Three Stages in Culture
by Christopher Clouder
(Reprinted with kind permission from Steiner Education, Vol.28, No.1)
When teaching in the Upper School it is essential to have foremost in one's mind the 'latent' questions that the students carry. These are questions which should be taken up within the fabric of the lesson, without them having to be vocalised. In adolescence they rise up from a relationship with the world that is undergoing turbulent transformation as the young persons find new faculties and feelings within themselves as well as viewing the world around them from a different perspective. The curriculum must provide a stable horizon against which these new forces can be measured but also accommodate and encourage change and creativity.
Our capacities of thought, feeling and will change as we evolve as individuals, as does our body. Yet at all times these capacities are open to ideals that too undergo transformation while retaining an element of truth. The ideal of beauty has manifested itself in many different ways since humanity first created art. Yet it remains an ever present yardstick against that which we perceive is judged. What was considered beautiful a few decades or centuries ago is not necessarily seen in the same light in the present, but that does not mean previous concepts of the beautiful are either better or worse than those we hold now. In fact older forms of art can often provide a source of inspiration for the present. Cultural background also makes a fundamental difference but we must remember that culture is an expression of something within us and is a reflection of our views of each other and of the world. Art is a testament to these changes and through the study of art we can begin to appreciate the permanence of the ideal, the struggle to attain it and its multifarious manifestations. It can provide nourishment for that which is within us and, at times of crisis, prove a solace as well as a spur for overcoming the difficulties. It is often a direct language that does not always need the medium of words, and its appreciation can enhance both perception and understanding. The Class 9 History of Art main-lesson is based on these principles.
The artistic tradition in Europe has its roots in ancient Egypt and it is here that the main-lesson begins. A visit to an Egyptian gallery in a museum and observation of the young children milling about with obvious delight is proof enough that there is a connection between this culture of the past and the present one. Yet the consciousness of those people and their relationship to their natural and social environment was in many ways very different from ours. The ancient Egyptians felt themselves closely connected to the vegetation, geography and climate of the land they inhabited. So much so that they felt that the surroundings were a divine script that could be read and would reveal the will of the Gods. They experienced their bodies as being imbued with the same forces that they beheld in the plant kingdom and their rituals reinforced this close connection. For them the preservation of this connection was the ultimate task of humanity. For three thousand years there was little stylistic change and they considered this long continuity as essential for the well being of the earth. Artistic freedom, originality, human rights were concepts that did not exist. Mankind was here to serve, and in serving he provided a proper place for himself in the afterlife. The Pharaoh was the Gods' representative on earth and their commands were breathed into him so that an order would prevail in the Kingdom. The statues of ancient Egypt show this confidence. They are firmly planted on the earth yet the idealised portrayal and formal stance embody a quality that is superhuman.
This art originated in the tomb. Earthly abodes and earthly pleasures were ephemeral, what counted was the permanent immortality after death that could be obtained by the preparation for death and this task could occupy a whole lifetime. Egypt was a giant necropolis of a people who felt supported, nurtured and subservient to higher beings and whose art encapsulated the strength of that certainty. Yet the very insistence on this belief suggests an anxiousness. That statues were needed to ensure a proper connection between this world and the next is indicative of a split consciousness that is partly fettered to the material as well as the spiritual. Pyramids are petrified sunbeams that ensure that there was and always would be a staircase to the heavens. Here then are the first halting steps away from an authority yet simultaneously a longing to cling to it. The Egyptian soul was not tormented by logic or the question surrounding personal morality. Obedience was all, but in spite of this the Gods seemed to be slipping further and further away. In this phenomenon we can find a reflection of our own growing up where we face quandaries surrounding the need for authority and a simultaneous growing beyond it.
In the art of Ancient Greece we can trace the emergence of the idea of freedom. Archaic Greek art shows that the early Greeks attributed all initiatives to the Gods; in fact, in the early statues, the difference between godly and human is not apparent. The naked male Kouros figures and the clothed female Kore of the C7th BC are very consistent. The Kouros usually has his left foot forward, his weight equally distributed, hands clenched, arms hanging straight down and is facing forwards. Yet he is not a block and his back is as fully carved as the front. From all angles he is a human without the godly support that is found in Egyptian statues. These archaic statues have an Apollonian serenity that was somewhat removed from the earth. They all have youthful bodies, slight smiles and an extraordinary uprightness. As the classical age dawned the statues changed in that the limbs broke free into gesture, the long heavy hair receded leaving the head free to be turned and the feet were posed as if anticipating movement. Now that the bodies could be turned by the will of the individual we find the emergence of free choice. But not without a struggle, as is depicted in the Lapiths fighting the centaurs, Greeks fighting Persians and Hercules struggling in his twelve labours. The emergence of choice came with the emergence of thinking but to achieve this much had to be overcome and with it arrived responsibility. The Charioteer of Delphi stands there in full command of his horses, his hands loosely gripping his reins. His strength, however, comes from within rather than from the Gods, and is expressed in the dignity of his face and pillar-like folds of his garments.
In the last phase of Greek art the struggle become internalised. Now we can see all the human joys and griefs, the flowing movement of youth and the cares of age, the excitement of the horse race and the despair of drunkenness and loss. The faces are portraits and the dreamy look of the Classical age vanishes and becomes an expression of experience. The hair loses its regular pattern and becomes crumpled and unkempt. Pathos becomes the lot of humanity and, if there are gods, they too share all human frailties. We are entering the realm of Dionysos with both its frenzy and potential for new growth. Can we not see in this the steps of our own biography? And how much more telling is it to see the wrestling of our own souls depicted in statues that are recognisably and sympathetically human. A force of the soul is born that attempts to disregard authority in favour of its own searching and because of this reaps the rewards and penalties.
In Roman art character emerges. The Greeks could never have conceived of a portrait of a human as a bust because for them the totality of the human form was significant, a head without feet would have been an absurdity. To the Romans we all became heads for that is where our character is stamped and it was this strength of character that enabled them to conquer both peoples and lands. The otherworldly beauty is lost and we stand alone as physical individuals. The Romans stood in Tacitus's words with "a spade in one hand and a sword in the other".
At the point that this was most strongly felt, Christianity appeared and there is a marked contrast between the art and architecture that embellished Roman cities and the unsophisticated but joyous art to be found in the catacombs. Here in the midst of death there was hope and all the pictures of the early Christian centuries abound in the faith that there was an afterlife and that Christ could lead humanity to a new and better world. Such a message did not need luxurious illustration or magnificent constructions but could be simply depicted in a way that could speak to the hearts of all that understood it - we are not alone after all and through contemplation of Christ's teaching and deeds we can be led away from the anxiety and despair to which our intellect is prone.
When Christianity became the religion of the Empire under Constantine, new problems were created in the conjoining of state and belief; and these questions perplexed and troubled Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Art turned away from everyday life on earth and tended to look towards the celestial kingdom. Old ideas were brought back into currency and much effort was put into elucidating what classical philosophers and the early church fathers had said and thought. In Egypt we were looking at the souls who felt a direct contact with their immediate environment and felt that environment within them. In the passage through Greece, Rome, Byzantium and the Middle Ages art reveals qualities of thought that were applied to humanity's position on earth and the relationship to godly realms. This relationship was no longer something that was felt; it had to be explored with intelligence and the ramifications of this exploration are apparent in the history of those times. It is important to young people, who experience a similar inward path, to gain a sense of the difference of these two approaches without their having to experience them as abstract philosophy with little bearing on their immediate concerns.
The Renaissance then appears as a new and startling development, although the people themselves living at this time saw it as basically a rebirth of an older culture. The Florentine humanist Mattea Palmieri wrote in 1435: "Now indeed may every thoughtful spirit thank God that it has been permitted to be born in this new age, so full of hope and promise, which now rejoices in a greater army of noble souls than the world has seen in a thousand years that preceded it". It was an age of optimism that felt it could view the world afresh and in art it rejected the heavenly qualities of Byzantine and Gothic in favour of infusing this world with an ideal beauty. To this end gravity reasserted itself: portraits were painted as an exploration of the human psyche, the laws of linear perspective were discovered and the use of a vanishing point gave pictures the illusion of depth. For the Medieval world, perspective was just an illusion and could be disproved by simple geometry. For the Renaissance artist however it was an expression of an individual "punto centrico", an individual perspective of the world. Nature itself was considered to have a mathematical structure and the universe consisted of proportional relationships as an image of the divine order. Through having one focal point where the spectator must stand, man becomes "the measure of all things". This is the beginning of the modern age and its emergence can be traced from St Francis and Giotto to the great Renaissance masters. Italian art still retained a sense of the sublime and it was Northern art, with its interest in the narrative, that came closest to the earth again. Pain and suffering are the lot of the Son of Man and of mankind, yet behind it all, if the observer could open his eyes, was redemption.
The main-lesson usually concludes with the paintings of Rembrandt, where darkness and light struggle but also reveal and balance each other. In this journey through art we end with a new age, with faculties that are still unfolding within us where light and darkness contend to reveal colour. The History of Art main-lesson is a reflection of historical evolution but also of our own personal pilgrimage of the soul and we can begin to make sense of this journey through the medium of ideals, as expressed in art, which can give us the strength to continue.
Christopher Clouder teaches art history in the Upper School, at the Rudolf Steiner School of Kings Langley, and as a teacher-trainer.