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The Arts and Their Mission

Schmidt Number: S-5306

On-line since: 15th March, 2007



ODAY I would like to examine certain other aspects of our subject.

I have often dealt with the genius of language, and you know from my book Theosophy that we refer to real spiritual entities when we speak of spiritual beings in an anthroposophical context. Thus “genius of language” designates the spiritual entity behind any specific language, an entity with whom man can become familiar and through whom he can receive, from the spiritual world, strength to express his thoughts which, at the outset, are present in his earthly self as a dead heritage from that higher world. It is, therefore, appropriate for anthroposophical students to seek, in the formation of language, a meaning which is independent of man because rooted in the spirit.

I have already drawn attention to the peculiar way the German language designates the beautiful and its opposite. We speak of the opposite of the beautiful (das Schoene) as the ugly or hateful (das Haessliche). Were we to denote the beautiful in the same way we would call it — since the opposite of hate is love — the lovely or loving. As it is, we make a significant difference. In German the word beautiful (das Schoene) is related to shining (das Scheinende). The beautiful shines; brings its inner nature to the surface. It is the distinguishing quality of the beautiful not to hide itself, but to carry its essence into outer configuration. Thus beauty reveals inwardness through outer form; a shining radiates outward into the world. If we were to speak, in this sense, of beauty's opposite, we would call it the concealed or non-radiant, that which holds back its being, refusing to disclose it in any outer sheath. To put it another way, “the beautiful” designates something objective. If we were to treat its opposite just as objectively, we would have to speak of concealment, of something whose outer aspect belies what it really is. But here subjectivity enters, for we cannot love what conceals itself, showing a false countenance; we must hate it. In this way the ugly calls up quite a different emotional reaction than the beautiful; we do not respond to it out of the same recesses of our nature.

Thus the genius of language reveals itself. And we should ask: When in the broadest sense we strive for the beautiful in art, what is our goal? The very fact that the German word for “beautiful” proceeds outward (as its opposite suggests a remaining within our emotions, our hate) means that the beautiful bears a relation to the spiritual outside us. For what shines? What we apprehend with our senses does not need to shine for us; it exists. It is the spiritual that shines, radiating into the sensory, proclaiming its being even in the sensory. By speaking objectively of the beautiful, we take hold of it as a spiritual element which reveals itself in the world through art. The task of art is to take hold of the shining, the radiance, the manifestation, of that which as spirit weaves and lives throughout the world. All genuine art seeks the spirit. Even when art wishes to represent the ugly, the disagreeable, it is concerned, not with the sensory-disagreeable as such, but with the spiritual which proclaims its nature in the midst of unpleasantness. If the spiritual shines through the ugly, even the ugly becomes beautiful. In art it is upon a relation to the spiritual that beauty depends.

Proceeding from this truth, let us consider one of the arts: painting. Recently we dealt with it insofar as it reveals the spiritual-essential through shining color. In ancient times man, by surrendering in the right way to the genius of language, showed his inner knowledge of color in his vocabulary. When an instinctive clairvoyance prevailed, he felt that metals revealed their inner natures in their colors, therefore gave them, not earthly names, but names connecting them with the planets. Otherwise people would have felt ashamed. For man looked upon color as a divine-spiritual element bestowed upon earthly substances only in the sense of our recent lectures. Perceiving the gold in gold's color, he saw not merely the earthly in that metal but the sun proclaiming itself from the cosmos in its gold color. Indeed, from the very start man saw something transcending the earthly in the colors of earthly objects. But it was only to living things that particular colors were ascribed, for living things approach the spirit in such a way that the spiritual shines forth. Animals were felt to have their own colors because in them the spirit-soul element manifests directly.

In ancient times, when man's artistic sense was not outward but inward, he painted not at all. To paint a tree green is not true painting for the reason that however well one imitates her, nature is still the essential thing; nature is still more beautiful, more vital; it needs no copy. A real painter never imitates. He uses an object as a recipient or focus of the sun, or to observe a color reflex in that object's surroundings, or to catch, above it, an interweaving of light and darkness. In other words, the thing painted is merely an inducement. For example, we never paint a flower standing in front of a window; we paint the light which, shining in at the window, is seen through the flower. We paint the sun's colored light; catch the sun.

In the case of a person, this can be done still more spiritually. To paint a human forehead the way one believes it should look is nonsense; this is not painting. But to observe how the sun rays strike that forehead, how color shows up in the ensuing radiance, how light and darkness intermingle, to capture with one's paint brush all that interplay: this is the task of the painter. Seizing what passes in a moment, he relates it to the spiritual.

If, with a sense for painting, we look at an interior view, the matter of most importance is not the figure or figures therein. I once accompanied a friend to an exhibition where we saw a painting of a man kneeling before an altar, his back toward us. The painter had given himself the task of showing how sunlight falling through a window struck the man's back. My friend remarked that he would much rather see a front view. Well, this was only material, not artistic, interest. He wanted the painter to show the man's character, and so forth. But one is justified in doing this only if one expresses all perceptions through color. If I wish to paint a human being sick in bed with a certain disease, and study his facial color in order to apprehend how illness shines through the sensory, this may be artistic. If I want to show, in totality, the extent to which the whole cosmos manifests in the human flesh color, this may also be artistic. But if I try to imitate Mr. Lehman as he sits here before me, I will not succeed; moreover, this is not the task of art. What is artistic is how the sun illumines him, how light is deflected through his bushy eyebrows. Thus for a painter the important thing is how the whole world acts upon his subject; and his means of holding fast to a transitory moment are light and darkness, the whole spectrum.

In times not so long ago one could not imagine a presentation of Mary, the Mother of God, without a face so transfigured it had passed beyond the ordinary human state; a face overcome by light. One could not imagine her clothed otherwise than in a red garment and blue cloak, because only so is the Mother of God placed rightly into earthly life; the red garment depicting all the emotions of the earthly, the blue cloak the soul element which weaves the spiritual around her; the face permeated and transfigured by spirit, overcome by light as a revelation of the spirit. We do not, however, properly and artistically take hold of these truths if we stop with what I have just described. For I have translated the artistic into the inartistic. We feel them artistically only if we create directly out of red and blue and the light by experiencing the light, in its relationship to colors and darkness, as a world in itself. Then colors speak their own language, and the Virgin Mary is created out of them.

To achieve this one must live with color; color must become emancipated from the heavy matter opposing its innermost nature. Palette colors are alien to true painting in that, when used on a plane surface, they have a down-dragging effect. One cannot live with oil-based colors, only with fluid colors. When a painter puts fluid colors upon a plane, color — owing to the peculiar relationship between man and color — springs to life; he conceives out of color; a world arises out of it. True painting comes into being only if he captures the shining, revealing, radiating element as something living; only if he creates what is to be formed on the plane out of this element. For to understand color is to understand a component part of the world.

Kant once said: Give me matter, and out of it I shall create a world. Well, you could have given him matter endlessly without his ever being able to make a world out of it. But out of the interplaying medium of color a world of sorts can indeed be created, because every color has direct relationship with something spiritual. In the face of present-day materialism, the concept and activity of painting have — except for the beginnings made by impressionism and, still more, by expressionism — been more or less lost.

For the most part modern man does not paint, he imitates figures with a kind of drawing, then colors the surface. But colored surfaces are not painting for the reason that they are not born out of color and light and darkness.

We must not misunderstand things. If somebody goes wild and just lays on colors side by side in the belief that this is what I call “overcoming drawing,” he is mistaken. By “overcoming drawing” I do not mean to do away with drawing, but to let it rise out of the colors, be born from the colors. Colors will yield the drawing; one simply has to know how to live in colors. Living so, an artist develops an ability — while disregarding the rest of the world — to bring forth works of art out of color itself.

Look at Titian's “Ascension of Mary.” [view a lower-res image or a high-res image. e.Ed.] This painting stands at the boundary line of the ancient principle of art. The living experience of color one finds in Raphael and, more especially, in Leonardo da Vinci, has departed; only a certain tradition prevents the painter from totally forsaking the living-in-color.

Experience this “Ascension of Mary.” The green, the red, the blue, cry out. Now take the details, the individual colors and their harmonious interaction, and you will feel how Titian lived in the element of color and how, in this instance, he really created out of it all three worlds.

Look at the wonderful build-up of those worlds. Below, he has created out of color the Apostles experiencing the event of Mary's ascension. One sees in the colors how these men are anchored to the earth; colors which convey, not heaviness in the lower part of the painting, only a darkness which fetters the watching ones to earth. In the color-treatment of Mary one experiences the intermediate realm. A dull darkness from below connects her feet and legs with the earth; while, above her, light preponderates. This third and highest realm receives her head and radiates above it in full light, lifting it up. Thus are set forth, through inner color experience, the three stages of lower realm, middle realm, and the heights where Mary is being received by God the Father.

To understand this picture we must forget everything else and look at it solely from the standpoint of color, for here the three stages of the world are derived from color not intellectually but artistically. True painting takes hold of this world of effulgent shining, of splendid manifestation in light and darkness and color, in order to contrast what is earthly-material with the artistic. But the artistic is not permitted to reach the spiritual. Otherwise it would be not “shine” but wisdom. For wisdom is no longer artistic, wisdom leads into the formless and therefore undepictable realm of the divine.

With artistry like Titian's in “The Ascension of Mary,” we feel, on beholding the reception of Mary's head by God the Father, that now we must go no further in the treatment of light; we must halt. For we have reached the limit of the possible. To carry it further would be to fall into the intellectualistic, the inartistic. We must not make one stroke beyond what is indicated by light, rather than contour. The moment we insist on contour, we become intellectualistic, inartistic. Near the top this picture is in danger of becoming inartistic. The painters immediately after Titian fell prey to this danger. Look at the depiction of angels right up to the time of Titian. They are painted in heavenly regions. But look how carefully the painters avoided leaving the realm of color. Always you can ask yourself in regard to these angels of the pre-Titian age, and of Titian too: Couldn't they be clouds? If you cannot do that, if there is no uncertainty about existence, being, or semblance, shine, if there is an attempt fully to delineate the essence of the spiritual, artistry ceases.

In the seventeenth century it was otherwise, for materialism affects the presentation of the spiritual. Now angels began to be painted with all kinds of foreshortenings, and one can no longer ask: Couldn't that be clouds? When reason is active, artistry dies.

Again, look at the Apostles below: one has a feeling that in this “Ascension of Mary” only Mary is really artistic. Above, there is the danger of passing into the formlessness of pure wisdom. If one attains the formless one attains, in a certain sense, the zenith of the artistic. One has dared to press forward boldly to the abyss where art ceases, where the colors disappear in light, and where, if one were to proceed, one could only draw. But drawing is not painting. Thus the upper part of the picture approaches the realm of wisdom. And the more one is able to express, in the sensory world, this wisdom-filled realm, and the more the angels might be taken for billowy clouds shimmering in light, the greater the art.

Proceeding from the bottom of the picture to the really beautiful, to Mary herself rising into the realm of wisdom, we see that Titian was able to paint her beautifully because she has not yet arrived at, but only soars up toward, the realm of wisdom; and we feel that, were she to rise still higher, she must enter where art ceases. Below stand the Apostles. Here the artist has tried to express their earth-fettered character. But now a different danger threatens. Had he placed Mary further down, he could not have depicted her inward beauty. If Mary were to sit among the Apostles, she could not appear as she does as a kind of balance between heaven and earth; she would look different. She simply does not fit among the Apostles with their brownish tones. Not only are they subject to earthly gravity; something else has entered: the element of drawing takes hold. This you can see in Titian's picture. Why is it so?

Well, brown having already left the realm of color, it cannot express Mary's beauty; something not belonging entirely to the realm of the beautiful would be injected. If Mary stood or sat among the Apostles and were colored as they are, it would be a great offense. I am now speaking only of this picture and do not maintain that when standing on earth Mary must be in every instance, artistically speaking, an offense. But in this picture it would be a blow in the face if Mary stood below. Why?

Because if she stood there colored like the Apostles we would have to say that the artist presented her as virtuous. This is the way he presents the Apostles; we cannot conceive of them otherwise than looking upward in their virtue. But this for Mary would he inappropriate. With her, virtue is so self-evident that we must not express it. It would be like presenting God as virtuous. If something is self-evident, if it has become the being itself, we must not express it in mere outer semblance. Therefore Mary soars up into a region beyond all virtues, where we cannot say of her, through colors, that she is virtuous, any more than we can say of God that He is virtuous. He may, at most, be virtue itself. But this is an abstract, philosophical statement having nothing to do with art. With the Apostles, however, the artist succeeded in representing, through his color treatment, virtuous human beings. They are virtuous.

Let us look at how the genius of language reflects this truth. Tugend (virtue, in German) is related to taugen (to be fit, in German). To be fit, to be able to cope with something morally, is to be virtuous. Goethe speaks of a triad: wisdom, semblance and power. Art is the middle term: semblance, the beautiful; wisdom is formless knowledge; virtue is power to carry out worthwhile things effectively. [ 1 ]

Since ancient times this triad has been revered. Once, years ago, a man said to me — and I could appreciate his point of view — that he was sick and tired of hearing people speak of the true, the beautiful and the good, for anyone in search of an idealistic expression mouthed the phrase. But in ancient times these realities were experienced not externally but with complete soul participation. Thus in the upper region of Titian's picture we see wisdom not yet transcendent, radiating artistically because of the way it is painted. In the middle, beauty; below, virtue, that which is fit. What is the inner nature of the fit? Here is manifest the genius, the profundity, of the languages active among men. If we proceeded in an exterior way we might be reminded of a certain hunchback who went to church and listened to a priest describing quite externally how everything in the world is good and beautiful and fit. Waiting at the church door, the hunchback asked the priest: You said the idea of everything is good — have I, too, a good shape? The priest replied: For a hunchback you have a very good shape.

If things are considered as externally as this, we shall never penetrate to the depths. In many fields modern observation proceeds so. Filled with external characteristics and definitions, men do not know that their ideas turn round and round in circles.

In respect to virtue it is not a question of fitness for just anything, but of fitness for something spiritual, so that a person places himself into the spiritual world as a human being. Whoever is a complete human being by reason of his bringing the spiritual not merely to manifestation but to full realization through his will is — in the true sense — virtuous. Here we enter a region which lies within the human and religious, but no longer within the artistic, sphere, and least of all within the sphere of the beautiful. Everything in the world contains a polarity. Thus we can say of Titian's picture: Above Mary he is in danger of passing beyond the beautiful, there where he reaches the abyss of wisdom. Below, he comes to the brink of the other abyss. For as soon as a painter represents the virtuous, meaning that which man realizes through his own being, out of the spiritual, he again leaves behind the beautiful, the artistic. The virtuous human being can be painted only by characterizing virtue in its outer appearance, let us say by contrasting it with vice. But an artistic presentation of virtue as such is no longer possible.

Where in our age do we not forsake the artistic? Simple life conditions are reproduced crudely, naturalistically, without any relation to the spiritual, and without this relation there is no art. Hence the striving of impressionism and expressionism to return to the spiritual. Though in many cases clumsy, tentative, exploratory, it is better than the inartistic copying of a model.

Furthermore, if one grasps the concept of the artistically-beautiful, one can deal with the tragic in its artistic manifestations. The human being who acts in accordance with his thoughts, who lives his life intellectualistically, can never become really tragic. Nor can the human being who leads an entirely virtuous life. The only tragic person is one who in some way leans toward the daimonic, that is to say, toward the spiritual, whether in a good or bad sense. Today in this age when man is in the process of becoming free, daimonic man, that is man under the influence of tutelary spirits, is an anachronism. That man should outgrow the daimonic and become free is the whole meaning of the fifth post-Atlantean age. But as he progresses in freedom the possibility of tragedy diminishes and finally ceases. Take ancient tragic characters, even most of Shakespeare's: they have a daimonism which leads to the tragic. Wherever man had the appearance of the daimonic-spiritual, wherever the daimonic-spiritual radiated and manifested through him, wherever he became its medium, tragedy was possible. In this sense the tragic will have to taper off now; a free mankind must rid itself of tutelary spirits. This it has not yet done. On the contrary, it is more and more falling prey to such forces.

But the great task and mission of the age is to pull human beings away from the daimonic towards freedom. The irony is that the more we get rid of the inner daimons which make us tragic personalities, the less do we get rid of external ones. For the moment modern man enters into relation with the outer world, he encounters something of the nature of daimons. Our thoughts must become freer and freer. And if, as I say in The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, thoughts become will impulses, then the will also becomes free. These are polaric contrasts in freedom: free thoughts, free will.

Between lies that part of human nature which is connected with karma. And just as once upon a time the daimonic led to tragedy, so now the experiencing of karma can lead to inmost tragedy. Tragedy will flourish when man experiences karma. As long as we live in our thoughts we are free. But the words with which we have clothed our thoughts, once spoken or written, no longer belong to us. What may happen to a word I have uttered! Having absorbed it, somebody else surrounds it with different emotions and sensations, and thus the word lives on. As it flies through the world it becomes a power proceeding from man himself. This is his karma. Because it connects him with the earth, it may burst in on him again. Even the word which leads its own existence because it belongs not to us but to the genius of language may create the tragic. Just in our present time we see mankind at the inception of tragic situations through an overestimation of language, of the word. Peoples wish to separate themselves according to language, and their desire provides the basis for the gigantic tragedy which during this very century will break in upon the earth. This is the tragedy of karma. If past tragedy is that of daimonology, future tragedy will be that of karma.

Art is eternal; its forms change. And if in everything artistic there is some relationship to the spiritual, you will understand that with the artistic we place ourselves, creatively or through enjoyment, in the spirit world. A real artist may create his picture in a lonely desert. He does not worry about who will look at his picture or whether anybody at all will look at it, for he creates within a divine-spiritual community. Gods look over his shoulder; he creates in their company. What does he care whether or not anybody admires his picture. A person may be an artist in complete loneliness. Yet he cannot become one without bringing, by means of his creation, something spiritual into the world, so that it lives in the spirituality of the world. If one forgets this basic connection, art becomes non-art.

To create artistically is possible only if the work has a relationship to the world. Those ancient artists who painted pictures on the walls of churches were conscious of this fact; they knew that their murals stood within earth life insofar as this is permeated by the spirit; that they guided believers.

One can hardly imagine anything worse than painting for exhibitions. It is horrible to walk through a picture or sculpture gallery where completely unrelated subjects appear side by side. Painting lost meaning when it passed from something for church or home to an isolated phenomenon. If we paint or view a picture in a frame, we can imagine ourselves looking out through a window. But to paint for exhibitions — this is beyond discussion. An age which sees value in exhibitions has lost its connection with art. By this can be seen how much waits to be done in culture if we would find our way back to the spiritual-artistic. Exhibitions must be overcome. Of course some individual artists detest exhibitions. But today we live in an age when the individual cannot achieve very much unless his judgment grows out of a world-conception permeating fully free human beings; just as world-conceptions permeating people in less free ages led to the rise of genuine cultures. Today we have no real culture.

Only a spiritual world-conception can build up true culture, the indubitably artistic.



1. The English word virtue, derived from the Latin vir, man, carries a similar connotation of power. (Translators)

Last Modified: 17-Feb-2018
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