The uniqueness of Western art and consciousness
(Also be sure to see Fjordman’s follow-up comment in which he speaks about what happens to Western culture and other non-Islamic cultures when Muslims take over.)
How much do you know about art? There is one aspect of Western culture that tends to be downplayed, but is quite important: We are the only culture in the history of mankind to develop realistic, faithful depictions of beings and matter in our paintings and sculptures, rather than merely stylized depictions.
We are also the only culture to invent a way to depict three-dimensional subjects in a two-dimensional format. A similar three-dimensional perspective was lacking in all other types of early art, be that Chinese or Japanese, East Indian, Mesoamerican, African or Middle Eastern. This could conceivably be because we have perceived space and spatial relationships in a different way than the rest of the world. What does that mean for our culture?
Egyptian art was dedicated to preserving the body for the afterlife. Artists drew from memory, according to strict rules. The ancient Egyptians were not Westerners, but they did contribute a lot to those who later became Westerners, the Greeks and the Romans.
In the brilliant book The Story of Art, writer E.H. Gombrich explains this. For an Egyptian artist, “once he had mastered all these rules he had finished his apprenticeship. No one wanted anything different, no one asked him to be ‘original’. On the contrary, he was probably considered the best artist who could make his statues most like the admired monuments of the past. So it happened that in the course of three thousand years or more Egyptian art changed very little. Everything that was considered good and beautiful in the age of the pyramids was held to be just as excellent a thousand years later.”
Greek artists studied and imitated Egyptian art, but experimented and decided to look for themselves instead of following any traditional, ready-made formula. As Gombrich says, “The Greeks began to use their eyes. Once this revolution had begun, there was no stopping it.” It is surely no coincidence that this Great Awakening of art to freedom took place in the hundred years between, roughly, 520 and 420 BC, in Greek city-states such as Athens where philosopher Socrates challenged our ideas about the world:
“It was here, above all, that the greatest and most astonishing revolution in the whole history of art bore fruit…. The great revolution of Greek art, the discovery of natural forms and of foreshortening, happened at the time which is altogether the most amazing period of human history.” This art was later spread far beyond the borders of Greece, when Alexander the Great created his empire and brought Hellenistic art to Asia: “Even in far-distant India, the Roman way of telling a story, and of glorifying a hero, was adopted by artists who set themselves the task of illustrating the story of a peaceful conquest, the story of the Buddha. The art of sculpture had flourished in India long before the Hellenistic influence reached the country; but it was in the frontier region of Gandhara that the figure of Buddha was first shown in the reliefs which became the model for later Buddhist art…. Greek and Roman art, which had taught men to visualize gods and heroes in beautiful form, also helped the Indians to create an image of their savior. The beautiful head of the Buddha, with its expression of deep repose, was also made in this frontier region of Gandhara.”
Buddhism spread from India to the rest of Asia, and brought with it these influences from Western art. This is highly significant if we remember that the invention of block printing during the Tang dynasty in China was intimately linked to Buddhist monasteries and Buddhist art. Alexander the Great may also have brought with him inked seals to India during his invasion, and Indian merchants later introduced them to the Chinese. Stamped figures of the Buddha marked the transition from seal impression to woodcut in China.
The oldest surviving printed texts from East Asia are Buddhist scriptures. Printing was thus used to promulgate a specific religion, just like Gutenberg’s printing press in Europe was later used to print Bibles. The Islamic Middle East, however, for centuries rejected both the Eastern and the Western printing traditions due to religious intolerance and hostility towards pictorial arts. And they suffered all the more for it.
Let’s remember to give the Egyptians credit for first developing the beautiful human form, which the Greeks then adopted and made more alive. Camille Paglia is mostly silly, but be sure to read the first chapter of her book Sexual Personae, where she discusses the Egyptian creation of the clear, perfect, “Apollonian” form which became the basis of Western art.
Let’s also give the Egyptians credit for having created such a happy, harmonious culture that they had good grounds for simply maintaining it generation to generation and not having lots of innovations. This was explained by some author, it might have been Henry Bamford Parkes, that the reason the Egyptians placed such stress on the afterlife was that this life was so beautiful to them, so they liked to think of the afterlife as simply the endless continuation of this life. When I read that, Egyptian culture suddenly made sense to me for the first time.
Also, to add to what Gombrich says about classical Athenian art, it wasn’t just about showing natural form, it was about showing natural form as touched by the divine. For the Greeks, natural form conveys the divine. So they weren’t just being “naturalistic,” i.e., true to nature. They saw nature as so beautiful because they saw nature as informed by a perfect harmony. That’s where the incredible sensitiveness of the Athenian fifth century sculptures comes from.
In a sense, the artists of the Athenian Golden Age were expressing in stone what Homer had expressed centuries earlier in poetry: those special moments in life when the hero “seemed like something more than man.” Or like the scene in the Iliad (Book III, 156-58) where the old men on the wall of Troy see Helen approach, and say to each other:
“Surely there is no blame on Trojans and strong-greaved Achaians The thought has occurred to me that the Greeks were the ones to introduce this emphasis on nature into human consciousness because they themselves happened to be so well-formed and beautiful that they saw natural form as being godlike. Which would mean that without the physical qualities of the ancient Greeks, there would have been no Greek culture, and therefore no Western culture. How about that for an un-politically correct thought? Or maybe it’s something in the make-up of whites, that their minds are more material and logical, more naturally attuned to understanding the natural world.
If for long time they suffer hardship for a woman like this one.
Terrible is the likeness of her face to immortal goddesses.”
In any case, central to the West (and this has its origins in both the Greek and the Hebrew “parent cultures” of the West) is the belief that nature is intelligible, nature can be understood, because nature, though made by God, is not the same as God.
However it came about, the greater emphasis on nature is intrinsic to Western man. This is perfectly expressed in the Christian doctrine of the dual nature of Christ as both perfect God and perfect man, balancing this world and the spiritual world. This understanding is unique to Christianity. The Christian heresies, which mostly arose in the East, rejected the idea of Christ as both God and man, and saw him as only spirit, not as a man. Similarly the Eastern religions tend to go into pure otherworldliness, Islam for example conceives a god that is wholly other from this world and unknowable. By contrast, the Hebrews, who along with the Greeks were the precursors of Christian and Western culture, amazingly experienced God as (or rather God revealed himself to them as) both the Creator of the universe and as a Person having a personal relationship with men, as in this passage from Genesis (17:1-4):
And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations.
That was a wonderful post. I always enjoy learning such things, because the glories of the West are not taught in our schools; they are crated away deep in some government warehouse, like Indiana Jones’s Ark.
Yes, we should give the Egyptians credit for that. The Greeks did learn a lot from them, and early Greek art was indeed modeled on the Egyptian one. But they moved away from this later. This is also a good indication of who is “Western.” The Greeks were Westerners, which we can detect in their philosophies as well as in their art, which were closely linked, of course. The Egyptians, although they created an advanced civilization that influenced both the Greco-Roman and to a lesser extent the Judeo-Christian strands of the West, were not Westerners. The same thing goes for the Sumerians and other Mesopotamian cultures.
There is a way to create 3-D illusions on a 2-D surface that is called “tonal perspective”—i.e. the creation of a 3-D illusion using light and shadow patterns to describe mass. Notice the use of tonal perspective in this mosaic of Alexander the Great battling King Darius of Persia, circa 2nd century BC. Note the use of light that created a 3-D cheekbone for Alexander and a 3-D set of knuckles for his hand. Linear perspective was developed during the Italian Renaissance, starting with Giotto, but developed fully in the early 15th century into the geometrical method of perspective by Filippo Brunelleschi. It was used with great skill by other artists in Florence, for instance Donatello, and Leonardo da Vinci added his own techniques on top of this.
Western art has always been radically different from all other forms of art, which is why the first Western influence that spread across much of Asia was artistic (Hellenistic to Buddhist art). It’s ridiculous to claim that the pictorial art of Raphael during the Renaissance was somehow influenced by “Arab thought.” How many frescoes have you seen in mosques? We need to understand why we are so different from all other human cultures, and why our culture produced so many different, different things. And we are—very, very different. From a very long time ago, as this gorgeous mosaic so plainly shows.
The sad part is, all these major works of art are now threatened because of Muslim immigration. Muslims are at best uninterested in non-Muslim cultures, past or present, at worst actively hostile.
Saladin or Salah al-Din, the twelfth century general loved by Muslims for his victories against the Crusaders, is renowned even in Western history for his supposedly tolerant nature. Very few seem to remember that his son Al-Aziz Uthman, the second sultan of the Ayyubid Dynasty founded by Saladin and presumably influenced by his father’s religious convictions, actually tried to demolish the Great Pyramids of Giza only three years after his father’s death in 1193. The reason why we can still visit them today is because the task at hand was so big that he eventually gave up the attempt. He did, however, manage to inflict significant damage to Menkaure’s Pyramid, the smallest of the Great Pyramids, which contains scars clearly visible to this day. It is tempting to view this as a continuation of his father’s Jihad against non-Muslims:
“When king Al-Aziz Othman, son of [Saladdin] succeeded his father, he let himself be persuaded by some people from his Court, who were devoid of good sense, to demolish the pyramids. One started with the red pyramid, which is the third of the great pyramids, and the smallest. (…) They brought there a large number of workmen from all around, and supported them at great cost. They stayed there for eight whole months (…) This happened in the year 593 [ i.e. 1196 AD).” Such vandalism has been a recurring feature of Islamic nations throughout the ages. Guarding the pyramids at the Giza Plateau is the Great Sphinx. However, sphinxes in ancient times usually appeared in pairs, and there are indications in both classical and medieval sources that the Sphinx used to have a twin. According to archaeologist Michael Poe, there was another sphinx facing the famous one on the other side of the Nile, but it was damaged during a Nile flood, and then completely dismantled by Muslims using it as a quarry for their villages.
The legend that the missing nose of the Great Sphinx was removed by Napoléon Bonaparte’s artillery during the French expedition to Egypt 1798-1801 is not only factually incorrect, it’s ludicrous to anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of history. Sketches indicate that the nose was gone long before this. The Egyptian fifteenth century historian al-Maqrizi attributes the act to Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr, a Sufi Muslim. According to al-Maqrizi, in the fourteenth century, upon discovering that local peasants made offerings to the Sphinx to bless their harvest, al-Dahr became furious at their idolatry and decided to destroy the statue, managing only to break off its nose. It is hard to confirm whether this story is accurate, but if it is, it demonstrates that Sufis are not always the soft and tolerant Muslims they are made out to be.
Far from damaging the Sphinx, the French expedition brought large numbers of scientists to Egypt to catalog the ancient monuments, thus founding modern Egyptology. The trilingual Rosetta Stone, discovered by the French in 1799, was employed by philologist Jean-François Champollion to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1822. In this task, Champollion made extensive use of the Coptic language, which in modern times survives only as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Coptic is a direct descendant of the language spoken in ancient Egypt, and might have been understood by pharaohs such as Tutankhamun or Ramses II, although they would no doubt have considered it a rather strange and difficult dialect.
Arab Muslims had controlled Egypt for more than a thousand years, yet never managed to decipher the hieroglyphs nor for the most part displayed much interest in doing so. Westerners did so in a single generation after they reappeared in force in Egypt. So much for “Arab science.” And they did so with the help of the language of the Copts, the Egyptian Christians, the only remnant of ancient Egypt that the Arab invaders hadn’t managed to completely eradicate.
As a European, I read about this and fear for the future of the Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Michelangelo’s figurative paintings in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. There is every reason to believe that they will end up the same way as the Bamiyan Buddhas if we continue to allow Muslims to settle in our lands. Some would say that this is not just likely, but inevitable. Although it may not happen today, tomorrow or even the day after tomorrow, sooner or later, groups of pious Muslims will burn these works of art, and doubtlessly consider it their sacred duty.
The official reason given by many Muslims for why non-Muslims are not allowed to visit the cities of Mecca and Medina is because they might damage or destroy the Islamic Holy Sites. But since Muslims have a proven track record of more than a thousand years, from Malaysia to Armenia, of destroying non-Muslim places of worship or works of art, perhaps we should then, in return, be entitled to keep Muslims permanently away from our cultural treasures?
James W. writes:
When the stone-age “ice-man” was found in the Italian Alps a few years ago, his quiver contained arrows that were rifled. This stroke of genius in stone-age man was lost to the great Greek and Roman civilizations, not to be rediscovered until the Renaissance.
How elusive is genius.
As a receeding glacier left open the entrance to a cave in a French farmers land, we found there the stunning art, and self-portrait, of a Gaul of 17,000 years past—containing every modern dimension and subtlety.
That too was lost for ages.
As Sowell tells us, civilization is a device for passing and economizing knowledge and genius. In other words, genius pops up indiscriminately, regardless of civilization, as the cave art shows. Whether that genius and its products are built upon or lost is due to the nature of the civilization into which the genius was born. Western civilization is a conduit for genius, where others are apparently not. That is the Sowell of the matter.
How can an arrow be rifled? It is the inside of a gun barrel that is rifled to make the musket ball or bullet rotate.
James W. replies:
Arrows are rifled by sweeping the feathers in a very small arc, rather than straight back. The air, instead of the rifle barrel, force the object into rotation, and balance.
It is astonishing, and perhaps instructive, to see what can be left undiscovered by otherwise great civilizations. The arrow was a device of great military importance, but its improvement was not attended to.
Likely the fellow (yes I am assuming) around the stone-age campfire who came up with this concept propably did so out out hunger. That, and it’s more dfficult to put an arrow into a rabbit than into a pod of soldiers.
Matthew D. writes:
It is worth noting that art is the way a culture defines and expresses itself. What I see in modern art is instead an indictment of our culture. The average Westerner finds little to appreciate in art produced since the late nineteenth century, with the exception of popular music. This trend started with the advent of modernism, where the concept of beauty lost out to ugliness. Take rock and roll as an example; we might like it, but it’s not beautiful in any conventional sense of the word. Postmodernism only made matters worse. Postmodernism revels in defeat and ridiculing Western cultural values.
I think that modern Gramscian liberals, the people responsible for modernism and postmodernism, are just as guilty of destroying the artistic heritage of the West as the most violent Muslims. The Muslim problem could easily be solved with the political courage to deport them from Western countries. I’m not sure what can be done about their liberal, Western cousins though.
Brandon F. writes:
Plato comments on the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians in more than one of his dialogues.
Were you aware of the decay of Egyptian art in the later periods? I’ve read that the poorest Egyptian art was produced under Nubian rule. I think we can assume the same about other aspects of their culture by that time.
James W. writes:
Fjordman writes that Muslim sentiments run from indifferent to hostile regarding Western art. In Bernard Lewis’s ‘What Went Wrong’ Lewis mentioned this topic only very briefly, saying it was too profound to reduce for purposes of this particular book.
This topic was art not as painting, but as music. As he told it, during the explosion of Western music in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, merchants and diplomats from all around the world, from cultures utterly alien to the West, were astounded and captivated to hear this new music. It has been noted elsewhere the ambivalence and confusion Japanese experienced in reconciling the filthy personal habits of even the most elevated Westerners with the music and art of the era. Music that was completely beyond their reach to create was nonetheless immediately accessible to their understandings and appreciation.
Yet Lewis tells us the merchants and diplomats of Arabia, when they could be bothered to come at all, were utterly indifferent upon hearing the music.
Stanley Kurtz informs us why. The preferred method of marriage, both then and currently throughout the old Islamic Caliphate, is cousin marriage. Within that, parallel marriage is more preferred still. That is, marriage between the paternal family line. All cousin marriage is cultural self-sealing, with parallel marriage going to the top of the heap. Muslim practices strengthen the integrity of in-group solidarity in a way that sets the Middle East apart from every society in the world. This also explains the lack of assimilation.
We see this presently as British Muslim families bring relatives from families back in the old country to marry their sons and daughters. That is no secret, but what is not known or not reported is that they are often cousins. Families on either side cannot refuse such an arrangement without incurring great dishonor, and expulsion for all intents and purposes.
Against such a culture, both reason and kindness are useless or worse than useless. It should not even be necessary to say that, but the Left not only makes it necessary, they of course create devices to make its discussion difficult or illegal.
There’s something of a leap here from the lack of response to Western classical music to cousin marriage.
LA note: The below comment, which compares medieval polyphony to jazz riffs, is more jazz riff itself than the Greek logos of which it speaks. It also has a lot of stuff on numerology.I don’t follow it all, but the commenter seems to know what he’s talking about, and has interesting ideas.
Kristor L. writes:
This is a contribution to the thread on the uniqueness of Western Art, and to the thread about the elevated intelligence of the Jews, which last time I checked was touching upon the cultural predominance of Christianity:
Let’s not forget the earlier flowering of Western Music, when organum, part-singing, polyphony—and, thus, polyrhythmy—were discovered by monastics improvising rhapsodically on plainchant, like jazzmen, to the stunned astonishment of all who heard them. Plainchant had long been appreciated by educated listeners the way sophisticated audiences now appreciate Bach or Verdi; the addition of polyphony was to them as it would be for us if Mozart were somehow instantly cubed in complexity, intensity, and beauty. This revolutionary development in Western consciousness happened from 900 to 1400 AD. Polyphony was a discovery of the Middle Ages. No more complex intellectual constructions have ever been created on Earth. Ockeghem has been compared to Bach, Mozart—and Godel. Polyphony and its children, counterpoint and harmony, are all unique to the West.
I would argue that it is not coincidental that the high musical tradition of the West sprang from Christian monastic roots, and thus from a tradition of performance practice and of liturgy that went back continuously and quite consciously to the choir of Levites in the Temple in Jerusalem—and who knows how much earlier?
The ancient Jewish intellectuals were deeply interested in numerology, gematria. This was part and parcel of being an intellectual, a wizard, in those days; along with prophecy (which means, really, the same thing as “witting” (whence, “wizard’”): seeing, or knowing), and the interpretation of dreams. Note that the Jews excelled in all of these arts both in Babylonia (“mene mene tekel upharsin”) and in Egypt (Joseph’s seven fat and seven lean years, which made him vizier). The Chapel at King’s College, Cambridge—home of one of greatest living survivors of the ancient monastic choral tradition, the King’s College Choir (which like the College itself is a relict and artifact of the monastery)—is an architectural riff on the number 26, which is as I recall the Hebrew numerological value of “YHWH.” Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, the most important Platonist since Plato and a contemporary of Jesus, goes on for pages about the significance of the number 7. The Jewish priests and prophets—this is just another way of saying, “the Jewish intellectuals” (Philo came of a high priestly family)—were also fascinated with astrology, which is to say, astronomy. This too was part of being an educated man. “Yahweh Tsevaot,” or “Jehovah Sabaoth” as the Romans transcribed the title, means “Lord of Hosts.” The Hosts in question were the hosts of angels, which we today call the fixed stars, and which the Greeks called gods. The Greek word for “Sabaoth” is “Kosmos.” It is used of the stars, and of a host arrayed for battle. “Elohim” means, literally, “Gods.” In the Trisagion, or Sanctus as it is called in the West, we join in every Mass with the angelic hosts in singing, “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, dominus deus Sabaoth”—Holy, holy, holy, lord god of hosts. The hosts of angels are YHWH’s messengers and agents, as Hermes was messenger and agent of Zeus Pater. Perfectly faithful to His Word, they are His effective embodiments; thus the three “men” who appeared to Abraham at Mamre, and spoke with the voice of the Lord.
When Pythagoras studied as a young man in the temples and monasteries of Syria, he learned that the stars sang; they sang the perfectly rational—i.e., intelligible and mathematical—music of the spheres. As Philo insisted, philosophy, number theory and music theory all sprang from attempts by the early cosmologists and astronomers to understand the order they discovered in the movements of the wanderers—the planets, whose orbits each describe one of the seven heavens—against the background of the fixed stars. Pythagoras’ exploration of harmony, proportion and ratio thus flowed from the Palestinian theory of correspondence between Heaven and Earth, which is resounded (this is no accident, either) both in the Lord’s Prayer and in Newton’s theory of gravitation.
Rodney Stark has demonstrated that the Christians, who were at first mostly Hellene wannabes hanging out at synagogues (called God-fearers in the New Testament), and the Greek-leaning intellectual Jews (often called Hellenists in the New Testament), inherited from the Jews the conviction that the universe is rational and orderly and good, the continuous creation of a God always faithful in all His works to His Eternal Nature, itself the chief and original exemplification of the Platonic Form of Order and Goodness. It was this conviction that made science, and more generally a rigorous engagement with nature conceived as the handiwork and expression of the Logos, a worthwhile and meaningful enterprise. Allah on the other hand is not subject even to logic, and is thus wholly unreliable. Thus it is that, contrary to the historical myth we all learned in grade school—a myth which is a relic of an earlier era’s PC revision of history—science and capitalism (which is merely the application of scientific rationality to trade, finance and enterprise) flourished in Christian monastic culture.
So, the roots of Judeo-Christian intellectual, military and economic preeminence lie quite deep in history. A number of strands contribute to it; Abraham was a Babylonian, or at least grew up in their gestalt; and “Moses” is an Egyptian name, meaning “son of” (Tutmoses means something like, son of Thoth, i.e. of Mercury, god of language and markets). The Jews sojourned, and excelled, in both lands, in both cases leaving behind vibrant Hebrew communities. The Indo-Europeans, too, of course; Pythagoras was as a European by no means the earliest member of a long tradition of exploration of other lands and cultures; how many Egyptians traveled to Athens to learn from the Greeks, before Alexander?
I much doubt that Judeo-Christian success is a “white” thing; but I have little doubt it is a “gene-culture coevolution” thing, which has had tremendous beneficial effects for both Jews and Christians.
I like that expression “God-fearer,” having been called a “know-it-all God Hopper” by Ralph Holloway, a Darwinian paleontologist at Columbia.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 11, 2007 09:45 AM | Send