Spring 2006

Art Comment Quarterly


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    Excerpts from 'The Form of Truth' by Eoin de Leastar - Part Two
      For an introduction to Eoin de Leastar and the Part One of 'The Form of Truth' please visit: Art Comment Winter '05/'06 [Eoin de Leastar reserves the copyright to this material, and it cannot be reprinted without his express consent. (The views expressed in the essay are not necessarily those shared by Art Comment.)]

      The Old Testament
        In the beginning when god created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void. Genesis 1.1
      Alas for the goddess! How significant that Eve, 'the mother of all living' as Adam calls her, should see that the tree of knowledge was good for food and . . . 'pleasant to the eyes'? The Old Testament is a remarkable compendium of different voices over different periods in the thousand years before Christ.

      As a historical document it tells of the travails of a particular Semitic group and is a justification for their invasion of the land of Canaan. As a religious document it holds the promise of salvation and is an invocation to a chosen people to maintain allegiance to one and only one God - 'Thou shalt not have strange gods before me'.

      But as a document seen from the easel, the Old Testament is an extraordinary example of visual censorship. A most potent edict was the prohibition of 'the making of any graven image or likeness'.

      While from Babylonia to Egypt, artists were making gods (especially of their kings), Isaiah was brilliantly ridiculing the image-maker. He says that 'the artisans are too merely human. . .'

        The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty to be set up in a shrine. . . Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says,' ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!' The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, 'Save me, for you are my god!' - Isaiah 44,12-17


      The Jewish people closed their eyes to the image so that they might forge in their souls an omnipresent singular and personal god. That is their legacy: the monotheism that our thinking process takes for granted.

      Yet ironically the Old Testament records the names of two significant artists. The Arc of the Covenant was a gilded box that held the Ten Commandments and was the seat of the invisible unnameable god. On top of the Arc were to be two cherubim; angelic creatures with outstretched wings, virtually the only images that the Old Testament would allow.

      Then Moses said to the Israelites:
        See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; he has filled him with divine spirit, with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. - Exodus 35.30
      To assist Bezalel the Lord also called Oholiab who is described as 'engraver, designer and embroiderer in blue, purple, in crimson yarns, and in fine linen'. Bezalel made the two cherubim of beaten gold. This imagery seems an Egyptian concept (see Tutankhamen's sarcophagus) and the two artists may have been Egyptian born and trained (the period being shortly after the exodus from Egypt).
        Do not believe in the justice of this world and that you will be rewarded if you give everything to your art. Look to our museums littered with anonymous masterpieces.


      The Greeks

      Greek culture a few centuries before Christ went through a period of creativity and excellence in the realms of art and thought that has never been equalled. No other age can compare with the breadth of its brilliance. It was and remains the flowering of the human spirit.
        Postmodernism is only possible if we disinherit the Greeks.


      It is difficult to make a case for evolution in art when confronted with the glory of Athens. Renaissance Italy, as the word implies, looked backwards. Michaelangelo at one stage was not above pretending that one of his sculptures belonged to the ancients. Vasari thought that Michelangelo had excelled the Greeks, and when writing about his pictures, he maintained that: if it were possible to place them beside the paintings of those celebrated Greeks and Romans they would be even more highly valued and regarded as being as much superior to the antiques as is his sculpture'.

      But Vasari was engaged in hagiography and was not in a position (just as we are not) to judge Greek painting. The 4th century BC was regarded as the golden age of classical painting. Apelles, court painter to Alexander the Great (who had Aristotle as his teacher) was considered the master. Genre, still life, landscape, trompe-l'oeil, were all practiced as well as the great mythological and history paintings that one would expect.

      Every type of painting that the Renaissance recreated, the Greeks practiced (with the possible exception of a formal linear perspective). Painters and sculptors wrote treatises on art - now gone without trace. If the painting was comparable to sculpture (and for the Greeks it was of no less importance, being much praised by classical writers) then its loss cannot be estimated.

      It is a curious thought that the history of western painting is without that period which could be considered its greatest era. Perhaps genius is a word that should be reserved for the Greeks. The gods have punished them severely by allowing their paintings to be lost to mankind.

      It is also sobering to note that Athens at this period is estimated to have had a population of only about 230,000. This number included slaves, an integral part of Greek society. One could perhaps forgive Plato and Aristotle for believing that refinements of the mind are only for the elite (philosophers that is, not painters).

      Philosophers pride themselves on being professionals of incredulity. The Greek thinkers believed that by asking questions, discovering contradictions and ascertaining generalizations, they could discern the truth. A famous example is the riddle of movement put forward by Zeno. An arrow in motion is at any given instant stopped in space, therefore motion is a series of 'rests', and therefore motion as such is a contradiction.

      The real world is an illusion, according to Plato, only an ideal heavenly world of perfect forms exists. The physical world is only a shadow of these true forms. Of beautiful things, like a particular picture, one can only have an opinion, because one cannot have true knowledge of something derived from the senses, which are by nature contradictory. However, the philosopher is capable of having a vision of truth which is not a particular beauty, but beauty itself.

      Fortunately Aristotle disagreed with Plato, knowledge has to do with forms, but these exist in the real world and have specific properties that the mind can abstract. Thus a table has properties which are similar to another table and all tables. The characteristics that together make a thing belong to a particular group or class is its form.

      Painters and sculptors should attend to this idea of form. It is a concept that the philosophers gave us, now lost to our art schools. Just as a statue made of a particular material has form impressed on it by a sculptor, it may go through different transitions of form; without form material cannot exist.

      But this form is not simply a shape; it is for Aristotle a Universal Idea inherent in the object. Seeing the beautiful in an object is to perceive something good; because all that is real, that has form, is good.

        Neoclassicism is what the Greeks did after Homer.


      'Fine Art' did not exist as a concept for the Ancients. Painting and sculpture belonged to the servile arts of work to be done, and not the liberal arts of the spirit, like music or logic. When either Plato or Aristotle spoke of art they did not differentiate the art of the blacksmith from that of the sculptor.

      Beauty was not exalted to the effete spiritualism of the 19th century Romantics. It was an ideal of harmony and symmetry that reflected Greek confidence in the world and in themselves.



      Christ
        When approaching the life of Christ be not tempted by the humanity of Judas
      Incidental to the Old Testament's prohibition of the graven image, we are left without any record of what Jesus Christ looked like. Yet his image still dominates the west (Buddha has more monuments worldwide).

      Christ inherited the anti-image asceticism of the Old Testament. He did not use the concept of image making in his stories, nor is he recorded as ever using the word beautiful. He mentions the lilies of the fields only to show how precious man is above nature.

      He speaks with absolute conviction of God as his Father, whose loving paternity he emphasizes with parables of nature and husbandry. Yet his message is inextricably centered on his belief of who he (Christ) himselfis. Of course the Jews were right; if Jesus was not who he claimed to be, then he was the greatest of blasphemers -before Abraham was I am- no human being ever had such arrogance.

      Christ did not scruple over social mores, nor did he discriminate in the sex or class of his friends. He saw himself as the antidote to the age of death I am the water of life. If you drink of me you will live forever. In preaching a philosophy of love he could hardly have chosen a worse time, for the descendants of Abraham were an angry people, frustrated and humiliated by a foreign oppressor.

      Crucifixion was a form of capital punishment too vulgar and terrible for Rome to allow its own citizens. It took several centuries before Christians could accept the curious image of the cross. It was an extraordinary start for a religion, having a central image that is shameful and repugnant to human nature.

      But the radicalism of Christ's message of love which is only approximated in the great world religions, and which is not so much revolutionary as awful, has proved too difficult for his followers (approximately 1 billion today), though it has been attempted by a few, whom we have come to know as saints.

      If Christ returned today and walked among the posturing painters and sculptors, he might enter the galleries of the new Pharisees, their 'whited sepulchres' and preach thus:
        The Beatitudes

        Blessed be the poor in art
        For they shall be recognised

        Blessed be the critic
        For he shall lie with the father of lies

        Blessed be the patron
        For he has found mammon

        Blessed be they who hunger and thirst for self-advertisement sake
        For theirs is the kingdom of the earth.

        Blessed be they who seek after truth
        For they are pure fools


      In the few centuries that it took to consolidate the Christian religion, as in Sumeria, new temples were built on the foundations of old. The Church overcame the various god and goddess cultures with what one 2nd century writer called a 'fantastic and blasphemous cult of an only God'.

      - Eoin de Leastar, 2005

      Read Excerpts from 'The Form of Truth' by Eoin de Leastar - Part Three in the next issue of Art Comment
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        'That was an interesting excerpt by Eoin de Leastar, metaphysics has been a popular subject of my recent reading. I don't seem to have any time for fiction anymore, and instead have been reading quite a few books regarding quantum physics and string theory, philosophy and theology. The most interesting are those that seek to bridge the divide of all these subjects.' - Nathan from Nashville

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