By Patrick Tchakounte
2 April 2018
At the origin of human culture is art, which can be termed an adaptation of culture to its environment. Indeed, in a more general manner, life is itself artistic, as there is an inherent aesthetic to the rhythm that paces the life of every human culture, and at the center is art that enables human communities to adapt to the demands of their environment. Man is a rational animal, a compound of a material body and of a spiritual soul, that with his reason, transcends the temporal condition primarily in art, philosophy, science, and religion. In truth, the human person is an artistic creature, as the works of the human mind testify to the rationality that measures Beauty in word, in symbol, and in images.
Human culture can be conceived as an organism, that evolves over a period of time, over the ages of man. It takes its root from the soil of the Earth, from nature with which it exists in harmony with its natural rhythm and incarnates the soul of the human genius into the raw material of life, shaping it according to the particular reason of man. To define art, it is necessary to have an intuitive understanding of culture, which can be understood as a community of people, place, function and thought. 20th century British Catholic historian of culture, Christopher Dawson wrote extensively on the subject of culture and civilization, in his book Dynamics of World History, the Oxford Professor delineated the four characteristics of the formation of a culture in the comparison of the formation of an animal species:
It is true that three of the main influences which form and modify human culture are the same as in the case of the formation of an animal species. They are (I) race, i.e. the genetic factor; (2) environment, i.e. the geographical factor; (3) function or occupation, i.e. the economic factor. But in addition to this there is a fourth element – thought or the psychological factor – which is peculiar to the human species and the existence of which frees man from the blind dependence on material environment which characterizes the lower forms of life. (Dynamics of World History, Christopher Dawson, Section I, page 5)
Art is inherently an expression of the rhythm of a culture and, as matter of fact, reveals the aesthetic of the soul. Catholic culture reveals that art is in its essence an Incarnation of the Divine into the raw material of human life; hence, only when art truly expresses religious emotion is it possible for it to elevate the human spirit beyond the temporal condition. The human person is a genius who expresses through art his mastery over his environment and his communion with the Divine. Hence, there is a two-fold movement of immanence and of transcendence in human art that reveals its noumenal reality. To state that life is artistic is to bless the human condition and to show that society itself is a community of art that ought to reflect in its composition the symbols that articulate the reasonable parts of art itself. If culture is an activity and a community, art is its aesthetic that evidences a concern for Beauty as opposed to efficiency.
A beauty exists in Medieval culture that renders it artistic, it is found in the fusion between religious faith and life as religion infuses all aspects of the human condition with the ray of the Divine, a Beauty that matures during the following centuries in the artistic travail of the Renaissance as European man labors to fashion a new world that centers on the discovery of nature and the recovery of his heritage from Antiquity. The artist is not only the painter, or the architect, or the sculptor, he is also the musician, the theologian, the anatomist, the inventor, the scientist, the blacksmith, the politician. Art is life in the same way that culture is life. In a sense, art is culture, and a culture that renders life artistic is a culture that is blessed with Beauty and that preserves its tradition intact.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”; this is the oft-repeated phrase that illustrates the belief that art is inherently subjective and thus relative and that it does not belong to the sphere of reason, but rather to that of emotion and creativity. There is a truth to that statement in the sense that art is indeed subjective since it establishes a rapport with the subject eliciting a reaction that is in a sense emotive; but there is another sense in which the subject is placed in relation to art since it also conveys through symbol, objective reality and can be used to portray myth, religion, history, and politics according to the conception of the artist. In the end, it is more apt to state that art is spiritual, since it is a revelation of the human genius; that is, of the human spirit.
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Photo Credit: Corrado Giaquinto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.