Tuesday, June 12, 2007

a letter and some background

in case you were not already convinced that this is a nerdy blog, i bring you todays post.

"John of Damascus"

in what was purely a coincidence, both vassili and i referenced the seventh great ecumenical council held in nicea in 787. i added an important section of the council as an epigraph in my elaboration on a post that i had originally sketched out a couple of months ago on the place of the holy in art (see "saying the impossible"), while vassili mentioned the council as he addressed some of his critical concerns with the philosophical position underlying my two posts on han-wu shen (part 1 and part 2 can be found at these links). i wish simply to provide a little bit of background to the reader before i provide vassili's letter because while the council is very important for the development of the understanding of art within the christian world, it is not particularly well known.

the early ecumenical councils were the gathering of christian bishops from all over the world and really centered around disputes over what it meant to say that jesus was god. these resulted in mature formulations of the doctrine of the trinity (god is a dynamic unity: father, son and spirit), the doctrine of the incarnation (christ is one person, the divine Logos, fully human and fully divine), and culminated in the controversy over the appropriateness of artistic images, icons, for representing christ, etc. one of the main challenges that christianity always faced was dealing with the ban on images and the association of all images with idolatry. the opponents of icons recalled this ban and the transcendence of god in refusing to allow artistic representations to be associated with churches and christian worship. the proponents of the icons, on the other hand, argued that god's identification with the created order, already mentioned in the earlier councils, meant that god itself had taken up created images, icons of god and thus justified their use. god's revelation had shown that god could be revealed in and through the material order and that indeed the reconciliation of humanity with god required it ("what is not assumed cannot be saved"). and this ultimately was the position of the seventh ecumenical council represented primarily in the writings of john of damascus and maximus the confessor. his references to athanasius, gregory of nyssa and gregory palamas refer to important figures in the history of christianity dating from the 4th c. to the middle ages.

vassili's letter should be read as a response to my earlier use of hegel and especially the quote from lukacs that serves as the starting point for my first post on han-wu. as i understand it, vassili wishes to deny the adequacy of concepts to the being or essence of their objects without denying the possibility of a kind of realism that acts iconographically to point you beyond the image (this would be the point of the distinction mentioned in the quote from theodore the studite and his use of walter benjamin at the end) [n.b., benjamin and lukacs had a long and often contentious dispute over the role of art and especially expressionism in the 20th c.][one might also recall adorno's strenuous insistence on maintaining the non-identity of concept and object]. my own response will follow soon.

finally...i bring you vassili's very thoughtful letter (the original can be seen here):

Dear 'Lawrence',
i think you will agree that in order to hope of any realism in visual arts we first have to have an answer to epistemological problem of what is really real and how that is known to us. I do not want here neither to open an extensive discussion of that onerous (especially since Kant's time) matter, nor to jump into any final statement; but I would like to offer a point of view. Let me start:

It is quite known the controversy about the icons—the capability of depiction of Christ mainly—during the mid-Byzantine era which resulted into the 7th Ecumenical Council and destroyed Byzantine State’s unity for ever. What is not very known is the subtleties of arguments of both sides as a result that this controversy was nothing but the pick of the iceberg which was the old (and never ending) debate about the possibility of knowledge of God and the nature of man’s salvation. (In fact the whole theology of Greek Fathers from Athanasius to Gregory Palamas is nothing but an epistemologic struggle for asserting man’s potentiality of participation into God’s uncreated energy/-ies and, hence, God’s eternal life.) What recapitalized Church’s answer was Theodore Studite’s aphorism that “what is depicted in an icon [of Christ] is not [his] nature but hypostasis.” (Of course that needs a lot of discussion, since the distinction between hypostasis, or person, and nature, or substance, is a very old and fundamental issue in Greek Patristic theology which in fact it goes back to Aristotle, and, in my opinion, farther back to Greek Archaic thought; but here and now this discussion is not possible; so, i will avoid it and i will use Studite’s aphorism just as an Archimedean point.) This aphorism has a more general value for visual arts since it keeps open the possibility of a true image without, at the same time, falling into the vicious circle of trying to find a way out of total-realism’s labyrinth. To make it a bit more straightforward: Gregory of Nyssa gives a nice account about matter and perception; he says that the matter is the concurrence (out of the divine will and power) of all of matter’s features, which each-one-in-itself is nothing but a mere name or concept (PG 44, 69C), and that nature’s idiom is her state of continuous changing out of her constitution (ibid, 108A) and of her immanent creative reason [κτίσεως λόγον=reason of being] (ibid, 88D). And how can we perceive natural reality? He says, through hypostasis, which is nature’s manifestation via her specific idioms (PG 32, 328). Gregory Palamas similarly says: a substance without a distinct-from-it energy is totally non-existent [ανυπόστατος=without hypostasis] and a mere speculation of mind (Works, vol.5, 112).

So what i try to say is that the only possible and honest realism in visual arts is the depiction of what is commonly accepted as naturally idiomatic in our art’s object —that is, to create a visual name, as a real name-sign for a real thing. (As W. Benjamin says, “The name is the analogue of the knowledge of the object in the object itself.”) Can we see it somewhere? Yes, it is seen in folk art, in icons, in many works among the great poets of painting (e.g. Fra Angelico, Greco, Caravaggio, Giacometti and others).

What really appalls me in illusionary realism and in Lucacs’ naïve statement is their utopian will for man’s consciousness’ final dominion over nature —and every utopia, i think you will agree, is nothing but violence.

I hope i managed to give to you an idea of what i had in mind.
You have my best wishes for your “journey”.


aliana said...

Just noticed that you are a regular on Eteraz. I was wondering if you were familiar with Spengler at ATimes?

Lawrence of Arabia said...

i had not heard of him before...and i find it just a little disturbing that someone would take spengler ("the father of the conservative revolution" ... which is no doubt why he was chosen) as their identity.

and the articles are a little frightening. calling al-ghazali, for instance, "pagan" is just nuts. of course that is so he can eventually call tariq ramadan pagan as well, etc., etc.

i will keep an eye on that column in the future. thanks for pointing him out.

aliana said...

Some of the recent articles have been really twisted. Given your background in Christian theology I thought you would be a good person to deconstruct this Spengler.