WINTER AND SUMMER, MMXX
We remain unknown to ourselves. We amble through years and centuries without recognizing the nature of culture. We had a sense for balance, once, when we turned with the seasons, when we were integrated in World. We had mountains of meaning to navigate but we sacrificed our deepest truths, our oldest gods, our arcane illusions to the dream named Reason. It was for the idea of progress that meaning itself was laid to rest and forgotten. The elders inhumed had cost humanity divinity and we have yet to explain ourselves. Without understanding, we find ourselves adapting to meaninglessness and we begin to uncover a being of nothingness. It is past time to account for the cost of knowledge and to gather what it is that we have learned since the death of truth. Though laden with knowledge, we still do not grasp the potential we buried. It might well be lost to memory, somewhere over the horizon. It may never return; it may have been another dream just before sunrise.
We realize something is misplaced—lost in the grip of winter. Patting and searching, we turn out a stone blade and a sprig of holly. In the same moment: a wooden weight returns; a sinking remorse; a deep pain. Looking about, it could be anywhere; looking all around, behind, it has to be somewhere. Turning, we spot the snow-dusted prints of some spirited pathfinders. Ever curious, we head into our deepest winter with only the impression of an invincible summer. A cold wind rises and all of the spaces between the trees fall to a path. Stepping into the wind, we track the course of thought toward something hidden, somewhere, beneath the snow.
Herein, we will have a close look at ourselves and the things we create. This is our passage through illusion and disillusion, across nothingness to a view of rising light. Setting out, we enter into nature to weigh whether beauty is from matter or mind. We are going to travel through woodlands, secret gardens, great cities and graveyards to gather medicinal stories and the shrouds of forgotten gods. We are to wade into rivers to find just how much time its stones have weathered. We search out what lasts and what fades in the tides of civilization. Then, in sight of mountain ranges and river valleys forming and eroding, we will reach a view of temporal beauty.
Now on our way, crossing an open meadow, we find a frozen spring. It has frosted over but will serve well enough for a passing reflection into our depths; a glimpse of the natural philosophy formed solid from the enduring relevance of greater minds. Still, in quiet comprehension, we find solace in the countless experiences standing frozen in time like so much hoarfrost. Nearby, we find the kit to make use of cultural anthropology, comparative mythology, and evolutionary psychology. With this to hand, we can decipher the wisdom found around our world and within ourselves. We begin to recall. In the same way that King Lear called for a looking-glass to assuage his suffering, this is our long-awaited moment.
With a breath, we will see how the human condition defines its domain and the outcomes that ensue. With all our powers of knowledge, there is not much else that we do than reach for just one more bite. Laid low in ignorance of all the things we cannot see, we learn our most critical errors as we are constricted and suffocated by the coil of death. No, it is time to benefit from the ones who were swallowed whole; time to shed the aversion to suffering and embrace ancient wisdom; time to face our great-and-terrible potential embodied in the rise and ruin of worlds. With an ear for what has come before, we return to confront what we are becoming—the Shades of Nihilism.
Crossing the river, we are going to see how the values that dominate an age characterize its culture. That is to say, our culture is made in our image. As the-spirit-of-culture is reflected, we find it grown pallid and painted over. Humanity has been on sabbatical from disillusion and we have altogether forgotten ourselves. In an unmitigated condition of being, our species has specialized in sating desires both real and unreal. Perpetually filling up, we relegate primordial drives to driverless mechanisms. It is little wonder, then, that we remain unknown and our condition unattended. The symbols and icons that we scattered held some key insights on hard truths. It may be that a mind that loses its keys is characteristic of a type. How many times does one lose their keys before figuring out how to not lose keys again? Never mind the doors latched and locked, we are returning to the lesson source and, again, the weather is turning.
Out here, beyond the gates of civilization, the heart of culture is exposed. The ethics of its people are expressed. Departing, the world continues to feed on its own content. One gregarious creature raises its head from the food-arcade, nodding around, affirming that the taste of progress is good. It is time to map out what we mean to become. All of us navigate. All of us contribute to culture. All of us shape its character. Heartened on our way, an ancient fragment reminds us that character is fate; a frozen soul reminds us that we carry the power of everliving fire. Further into the woods and the snow begins to fall heavier than the day before. The cold seeps in to take the warmth of our blood. It is getting colder. It is this ice, reaching into bones, that snatches us up to our senses. This is the season of ending-and-beginning. It is the challenge to return from nothing—a challenge of our own making. This is where we make use of timeless lessons and adapt to the conditions. This is where we set our will and take up thunder-stones. We strike fire in the heart of winter! We breathe out with the soul of summer!
Odinn said: “Tell me a fourth thing, since they call you wise, and you, Vafthrúdnir, know: from where did Winter come, or warm Summer, first of all among the wise powers?”
Vafthrúdnir said: “Wind-cool he is called, who is father of Winter, but Sweetness that of Summer.” [The Elder Edda, Vafthrúdnismál, 26-27.]
Along the way, bear in mind that the language spoken here is symbolic. All language is. We are the symbol-using animal shaping thoughts to carry meaning to other minds. Our meaning strides in the figurative and the literal. Holding this duality with two hands, seeing with two eyes, and understanding with two minds, we grasp the clarity of insight. Our purpose for this is to develop an ability to sustain a harmony of Dionysian poetry and Apollonian prose. Immersing ourselves in this dialect is the willingness to grant that light is both wave and particle. A painter might be a philosopher. A philosophy might be a painting.
Arriving at this is no less immediate than stereoscopic vision. The image is presented without committee. Do not lose sight of this immediacy when confronting symbols. An intellect will take it apart and make nothing of it—but instinct. Instinct is wired to respond faster than thought. So when a reaction leaps to mind, track with brutal honesty. This is how we decrypt our selves and our symbols. The compendium that we build is our dictionary of meaning, rooted in a paleomammalian mind. As we navigate around the dimensions of thought, we find new connections and connotations in a pattern of bifurcation. Within a thicket of word-pictures, we navigate the boughs, branches, and stems, to the sprout, flower, fruit of knowledge. This is seen in nature. Our strange concept is hidden in the branching arms and veins of flora, in river currents and lightning strikes. All of a sudden.
There is but silence. Resting upon a ruin of a snowed-over hill. It has some of the shape of the temple of Poseidon and Athena. It is the tomb of a gorgon. A world is remembered in a word—its days in its works. The Greek world was our home once. So we pick up some of their words and take them with us. There, there was nothing called art but a variety of craft. Craftsmen, sculptors, potters, painters, and poets practiced technê. The word is the-knowledge-of, the craft-of, the-art-and-science-of a discipline. There, ‘music’ is technê-of-the-muses; ‘dialectic’ is technê-of-dialog; ‘ethic’ is technê-of-ethos. Passing through this temple, we carry the distinction between what-was-once-called-craft and what-is-now-called-art. Two very different animals run into the cover of brush.
One set of prints in the snow leads us to a stone square. The foundations of a great cathedral are read on the masonry. A circle carved about the square calls the Renaissance to mind—the sound of birds cooing, taking flight. Now there was a world. Where the distance of a mother’s call was the measure of a palazzo square. Where the pride of riches was in vaulting greater and greater beauty. It was a resurrection of the ancients under the wing of the Holy Mother. Nested, nuanced images of the old gods lived once again, composed as naked figures just beyond the walls. Legends spoke across centuries and apprentices labored, studied, practiced, and then practiced some more. A young Michelangelo rivals Leonardo and the both of them would inspire the younger Raphael. The school in Florence grows in opposition to Venice. Titian, looking to Apelles, resounds in Rembrandt, looking to Aristotle. A new history is written and the genius chides the dedicated as Picasso makes a fool of Old Man Rijn. Aware of itself, art grew over and around craft in the same way that the Roman Catholic Church painted over pagan morality. So the keystone reads; and from this archway, we take to the hills.
That howling wind—cold and biting—drives us to take cover by a hedge. A garden long overgrown. The shape of temple ruins and a ward to all but the intrepid. Just beyond the threshold stands a stone font. This is the Lyceum. This is the hallow of the wolf-god: Apollo Lyceus. This is where we take shelter. Sniffing and huffing. The font is not yet frozen, the water, still clean. Such a thirst for clear water was never sated. We take a breath; and turn it to mist. We can see condensation—it is the concentration of thought—the energeia of living. Here is the haunt of so much thought. Its fonts, distillations of perception kept for other minds. Around the garden, as many sources. Here we are given to walking about.
The contrast between Aristotle and Plato is central and for this we begin with them. Then, walking through the ideas of beauty, and nature, and culture, and time—one step at a time—we will see the different ways of thinking and sort out the dialog echoing across the centuries. Our enduring questions survive under lichen. So we set to task to uncover what remains of truth. The wind picks up— Aristotle speaks to Hume; Hume is censured by Kant; Kant is refuted by Schopenhauer; Schopenhauer inspires Nietzsche; Nietzsche laments Socrates; Socrates inspires Plato; Plato speaks to Kant, Kant to Hegel; Hegel is loathed by Schopenhauer; Nietzsche recalls Heraclitus; Heraclitus opposes Parmenides; Parmenides speaks to Heidegger; Heidegger and Nietzsche bring clarity with Emerson and, at last, we find our own way to overcome nothingness, to transform suffering, and to rise beautifully! —and a clay jar blows over, breaks open:
~What nothingness? Which beauty? What is beauty? Where does it come from? How can we know and who says? How many have said so? Whose suffering? How long does it last? What happens after? What happened before? Can it happen again? Has this already happened? What’s going on and who are we? What have we done? Will there be anything left? Where do we go from here? What will remain?~
The weather abates. Leaves rustle across stone and the night sky opens. There is a constellation shining into the water, an ancient light rests on its surface. A silence unfolds and beauty springs.
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Continued in Winter and Summer: A Memory of Nature and Culture, Shaun Berke, 2020.
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Thaumaturgy: Walking into Walls or Stepping through Them | Artists on Art Magazine
At its best, painting is a window; at its worst, a concrete wall. When a ghost in a portrait sings, it is a universal charm. If this were not so, then there would not be pilgrimages to see Leonardo da Vinci; to stand in front of this kind of window and look out at the apparition made by a magician; to see a reflection in the windowpane. For this, the tradition of painting is worth continuing. Its roots pierced humanity deep underground. The lanterns that lit the cave wall held a sacred flame that continues to burn. The great achievements of the golden age magicians are still worth reaching for. The pursuit of novelty is a diversion, an illusion made of rain. So get your hats, get your coats—we’re taking the King’s Roads.
There is an old mirror hanging just opposite an acolyte’s easel. It is a doorway to the roads made by a magician king. The King’s Roads are a warren, a wilderness of time. Stepping through, we wander in search of an ancestor’s studio. A ruffian dressed in hides and fur gesticulates a greeting, then leads us through the morning haze with a lantern. In an underground chamber, we find Paleolithic paintings invoking totems. Here is the dawn of the magician. The first shamans ventured deep into Earth to speak with Stone. Begrudgingly, Stone agreed to tutor the shaman in art. The shaman’s wall paintings are enigmatic, and so, ambiguously cataloged as having ritualistic significance! The representational depictions may have been part of a rite entreating the spirit world; the abstract depictions, likely natural patterns arising from an altered state of consciousness. As the morning haze clears, we return to the King’s Roads.
Walking past stone-and-plaster homes of humbling ingenuity, we come upon a fane of breathtaking harmony. Blackbirds perch on intervals of an applied ratio, signifying the acuity of antiquity. This is where Western civilization sprouts; where science, philosophy, and art flourish; where the Quadrivium originates. Further afield, we hear a familiar song on the wind, dampening a very solitary howl. The familiar song is the abridged narrative of art movements composed by art historians and museum curators—bless their efforts. Yet what was reborn with the Renaissance never actually died. The great secret of resurrection is continuity—to not die in earnest. There are lineages of painters who have passed the torch from master to apprentice.
The practice of marking a surface—to make thing look like thing—lives on. Those dusty old masters did not preoccupy themselves with reinventing the wheel. Instead, painters such as Memling, Giorgione, Dürer, Titian, and Rembrandt focused on a timeless craft. They became practical magicians by distilling nature’s beauty through a concentration of will. The accomplishment of their dedication is an enchantment; rightly, immortal. We find a familiar road, as a shade of Hecate walks on into the howl.
Nature’s beauty is enriching; perpetually drawing more and more artists until our art historians can no longer ignore the Luddite society. So the cyclic resurrection of classical antiquity continues until its scheduled martyrdom. The forthcoming resurrection is something to get excited about amidst the dour, soul-crushing landscape of modernity. Roger Scruton makes an agreeable case for the popular revival of care, craft, and dedication. Ateliers and academies train on beauty, sewing their hearts onto their sleeves for a march to Pan’s music. The peril, of course, is a mortal one—drawing and painting is quickly drained of its vitality in recitation of precision. This classical march becomes a funeral procession.
Tragically, the life of painting had been traded for a hollow song. This is one of the many instances where painting basically died. Be that as it may, a droll theoretical magician parades the canvases as living painting. But these are not paintings. These painting-like objects are often associated with words like Rococo; however, that is not an exclusive designation. They have the affectations of a window, but are, in actuality, a bill posted on the opposite side of the glass! Their opulent frames retch decoration around an otherwise empty stretch of fabric; the ostentatious scene that loiters within is as flat and tedious as the bill of sale. Centuries later, an acolyte might strive to find value in it, as a dog might strive against waves crashing on a beach (it is an adorable effort). Unfortunately for all, these painting-like objects are a display of corpses! Turgid corpses! Strung up in the gallery! Someone, please, ring the bell for the undertaker.
It is little wonder that the dominating pursuit in art had become a search for something new.
Focusing on the impression of the thing became all the rage. Here, we come to a narrow pass where it all goes to pot. Here is the precarious road that convinced many fine young artists to jump. Some offered pranks that would not be got, and others ran in circles around new science. In effect, ready-mades drone on for a century, and Cubism initiates a reactionary loop that art would chase in perpetuity. At the bottom of the cliff, one could spend days digging through used ideas, broken dreams, and the miscellany of what was once shocking and/or new.
The cutting observations of Robert Hughes leave a trail of tears and severed fingers, as well as a heightened appreciation for the vigor of good company. A critic bored with the fashions of art, Hughes imagines William Turner painting the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb; how Francisco de Goya might have portrayed the liberation of Belsen; what Jacques-Louis David might have composed after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Hughes declares the end of the modern age at the fall of the Twin Towers. Adjourning the King’s Roads, let us return to the library for a basin to scry in.
While Contemporary artists develop sensational new products and flail for attention in the marketplace, what are the painters painting? One Mentor says, little good, in surveying the state of painting. Admittedly, blue chip, fine art painting is indistinguishable from interior design; illustrative-figurative painting trends are short lived; street art clamors for the pedestrian to acknowledge its clever attitude; pop-surrealism disgorges its most recent meal, et cetera. It is a contest of novelty that over saturates the screens of an attention-deficit consumerist culture. Contemporary painting tends to be so hyper, so bright, and so fast that it is taxing, overstimulating. Any painting that attempt to slow it all down stand out for a sense of consideration in its making. If the composition of a slow painting has been tempered, it may stand against time.
An exceptionally perceptive classification of painting is the Superstructure of Kitsch, presented by Jan-Ove Tuv. There are three realms: egocentric, geocentric, and heliocentric. Egocentrism concerns itself with itself. For example: the depiction of, or allusion to, sexual escapades and conquests stripped of humanity in its vicarious commodification. (John Berger gets slapped in the face with a glove.) Geocentrism strives to document a world at its most immediate. It is a world without a past or a future; the genre painting of a concrete landscape and disaffected youths feels like being in a coma. Lastly, Heliocentrism reaches for that very bright thing just past the horizon—images painted without care for originality, but for quality; pictures of other humans in other places that may just reach across time and death to resonate with the pilgrims queuing in the museum.
Hearing that the buffaloes are not coming back from Another Mentor prompts a quest-line for the black art of necromancy. Time means nothing, and having relevance is of little concern to the antiquated painter. Perversely, the epoch in which the antiquated painter is marooned tends to imbue a supplemental context. The Luddite’s practice is absurdly more contemporary than the Contemporary—to not seek novelty amidst a din of contrived novelties is the most novel thing of all. What is more, the declaration of the antiquated painter’s obsolescence calls attention to the fixations of a disposable culture. This age of civilization could rightly be named Nearsighted.
The intention here is not to disabuse you of your partialities, but only to share my own, dear reader. It may be that what is personal here, may be universal out there. An acolyte ventures out, exploring the King’s Roads like some wild idiot. So to defer, let us pick up a book that speaks to the difficulty to contain it all. An excerpt about the golden age magician Johannes Vermeer:
“[Vermeer’s pictures] are all fragments of one and the same world, that whatever the genius that goes into this recreation, it is always the same table, the same carpet, the same woman, the same new and unique beauty, a total enigma at a time when nothing else resembles or explains it, unless one seeks not to establish some relationship between the subjects, but to isolate the particular impression the color produces.” Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Painting is a window; glass and dust; a slice of time that melds a reflection of the present. The antiquated acolyte strives to make a picture do something more than be a flat, solid object on the wall. Walking through the centuries in a museum, the acolyte is either invigorated or repelled by the framed scenes. There are corpse-makers who seek to destroy painting, and magicians who light the way. The magician’s painting practice is a dedication to clairvoyance and enchanting; to the craft of execution and conjuration; to necromancy. And so to read the marks left by a magician is to reach through death. ∞