Sixpenny Civilization

Sixpenny Civilization posted in Eleison Comments on November 27, 2010

The life of the French painter, Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), has been made into a film, a TV series, an opera and at least two novels. Something in that life must speak to modern man: the stockbroker who is putting bread on the table for a wife and five little children and throws it all away to become a revolutionary artist, spurning all of Western civilization on a distant island in the South Pacific. But does not Gauguin’s restless end suggest that he may not have found the solution dreamt of there by so many souls?

One fictional presentation of Gauguin’s life was written 16 years after his death by a well-known British writer of the first half of the 20th century, W. Somerset Maugham, who visited the South Pacific to gather at first hand material for “The Moon and Sixpence.” This title for his short novel based on Gauguin sounds strange, but in fact it goes to the heart of the matter. In 1915 had appeared Maugham’s masterpiece, “Of Human Bondage,” a novel basically autobiographical. A critic had accused the book’s hero of being “so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence (a small British silver-coloured coin of that time) at his feet.” In other words, Maugham was so longing for some unattainable ideal that he was missing out on a lesser but practical happiness available at hand. Maugham retorted, “If you look on the ground for sixpence, you don’t look up, and so miss the moon.” In other words, there are higher things in life.

The use of this moon-sixpence contrast for his novel’s title shows clearly what Maugham thought of Gauguin. The normal happiness of the middle-class stockbroker and family father is the sixpence. Throwing it all away to become an artist is the moon. Now let nobody think Maugham condones throwing away living and family. Maugham presents the artist Strickland, his Gauguin, as being horrifically selfish, hard-hearted and cruel. Yet Maugham also presents him as being a genius who was basically right to pursue his artistic vocation, whatever the cost may have been in sixpenny happiness to the artist himself and to those around him.

In other words, says Maugham, most people’s lives in today’s Western civilization are sixpenny lives. But life itself is worth much more than sixpence. In the brief span that men are given to live on earth there is something so much more valuable, that in pursuit of it a man is basically right, if need be, to trample any number of sixpenny pieces into the mud.

In real life Gauguin died, at least posthumously, a famous and fulfilled artist, but humanly still restless and rebellious. Maugham has the measure of both the genius validated and the humanity frustrated. But has Maugham solved Gauguin’s unsolved problem? How can genius and life be opposed to one another, and both be human? The problem looks as though it is widespread and deeply rooted. Is there a solution? See next week’s “Eleison Comments.”

Kyrie eleison.

Hopeless Escape

Hopeless Escape posted in Eleison Comments on November 20, 2010

Currently showing in London (Tate Modern) is an exhibition of another great master of modern art – or is that a contradiction in terms? – the French painter Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). Men need pictures, as they need a vision of what life is all about. Today, electronics largely supply the pictures, but in Gauguin’s time painters still had an enormous impact.

Born in Paris in 1848, Gauguin after various travels and occupations became at the age of 23 a stockbroker, and two years later he married a Danish woman who gave him five children over ten years. At this time painting was for him only a hobby for which he had talent, but after a failed attempt in 1884 to go into business in Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, he abandoned his young family in the following year and returned to Paris to become a full-time artist.

In 1888 he spent nine weeks painting together with Van Gogh in Arles, but it ended stormily. Back in Paris he was not gaining enough money or recognition, so in 1891 he set sail for the tropics, “to escape everything artificial and conventional.” The rest of his life, except for one prolonged return to Paris, he spent in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, colonies then of French Polynesia in the South Pacific. There he produced most of the paintings on which rests his fame, but still he was fighting against Church and State, and only his death in 1903 prevented him from having to serve a three-month prison sentence.

Like Van Gogh, Gauguin began to paint in the somber and conventional style proper to later 19th century art. However, as with Van Gogh and at about the same time, the colours became much brighter and the style rather less conventional. In fact Gauguin was the founder of the Primitivist movement in art, and soon after his death had a considerable influence on the brilliant but also rebellious Picasso. Primitivism meant going back to primitive sources, because Europe felt as though it was burnt out. Hence the turning to African and Asian models, a notable example being “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” of Picasso. Hence Gauguin’s flight to Polynesia in 1891, where he regretted the intrusion of Catholic missionaries, and where he studied and built into his art pagan gods of the local pre-Catholic mythology, including several quasi-devilish figures.

But does the vision of the Tahitian paintings of Gauguin, which are surely his best, represent a viable solution to the problems of the decadent West which he spurned and left behind him? One may think not. The paintings now on show in the Tate Modern exhibition are original and colourful, but the Tahitian people he paints, mostly young women, remain somehow torpid and dull. Gauguin’s Tahiti may be an escape, but it is not a hope. Gauguin may have been right about the decadent West, but the earthly paradise he fabricated in his Polynesian art left him restless, and he died still rebellious. There remains some problem that he has still not solved.

Interesting is the fictional version of his life by the well-known English 20th century writer, Somerset Maugham. See next week’s “Eleison Comments.”

Kyrie eleison.

Modern Art – II

Modern Art – II posted in Eleison Comments on July 17, 2010

By its very ugliness, modern art points to the existence and goodness of God. After three months (cf. EC 144), let us return to this paradox, in the hope that if any soul admits the common sense difference between beauty and ugliness in art, that soul may be helped further to see that if God did not exist, that difference would not exist either.

The word “art” means skill, or the products of human skill. It can cover paintings, drawings, sculpture, fashions in clothing, music, architecture, and so on. The expression “modern art” usually refers to paintings and sculpture in particular, as generated from the early 1900’s onwards by a movement of artists who deliberately rejected, and reject, all standards and measures of beauty as understood before the 20th century. The difference between pre-modern and modern art is as real and clear as the difference here in London between the classical Tate Museum on Millbank, and the Tate Modern, a completely new museum, floated ten years ago a short boat-ride downstream from its progenitor on the opposite bank of the Thames. It is as though modern art cannot sit still under the same roof as pre-modern art. They war on one another, just as do old church buildings and the New Mass.

Now modern art in this sense is characterized by its ugliness. Common sense agrees here with the Communist leader Kruschev, who is reported to have commented on a modern art exhibition in Russia, “A donkey could do better with its tail.” And what is ugliness? Disharmony. In Arianna Huffington’s admirable book, “Picasso, Creator and Destroyer,” she demonstrated how each time Picasso fell in love with another of his six (main) women, his calmer paintings reflected something of their natural beauty, but as soon as he fell out of love again, his rage tore that beauty to pieces in “masterpieces” of modern art. She shows how the pattern repeats itself in Picasso like clockwork!

Thus beauty in art comes from a harmony in the soul, be it a merely earthly harmony, whereas ugliness proceeds from a disharmony in the soul, as of hate. But harmony has no need of disharmony, on the contrary, whereas disharmony, as the word suggests, presupposes some harmony on which it is, essentially, making war. Thus harmony is prior to disharmony, and every disharmony testifies to some harmony. But more profoundly harmonious than any paintings of lovely women can be paintings of the Madonna, because the harmony in the soul of the artist painting the Mother of God can go far higher and deeper than the harmony inspired by any merely human model, however lovely. Why? Because the beauty of the Madonna derives from her closeness to God whose divine harmony – perfect simplicity and unity – infinitely surpasses the human harmony of the loveliest of mere creatures.

Therefore poor modern art points to the harmony it lacks, and all harmony points to God. Then let nobody resort to the ugliness of modern architecture to house the Tridentine Mass. One would guess he was wanting, or waiting, to go back to the disharmony of the Novus Ordo Mass!

Kyrie eleison.

Moral Framework

Moral Framework posted in Eleison Comments on April 24, 2010

By their comprehensive brevity and divine promulgation, God’s ten Commandments (Deut.V, 6–21) are the outstanding presentation of that natural law known to every man through his natural conscience, and which he denies or defies at his peril. Last week’s “Eleison Comments” claimed that this law makes easy a diagnosis of the ills of modern art. Actually it diagnoses a multitude of modern problems, but let us this week look at the structure of the ten Commandments, as analyzed by St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae, 1a 2ae, 100, art.6 and 7.

Law is the ordering of a community by its leader. Natural law is God’s ordering of the community of men with himself, of himself with men. Of this community God himself is the centre and main purpose, so the first “table of the Law” lays out men’s duties to God (C.1, no idols, C.2 no blasphemy, C.3 keep the Sabbath), while the second table (C. 4–10) details men’s duties to their fellow-men.

The first three Commandments represent the duties of loyalty, respect and service in that order. For just as for a soldier in an army, says St.Thomas, disloyalty to his general, or treachery, is worse than disrespect, which is worse than a failure to serve him, so a man towards God must firstly have no other gods (C.1), secondly in no way insult him or his name (C.2), and thirdly render him the service he requests (C.3).

As for the duties of a man towards his fellow-men (C.4–10), of primary importance are his relations with the father and mother who gave him life. Therefore the second table of the Law is headed by the duty to honour one’s parents (C.4). So basic is this honour to all human society that without it society falls to pieces, as we see happening all around us today with “Western civilization” (which would better be termed “Western disintegration”).

The remaining six Commandments St.Thomas continues to analyze as being in descending order of importance. Harm to neighbour in action (C.5–7) is worse than merely in word (C.8) which is worse than only in thought (C.9–10). As for harm in action, harm to a neighbour’s person (C.5, no killing) is graver than to his family (C.6, no adultery), which in turn is graver than to his mere property (C.7, no stealing). Harmful actions in word (C.8, no lying) are worse than harm in mere thought, where again envy of his marriage or family (C.9, no concupiscence of the flesh) is graver than envy of his mere property (C.10, no concupiscence of the eyes).

However, the breaking of all ten Commandments involves pride – the ancient Greeks called it “hubris” – whereby I rise up against God’s order, against God. For the Greeks, hubris was the key to man’s downfall. For us today, a universal pride is the key to the modern world’s appalling problems, insoluble without God, which means, ever since the Incarnation, without Our Lord Jesus Christ. Sacred Heart of Jesus, save us!

Kyrie eleison.

Modern Art – I

Modern Art – I posted in Eleison Comments on April 17, 2010

Why is modern art so ugly? Does it have to be so ugly? Cannot artists of today do something nice for a change? And why, when they do something nice, is it normally second- or third-rate as art, sentimental, somehow not authentic? Such recurring questions are raised by a painter like Van Gogh, considered last week, who was on his way to modern art. The questions are easy to answer if God and the human soul are for real. They have no reasonable answer if the spiritual God and the spiritual soul are fictions of self-deceiving man.

If God is the invisible but real “Father Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible,” then he created the invisible human soul, most intimately united at conception to a visible body to constitute every human being that ever was or will be. His purpose in creating creatures with a spiritual reason and therefore free-will is his own extrinsic (not intrinsic) glory, which increases with every human being who uses that free-will so to love and serve God in this life as to deserve at death to be unimaginably happy, by giving to God glory without end in the next life.

And how does a man love and serve God in this life? By obeying his commandments (Jn. XV, 10) which constitute a moral framework of good and evil for all human acts, a framework which men can defy but not evade. If they do defy it, they will put themselves in more or less disharmony with God, self and neighbor, because God created that framework not arbitrarily, but in perfect harmony with his own nature and the human nature bound by him to act within it.

Now art might be defined in its broadest sense as any confection of materials (e.g. paints, words, musical notes, etc.) over which man takes special trouble to communicate to other men what he has in his mind and heart. So if mind and heart belong to a soul which at any given moment must be in a state of greater or lesser harmony with that moral framework set by God for all its acts, then any artistic product proceeding from that soul is bound to reflect the objective harmony or disharmony within it. And now we are in a position to answer our original questions.

Modern arts are so ugly because all modern souls belong to a global society falling daily deeper into apostasy, such that a huge and influential number of these souls are at war with God, consciously or unconsciously. The artistic products of souls immersed in such an environment can only reflect their internal disharmony with God, self and neighbor, which is why they are ugly. Only from any genuine harmony still remaining in their souls can anything genuinely beautiful proceed. Wilfully “nice” art proceeds from a disharmonious wish to feign harmony, which is why the effect will always be in some way false or sentimental, not authentic, and second- or third-rate as art.

On the other hand if God, and the immortal soul coming from him and due to go to him, are mere fictions, then there is no reason why beauty should not be ugly and ugliness beautiful. That is the mind-set of modern artists, but from the moment that I recognize any ugly artifact of theirs to be ugly, I am implying that there is a framework, not theirs, which they are defying.

Kyrie eleison.

Van Gogh’s Popularity

Van Gogh’s Popularity posted in Eleison Comments on April 10, 2010

At the recent exhibition of the modern Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh, soon to close at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, there have been continual queues of people waiting for hours to get in. How is such popularity to be explained? Certainly Van Gogh is modern without being too modern, a combination that appeals to many souls anxious today to make some sense of the crazy world around them, but surely there is also in him an even more attractive combination – he is religious without being religious – religion for apostates!

He was born in Holland in 1853, the eldest son of a Protestant pastor. For nearly three quarters of his short life all he thought of was giving himself to the service of religion, because only at the age of 27 did he discover his outstanding talent and vocation as an artist. However, from then on he devoted himself with a religious intensity to the mastery of drawing and painting, so that he would be able to express in art what he had found himself unable to express in any outwardly religious form. He said, “In all of Nature, in trees for instance, I see expression and a soul.”

He made that soul almost tangible in the painting chosen by the Royal Academy for their Exhibition flyer, “Hospital at St. Remy.” Gnarled tree trunks point upwards to their dark foliage which crowds over the bright yellow hospital building below, and interlocks with the dark blue sky above. The few human figures seem insignificant amidst a whirling dynamic of Nature, all the more dramatic for the picture’s brilliant colour-scheme, typical for Van Gogh. The same dynamic is still more visible in his famous painting,”Starry Night” (not included in this Exhibition), where landscape, cypress-trees, mountains, stars and sky are all locked together in a wild, rhythmic, yellow and violet dance, seeming to make the whole cosmos whirl.

Both paintings date from Van Gogh’s intensely productive last five years, between his move to Paris in early 1886 and his death in France in the summer of 1890. One may not like modern art, one may not like Van Gogh, but nobody can deny that his paintings from this period represent a profoundly individual and human reaction to what Wordsworth called “something far more deeply interfused” in the world of Nature that surrounds us human beings. What else is “art”? Only, whereas at the beginning of the 19th century that “something interfused” had inspired the English poet to “reflect in tranquillity,” on the contrary by the end of that apostatizing century the Dutch artist, who had also left overt religion behind him, found beauty but little peace, which makes him that much more sympathetic to our own still more restless age.

Alas, Van Gogh paid a heavy price for recognizing the prime movement in Nature without identifying the Prime Mover. The movement without the motionless Mover, the fierce dynamism without the King of Peace, ended by overwhelming him, and he died of a self-inflicted gun-wound. Divine Lord, have mercy, have mercy, on millions and millions of souls who sense you and need you, but cannot – or will not – find you. You alone know just how dangerous is their religionless religion without you!

Kyrie eleison.