With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Florensky and the Aesthetics of Morality: Part IV

Florensky’s Aesthetics: Later Writings

The reason why the holiness of the saints attracts our veneration and awe is because beauty attracts, and beauty is inherently connected to holiness. Iconography represents this beauty; the iconographer contemplates the glory of the Spirit-bearers, and brings to us an image of the Kingdom God. Indeed, the reason why icons look strange to modern, western eyes, is because the image in the icon represents the spiritual flight of the saint, and so transcends the boundaries of “perspective.” Perspective in art is, at best, a pale imitation of reality: an illusion which tries to trick the viewer into believing what they see is “real.” According to Florensky, the foundation of perspectivism in art lies in theatre, trying to add the illusion of reality to the play.[1] Perspectivism is an optical illusion; however, the true task of art is not merely creating a visual imitation of what we see, but to present its essence to us:

For the task of painting is _not_ to duplicate reality, but to give the most profound penetration of its architectonics, of its material, of its meaning. And the penetration of this meaning, of this stuff of reality, its architectonics, is offered to the artist’s contemplative eye in living contact with reality, by growing accustomed to and empathising with reality, whereas theatre decorations wants as much as possible to _replace_ reality with its outward appearance [...] Stage design is a deception [...] while pure painting is, or at least wants to be, above all true to life, not a substitute for life but merely the symbolic signifier of its deepest reality.[2]

In icons, but also with many other great works of art, the laws of perspective are broken; indeed, they can be transcended or even reversed, for the purpose of representing that which the eye alone cannot see. Life is fluid and full of motion; it is not still and cut off from the rest of reality. Great painters, even after the “recovery” of perspective in art, show to us that they understand the transcendent aspect of “reverse perspective” by offering, in their masterpieces, more than one focal point in their paintings. This attracts us to the painting because we feel within it there is something great being represented in that work of art.

Florensky believed that iconography represents a higher art, a heavenly art, because it understands, appreciates, and fully applies the transcendent, unearthly themes which make art great. We actually see more of the saint in an icon than what we would normally see if we had met them in person, because the icon represents to us the fullness of that saint’s being, and in any encounter we had with them, we would miss much of their internal, essential makeup.

So-called artistic realism is not actually realistic, rather, it is naive. It creates a logical barrier between the artistic vision and reality; it creates a false, legalistic view of creation. At best it takes one subjective manner of perception, and universalizes it. It does to art what legalism does in morality. While it might seem to be the most empirical representation of reality, even this is false: for science shows us that our perceptions of reality are, in themselves, not true to what it is to the object we are perceiving. Indeed, our very perceptions can be said to be illusionary manifestations of reality. Thus he said about naturalistic art, “Whereas the scientist exposes the unreality of perceptible images as subjective, the artist on the contrary strives to secure them in their subjectivity. Consequently, art does not express cognition of the truth of things, it obscures it.”[3] It puts forth an illusionary world: it at first appears to be real, but when we examine it, there is no substance, no reality; there is no core to that experience, it is dead; it is like picking up a discarded shell from the ocean; the life which once was within it is gone. It does not bring us, therefore, a world full of life, of creativity, of love. These, Florensky believed, are required for a piece of art to be an inspired masterpiece.

Thus, while Florensky believed iconography is the greatest kind of artistic achievement possible, he did not understand that this meant it should be the only kind of art. Thus he tried to delve deeper into what makes art, art. What is the foundation of art? It is not to express beauty to the world? Where does that beauty come from? The artist has a kind of spiritual experience (even if they do not realize it as such), and that experience is then manifested on a canvas, on a fresco, in stained glass windows, through the carving of stone, etc:

In creating a work of art, the psyche or soul of the artist ascends from the earthly realm into the heavenly; there, free from all images, the soul is fed by contemplation by the essences of the higher realm, knowing the permanent noumena of things; then, satiated with this knowing, it descends again to the earthly realm. And precisely at the boundary of the two worlds, the soul’s spiritual knowledge assumes the shapes of symbolic imagery: and it is these images that make the permanent work of art.[4]

Art represents a mystical experience of the artist, but it manifests this experience by relating one of the two different movements of the soul in that experience: either from its “ascent” above itself, or from its “descent” as it comes back to itself. Art that is born of the ascent is art of raw psychic material: it is incomplete, for it has not had the fullness of vision, the full experience of the heavenly realm. It is art which paradoxically tries to “capture” the “freeing” of the soul. Florensky related this to the spiritual state of prelest – spiritual pride which generates an ego trying to hold onto itself back from the fullness of the ascent. This means, among other things, we are trying to keep a hold of those aspects of ourselves which we believe keep us grounded in the world, preventing our spiritual perfection: we do not let go of our sin. Or, as Florensky explained, “...where ordinarily we would seek to break the grips of our sinful passions – even if our attempts were weak and futile – in prelest, driven by spiritual conceit, spiritual sensuality, and (above all) spiritual pride, we seek to tighten the knots that bind us.”[5]

Art born of the ascent is art trying to seize and capture the spirit before it has fully revealed itself, and therefore it creates an imperfect, false representation of reality. It puts a mask over reality instead of showing the full countenance, the full semblance of beauty which would be experienced at the height of the mystical, artistic moment. In the descent, even if the representation is false, the experience of that height is there, and it is therefore capable of being represented, even if the technical skills of the artist has not matured enough to know how to do it properly. It has accepted, not denied, the spirit. “Art” born of the ascent is the “art” of naturalism, of illusionism, because it creates, as with all illusions, “an empty image of the real.”[6] Art born of the descent, born after the fullness of spiritual revelation, is an incarnational experience, for it “incarnates in real images the experience of the highest realm; hence this imagery [....] attains a super-reality.”[7] What is portrayed “manifests its ontological reality”[8] to us.

Florensky related his ideas to the Eastern understanding of the distinction between image and a likeness. What does it mean to say we are in the image of God? That we are in the likeness of God? Being in the image of God means that we exist, and it is the “ontologically actual gift of God, as the spiritual ground of each created person....”[9] Our likeness however, is our manifestation of our potential, in how well we live out that image. We are called to be in the likeness of God (that is, like God, we are called to live to our full potential), but, after the fall of Adam, we have failed to do so. Yet, we were originally made in the likeness of God: humanity once manifested its potential perfectly. Through grace, this is still possible; it is our spiritual inheritance. To once again be in the likeness of God, we must “incarnate in the flesh of our personality the hidden inheritance of our likeness God: and to reveal this incarnation in our face.”[10] When we do so, the beauty that is God is seen in us, in our face. The saints, once again, are the greatest examples of this.

We are to mold our lives so to attain the spiritual heights we are capable of achieving. Like an artist, we are to be creative in how we develop ourselves and once again put on the likeness of God. Sadly, we do not always do this well; prelest is always a danger. When this happens, we have halted our ascent, stopped our spiritual perfection, and instead of taking on the image of God, we develop for ourselves a sinful countenance. We put on a new mask for ourselves, thinking its beauty matches the beauty we should possess; but in the end, what we get for ourselves is not even beautiful. “By exfoliating essence into appearance, sin brings into a countenance (lik) i.e., into the purest revelation of God’s image – that which is alien to the countenance and, in so doing, it overshadows the light of God: and the face becomes a light mixed with darkness, flesh becomes here and there corroded, through the twisting of beauty, into sores.”[11]

Florensky understood that in the creation of beauty, be it artistic or personal beauty, that we are inspired in our action from a spiritual ascent. However, we often prevent that ascent from achieving its final end, and therefore, create an illusionary shell which can confuse and overwhelm us. He recognized, therefore, that it is not just a spiritual experience, not just “transcendent beauty” (for all ascent is transcendent) that is needed. Rather, it is the incarnation of the spiritual realm into the earthly realm which creates the best, truest representation of beauty; anything else is an illusionary, satanic deception, no matter how beautiful it seems to be. Thus, we can be overwhelmed with a dark “evil” art, with an “angel of light” who deceives us, and traps us before attaining the fullness of spiritual and moral beauty.

The reason why the saints attract us, the reason why the hold us in awe, is because they have incarnated the glory of the spiritual realm into the earthly realm. They show us that this internal, radiant beauty is possible, and that we should not stop our ascent until we reach its final end. The beauty we see, the beauty which is captured in iconography, is the beauty of the spirit which radiates and inspires, which descends and incarnates into the world. It comes to us, calls to us, asks us to follow it so that we can have that which the saints have had. It requires us to overcome ourselves, to let go of everything that would prevent our own spiritual pilgrimage. Just like Florensky believed icons represent the height of art, so it is also that saints themselves are the greatest iconographers. Indeed:

In the most precise sense of the word, only the saints can be iconpainters; and it may well be that the vast majority of the saints have ‘painted’ icons in the sense of directing, through their spiritual experience, the very hands of those iconpainters who possessed both the technical skill to depict sacred vision and enough spiritual intelligence to respond sensitively to saintly instruction. [...] It is no wonder, then, that certain masters of iconpainting, obedient to the saints who proclaimed visions of immortal beauty, would depict that beauty under the direct supervision and verification of the very saints themselves.[12]

It is also this very reason why icons require strict spiritual discipline in their creation.An icon is a statement of the artist, one which that leads the viewer, the contemplator of the icon, to the heavenly realm incarnated therein. Those iconographers who have had an insufficient spiritual vision must be prevented from stepping past the boundaries of what an icon should represent. They can still create icons that manifest the heavenly realm to the viewer. But they must do so by following the traditional rules of iconography. Thus we find rightfully established icons are the prototypes of other icons, and iconographers imitate what has gone on before. They are told not to be “creative” without understanding the degrees or means by which creativity is valid, and this is found out only by spiritual experience. Thus, if the iconographer continues with the spiritual tradition of the great iconographers before him, the viewer is at least assured that it re-presents that very first spiritual experience that inspired the original icon in that tradition.

[1] Pavel Florensky, “Reverse Perspective,” 208.
[2] Ibid., 208-9.
[3] Pavel Florensky, “On Realism,” in Nicoletta Misler, Pavel Florensky: Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art. Trans. Wendy Salmond (London, England: Reakton Books, 2002), 182.
[4] Pavel Florensky, Iconostasis. Trans. Donald Sheehan and Olga Andrejev (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 44.
[5] Ibid., 48.
[6] Ibid., 45.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 51,
[9] Ibid., 51 –2.
[10] Ibid., 52.
[11] Ibid., 55.
[12] Ibid., 88-9.

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