From his own experience, Eugene [Father Seraphim Rose] believed that modern man cannot come to Christ fully until he is first aware of how far he and his society have fallen away from Him, that is, until he has first faced the Nihilism in himself “The Nihilism of our age exists in all,” he wrote, ” and those who do not, with the aid of God, choose to combat it in the name of the fullness of Being of the living God, are swallowed up in it already. We have been brought to the edge of the abyss of nothingness and, whether we recognize its nature or not, we will, through affinity for the ever-present nothingness within us, be engulfed in it beyond all hope of redemption-unless we cling in full and certain faith (which doubting, does not doubt) to Christ, without Whom we are truly nothing.
— Monk Damascene Christensen.
Back in the 1960s Father Seraphim Rose wrote his text Nihilism: Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age. In the introduction, written by Monk Damascene Christensen, there following appears,
“…[he] undertook to write a monumental chronicle of modern man’s war against God: man’s attempt to destroy the Old Order and raise up a new one without Christ, to deny the existence of the Kingdom of God and raise up his own early utopia in its stead. This projected work was entitled The Kingdom of Man and the Kingdom of God.”
The text presented as Nihilism was the seventh chapter in his magnum opus. A parcel of an ambitious undertaking, in itself more edifying, informative, and enlightening than anything I could ever write, and upon reading it I am taken aback. Its as if I had always sensed it yet could never language it. Intimidated by such an intellect, yet immediately brought into a similar existential state, I ask myself, what would it look like to explore the “emerging out of untruth?” In the text Father Rose touched on modern art. I was trained as an artist, and specifically as a painter. Painting seemed a good place to start.
I propose to undertake an exposure of nihilism in the aesthetic practices of modern painters. Nihilism is a foundation for phenomenological reflection of the modernist/postmodernist psyche. Borrowing the framework of Father Seraphim Rose’s text, I will employ the nihilistic dialectic by explore the development and trajectory of art. The dialectic advances away from significant Truth through several stages: (1) liberal-humanism; (2) realism; (3) vitalism; (4) destructionism. After examining the means in which the psyche calls up through visible depictions the nihilistic dialectic, only to end in the effacing of predication, I will attempt to retrieve the ways in which Orthodoxy considers the visible field.
I went to art school during the early 2000’s when postmodernism was already written in cement as the leading ideology of the industrial university complex. “Do what you want” was the mantra of all my art professors. It was and remains the order of the day. What about technique? None of us were really trained in any particular technique. On the one hand, this meant that we were “free” to explore all possible techniques, which really meant taking a dash or this or that to suit eclecticism. It was kind of like going to a buffet line where one only gets de-contextualized bits that are poorly cooked – an entirely American, typically middle class invention. On the other hand, the dictum was slightly misleading. We had all the freedom we wanted just as long as it stayed between the lines already set for us. The lines were hidden, presupposed, implicit. At the deeper register, however, it became evident: we painters were taught a technique but some of us were too young and naive to realize it. We were taught nihilism 101.
We were taught to “reflect” the culture. Preferably, this mean that art ought to appear ugly. Many of the project we were assigned determined us to compose and make “art” out of trash. The attitude was that if the culture was ugly and trashy then art ought to also be. There was no sense in attempting to elevate anyone out of the ugliness, out of the trash: there was only a wallowing and playing around with its muck, thereby perpetuating it.
There was another line, another implicit injunction. It was “Art History” – short narrative full of prejudices. It meant history really began with the Renaissance when Man usurped God, blah blah blah, fast forward and Picasso was a genius. Oh, and Marcel Duchamp was tossed in there. He was the one who gave us the Readymade, which aestheticized banality. Everything was available, all of historic style was ready and waiting for “appropriation,” which only ever signified the buffet mentality. Fast forward some more and Andy Warhol, who said “I want to be a machine,” became the antiquity. The “Post-Warholian” became an obsession with self-promotion, capital accumulation, and exhibiting was the equivalent of look at me! After Warhol, the artist is merely the maker of a public image of themselves – the artistic personality promoted as a fiction.
What also glimmers in my mind about Christensen’s introduction to Nihilism is the following, which seems more relevant than ever,
“Eugene [Father Rose] believed that modern man cannot come to Christ fully until he is first aware of how far he and his society have fallen away from Him, that is, until he has first faced the Nihilism in himself “The Nihilism of our age exists in all,” he wrote, ” and those who do not, with the aid of God, choose to combat it in the name of the fullness of Being of the living God, are swallowed up in it already.”
After reading Nihilism, I had to ask myself a simple question: what kind of nihilist was I? It seemed proportional. How much of me was a liberal-humanist? How much was a realist? How much was a vitalist? How much was just aimlessly destructive? Perhaps, I thought, if I could take a step back from my own artistic practice I could identify how the momentum of nihilism within the art and therefore locate it within the personality.
I didn’t make anymore “art” out of trash after leaving art school, but the Readymade presupposition was inherent. I had absorbed the mode unconsciously, meaning I still believed that everything was open to aestheticization. Over the course of following decade I began developing my own style. It took me a long time. It always does. There is a threshold the painter has to cross from wanting to be a painter to suddenly, one day, simply affirming that one is a painter. At that point a moment of “liberation” takes place, indicative of the Renaissance ideology of the humanist: I could do what I wanted.
But it wasn’t like I grabbed anything from thin air. After all, no style is born in a vacuum. I had read the modern artists and I had absorbed the attitudes of the postmoderns. I was especially drawn to theory and to the writings of the painters. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that the entire trajectory of the West was exactly what Father Rose had so eloquently exposed. Everything that I had studied was possessed by it, and I was contributing to it.
What of my technique? If I took a step back then maybe, I thought, I could see it with fresh eyes. That is, I may possibly see with eyes that were suddenly peering open like they had never been opened before. It hurt. The abyss of nothingness, that “ever-present nothingness within us,” is frightening.
My first real attempts at painting had me composing pieces born of out ‘geologic’ aggregations. When everything became Readymade, even aimless geological pigments placed seemingly at random became fascinating. It was a kind of abstract landscape painting that was “gestural,” but one where the gesture was created by “nature” and not by the human. It presupposed that the figure of the human wasn’t worth depicting. For all of us painters interested in gestrual abstraction our condition of possibility began with Jackson Pollock. It was an abstraction arranged by the catastrophic, instant impacts of paint on the surface. Of course, I had to try to make it “my own” and bisibly the paintings did look different, but they remained ideologically consistent with the program. What was the program? It gleamed with the breakdown of composition – such is technique at war with assessment: breaking through of the mark to strike a dissonance with processes that may be consciously governed. Pollock taught us to be “in” the painting, which meant practically that we were to de-skill in order to address the surface of the painting from above in a protean and changeable way. A whirl of convoluted marks. It meant no more human, but only a purely empty gesture – a gesture of “endless difference” (Hegel).
This kind of painting also meant a relation to matter that was strictly materialist. It meant contingency and immanence. It was Nietzcheanism writ large. It was only much later that I realized that the signifying experience was the preposition of violence.
“Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement,” said Pollock. What was the statement? What was the assumption that we painters had followed, owing to Pollock as our condition? It was found in the physical procedure: matter in an empirical and material world is to be displayed simply as matter, nothing else, and this was accompanied by the refusal to be taken by anything coming from outside of it. This is the ideology of modernism, irrespective of the stylistic tendency. It is discovered through method, or how the paint is handled, but it is also discovered at the outset in the attitude of the thing itself, i.e. on how the thing of painting was considered to be, well, a mere thing. It is the presupposition that painting was merely a material object.
The modernism was inscribed on the very surface of my paintings. What Father Rose simply calls the “Revolution,” has several presumptions within painting and these are informed by the dialectic of nihilism, which is explained in his text. The trajectory of the dialectic that Rose observes allows someone who may be trained in art, who is familiar with what the painters themselves had said, to begin linking the modern revolution in the arts to the Revolution.
(1) Liberal humanism. The first presumption is that the plane of reality for painting is situated within the human-earthly system of reference, which dovetails into the dialectics of liberal-humanism formed out of the Renaissance. It neutralized significant Truth for relative truth. Painting became “this world” only. The painter, me, could do what they wanted. It meant expressing “myself,” which is to say, to exhibit my own conscious state through painting.
(2) Reailsm. The second presumption dovetails into what Father Rose calls “realism,” which insinuates a deterministic and materialistic model of the universe. The emphasis is in stripping away everything that may resist the disenchantment of the world, where modernist values depended on a realist image of life and its characteristic qualities.Art is to be verifiable only as a reflection of reflections outstripping our human system of reference. To the modernist psyche this meant that the world of the senses themselves are no longer valid, owing to the changes of attitude in the modern psyche where “reality” could be grasped in terms of mathematics, and could in no way be rendered visibly. Ironically, abstraction becomes a necessary invention for realism because the sensory world and its depiction could not longer match the visible world of nature. The more the modern “reality” appeared to disclose its “secrets” the more art became abstract.
(3) Vitalism. The third presupposition dovetailed from the second when the modern psyche registered in abstraction that things can longer seize the painter’s imagination by virtue of a general appearance and the modern painter looks incredulously at external forms to penetrate on some kind of genetic or emerging “spiritualist” process underlying it. A tree is no longer simply composed to look like a tree, and if the tree is depicted it ought to depict the dynamic, genetic, processual, imaginative “force” of growth. Modernism’s anarchic tendencies, the rattle of carbines and nightsticks aside, extended into the field of visual representation as a “dynamic” movement which not only articulated change (epoch of transition) but ceaseless experimentation. This meant overthrowing aesthetic styles, but also within one’s own practice, it meant having to continually “develop” by the dynamics of “change.”
(4). Destructionism. The fourth presupposition, which is described in Nihilism also as the final stage, is anarchic destruction. It is accompanied in the approach to painting where the content of the painting not only dissolves into an emanation of a “reality” in a state of constant change. In addition to this, destruction suggests that there is no way to visible depict anything any longer: it comes at that moment when a consuming irony takes hold, where utopia is indistinguishable from negation.
PART I – THE NIHILIST DIALECTIC
The official beginning of aesthetics as a philosophy of the subject-of-experience was in the 18th century. It coincided with a re-evaluation of the Subject in philosophy. Immanuel Kant’s work the Critique of Judgment was one of the first philosophical tracts devoted exclusively to the study of sensory and emotional experience, which became know as “aesthetics.” From Plato, who preached a pagan metaphysics, through the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment, beauty had been considered according to either metaphysical ideas (Plato) or in terms of Nature (Enlightenment), but with Kant there is a shift towards theorizing the appreciation of beauty in terms of the subject’s experience (the subjective).
Kant did not philosophize in a vacuum: the analysis of the subjective valuation as arbiter of beauty arose out of the Renaissance and the period following it. Humanism is its condition of possibility, but the condition of possibility for humanism itself is reflected in the ideology of the absolute monarchs ruling Western Europe from the 15th-18th centuries. After being “rediscovered,” Plato is a story of the “Supreme Being” (a totality, where the whole is the sum of its parts). Combined together, each and the other suggests the condition where the subject-of-experience stands both metaphorically and literally before the pictured world. It gazes into the depicted world and surveys everything. The central space is reserved for the viewer that ‘walks into’ or ‘completes’ the scene, owing to an arranged visible field according to perspective mechanics. With the invention of perspective in the painting of the West there is the implicit suggestion of the subjectivity as arbiter, or what may be called the “sovereign” eye that maintains and controls the sphere of experience.
“Liberalism” is a a political formula for self-consciously organizing society in accord to the formula, Man > God. It is bound fatefully to the continuance of the modernist understanding of life: it wants to understand consciousness and make a science out of the very constitution of consciousness. The modern psyche may be grasped through the act by which the subjectivity sizes for itself a deed of declaration. In other words, the subjective is said to actualize itself, its own being through a declaration. The paradigm is the Cartesian cogito: the subjective is said to be “realized” as a “thinking substance.” The modernist consciousness is a process of identifying that inward center of individuated life, rendered through the mechanics of cogito to reach the limits of its sphere of experience, its own empire.
After Descartes, the mainstream of modernity follows Goethe’s statement, “Become who you are.” What is posited is a “self-enclosure” of modern psychology, which ran parallel to making the human being understandable as a psychology, that is, as a project of “self-understanding” through inwardly grasped self now available to anyone taking up the dictum, “I think therefore I am.” The modernist, owing to the developed liberal-humanism, grasps himself as a concretely conscious flesh, as a desiring, sensible and “self-interpreting” body. What arises is the notion that Man is the generator of all the interpretative projects – now rendered as projections.
Man is connected also to the People. All of this is a backdrop to what generated the French Revolution. The project was the disenchantment of the world which through the Jacobin political style strained for de-Christianization. The painting that sums this terror of the People, designed to eliminate enemies hidden within the body according to a new instrumental reason, was Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat, depicting the “martyr of liberty.” Marat, associated with the terror, became an occasion and material: politics is the contingency that makes modernism what it is. Marat’s body, like a scaffolding to prop up the writings, the ideology, by being painted harbor the hope of coming back to life – of assigning the People’s vengeance one last go. The humanism is there, but already made unreal, which is to say, the body is already ready to become just another insubstantial material.
Father Rose’s text calls the lead up to the Enlightenment by the name of liberal-humanism. It is the change in man’s attitude towards nature. Nature is now viewed as a force to be mastered, or else as a kind of antithesis. God’s good creation is no longer God’s to govern. To the psyche emerging out of the Renaissance, “Nature” could only become real in the human mind, and this presupposition is observed when painting became about a recreation and manipulation of nature in response to the “spiritual” nature of man. There is something already of modernism working within this frame: the “humanist” subject as decision-maker of taste, which is indicative also to each individual ego positioned to be a decider or arbiter of all value, i.e. as its own little absolute monarch. It is expected that each ego would as its statement, propositionally demand revolutionary “liberty.” This is the People’s entrance into the stage of power, the former of which is an invention, a made-up specter, and embodies a concept of emptiness, so to speak. Modernism’s practice is always the site of untruth, where the truth and lie disappear into the same vanishing hole. The background of the Death of Marat already tells the story: an absence of light, a void, because there is little or nothing to representation. That is the central importance to the Revolution’s symbolic investment. Not only are the People, a specter created by the neutralizing of significant Truth, to be subject to constant self-purification: it must also be secured in its opposite, namely, in a place where representation can efface itself. Terror.
Dostoevsky is very informative. He lived between Kant’s moral will and the onset of carnality, i.e. of a “carnal consciousness.” It is a period, as he observed, whose condition is made possible by the onset of modernism. Nothing is forbidden because everything is possible. To make everything possible, first there must be an irrational and spiteful will. Dostoevsky is informative because he observed the terror of the modern psyche as it split in two: it was wounded by a prescriptive absence and therefore it craved a New Order; yet, even this New Order would transition because the psyche, at its deepest ideological core, no longer forbade itself anything, which means that deep down it presumed that nothing was necessary. There was no longer any obligation. That is the condition made possible by liberal-humanism. It is what plagues those who are insistent on “demystification” and who attempt to render life over into materialism and “concretization,” but find themselves, suddenly demystified, in a life whose conduct has become a mere strategy, which leads to a chronic de-moralization.
Realism (Le Mode Rein, Nothing From Life)
In Cubism painting as a whole is already a question of measurement.
The next stage in the dialectic of nihilism is realism. When the previous stage neutralized significant Truth, engendering the condition of relative truth, this shift ought not to be taken as simply as another variation in a history of visible depiction: it is a complete mutation of the existential system of reference of the experiential subject. Linked to “scientific” realism, the German painter Franz Marc had wrote, “The art of the future will be the formal embodiment of our scientific convictions.”
Early modernist painters spoke of a “truth to materials.” What did this mean? It meant, of course, that modernism and materialism go together. Seurat’s Pointilism was already an atomism. Matter-of-factness becomes the order of realism in painting, which does not necessary mean that things are depicted “realistically.” Rather, it means a ruthless breaking apart of depiction into the elements of painting as parts coexisting on the surface.
The changes that took place in painting, for example, between 1900 to 1910 (1905 Fauvism; 1907 Cubism; 1910 the first Abstraction) also have accompanying scientific and psychoanalytical shifts (1900 Planck’s quantum theory, and Freud’s interpretation of Dreams; 1905 Einstein’s special theory of relativity; 1908 Minkowski’s mathematical formulation of the dimensions of space-time. Between the art and the science there is not an exact parallel, however, scientific materialism did act as stimuli to the imagination of individual artists. The painters Delaunay, Kansdinsky, Klee all expressed that their encounters with the discoveries of “natural sciences” had shed light on their own exclusive artistic activities. Further, the great propagator for Cubism, Apollinaire, wrote about the connection between Cubism’s multiple perspectives and the nonperspective conception of space-time, where he devised a theory of the “fourth dimension” as a commonplace vocabulary for modernist aesthetics.
Gleizes and Metzinger, in Cubism, stated the following,
“…today oil painting allows us to express supposedly inexpressive notions of depth, density, and duration, and encourages us to present, according to a complex rhythm, a veritable fusion of objects within a restricted space.” [Cubism, from Modern Artists on Art, p 5]
Modernism no longer took the surface of appearances to be consistent with mathematical “truths,” and thus every inflection of form was accompanied by modifications. Cubism embodies another kind of mutation. In its subject matter, the early Cubist paintings seem tied to the same old objects of still life, but what it does to these objects is what counts. Cubism came of age in the form of experience of moderns referring to the growing impact of the machine. It is beneath the surface of shifting-places that the Cubist painting asserts itself. It did not visibly depict machines: it internalized its modernity. It invented the new pictorial language of modern painting, which characteristically fixated upon the materiality, the opacity, of the medium, and leant painting the presupposition that it was perception of how the painter is to achieve the representation that stands prior to what is represents.
With the emerging realism, painting since the Renaissance which had developed the mechanics of a single perspective began to draw to a close, and its place the modern painters adopted a visual vocabulary parallel to the “new” modern science. The plane of experience in painting became accompanied by a secondary “reality,” which was seen by the modernists as existing as both infinitely small and infinitely large (atoms, as the units of the structures of matter, and the boundlessness of the universe). Visible reality that had been regarded as “nature” in the West was dissolved. With Realism there is the emergence of mathematical abstraction. The condition of visibility demonstrating the modernist subject’s sensory account began to dissolve through a realism that had become an “objective reality,” the consequence resulting in tossing the subjective itself into question.
Gleizes and Metzinger ask,
“Must the painter, to please them [people], take his painting by the wrong end and restore to things the commonplace appearance which it is his mission to strip away?” [ibid, p 14]
Exactly what was being stripped away with the modern idiom? It was not only the way things were visibly depicted by the senses, meaning the process of nihiliation in painting was not only about getting rid of depicting a tree as a tree. The insinuation, at a deeper level, was about destroying all exclusiveness whatsoever, or, in other words, “flattening” out the entire horizon of experience. This is echoed in Naum Gabo’s text Constructive Ideas in Art, when he mentions the essence of the Cubist idiom,
“The Cubist has no special interest in those forms which differentiate one object from another. Although the Cubists still regarded the external world as the point of departure for their Art, they did not see and did not want to see any difference between, say, a violin, a tree, a human body, etc. All those objects were for them only one extended matter with a unique structure and only this structure was of importance for their analytic task.” [Constructive Ideas in Art, from Modern Artists on Art, p107
Of course, references to things in the world do not cease in Cubism, but the progammatic edge to Cubism is the annihilation of the world. Objecthood, the painting as a kind of autnonmous entity, has overtaken signification in order to suggest an absolute generalization – a free “play” of signifiers. Not only will the picture admit to being flat, i.e. that there is no more depth but only juxtaposition: it also suggests visible slippage, which gives a materialist accounting to everything not freed from all exclusiveness. That Picasso saw no difference between the violin, the tree, the human body, but only an extended matter, also suggested something else: not only was the picture itself to become anonymous, it was also to suggest an anonymous personality at its point of departure.
Just like in Cubism where contradictory depictions come to the fore, the consequences of realism appear as contradictions: the modernists posited “constants” (space, time, matter, energy, force, gravity) but also only having a contingent validity, such that the “constants” are also conveyed as “relative.” Within the modern psyche, as they are said to overlap each other as space-time, space and time lose their boundaries as separate things just as matter and energy become interchangeable. In the theory of the unified field, Einstein held that distinctions between electromagnetism and gravity are annulled when they begin to weaken and there emerges an elementary field. What this means for the modern mind is that separate forces – or what appear as separate forces – and their interaction only appear in a four-dimensional continuum. All “laws” governing the sensory world of experience are annulled and destroyed by discontinuous, non-perspective elements. Modern physics created a gulf between the “objective reality” of its mathematics and the experiencing-Subject, with its sensory aesthetics. Unable to establish a link between the two planes of “reality,” only an intellectual hypothesis could be constructed, which through a system of reference sought to accommodate what was encountered through the senses. Cubism is, quite fittingly, the corresponding visual representation of the “new” realism, which can only be given over visibly through abstraction. Abstraction, from the very beginning, means that though there is an individuality at work, a sameness nakedly confronts the visual field: a painting for collectivity.
In Purism, Le Corbusier and Ozenfant write,
“It is true that plastic art has to address itself more directly to the senses than pure mathematics which only acts by symbols, these symbols sufficing to trigger in the mind consequences of a superior order; in plastic art, the senses should be strongly moved in order to predispose the mind to the release into play of subjective reactions without which there is no work of art. But there is no art worth having without this excitement of an intellectual order, of a mathematical order; architecture is the art which up until now has most strongly induced the states of this category. The reason is that everything in architecture is expressed by order and economy. …This means of executing a work of art is a transmittable and universal language.” [Purism, from Modern Artists on Art, p. 60]
Realism, reshaping “reality” by indicating that its system created a wide gulf between the layers of existence, insinuated that its concept of natural “reality” in the image of the world could only be hypothetical, or metaphorical. In this respect, realism and its science (the entire “materialist universe”) is a purely stylistic phenomenon. – The visible field of become illusion, “extended matter with a unique structure.”
Malevich, in his text on Suprematism, said,
“Objectivity, in itself, is meaningless to him; the concepts of the conscious mind are worthless.”
” I realized that the ‘thing’ and the ‘concept’ were substituted for feeling and understood the falsity of the world of will and idea.” [Suprematism, from Modern Artists on Art p 95]
Father Rose points out in his text that realism, provided through the neutralizing tendency of relative truths opened up by the liberal-humanism of the Renaissance, seized the absolute from God in order to keep the absolute for itself in the manner of a materialist absolute: a mechanistic determinism placed as a value above Truth, and this science of truths shifts into an irrational cause.
Nietzsche’s words become like prophecy to a new modern world of nihilism,
“Of all that which was formerly held to be true, not one word is to be credited. Everything which was formerly disdained as unholy, forbidden, contemptible, and fatal — all of these flowers now bloom on the most charming paths.” [Will to Power, p 377]
When “reality” becomes stylistic an entirely different existential mutation has taken hold. Nietzsche’s “revaluation” of values becomes a lingua france of modernist art practice. The Purism text written by the painters Le Corbusier and Ozenfant made this explicit,
“Now the world only appears to man from the human vantage point, that is, the world seems to obey the laws man has been able to assign to it; when man creates a work of art, he has the feelings of acting as a ‘god.’” [ibid, p 61]
Nietzsche theorized an aesthetics of libidinal or instinctual energy, or a tendency towards intoxication, chaos, and excess, which he termed the Dionysian. The Dionysian tendency embraced lawlessness and conflict Later, psychologists (like Freud) would take up this notion of instinctual energy as arising from the unconscious, and would associate this unconscious as something opposed to fixed values and forms..His aesthetic vision is one of an intoxication of change and within this intoxication the loss of oneself in a fluid, perpetually shifting landscape,
“The condition that seems to be part of many nervous disorders — extreme mobility that turns into an extreme urge to communicate, the desire to speak on the part of everything that knows how to make signs — a need to get rid of oneself through signs and gestures, ability to speak oneself through a hundred speech media…an explosive condition.” [Nietzsche, Introduction to Aesthetics 63]
In this respect, beauty became for Nietzsche something altogether different than for Kant: it signaled the collapse of all moral and conceptual determinations. Describing his vision of beauty he said, “…that everything follows, obeys, so easily and so pleasantly – that is what delights the artist’s will to power.” For Nietzsche, the will to powerwas not only the “embrace of change” to what was “new” in terms of converting that difference (alterity) into “creative” energy: it became the emans through which, by a “noble” effort, creativity would be destructive.
When Kant theorized the subject as arbiter of the representation of Beauty, he placed the subjective individual into the formal status of aesthetic appreciation. For Kant, it guarded the sublime – the sheer difference outside representation – by way of the Reason of the subject. The postmodernists, however, concluded this aesthetic approach at the moment when the subject is said to be stripped of its “centrality,” which is to say, the moment when the sublime, theorized as the unrepresentable, engenders that the controlling subject disappears in the wake of an experiential excess.
Tadeusz Kantor said, in Representation Loses More and More its Charm,
“Representation” loses more and more its charm. To create painting is in itself
a living organism, moving like a hive. Space which reacts violently condenses forms to dimensions of molecules, to the limit of the “impossible.” In this dreadful movement the speed of making decisions and interventions, the spontaneity of the behavior, constantly grazes risk.” [Carnet des Notes, 1955, p 23]
Presaging the full scope of vitalist “dynamic” risk in the arts, Romanticism could be argued as already the first stylistic change of this sort. The romantics wanted to place themselves inside of an experience to account for their depictions of reckless themes through Kant’s initial ideas of the sublime that emphasized humanity’s vulnerability and powerlessness. The “sense of fate” became a Romantic theme. Joseph Turner (1775-1851) apparently tied himself to the mast of a ship in order to witness a storm at sea. Theodore Gericault (1789-1824) apparently gambled his life on several occasions by riding horses recklessly in order to “understand” horses. A grim portrayal of humanity was on show in painting, suggesting “Man’s” struggle with “Nature” – Gericault’s The Raft of Medusa (1819), or Caspar David Freidrich’s Wreck of Hope (1824) provide visual depiction for the Romantic style.
This “sense of fate” dovetails into the momentum of what the modern psychology saw as “history itself.” Naum Gabo in his work Constructive Ideas of Art, wrote,
“The war [WW1] was only a natural consequence of a disintegration which started long ago in the depths of the previous civilization. It is innocent to hope that this process of disintegration will stop at the time and the in place where we want it to. Historical processes of this kind generally go their own way. They are more like floods, which do not depend on the strokes of the oarsmen floating on the waters….” [Constructive Ideas of Art, from Modern Artists on Art p 104]
In Father Rose’s text, vitalism’s part in the dialectic of nihilism plays as reaction to a strict realism. Vitalism in the arts was informed by the “dynamic” and the “active” tendencies of modernity. It accepted the presuppositions of realism (the program begins and ends with “this world”), but with a romantic flavor that had the vitalist yearn for “mystical” aesthetic experiences.
Malevich would say,
“Thought is nothing but a process, an activity of an unknowable excitation. That is why Nothing has an influence on me, and why Nothing, as en entity, determines my consciousness; for everything is excitation, understood as a single state, stripped of all the attributes given it in the language of the tribe.” [Malevich, Thesis I, in Andersen, I: 188]
This tendency informs the pseudo-spiritualistic undertone of modern arts, especially in respect to its experimental attitude. If everything is essentially Nothing, lawlessness becomes the totality of all technique. All the “old” authorities are dropped in favor of the dynamic, active philosophy of force. Nietzsche’s will to power provided the determined manner in which to advance both over the imagination and over the public consciousness. The painter Marinetti, the futurist and political fascist, who identified art with action and with the present (modo = just now) of mechanical phenomena (speed, crowds, “forces”), wrote in the Futurist Manifesto,
“We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt. Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.”
Vitalism has always had its cult of violence and activism. Experimentation in the arts would strip away the traditionalism of the “old” order. The futurists supported Mussolini who marched in the streets with his Black Shifts to strip away the traditionalism of the “old” order. The modern artist as a creator, a mythic inspired genius, holding up their creations above the public consciousness, was not so unlike the dictator. Informed by a realism (the materialistic determinism of a material thing and its constituent elements) that can be said to “transformed” by the “vision” of the artist’s will to power, his own force, the artist of the modern period became a kind of “visionary” capable of a “spiritual awakening” of raw material. Demagogy did the same thing in the ream of politics.
Father Seraphim Rose also said,
“Hitler was to politics what the modern artist was to art.”
The impulse to create through destruction, as the pseudo-spiritualist impulse of the artist’s will to power, is at work. And what about matter? Well, perhaps even matter itself. The painter Mondrian, in Plastic Art & Pure Plastic Art, echoed the germ that modernism carried within itself,
“In order that art may be really abstract, in other words, that it should not represent relations with the natural aspect of things, the law of the dematerialization of matter is of fundamental importance.” [ibid, p 123]
The final stage in the nihilistic dialectic is for Father Rose characterized by destruction – the sensation of violence. Nietzsche’s will to power is also the imposition of the theory of the Superman, which would destroy the “old” order of the human species to create a new and improved version, echoing the principle of destruction with the phrase, “There is no truth, all is permitted.” [Will to Power]
Deleuze, a postmodern follower of Nietzsche, states in his text Nietzsche & Philosophy, that every force is a force prior to things, and seeks nothing but the limit of its own power (or what he dubs “desire). In other words, the postmodernist psychology holds that every Subject, every identity, every representation or figure, is a “separation resting on a fiction…on a falsification.” [N&P, p 57] A “new god” is needed for these philosophers, one which renders over only changeless-change, where everything is subject to decay and to cannibalization, mutation and endless transformation, which Deleuze dubs “Baphoment.”
Raphael Montanez Ortiz, in Destructivism: A Manifesto,
“Of this stuff our art will be, that which is made will be unmade, that which is assembled will be disassembled, that which is constructed will be destructed. The artist will cease to be the lackey, his process will cease to be burdened by a morality which only has meaning in reality. The artist’s sense of destruction will no longer be turned inward in fear. The art that utilizes the destructive process will purge, for as it gives death, so it will give to life.” [Destructivism: A Manifesto, 1962, in Refael Montanez Ortiz: Years of the Warrior 1960, Years of the Psyche 1988, p. 52]
Tzara had gotten there earlier when he exclaimed,
“Dada Means Nothing.”
When the bombs where falling on Europe during the First World War, a group of artists were meeting in the small cafe called Cabaret Voltaire, in Zürich in Switzerland. This was the DADA group, who, apparently disgusted at the war in a Europe of lawlessness irony practiced self-same aesthetic lawlessness. As the imperial powers were well on the way of making an entire generation into nothing, and the countryside was swept away by catastrophe, it is an irony that in their apparent disgust at the nihilism made into practice before their very eyes, their anarchist passion for violence would head in the same direction. This is evident in Tristian Tzara’s text Dada Manifesto,
“The principle: “love thy neighbor” is a hypocrisy. “Know thyself” is utopian but more acceptable, for it embraces wickedness. No pity.”
“Let each man proclaim: there is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished. We must sweep and clean. Affirm the cleanliness of the individual after the state of madness, aggressive complete madness of a world abandoned to the hands of bandits, who rend one another and destroy the centuries. Without aim or design, without organization: indomitable madness, decomposition. Those who are strong in words or force will survive, for they are quick in defense, the agility of limbs and sentiments flames on their faceted flanks. Morality has determined charity and pity, two balls of fat that have grown like elephants, like planets, and are called good. There is nothing good about them.”
To follow Tzara’s line of unreason that to “affirm the cleanliness of the individual after the state of madness,” a great “negative work of destruction” was to be accomplished, is to continue in line with the nihilistic dialectic also observed at that moment when realism, determining the human as a mere mechanism, and thus no longer God’s creature, is exposed on all sides to technological manipulation. In the USSR, decades before the appearance of Transhumanism in the West, there had emerged biomechanics which were also aesthetically depicted through Maykovsky’s theater projects. Several after Nietzsche’s pronouncements equating the “death of God” also with the death of “Man” and the formation of the Superman, the revolutionary mass-murder Leon Trotsky wrote,
“What is man? He is by no means a finished or harmonious being. No, he is still a highly awkward creature. Man, as an animal, had not evolved by plan but spontaneously, and has accumulated many contradictions. The question of how to educate and regulate, of how to improve and complete the physical and spiritual constructions of man, is a colossal problem which can only be understood on the basis of socialism…To produce a new, ‘improved version’ of man – that is the future task of communism. And for that we first have to find out everything about man, his anatomy, his physiology, and that part of his physiology which is called his psychology. Man must look at himself and see himself as a raw material, or at best as a semi-manufactured product, and say: ‘At least, my dear homo sapiens, I will work on you.” [In Defense of Lost Causes, p. 111]
Irrespective of the stylistic variations of the avant-garde, the emerges a single theme. Each excommunicated the others and declared itself to be the final arbiter of all aesthetic style with the ambition to transform the entire society in its image. Something of this sort is also premised on the idea that a direct line of continuity exists between the totalizing ambition of the avant-garde (when it declares itself to be the only true style, or culmination of all aesthetic experiment) and the totalitarianisms. Such is the rhetoric revolved around the language of a “New Man” which similar to the painting itself that was seen as a raw material in which to scribe the will to power presupposed that the human being itself was a raw material which could be shaped by the aesthetic style of the State dictatorship. The dream of the avant-garde – the dream of all modernism proper – is fulfilled when life and society is reorganized in a monolithic artistic form.
Nietzsche’s aesthetics of power: Zarathustra is a character intended to create a counter-revolution against the whole of Christian revelation in the name of the will to power.
A Uniformly Antagonistic Metaphysics
What can be gained from all of this? Art’s history follows what Father Seraphim Rose describes in his Nihilism text. It is a trajectory, first, of inventing the concept of man over God, which gave the subject the status of an arbitrator of values. Second, in keeping with the dialectic’s Enlightenment realism, the arts turn to man himself as a mere material, a mere “raw material” not unlike the painted thing (which had also become a material thing composed of “elements”). A greater symbolic meaning takes place by conceiving of man himself as a result of transforming processes: the modernist psyche presupposed that just as styles are produced, so too can human consciousness be produced as an aesthetic style. The work in reshaping the human being, shorn of being God’s creature and bruised into the determined form of an animal, is the white heat of the Revolution.
Hermann Nitsch’s O.M. Theatre text, from 1962, includes the following,
“A philosophy of intoxication, ecstasy and delight finally shows that the innermost element of the intensely vital is intoxicated agitation, debauchery which represents a form of existence of the orgiastic in which joy, torment, death and procreation approach and merge with each other.” [The Orgien Mysterien Theatre, p35]
Nietzsche is the specter lurking behind this pen. He is the specter lurking behind many of the painters of recent art history. Following Heraclites, one of the pre-Socratic philosophers, the world is seen through Nietzsche’s aesthetics as a perpetual agon: a collusion of chaos and order, only ever shaped by power and the exertion of power. Nietzsche’s aesthetics, prompting him to employ terms like “instinct” and “nature,” opted for a blind, empty will, which he arbitrarily assigned a vitality and “creativity.”. Dionysus is his name for the chaos where matter tears itself apart endlessly to give “new births” – a kind of cannibalization of “becoming” in time. Nietzsche’s vision, reviving the old world of pagan antiquity, is an economy of violence: it is a totality of violence against violence ad nauseum. It revolves around the “event” that he believes becomes an immanent, vitalist imposition of the universe’s finite transactions, and the will to power is that perpetual deployment of this event. Taking up Kant’s theory of the unrepresentable sublime – i.e. difference, the alterity or otherness – as a manifestation of power that not only strips the subject of all representation, but subjects the world itself to lawlessness, the aesthetic taste is a changeless-change where the surface of the world is constantly anarchic.
This economy of violence is the primary ground for all postmodern aesthetic reflections. It informs the psyche of the postmodernist. The postmodern, to be very specific, does not come after modernism, despite the trickery of the word: it is, rather, modernism when it completes itself. It is like a revolving door that cycles back upon itself, or like the dog that returns to its own vomit. In the economy of violence the postmoderns announced the subject’s death in the face of a sublime that stripped it of “centrality,” but this was only ever the fulfillment of modernist dreams: to make a god of godlessness that informs the modern painter’s psyche – indicating an aesthetics of wasteful, contradictory expenditures as a metaphysics of differential excess. For the Nietzscheans there is no openness before the other. There is only force that is uniformly antagonistic.
Nietzsche theorized a carceral society based solely on power that he thought descended from the subject of Augustine’s Confessions. He took Augustine’s account in the City of Man – the civitas terrena – as the city founded on violence, and generalized it. Whereas to Augustine another city is possible, for Nietzsche it became foundational. This is, of course, a rather uninventive metaphysics. There is nothing “overturning” about assenting to violence as a metaphysical apriori: it is merely a story that goes in the same direction that “this world” wants to go in anyway. Christianity does not deny that violence exists, or for that matter that the world is “ruled” by it – that is the core insight about the Fall.Presaged within the Epistles, when Saint Paul writes that the world lies under the authority of principalities and powers whose rule is violence, falsehood and death, he already anticipates violence economy by countering it with Christ, who is much more radical, much more of a rebellion.
To the Revolution there can only be a terrifying, monstrous sublimity – a horizontal violence of being. It is in this sense that Heidegger (the other progenitor of the Postmodern, as well as the philosophical origin of Deconstruction), theorized original negation, which is to say, being as war. To the violence economy, war is not an accident: it is “Being” itself, and in this sense, no longer even conceived to be a negative. The postmodernists believe that all speech, all history, is violence: a representation of the Same that is violent in its imposition of its power, or else an excess of alterity that strips all representation bare by a sheer tumult. Derrida conceived,
“speech produced without the least violence would determine nothing, would say nothing, would offer nothing to the other; it would not be history, and it would show nothing…”
It would “show nothing.” We come to the terminus of nihilism, not only as eventuality as a horizontally violent economy, but in the assumption that any language without violence would be without predication.. Put differently, it would be without the verb to be.
Father Rose read Nietzsche. He knew how it informed the modern world. Once you see it you can never un-see it. You will also begin seeing it everywhere. The insinuation that “difference” (alterity or otherness) cannot be sustained within any relationship of love, is the antichrist.
The Revolution has always sought to destroy God. It wants to usurp God in order to begin working on man as a piece of technology, and then, according to its aesthetic sentiment, make man himself into a god. In order to do this it must nihiliate all predication. It is not only the twisted dream of the snake in the Garden of Eden, which promised Adam and Eve that they would “become like gods” in order to deliver them over to decay, corruption, death, but, crucially, it is a revival of the rendition of the fall of Satan himself: that prince of the world that roves around like a devouring lion who wanted to become a god without God’s grace.
Rose quotes Dostoyevsky in the character of Kirillov, from the Possessed,
“Everything will be new…then they will divide history into two parts: from the gorilla to the annihilation of God, and from the annihilation of God to the transformation of the earth and man physically.” [The Possessed, Pt1 Ch3]
The image is not so remote. Not to me. We are all brought up on it, most of us without knowing it. The entire “Post-Christian” age expresses influence over the society and attempts to effectively obliterate the knowledge of Christ. The war of the enemies of God has been quite successful. The project of what Rose called “lawlessness,” harkening the words of Saint Paul, is acting now like an autonomous movement. A transvaluation of all values? A sign of the apocalypse? Certainly, a nihilism attempting to come to the end of its own project.
PART II – THEOLOGY
The “Wisdom of this World”
After exploring the nihilistic trajectory in the arts, specifically examining the words of the painters themselves, there is no way to go back. There is no way of unseeing the impositions. All of my art theory books now read like how-to manuals for the nihilistic dispensation. Father Rose bestowed to me the means in which to bring to conscious what had remained unconscious – to locate the “nihilism within us all.”
I felt that I had studied enough about philosophy to also locate its violence. From Plato to Kant, philosophy in the West had assumed that “beauty” was a kind of metaphysical reconciliation of being. Plato’s metaphysics with its static chain of being that culminates into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts (totality), ensured this relation to beauty. Several of the styles of modernist painting, particular Suprematism, Neo-Plasticism, Purism and the Geometric Abstractionists, practiced such totality: painting was composed of purely material elements arranged in “harmony,” where everything was in its place. As to the innovations of the art’s avant-garde, the art critic Harold Rosenberg hints at the underlining political sentiment behind Abstraction,
“Under such circumstances, Neo-Plastic abstraction, in signifying nothing but themselves, would signify the collective vision of a whole, and unite in themselves absolute being with absolute meaning. The conception is, of course, completely theoretical and utopian; in practice, it would result in totalitarianism.” [ibid, p 45]
All parts would be subsumed into the whole. The masses did not create the modern avant-garde art because it was formed by well-educated elites. From the Neo-Plastic inventor Mondrian’s own pen, “Is it really to be believed that the evolution of the mass and that of the elite are incompatible? The elite rise from the mass; is it not therefore its highest expression?” Similarly, this internal logic of the modern artist who follows their own will to power which they elevate above the masses is the assimilated method of the totalitarian States. The dream of the avant-garde – the dream of all modernism proper – was fulfilled when life and society became “reorganized” into a monolithic artistic form.
At the end of the West, however, postmoderns conceived of the sublime as the original, primordial “ontological” tumult – this striped-out the subject invented by Enlightenment. At this point, representations of Beauty seemed to mock the idea of justice, where the world was conceived as nothing more than a spectacle of power and violence. There was in postmodernism an enterprise to “overturn Plato,” which, far from being that radical, merely inverted him: it produced a metaphysics through anti-metaphysics, or an anti-metaphysics-metaphysics. It resulted in a deepening nihilistic crisis. Once power was construed as the first principle – as a force prior to all semblance or figuration (of a being) – there was no more ground for any responsibility to justice, any agential responsibility whatsoever. “Force,” Deleuze construed following Nietzsche’s signal, was prior to all figuration.
Justice, as it was, was invented by Godly men and women, and when God was rendered “dead” in the hearts of the nihilists, justice went with it. Such a statement isn’t hyperbole. The entire 20th century with its totalitarian ambitions, gulags and death camps, and its proceeding “deconstruction of the subject” is an indication of the fallout from the “death of God.”
However, this is not the entire story – it is only one story, the story of the West’s philosophy: a story of a metaphysics and its inversion which actually amounts to the same thing because the story remains confined with a totalizing economy of “the gods.” It is a story of a totality that buffers, on the one side, Apollo – the god of order and rank and stability – and on the other side, Dionysius – the god of chaos, disruption and cannibalization. On the one side, there is the tale of the god of representation, and on the other side, the god of the sublime. These gods stride over the same abyss and share, in the end, the same narrative of totality. They are false gods. Philosophy is merely an attempt to compose the whole of “reality” underneath a totality – a total panorama arranged by its theory. This is a pathology. It is a desire to comprehend being within a single thought, and whether that thought is an authoritative representation (where all otherness becomes the same) or a sublime (a sheer violence of the excess) is of little distinction. The latter – the apparently postmodern “alternative” – merely makes all difference the same for the same reason: it merely generalizes violence.
What is a proper alternative to this tale of the West and its metaphysics? It is the conscience of Jerusalem. In the Orthodoxy there is found an entirely different story than the story of the philosophy. It was never placed into the sieve of Roman legalism, which produced Western scholastic theology, which was the pre-cursor to the elevation of reason – the rediscovery of pagan antiquity’s reason in the Renaissance – and the Enlightenment Modernism. The properly Orthodox Christian position never went through modernity, which is why it is so radically other to the story of the West.
The Christian God is not the God who Nietzsche declared to be “dead.” He may have thought so, considering himself to be a self-styled antichrist, but his interpretation is exiguous, trivial and petty. The “God” that Nietzsche purported to kill off was the god of metaphysics – the god of the Supreme Being who is a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is the god of Plato’s One that presupposes alienation and negation when unity is transformed into difference. It is the false god of Western philosophy, which Kant stirred up under the “disinterested rationality.” It is the false god that has no need for the continuum of particularities, for the contingent histories of beings. Nietzsche, who raised in a German Protestant family (his father and grandfather were both protestant ministers) inherited all of the prejudices of an already heretical Western Christianity. Ignorant of the writings of the Church fathers, the patristics, he was already getting watered-down aesthetic sentiment clinging to merely practical “moralisms.”
What of the antichrist? Nietzsche wanted to conceive of a world of violence as primordial ground, and within this space view any vantage of a rhetoric of peace as simply a duplicity. Everything was to him a matter of power. There is nothing novel or radical in theorizing that the world is violent, and nothing “overturning” in assenting to it because it appears as such. This story merely goes in the same the direction that the world wants us to go anyway, which is probably why Nietzsche has been and remains so popular. The entire postmodern “reality” is based on this aesthetic taste. The universities and the art schools have subsumed him entirely. Whatever is popular in the world, we can almost be certain, is popular because it perpetuates what the prince of this world wants to perpetuate.
Christianity does not deny that violence exists, or for that matter that the world is “ruled” by it because that is the very essence of the teaching of the Fall.The violence is presaged within the Epistles when Saint Paul writes that the world lies under the authority of principalities and powers whose rule is violence, falsehood and death. In counter-distinction, Christianity is taught by Christ Himself toward a much more radical alternative. Truth be said, the Nazarene rabbi who is also the Son of God put to death under Pontius Pilate is inherently more radical than anything the West has ever had to offer.
Christ has already conquered the world of violence from the beginning to the end, from the Alpha to the Omega. It is a matter of persuasion – one is either persuaded or one is not.
True Christian thought stands outside modernity. With its comprehensive narrative of an unaided rationality, its dissemination of significations as “violence,” as well as its inversion in the sublime (in contradiction and slippage), the narrative of philosophy in the West becomes a gigantic lame duck. There is another lame duck: the narrative of “God is dead.” Why? Because there is no metaphysics of Plato – no Whole that is the sum of its parts – no such thing as totality, in Christianity. There is, instead, an infinity that is ruled by God’s gracious glory. There is no lesser force and greater force per Nietzsche and his revival of pagan brutality. Christianity’s agape is radically different that any economy of violence. The God of the Gospels, presaged in the Torah, is not the god of the philosophers: it is not an unreachable god of statics which in order to diffuse unity into form must do so through a violent imposition. The God who is God is a very personal – the God of covenant.
Theology of the Surface
The world of appearances is where beings are given particular characteristics. Plato divided appearance from truth to create a metaphysical gulf. Platonic metaphysics presupposed a “vertical” chain. In this way, the West “abstracts” facts towards principles, or history towards eternity.
In regards to theology dependent upon the history of Jesus of Nazareth, it has already been a discourse of the surface. The surface is immediately, all at once, infinite. It is paradox not dialectics. In other words, there is no foreclosure or division between a narrative of closure or limitation (representation) and a narrative of the frenzied or chaotic (sublime).
Christianity’s God of infinity is not totality. The theology of the surface is one continuous account of what has appeared within history, and not from some outside realm of Platonic “Ideas.” As infinity, God’s grace informs history as it expands into ever greater dimensions of the revealed. Infinity blurs the lines between what is creaturely and what is divine (between, in philosophy lingo, the ontic and the ontological) as the line is crossed in the concrete person of Jesus Christ, the rabbinic Jew who is also the Son of God.
It is because of a theology of the surface that the God of the covenant is personally interested in each and every member of the Church who strives to unite with him. Only a God interested in the surface would render that surface redeemable, and would come in bodily form to redeem it from corruption. It is connected to divine grace in the person’s heart and the person’s response to the divine energy. The co-operation (synergy) between God and his creatures is at the essence of an aesthetics of responsibility, disclosed in the Greek word diatithemi, meaning to ‘arrange’ or ‘dispose’ as an agreement between two parties. This agreement is not only because God and His people, but between the people in alterity. The redemption of the covenant is a shared-abiding of an infinity that is ever-more revealed in difference through glory (kavod).
It isn’t pantheistic. The covenant, against a backdrop of infinity, makes it possible that we may view beings as a mode within the discourse of the divine transcendence where each in its difference declares the glory of God, without themselves ever being God.
The Beauty of the I AM
When the Pslamist declares, “O taste and see that the LORD is good” (34:8), beauty is given a qualification of divine glory – of the kabod, the gift of being graciously shared: the attractiveness of the beautiful.
There is also a moral element to it: the enjoyment of beauty is from the ordinance of glory a dispassion – it is not the property of a possessive ego, an attachment of to the passions. What the Pslamist tastes and sees is at a distance, meaning at the surface a “letting be” of being as a gift of its appearing.
The Truth of the I AM shifts how visible depiction is understood. Beauty does not emerge out of an alien abyss or a sheer violence only to remain a violence of the mastery of the limit. This is mere postmodern dribbling. Instead, beauty is relation to this otherness as it unfolds, or is revealed, in the infinity, which makes it a donation of the richness of being.
The realm of created difference (alterity) has its being out of the pleasure of the “and it was good” (Genesis). Every distance within creation is originally an interval of God’s own creativity into infinity, which is declared by God Himself to be “good.” That we may come to taste and see that the LORD is good means also that the line between grace and nature is already crossed with Jesus of Nazareth. The presence of distance, or the effect of Beauty, is not interpretive such that all distance is an original absence or negation and subject to violent force: rather, in the peace of Christ who has already conquered the world and who makes the condition of peace possible, Beauty becomes a peaceful analogy.
To follow the Pslamist and declare that God’s goodness can be tasted and seen means to make premonition for the icon.
The icon has nothing to do with Plato’s division between truth and appearance, or between a “profound reality” and its simulacrum. All of this is rendered meaningless outside of the false gods that buffer it. The icon does not express itself as if from some unreachable abyss, some pagan realm of “Ideas” where to come into the world of form there is necessitated an original alienation. Because all difference is created by God not as an excess that deprives by way of power, but as supplement that affirms otherness that cherishes and invites infinite responses, what appears as visibly depicted can embody its Truth without being limited by it.
When Exodus 3:14 states, “And God said to Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you,” prediction itself is glory. The Burning Bush makes it such that all being belongs to God’s infinity. To speak this aesthetically means that the reflective-Subject speaks in the language of participation within that infinity: what is seen and tasted is being in an endless variety of expressive and participatory modes of glory of the I AM that begets. Christian Truth bestows upon the creative artist an aesthetic moment of wakefulness, which fully accompanies and implicates the person into the realm of ethical responsibility.
This makes otherness between one being and another not in terms of a tension between what would appear and what would be hidden (manifestation/negation), but as a display of the infinite itself that is by grace “good” by the God that created it. Moreover, beings may express God’s infinite precisely because they are other than God, not as negation but by bearing a testimony to traversing the richness of the supplement.
The philosophies of violence see time as “becoming” in Dionysian expenditure and wastefulness. This makes for an apologetics to an original violence and to a system of violence that can never be overcome. In other words, it presages a nihilation where being is exposed to endless cannibalization. “To create is to destroy,” as Nietzsche said and as the modern painters followed in tow. This is elsewhere the false god Saturn who devours his children, depicted more famously by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya. It is the depiction of the Greek myth of the Titan Cronos who, fearing that his children would overthrow him, ate each one of them at their birth. It is the allegory of conflict between youth and old age and of time as the devourer of all things. Of course, this devourer may be recognized from the perspective of significant Truth as the Luciferian principle that holds sway over sin, corruption and death.
Cubism’s fourth dimension is conceived as time, specifically the “simultaneity” of time to dissolve and diffuse the boundaries between particular things. The modernist psyche is obsessed with time because it is assault on all sides by its governing principle, translated as a dynamic process and a fluid mechanism. And when the Cubist horizon is crossed, everything becomes fragmented. The modern picture, in its variety, its breaking up of forms, is a result of all of this. The subject of time is big in modernist aesthetics because Saturn is its precondition. Moreover, once the modern psyche determined that death was a mere extinction, it makes extinction a general principle by way of a scientific procedure.
Conversely, the story other to the West and its cannibalizing condition of modernization can be proposed as a means to trivialize what the futurism – the apparent cause of the modern world’s being as it is – attempts to make an unshakeable principal. If time catches us up into suffering – into its cannibalizing juggernaut – then this is by implication due to the Fall of the original Adam. It is a catastrophe that was originally unintended, as each of us is originally unintended to decay. God remedies the decay by giving his Son, the Word made flesh and the very source of the Uncreated Light. The prayer of the All Transcendent God by Saint Gregory the Theologian has the following line, “…all the expectation and pain of the world coalesces in You.” The aesthetics of the infinite is an ecstaticmovement where as time unfolds each slice of time is from the very beginning and very end (the absolute) peaceful supplementation. If there is pain, if there is suffering within time, then it has already been made whole, already redeemed by the good God who incarnated bodily in order to conquer death by death.
We humans are not capable of overcoming time by ourselves. Yet, that is precisely what technology proposes to do: modern technology is the product of the Revolution against God. It proposes the fallen Satanic spirit of wanting to become like God but without God’s grace, which is to say, without God’s help. No change on the part of the modernist is needed, that is, no replacement of the vices with the virtues, no moment of wakefulness and dispassion, is required. “You can become like gods,” said the snake. Everything Satanic always works in reversal. The snake promised godlikeness but served up only decay and death. Technology promises “liberation” but necessitates only subservience to the totalitarianism of the technocratic drive. The empty, calculating “sufficient reason” of the pagan dynamic goes digital.
Conversely, through a process of purification, illumination and deification, and turned towards the face of the Holy Christ, the human being is able by God’s grace to become whole again. That is to say, through grace we are redeemed of the catastrophe that the original Man engendered to become fully one with the I AM. There is no substituting virtues where there once dwell vices, no switch-out of dispassion where there was once passions burning within us, without the grace of God.
Assembling an Aesthetics of the Infinite
God’s transcendence is not Aristotle’s “cause.” It is not a naming of the infinite of a potentiality of matter apart from the limit of forms. The Deist god, theorized as a “first cause” without further interest in the world, is here a complete absurdity – a rehashing of the pagan sentiment of a “Supreme Being” or “Great Architect.” Most modern people conceive of God in terms of this heresy. It is popularized by the eclecticism of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, and the syncretism of Theosophy and Freemasonry. God’s personal, covenantal intimacy is effaced: “God” becomes a mere force, a kind of faceless, proverbial bestower of “good vibes.” That is to say, if there remains a “God” at all. Already when there is mere need is for a sufficient cause, the human imagination has made its own “God” according to its own concept, and the nihilistic is already moving a negation of that concept (atheism).
God is not a mere greater being among lesser beings – that is, perhaps, a modern concept of what beings are, where beings are devoid of the tension of analogy, and simply stand as causes of “sufficient reason” and determined as instantiations of a materialist science. This has nothing to do with Christianity. God is intimately interested in his creation. The transcendent act (which is, put simply, all that the possible might possibly be, as an infinity) is not a mere “cause” or an efficient power to cause. Transcendent actuality names the fullness of beings.
The Trinitarian context is always differing, which is to say that the Persons of the Trinity are in alterity to themselves yet complete. Trinity has the same energy, glory and kingdom, meaning that the nature or essence is unity, but the hypostatic characteristic is difference. The hypostatic union means that each Person shares essence but made of particular hypostatic characteristics. Sharing His essence and nature with the Son through generation before the ages, the Father also shares essence with the Holy Spirit through everlasting procession. The mode of being of the Father is unbegotten. The mode of being of the Son is begotten. The mode of being of the Holy Spirit is processual. The characteristics are not shared, meaning there exists alterity within God itself, yet the essence is One: the Father shares His essence with the Song and the Holy Spirit, and the Son and the Holy Spirit with the Father. The alterity is properly otherness because there is no mutual interpenetration between the characteristics, yet there is unity of the common nature.
While ontological difference itself cannot limit what is said of God, and all predication (to be) is a contingency, it is also an expressive bounty – a gift. It is bountiful because of the hypostatic of the Trinity. All that is aesthetically apprehended, i.e. apprehended in the finite as a series of objects appearing in distancing, corresponds within the style – is stylized by – God’s infinite love. God’s love is made possible because hypostatically the communion of natures makes it possible: God loves because Himself first loves Himself within Himself. God is not limited by any ontological difference because God, as the act of all beings, and as the fold of all otherness or alterity, is unfolded within God itself from the first, i.e. before creation.
The covenantal God incorporates otherness within itself. It is because God incorporates alterity within itself through the hypostatic characteristics, such that there is unity within difference – the communion of natures but not a communion of persons – that God can be interested. Radically unlike the Platonic “One” where difference must depart from the One to the many, with the Trinue God all difference has no need to depart by way of a negation of a One into form (as if out of some indeterminate stuff into form by means of some original withdraw or alienation). God’s infinite “self-determination” is an open interval.
God is not an otherness that dwells in the shadows behind finite things, as some kind of “absence” that determines them. Deism, which adopts the pagan metaphysics, and installs itself during the age of Enlightenment in the modernist psyche that presupposes realism and vital tendencies of “immanent” force, is heretical on the basis that the supposed disinterestedness of a Deist false god displaces the veracity of the Trinity.
Saint Gregory of Palamas writes,
“When he spoke to Moses, God said not “I am Essence,” but rather “I AM THAT I AM.’ Consequently, He who Is is not produced by essence, but essence comes about from He Who Is; for He Who Is embraces all of being in himself.” (Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts, 3.2.12)
God embraces all finitude without negation, i.e. without any nhiliation of form. God both exceeds and is present in each form of creation, and all of being is a “place of return,” that is, through a folding and unfolding of an infinite, yet God is not in each form. The very language of return presupposes that which is returned to, meaning that in itself it is not already at home. Each “place of return” of the particular is capable by grace to come home into the Uncreated Light.
It is first because the Trinity beholds and desires that it can be beheld and desired. (Saint Nicholas of Cusa).
This makes all image and likeness an eternal priority of form: every representation is a harmonious supplement, a surface of beings upon an infinite texture, made possible at the outset by the God of the supplement. Through realizing this, as the reflective-Subject capable of aesthetic creativity, our response of being is a displacement of nothingness by openness, which is to say, into the reflex of God’s goodness.
Nihilistic violence presupposed by the modernist psyche and perpetuated in its artistic history is a choice. It is a choice to close out the openness. Our choice has us either turning towards God’s love or turning away from it. Each day is a new dawn of mercy: by grace every single moment can be a moment of true liberation.
Christian Truth is an entirely different take on the aesthetics of reflection, which, rather than buffering aesthetics within the “gods” of order and chaos – the pagan gods of philosophy and its history – there is within the infinite no such thing as a dualism of identity and negation. Saint Paul’s statement about Christ coming to confound the “wisdom of this world” rings true. Christ’s Truth does not split God into either the “ground of Being” or the “Wholly Other.” The aesthetics is analogical, meaning it engenders an art of analogy. Analogy emancipates us from the tragedy of identity, that is to say, the tragedy of the Adam within us that is possessed of himself and seeks to possess the other and nature. As Thomas the Apostle says, on the road towards the tomb of Lazarus,
“Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” [John 11:16]
We can always be in the Light of Truth something more than ourselves. Our “likeness to God” is what makes us be. Predication allows us to taste and see God’s goodness. To die to ourselves and live in Christ is the proper orientation of an aesthetics of Truth. This is the view of being as a pure gift sustained only in finite existence from nothingness into the openness of God’s I AM – God’s self-outpouring of infinity.
The Glory of the Icon
It is because Christ doesn’t only speak Truth but is Truth embodied that we are allowed to aesthetically apprehend the icon. All of God’s good creation rendered in representation, in figuration and analogy of being, is a gift given by first God.
The icon is foremost depiction of the being of the gift – a rhetoric (speech of being) or conglomeration of stories that remain particularities, and which are sewn together by the Alpha and Omega of peace and which through the very particularities call up the Divine which is their “likeness.” The similtude between God and creatures does not lurk in some kind of flawed or distorted likeness to be subsumed by a higher essence (as in pagan metaphysics of truth and the simulacrum. Rather, the particular event that engenders each thing in its being, contains, if we allow God to enter and do not efface His goodness, a synthesis (co-operation).
Christ expresses an infinite that shows itself in finite form, without ceasing to be infinite. Each icon calls up the first Icon, which is the Word made Flesh in Christ (what the Word, or the Logos, expresses). The saints are depicted in icons as abiding in the Uncreated Light (the symbolic of the golden coloration). Each icon is particular yet calls up the “likeness of God” such that what appears in the realm of difference remains the beautiful manifestation of God’s gracious infinity.
This can only be when we each adorn the icon in dispassion, i.e. in a wonderment that liberates and redeems the visible order under the Light of the good God, and shorn of our own possessiveness. Each of us also has the potential to become-icon, which is to say, to be in the state of the predication given over by God if we go like Didymus and follow Christ to Lazarus’s tomb.
Saint John of Kronstadt said,
“Never confuse the person formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him; because evil is but a change misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”
To paraphrase mother Katherine Weston, a psychologist and Orthodox nun, we get hung-up in judgments about what to be grateful for, but if we look to be grateful in this moment then we look at gratitude as a creative act. By opening the possibility of gratitude itself as creative, as an artistic practice, we open up a channel for God’s grace that is poured out infinitely. Are we not immediately given over to wonderment of grace? Wonderment means that each thing that is apprehended, that is given over in visibility, has existed at no other point in time and will exist in no other. Allowing difference to remain truly difference and distance, precisely because that distance is in the light of the Truth, we are in gratitude to the I AM, -the predication of all predication – that makes possible our ability to be. We remain in gratitude open to the content between the book ends of the Alpha and the Omega, no longer nihilistic. In a far greater intimacy of an aesthetics of the infinite informed by gratitude for God’s grace, we may become open to seeing the difference that the infinite gives over from movement to movement, moment to moment, as yet another chance to be.
From this moment of wakefulness, all violence emerges only as a secondary act and a falling away that we do to ourselves and to the other. The nihil is an invention and is provisional. It is not irreversible. It can be displaced. It starts in each human heart. It starts with us when we realize that violence is something that we bring to the other and to situations. It is our choice to either accept in gratitude the love or to reject it, that engenders violence that judges and does violence to God’s good creation.
PART III – POSTSCRIPT
How did the nihilism move through me? I had witnessed the nihilistic dialectic in my art education. I had seen its development even in my own artistic practice, albeit unconsciously. I was like a fish that did not know it was wet.
One day I leaped out of the fish bowl.
To become conscious of it is something altogether different – a shift takes place. One can never go back, never read into modern art practices in the same way again. All philosophy also appears like a flatulent lame duck.
When I leapt out of the fish bowl the entire perception of the modernist enterprise, which locked me into all sorts of implicit presuppositions, began to loosen its grip. I had to put down the paint brush because I’d become conscious of nihilism working directly at the tip of the brush. I could no longer work the same way I had been working. I reached an impasse.
I can only say I leapt out by the grace of God. I did not and cannot do it by myself. None of us can. I am a fool but Christ is God.
Grace pushed me into Orthodoxy. Christianity’s radical motto is “death to the world.” Nietzsche was right that Christianity is subversive because the heart of love overcomes the sublime (the sheer violence) of the world, and against the cannibalization of power against power, violence against violence, Christianity presents the space for a radical love. The philosophers cannot handle the radical love.
The only true rebellion, as it stands, is to assert the significant Truth. Aesthetically this means retrieving an entirely different story as to the visible field, the means in which semblance occurs. The icon is the means of finding within difference the infinite God.
Practically, it means effacing oneself at Lazarus’s tomb. Why do I need to express “myself?” What a myth of modern art – expression! It is trite. “Express yourself” and “do what you want” is a mere advertising slogan.
The world will not like this. Oh well. It is time for those with a conscience to emerge out of untruth.
“Vouchsafe me, O Lord, to love Thee now as fervently as I once loved sin itself, and also to work for thee without idleness, diligently, as I worked before for deceptive Satan. But supremely shall I work for Thee, my Lord and God, Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.”