Mathew Brittan's writings

Art and Freedom

The work is part of an ongoing quest to give artistic expression to perceptions and feelings aroused by Anthroposophy, the worldview given forth by Rudolph Steiner in the early decades of the 20th century and which has since served as an inspiration for artists as diverse as Wassily Kandinsky and Joseph Beuys.

Basic to this worldview is the notion that artistic creation has significance beyond ourselves and beyond the recognition it may receive. This is because works of art are viewed as vehicles of spiritual realities or qualities such as colour and form, which in fact can be considered to be the language through which the divine speaks to man. And man can learn this language to the extent that he freely resolves through effort to transform his ordinary life of feeling (a description of which Steiner gives in his basic book Theosophy), which normally only informs him of his subjective likes and dislikes.

In fact, it may be considered that just as exact observation (of the outer) and a consummate draughtsmanship were the prerequisites for the artist in the past, what is needed today is the cultivation of inner freedom born of an ever-increasing self-knowledge.

Such an inner freedom betokens not the avoiding of all restraints (which after all is not freedom but license), but rather knowing why one option is chosen over another.

We can no longer afford to talk about freedom without making the absolutely critical distinction between such an inner freedom to choose or not to choose and to know the reason why, and, the outer freedom to do as we choose (this issue being discussed at length by Steiner in his book ?The Philosophy of Freedom?). So long as our notion of freedom is limited to an obviously legitimate external freedom, without attention being paid to the critical inner freedom, freedom may well come to be our downfall rather than our crowning glory, as is clearly demonstrated for example in some countries where there has been a victory for external freedom, but because cognisance has not been taken of the very necessary inner freedom, chaos and devastation ensue.

And modern art too, is a realm of human endeavour in which outer freedom (where anything goes) has been raised to the level of religious fervour. So, it is very pertinent to ask what it means for the individual artist as well as for human culture to have works of art created in outer freedom, but not in inner freedom.

Concerns for the dangers attendant on this outer freedom are expressed by people like Suzi Gablik in Has Modernism Failed, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his address to the Arts Club in January 1993 where he stated that "for several decades now, world literature, music, painting and sculpture have exhibited a stubborn tendency to grow not higher but to the side, not toward the highest achievement of craftsmanship and the human spirit, but towards disintegration into frantic and insidious novelty". This raises the issue of originality. As in the case of freedom where we have come to focus merely on its outer aspect, so also, human endeavours have come to be considered original when something outwardly new is created.

The much more significant issue of whether there has been original inner activity, that is a shift of consciousness, is ignored. And without this shift, what is it if not the same tired old body, but simply wearing a change of clothes? In other words, novelty has come to be confused with originality, with original inner activity, ignoring from whence the word originality derives - that is from the word origin, which points to a world of origins, which for someone of Rudolf Steiner's consciousness is not metaphorical but real the world of soul and spirit where the archetypes (the ideal qualities and thoughts that shapes both physical and psychic reality) have their origin. Michael Howard, the head of the Visual Arts Section of the Anthroposophical Society in North America, who considers and clearly articulates the views expressed here in his book Art as Spiritual Activity - Rudolph Steiner's Contribution to the Visual Arts points out that ultimately Steiner's view on art leads to the conclusion that the value of a work of art lies essentially in the quality of creative activity that went into it -particularly the degree to which it is born of inner freedom.

What would it mean for human culture and well-being if artists took up as a central task, the cultivation of a creativity that is grounded in inner freedom, free from the tyranny of both a representational outer literalism (the mere copying of the outer world) or an inner one (the mere illustration or symbolizing of one's inner world), and free also from their non-representational counterparts, which in the case of outer-literalism includes any thing arising through abstract ideas, theories, or optical effects, and which does not resonate as inner experience, i.e. one is too detached, and which, in the case of inner literalism, would involve subconscious impulses welling up as raw emotions or visions, without any attempt to express them in objective form, that is through appropriate colours, forms, etc. i.e. one is overly identified with one?s feelings. And with the acquisition of this freedom, the artist really becomes responsible for the spiritual/moral effects his work has on himself, and ultimately on those viewing the work (a responsibility which he in any event must assume).

Where art belongs in the three great ideals of truth, beauty and goodness or on reinstating beauty as the legitimate, primary focus of art

Throughout the ages of an ongoing evolution of human consciousness, truth, beauty and goodness have been seen (albeit sometimes unconsciously) as the three great ideals of human striving. Today, however, in an age largely enamoured of an abstract intellectual reasoning (and necessarily so as part of our goal to attain inner freedom - after all our abstract ideas have none of the coercive quality of our emotions or our will i.e. the energy of power in our soul which makes us act) these three great extra-human ideals which in fact give rise (and meaning) respectively to our human endeavours of science, art and religion, which in turn give expression to our uniquely human three-foldness of thinking feeling and willing, have become little more than empty phrases.

In his lecture on Truth, Beauty and Goodness Rudolph Steiner makes quite clear how, moreover, truth, beauty and goodness are in fact related to our very constitution as multi-faceted beings including body, soul and spirit. This multi-facetedness of man as a sensible and super-sensible being is readily evidenced to an unbiased perception of man. For example, man's thinking or thoughts are not accessible to the senses, they are beyond sense-experience, hence super-sensible, yet, we are fully aware of them. So are feelings and so is the will super-sensible. Thus, even only as regards his inner life, man is a super-sensible being.

Also, once it is acknowledged that man is in fact a threefold being who thinks (an activity performed on the physical and chemical happenings in the network of one's nerves and brains), who feels (feeling being performed on the vibrations of the rhythmic system of heart and lungs), and who wills (willing being performed on the metabolic processes in the muscles of one's limbs) it becomes clear that it is aberrant to try and reduce the attendant pursuits of these three qualities, that is science (connected to thinking and truth), art (connected to feeling and beauty), and religion (connected to willing and goodness) to one another, (one just has to think what chaos would ensue if one started metabolizing with one's brains for instance). But in fact confusion and aberrations often prevail, as is manifest for example in the realm of art with its legacy from German philosophers of aesthetics like Schelling and Hegel. In his lecture on The Aesthetics of Goethe's Worldview Steiner points out how beauty's essence (as part of this legacy) has come to be seen in the ideas it expresses and hence cannot be separated from truth. It then becomes unclear however what the mission of art should be independent of science, this kind of aesthetics failing to grasp the independent meaning of art.

Now, although beauty (and its attendant human expression art) is not to be reduced to truth (and its attendant human endeavour science) we must be clear, Steiner points out, that the desire that is satisfied by objects of beauty is in no way inferior to the purely intellectual desire we have for purely super-sensory things (like ideas). What is it, about the world of ideas, which gives us satisfaction? Nothing other than the inner, heavenly tranquillity and perfection that it conceals in it.

And if beauty, Steiner continues, is to lift us up similarly then it must be fashioned after the pattern of the idea. And this is completely different from what those like the aesthetes of the idealistic school intend. Beauty is not the idea in the form of a sensory phenomenon. It is the exact opposite, which is a sensory phenomenon in the form of an idea. Beauty is not the divine in a garment of sense-perceptible reality (hence there is no room for symbolism for instance), rather it is sense-perceptible reality in a garment of divinity. Artists bring the divine to earth Steiner adds, not by letting it flow into the world, but by uplifting the world, the prosaic, into the sphere of the divine. Beauty is in fact a semblance because it conjures before our senses the reality of an ideal world. The sense-perceptible is the important thing in a work of art, the sense-perceptible to which the artist tries to impart a form that makes it appear as if the super-sensory was itself visible - the beautiful is not an idea given a form of something sense-perceptible, but the sense-perceptible given the form of the super-sensory. And, artistic feeling appears in life wherever the presence of something super-sensible and mysterious is felt within the ordinary sensible existence we confront in our everyday life.

A propos of some of the themes of the paintings

The paintings are derived from feelings aroused by a perspective that sees myths not as being situated in a specific time or space but forming part of the shifting landscape of man's soul life. Myths are to be construed as depicting the ongoing evolution of man's consciousness, that is, an evolution of human thinking, and a growth towards individuality. Hence, myths are as eminently relevant to us today as when they were first given expression by an ancient pictorial colourful thinking saturated with feeling, a state in the development of human thinking that preceded a modern manner of thinking in abstractions.

Botanic Series - in the botanic series, leaves, root systems, algae etc. have been referred to, to express various esoteric themes, these themes invoking in one way or another the plant kingdom. Thus for example a root system was the reference for the Third petition series, having to do as it does with a morally evolved humanity of the distant future in which man will not be driven by any form of egoism or lower impulses or passions, but will have become morally chaste like plants which are governed by the unimpassioned laws of growth . See the individual themes for a further elaboration of this.

Turner series - as with the botanic series when looking at some photographs of paintings by Turner, on turning the book upside down, or on its side, or leaving it upright, certain esoteric and mythological themes seemed to jump out at me.

The execution of this series was largely an expression of the fundamental anthroposophical principle that reality is after all consciousness (hence when with my consciousness being as it is, when I looked at these photographs I saw the themes unfolding).

Jacobs Ladder - this refers to Jacobs's prophetic dream in which he saw a ladder set between Heaven and earth, on which angels went up and down, this dream signifying Mankind's being brought near again to all the company of Heaven.

Plant - man / Nocturne - at night, when man lies fast asleep, not engaging consciously (as a being of thought, feeling, or will) with the external world, he becomes to all intents and purposes like a plant.

The Persephone myth is the Greek mythological equivalent of the Paradise story with the Fall recorded in the Old Testament. In this myth, independence (i.e. and advance in one's consciousness) is gained when, with the plucking of a flower by Persephone, the expulsion from the paradise of childhood (an unconscious dependence), is effected She is immediately engulfed by matter (a condition which allows for separateness and hence which ultimately fosters individuation, or Ego-hood) and becomes a dweller in the kingdom of the shades (shadows or Hades). However, the consequences of Persephone's rebellious deed are different from that of Eve. Whereas in the Old Testament the break is definite, although there is hope for some far off redemption, for the Greeks to whom heaven and earth were very close to each other, the human soul (Persephone) is allowed to come back to Paradise for half of her life, that is each spring and summer.

Thus, this alternates with her stay in the world of matter, the very fall into which, however, provides the very ground for the development of freedom and the full consciousness with which one can re-enter the super-sensory realm.

Leda and the Swan - The creative powers of Zeus, father of the gods and man, were so great that he had offspring by many goddesses as well as mortal women. The latter he could never visit in his divine form, for they would not have survived his divine presence. Zeus, as alluded to in the Prometheus reference, is the external spiritual principle, which in the course of time, had to unite himself with man's mortal being, the body-bound soul depicted as a mortal woman, Leda, to bring forth a new dispensation of consciousness, that is a new inner-directed spiritual man, the divine son Dionysus.

Dyonosis and the sacrifice of the dolphins - A Greek legend tells of the younger Dionysos how he was carried off, when he stood on the shore looking into the distance, by Etruscan pirates. They bound him to the mast; but the bonds fell from his hands and feet. He sat there smiling, with dark eyes. A might vine grew up about the mast and sails, and the sweet fragrance of a noble vine filled the boat and made the crew and the captain drunk. Only the helmsman remained sober and recognized that he had a god on board. But Dionysos took the form of a lion threatening the seamen; in terror they leapt into the sea and were transformed into dolphins swimming round the boat. The helmsman alone remained free of this metamorphosis. The god was revealed to him as the son of Zeus and Semele.

Thus the historic significance of the dolphin is that it throws himself down from the ship of human evolution, which is lead by Dionysos, into the sea, taking with him those forces of the depths, which would otherwise militate against the necessary development of the intellect. (Based on an article by Karl Koeing on "Dolphins" in a Golden Blade journal).

Janus - For the ancient Roman, Janus was no two-headed monster. They knew that every human being is in fact two people in one-one who during the day, looks outward, and negotiates the sense-perceptible world with his senses and attendant intellect, and another, who at night, when this consciousness is dulled, looks inward and apprehends, with his internal organs.

The third petition - This refers to that petition in the Lord's Prayer (which correctly understood incorporates the sum of teaching concerning the evolution of man and his consciousness), Thy Will be done on earth as it is heaven. This petition is a beseeching of God, that man's lowest member i.e. his physical body, which is composed of the same substances and forces as external nature and which is maintained by the metabolic process in which man's volitional nature i.e. will (power) is expressed, be so transformed, that the Will, the highest manifestation of the Divine, may be realized in man. Then, man's will (power) will have developed to the point that he would be able to make the decision to sacrifice his own existence, to surrender it, so as to bring to life his reflected image (i.e. man), just as there was a sacrifice of the Will-aspect of the Godhead so that creation could come about. (Notes based on a lecture given by Rudolf Steiner at Karlsruhe on the 4th February 1907).

The meeting with the Genius - Although now looked upon as poetic fancy, the Roman writer Plutarch (and others like Paracelsus), who still had direct concrete perception of processes of evolution in the spiritual world, described the relation of man to his genius. Thus Plutarch tells us that besides the portion of the soul embedded in the earthly body, there is a purer part outside, soaring above man's head, guiding him, and whom the wise man willing follows. The meeting with one's genius takes place at night, during periods of sleep, attesting to the holiness of sleep. (Notes based on a lecture given by Rudolf Steiner in Berlin on the 20th February 1917).

Empathy -The seer perceives that each time two human beings meet, a physically non-perceptible process is set up, which becomes the expression of every feeling of sympathy and antipathy which they may feel for one another. In the case of a loving encounter, the physically imperceptible part s of their heads bends backwards. (Notes based on a lecture given by Rudolf Steiner in Berlin on the 20th February 1917).

Herostratus approaching the temple of Diana - On the day, Alexander the Great was born at the Mystery centre at Ephesus, the temple of Diana (the multi-breasted goddess of life) was burned down by a demonic figure, Herostratus. (Later on, during his conquests, Alexander carried back the teachings of Ephesus to the East from whence they had originated and meanwhile had become decadent).

Gilgamish flying into a rage - The Babylonian epic of Gilgamish recounts that Gilgamish was the first human individuality to experience the sinking down of spirit into man's corporeal nature. This caused him great consternation as in the spiritual world; there is no death, but only duration n. In an attempt to solve the riddle of mortality he embarked on a voyage to a great initiate, and then on his way back home he heard of strange goings-on in his kingdom, and flew into a rage...

The Sybils - In ancient Greece, it was to the Sybils that the people turned to for prophetic guidance. The Sybils lived in the midst of forces pouring in on the Earth from the surrounding Cosmos, and from these unconsciously received their information.

Painting in the old style (The Beggar)

"Better to be a beggar on earth than a king in the land of the Shades"

Because the ancient Greeks so loved and valued the external form of the human body, concerning which they had a tragic feeling of its coming to an end, when the individual passes through the gate of death, they had a saying that it is "better to be a beggar on earth than a king in the land of the Shades". - Taken from a lecture given by Rudolf Steiner in Karlsruhe, 10 October 1911

2010 All rights reserved. Origination by Di Conradie.