The Arts and Planetary Survival

Part II - [BACK TO PART 1]

by Denys Trussell

The Ecologist, Vol.20. No.1, January/February 1990.

In the first part of this article (Vol. I9, No. 5, September/October 1989) it was shown how our increasing separation from the natural world has been mirrored in growing autistic shallowness and aimlessness. However in the midst of the nihilism of modernism, some ourstanding works bring meaning to the modern predicament. Examples from the fields of drama, music, painting, and literature show how art can recover its integral position in human consciousness.

The last task of a dying, reactionary avant-garde is to do away with art. This is the fulfilment of a logic that first rejected the outer world, then any object all , even the most abstract portrayal of inner processes. So we are left, not with anti-ant, but with non-art. The obvious social corollary of non-art is non-existence, just as that of Warhol's consumer images is consumer existence. For, like it or not, these artists are actually making a mimesis of something that is 'out there' in the real world. But their mimesis or 'doing` has been appropriated by the nihilism of their subjects and destroyed as a countervailing statement.

There has been an element of idealism in the non-art process; a wish to strip away the 'illusion' necessary to what is normally art. Art involves a suspension of disbelief. The percipient juggles with the fact that art is and is not of the real world. Mimesis is both reality and an act of imagination. The questioning of this duality in art has led to some artists removing any quality that separates art from reality. In sculpture, for instance, works must "be seen as the real materials from which they are made, not as suggesting other materials." 1

By this it is intended, notjust that the percipient of the non-art object should focus on the physical properties of the object, but that the object should be exactly what it is, and nothing more. A sculpture becomes a structure limited to its own physical properties. No sculpture can therefore be distinguishable as art, since, for instance, marble, bronze, timber or paint must not suggest flesh, only flesh should suggest flesh. The representation of the person can only be the actual person, and art has ceased to be.

Sculptures approaching this non-art state are those like the American Duane Handon's Real People.2 These works are so realistic that their only intention can be to break down the illusion of art and make us confused as to whether we are seeing real people or plastic ones. Banal, hideous and deeply antithetical to life, these are a kind of grotesque mockery of mimesis, showing what happens when an object is copied literally without any intention of interpretation. The 'illusion' of art has been banished: but what remains is the statement of a dead materialism without meaning or gestalt.

The breaking down of the distinction between life and art rests on the mistaken notion that art will be thereby brought closer to life. This does not happen. The blurring of the distinction destroys the intrinsic value of each. The illusion of art is essential to its nature. Because it is an embodying and ordering of elements in the real world, it creates gestalt. Its unified complexes of action, sound and imagery enable us to capture reality contemplatively and harmlessly. A non-art object cannot have gestalt. How otherwise could it avoid standing out amongst the random objects of experience? And lacking gestalt, is there any point in its existence? It has neither practical function nor the qualities that establish a metaphysical ecology.

In an ecologically balanced state of society such as that of the tribal Aborigine, the distinction between art and life was meaningless. Living was an art, saturated with the sacramental and the metaphorical. But in the industrial world, art becomes life at its peril, since life is fraught with banality and meaninglessness. Far from resulting in a universalizing of the aesthetic, the breakdown of the distinction between art and life in our culture destroys art as a source of countervailing values. So the non-art work offers finally, nothingness. It is T.S. Eliot who represented this condition:

"On Margate Sands

I can connect

Nothing with nothing." 3

And it is here that neither organic nor spiritual life are a possibility.

Means and Meanings

The non-existence finally arrived at when art repudiates life and nature is paralleled by the growing importance of its means and the lessening importance of its meanings. There has been a deepening confusion about means and ends, whereby the texture of paint becomes more important than the gestalt of the painting, sound effects become more important than musical intelligibility, linguistic manipulation becomes more important than the expressivity of a poem, and so on. The seeds of this confusion lay often in the work of great artists like Cezanne, Van Gogh and Matisse, who had no intention of stripping painting of meaning. They wanted to rejuvenate form and colour after its languishing in the hands of nineteenth century academicians. Neither did composers such as Webern, Schonberg and Busoni intend that music should become merely affective sound; nor did writers like Ezra Pound work for a literature reduced to linguistic structure. All these and many others were seeking to renovate the languages of their arts, and to some degree they succeeded in doing this. But a fatal tendency lay in this passionate exploration of new artistic means. It at times obscured the fact that art must celebrate something beyond its materials. In lesser hands, valuable aesthetic experimentation could degenerate into superficial aestheticism, and the omnipresent materialism of the artists' society made it all the more difficult for an art of means to carry meaning. The inversion of economic means and ends actually parallels the inversion of means and ends in the arts. In painting this began as an exciting new perspective:

"A number of artists, including Cezanne, began to be interested in the fact that as well as seeing the picture image we may simultaneously see the pigmented canvas, which is a flat plane at right angles to the line of vision and at a specific distance to the eye, with its own textural surface properties. There was a tendency to flatten the pictorial image in order to weaken its illusory effect and so restore visibility to the physical canvas and invite attention to the surface qualities of pigment and texture." 4

Generally, impressionism was a strategy of means. It placed emphasis on the wash of sensory particles over the consciousness of the observer, whether it be the flux of light, sound, or in the case of literature, intensely concrete and physical images. Its sensationism was the beginning of the road leading to the appropriation of art by its means.

An intense focus on texture and the medium of works would lead even in the hands of very gifted artists to a weakening of gestalt. Two large-scale examples of this are the Cantos of Ezra Pound and a musico-electronic work by the contemporary German composer, Stockhausen, entitled Kontacte (1960).

Pound's Cantos contain much fine poetry, but his faith in the experimental juxtapositions of his imagery on the page being able to cohere in the mind of his readers was naive. Large tracts of this massive, lifelong work are no less and no more than a jumble of weakly apposite images that fail to gel, despite Pound's artfulness in contriving their positioning. Stockhausen`s Kontacte is a formidable structure, but fails to convey the gestalt of a machine, using the sounds of mechanism from which most human connotations have been purged. The composer's aural means, the sheer technology of the work, becomes its personality. The medium has become the message.

Each of these very different work's exemplifies an imbalance in mental ecology. The discontinuities of the Cantos, the engineered sounds of Kontacte in their singular ways subvert by their means the human need for meaning.

Theatre and the Return to Atavism

I have painted a bleak picture of the arts under industrial society. But the turbulent century of modemism and 'post’ modemism has seen magnificent works created that do make something of the new artistic languages; that do convey transcendant values and a sense of cosmos. Such work is implicitly ecological, becuuse it has a sense of integration, a spiritual ecology which, translated into the collective consciousness, could result in the awareness of the 'one' that is the planer.

In this century, there has been a successful rejuvenation of theatre and a renewed interest in the resources of dramatic performance, be it dance. mime or plays. Theatre has achieved a much greater variety and richness than existed in the high bourgois period leading to World War I. Then, immediacy of impact was dulled by the assumption that there was a very limited relationship possible between drama and its audience: namely that drama 'told' the audience the issues of the action.

The ancient principle of mime and the ritualistic roots of art have, in an enormous variety of ways, been re-explored:

"The Greek word for a rite... is dromenon, a 'thing done'... The word... arose... from the simple fact that rites among the primitive Greeks were things done, mimetic dances and the like." 5

Now much theatre is returning to the atavistic immediacy of those proto-arts, ritual and mime. Action is often more immediate, dialogue has less speechifying and philosophical abstraction. This greater immediacy, which is now very general, I take to be a genuine radicalism: a going back to the primitive roots of art.

Bertolt Brecht(1898-1956) was the most famous exponent of revitalized theatre. He actually rejected mimesis because of the narrow conventions associated with it by academicians: "by the nineteenth century bourgeois aesthetics had wholly forgotten the traditional implications of mimesis - reacting with a sterile denial of any relation between an and nature." 6

But in rejecting mimesis Brecht affirmed its real meaning the doing of an action that was part of the creative energy of nature. Theatre as 'doing' somehow leaves space for the audience to enter more positively into the meaning of the action and not just be passively entertained. This generally re-invigorated dramatic style takes in an enormous variety of 'actions', including the direct theatre of ecological protest. The maritime actions of Greenpeace are sometimes played out as theatre, as are the mimes of street drama.

No consideration of drama is complete without film and television, but both these media have been corrupted by the commercial infrastructure required to produce them. With notable exceptions - film has produced many great works - these media are principally for the dulling of moral sense, judgement and sensibility. They induce apathy, and are thus far removed from the ‘dromenon’ or ritual and the action of drama. The rare worthwhile film or television programme are heroic gestures by producers under immense pressure to make trash and purvey it, saccharine to coat the bitter pill of boredom in a bored society.

The Cosmology in Tonality

Although music is the most abstract of all the arts it still has, dissolved in its very structure, an implicit world-order. The dissolution of the tonal system early in the twentieth century in the music of Amold Schonberg (1874-1951) and later, Webern (1883-1945), Pierre Boulez (1925-) and Stockhausen (1928-) represents a line of development that gives musical form to the structural crises of 'developed' society. It is my contention that, despite much of beauty and ingenuity in this stream of music, it tends to the abstruse and the excessively intellectual. Certainly, in its latter stages, it posits a sound-world as abstract as the visual-world of Mondrian's geometric p]atonism and eschews a mimesis of anything in the biosphere.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), one of the finest composers in the early modern period, was also a far-sighted and profound theoretician of his art. He experimented considerably with musical language, but sounded a note of caution about musical systems that, being too abstract, could be stripped of expression Unlike Schonberg, whom he supported and respected, he did not ever reject 'tonality' (an hierarchical system of tones in the scale, giving some tones more importance than others, and being centred on a fundamental keytone or 'tonic'). Having watched Schonberg and his pupils strip music of the irrational, but centred cosmology implicit in tonality, and replace it with an abstract, impersonal system of twelve equally important tones, he sensed the danger that the music might come to lack the human fulfilment of resolution:

"The harmony can do no other than draw from the twelve half-tones standing at our disposal, all possible combinations of which have been tried and made use of. The only renlaining characteristic is the removal of the consonance, leaving the dissonance unresolved. Whereby the harmony is stunted as a means of exp:ession and the individuality of the author effaced.." 7

The rigour of the Schonbergian system could at times give the impression of a musical universe where sound structure was more important than expressivity. Composers who were more eclectic in their sources of musical language – Bartok (1881 - 1945), Stravinsky (1882-1971) Busoni, Shostakovitch (1906-1975), and in New Zealand, Douglas Lilburn (1917-)- did not perhaps have the exacting internal consistency of the later Schonberg, but their music has in it the drama of character. Many of them were as directly affected as Schonberg by the terrible historical pressures of this century - war, Nazism, Stalinism but maintained nonetheless an openness of approach. It is my belief that they were successful in making music that contained, yet transcended, the cosmological doubts of the century.

Joining these two broad streams is the singular figure of Olivier Messaien (1908-), a Catholic who characteristically uses the cries and choruses of birds as the motif of much of his music. Messaien is often atonal, but it is atonality with the texture of life to it, not of an acoustics studio. Certainly his music has a cosmology; he makes of it a transcendental phenomenon that unifies nature with God.

Composers such as Bartok made great efforts to record the ethnic music of their regions before the tides of war and industrialism obliterated it. The unique melodic and harmonic inflections of such music, rescued by Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967), Bartok and other ethno-musicologists throughout the world represents a resource of sound from pre-industrial humanity to which we need pay serious attention. These are sound-worlds parallel to, and at times the same as, the worlds revealed in the anthropological researches of James Frazer and others. They are the worlds we have lost, and provide us with aural clues about humanity's early mimesis of the natural world of sound.

Such clues might guide us in selecting elements from ancient or timeless arts that we wish to bring back into our own artistic 'actions'. Many twentieth century composers, following from the lead of Debussy (1862-1918), have borrowed from the more stable musical systems of traditional societies. Notable in the rediscovery of the ethnic and ritualistic roots of music is Stravinsky's huge Rite of Spring (1913), which is really an attempt to recreate the primordial rituals of resurrection with the full symphonic resources of the modem orchestra.

The onset of electronic sound poses the question: will it be more or less liable to convey a viable world view? The answer lies in the composer. An example of electronic sound being used beautifully and in a way not implicitly hostile to the natural world is in Douglas Lilburn's subtle electronic setting of Alistair Campbell's poems, Elegy and The Return. That is not to say that electronic music, or any other should strive, to be arcadian and avoid making a mimesis of the city. It is rather an appeal that music should not be consumed by the technique of its making, that it should not be appropriated to the purposes of the often unsympathetic technological environment, of which it is making a mimesis.

Mimesis and Exorcism in Expressionism

As Busoni was a key figure in the adjustment of music to the 'modern' century, so was Wassily Kandinsky in regard to painting and the plastic arts. Before him, impressionism and Post-Impressionism had set free the sensuous beauty of colour and light. But the metaphysical resources of these movements were soon exhausted, and by 1890 many artists were moving beyond the play of light to express the features of an inner world. Expressionist painting was born from an impulse to bring out the inner and at times amorphous intimations of the soul.

Kandinsky was a true radical and prolific theorist in the arts, who, nonetheless, eschewed analysis and geometrism. He inclined strongly to the cosmological, pointing the way to painting that had gestalt, passion and metaphysical depth, without necessarily being representational. His starting point was a passion for nature that he found well-nigh inexpressible:

"Pink, lavender, yellow, white, blue, pistachio green, flame-red houses, churches -- each an independent song -- the raving green grass, the deep murmuring trees, or the snow, singing with a thousand voices, or the allegretto of the bare branches ...

These impressions were a pleasure which shook me to the bottom of my soul, which raised me to ecstasy. And at the same time they were a torture because I felt that art in general and my powers in particular were far too weak in the face of nature." 8

Kadinsky moved into abstract expressionism after attempting representation of nature; but he did so for reasons that are consistent with a natural cosmology, not hostile to it.

"I came to the simple solution ... that the aims (and thus the means) of nature and art are essentially, organically, and by universal law different from each other and equally great and equally strong. This solution ... does away with the unnecessary torture of the vain task that I had inwardly set myself... as a result my joy in nature and art rose to untroubled heights." 9

We may question the differing aims of art and nature that Kadinsky felt, but we cannot question his passionate love for the creation, nor the beauty of some of his own works, which, though nonrepresentational and composed in a universe of art, participate in the cosmos of natural energy. His great belief in the twin spheres of art and nature is a vindication of the life force and purpose that these parallel creations share.

His work and thought pose the question that all serious painters must answer in their own way: can one celebrate the creation without some elements of representationalism? The vital spirits in art have done so. The distortions of literal reality that characterise even representational expressionism convey undeniable inner truths about the shapes of the psyche in contemporary humanity. Portraitists such as Oskar Kokoschka (]886-1980), or here in New Zealand, Alan Pearson(1929), 10 portray a troubled humanity emerging from the terror and love that are the actual backdrop of the century.

The move away from representationalism then is not inevitably escapism or rejection of our natural roots. It is often a compassionate and transcendent portrayal of humanity trying to contain forces that are complex, menacing and bizarre; a mimesis that is also an exorcism, as it so often was in ancient mime and dance. One need only think of Picasso's Guernica (1937), so aliteral, at one level, as the portrayal of the ruthless bombing of a human and animal population; aliteral, yet deeply and literally true; a metaphor of our history charged with pity and terror; charged with outrage at mechanised war and human cruelty. Such is the art, objective yet passionate, that strengthens us. Implicit in it is the human will for survival and integration essential for planetary survival.

So Kandinsky's images of a cosmos of feeling, the angularities of cubism and the amorphic, troubled souls peering out of their expressionist depths of the unconscious, while not representational, are actually at one with nature. Implicitly they accept a moral and natural order without being consumed by their means or the suffering they portray.

Writers and the Web of Consciousness

The written word, so besmirched by advertising, propaganda and gutter journalism, still has a critical part to play in the renewal of human culture. Writers are vital in helping establish a 'noosphere' or web of consciousness covering the face of the planet and first hinted at by the philosopher Tielhard de Chardin (1881-1955). 11 It is one of the vital tasks of literature to maintain the health of the noosphere; to cleanse it of spiritual pollution, venality and the lies of economism.

In prose, D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) conducted a fiery and passionate war against the state of industrial capitalism. His powerful indictment forms an important backdrop to the more recent literature of protest. If we look for a universal voice, equal to modern history, I think it is heard in the work of the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-73). Unlike Eliot, Neruda did not lose himself in the 'unreal city' of despair. He was planted firmly on the long strip of coast, desert, forest and mountain that forms his country. But he was far from parochial. His chief collection of poems is called Residence on Earth, no misnomer for a man who lived and worked over much of the planet. He spread himsell from Rangoon to Paris, from the bitter battlefields of the Spanish Civil War to the vast sea and coast of the Pacific. His poetry is saturated with nature, with history and with an unfiinching courage and humanity in the face of the state violence that seems finally to have taken his life. 12

"When rice withdraws from earth

the grains of its flour,

when wheat hardens its little flanks and lifts up

its thousand-handed face,

I hasten to the arbour where man and woman are linked

to touch the innumerable sea

of what endures."

This man, who lived out the terms of modern history unto death, proved that evil need not engulf the life of art; and the cycles of a universal nature turn through the structure and imagery of his poems:

"How long does the hand of the woods in the rain

bring me close with all its needles

to weave the lofty kisses of the foliage?

Again I hear approach like fire in smoke,

spring up from earthly ash,

light filled with petals,

and pushing earth away

in a river of flowerheads the sun reaches my mouth

like an old buried tear that becomes seed again." 13

Neruda united the contradictory worlds of nature and history. Born where nature was an overwhelming presence, he entered history, full of the stylistic possibilities of modern poetry. And, as a visionary socialist, he had a practical political commitment to bettering the lot of the poor in Latin America. He is an artist silenced neither by economism or aestheticism, his poetry implying the complete acceptance of nature as the matrix of human life and history. It is as residents on earth, as far as Neruda is concerned, that we work out a humane society

For writers, it's been a matter of not betraying the muse, that elemental female who took over the spirit of the makers of the dithyrambs, the dances and the songs of birth and death. As Robert Graves has shown in his study, The White Goddess, the muse working through the gifts of her poets, played a part in adjusting nature and society cosmologically:

"The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse: its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites. But 'nowadays'? Function and use remain the same; only the application has changed. This was once a warning to man that he must keep in harmony with the family of living creatures among which he was born, by obedience to the wishes of the lady of the house; it is now a reminder that he has disregarded the warning, turned the house upside down by capricious experiments in philosophy, science and industry, and brought ruin on himself and his family." 14

The Role of the Muse

This the modern literary artist must do: affirm the Muse and remind us of the depth of our arrogance and error. Poetry and prose, given to truth at this level, are a fragile shield of sensibility that works for the protection of the ecosphere.

Not that the writer can have a simple relation to the earth or the Muse. The pain of dichotomy, of good and evil, the duality of necessity and choice, the enigma of death, are suffered by human consciousness, and are part of the inevitability in nature. The wholly innocent relationship in the primordial garden has long gone, and a mimesis of death as well as life must be, in order that life can go on. Judith Wright, an Australian poet, has written:

"Earth is a sad yet glittering star.

Bodied in beast and man and bird,

she seeks her vision and her fear,

old Chaos and the shaping word;

and we who travel on her path

hold ecstasy and nightmare both." 15

But it is this planet that is our fate. No other. And by honest enactment of the processes and patterns of the life it supports we can again be its residents. Residents on earth. The false gods of economism cannot be overturned by an alone; but at least art can act through its ancient mimetic role in prefiguring and dramatising their overthrow. The energy to do this is derived from the planet herself, as was fully acknowledged in New Zealand fifty years ago by one of its poets, A.R.D. Fairburn:

"Fairest earth fount of life, giver of bodies...

deep well of our delight, breath of desire,

let us come to you

barefoot, as befits love,

as the boy to the trembling girl,

as the child to the mother:

seeking before all things the honesty of substance,

touch of soil and wind and rock,

frost and flower and water,

the honey of the senses, the food

of love's imaginings; and the most intimate

touch of love, that turns to being;

deriving wisdom and the knowledge of necessity;

building thereon, stone by stone,

the rational architecture of truth, to house

the holy flame, that is neither reason nor unreason

but the thing given,

the flame that burns blue in the stillness, hovering

between the green wood of the flesh and the smoke of death.

Fair earth, we have broken our idols;

and after the days of fire we shall come to you

for the stones of a new temple." 16


Osborne. H., Abstration and Artifice in Twentieth Century Art, Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1979, 184.

2. Duane Hanson's Real People visited Auckland, New Zealand in 1988.

3. Eliot, T.S.. 'The Waste Land, from Collected Poems 1909/9162, Faber and Faber, London. 1963, 74.

4 Osborne, H. op, cit., supra 1.

5. Harrison. J., Ancient Art and Ritual, Moonraker Press, Bradford-on-Avon, 1978, 15.

6. Suvin. D., The Mirror and the Dynamo', in Lee Baxandall (ed.), Radical Perspetives in the Arts, Penguin. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1973, 7).

7 Busoni, F., 'Concerning Harmony`, in The Essence of Music, Rockcliff Publishing, London, 1957, 25.

8. Osborne, H., op. cit, supra 1, 103

9 ibid

10 Other painters working in the antipodes who have painted powerfully in the style of figurative impressionism are the Australians, Arthur Boyd and Alben Tucker.

11. Tielhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, Collins, London, 1966.

12. Uncertainty surrounds the death of Neruda during the 1973 fascist coup in Chile, which overthrew the government of Salvador Allende, a personal friend of Neruda.

13 Neruda, P., 'Born in the Woods’, from Residence on Earth, Souvenir Press, London, 1976, 227

14. Graves. R., The White Goddess, Faber and Faber, London. 1981, 14.

15. Wright. J., 'A Child's Nightmare’, from Selected Poems, Angus and Robertson, Sydney. 1978. 143.

16. Fairbum, A.R.D., 'Dominion’. from Collected Poems, Pegasus Press,

Christchurch, 1967, 29.

"Picasso 's Guernica is a metaphor of our history charged with pity

cruelty. charged with outrage at machine war and human is the art, objective yet passionate, that strengthens us. Implicit in if is the human will for survival and integration essential for planetary survival. "