Sea of Faith', from which SoF Network takes its name. He has published many books including, recently, 'Impossible Loves' (Polebridge, USA 2007).

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