Charting the Course to an American Renaissance in Art and Ideas

By Alexandra York

ART Ideas, Premiere Issue, Spring 1994

Included in the book:
FROM THE FOUNTAINHEAD TO THE FUTURE and Other Essays on Art and Excellence

  "He who has access to the fountain does not go to the water pot."

The above quote from Leonardo da Vinci sums up not only what the first Renaissance leaders did but also what we in America must do.  The fountain?  Now, as in Leonardo’s time:  Ancient Greece and the prototype of the human ideal. 

It is my conviction that in order to engender an all encompassing American Renaissance, we, too, must begin, as did the ancient Greeks, with the moral and spiritual nourishment of the individual, the “undivided” self.  Individual excellence of personal character, of physical fitness and of spiritual wholeness was the Greek ideal.  Further, it was the Greek thesis that individuals striving toward this ideal would, by virtue of the striving alone, create a diverse yet mutually beneficial society.  And further, it was their novel idea that art could be wrested from its primitive origins and usages to become a universal language with the power to communicate abstract, philosophical ideas via concrete forms that speak directly to all individuals as individuals.  How right they were!  Still today, in a vastly altered world, their great art uplifts the spirits of people all over the globe, reminding us each of the beauty, the possibilities and the glories of human potential.

For most of America’s short history, we held ideals of individual excellence similar to those of our philosophical ancestors.  But by the early mid-twentieth century, individualism—following the European paradigm of angst—began to turn into rampant subjectivity; individual liberty (bereft of responsibility) turned into license; moral principles turned into pragmatism; tolerance turned into permissiveness; and (most) art turned into an excuse for emotional purging, political activism and the enshrinement of wanton violence and human degradation.  In art, Duchamp became the lingering muse: objective standards of judgment were ridiculed; anything and everything was called art if an “artist” said it was and got one critic to agree.  Predictably, self-proclaimed twentieth century American iconoclasts (again following their European models) became nihilists, as all must do when promulgating the annihilation of cherished values and ideals without offering better ones to replace them.

Today, as we approach the end of this century, we who would set our feet upon a path to a Renaissance of high culture face strong opposing forces already well entrenched and hard at work to further debase our culture.  There are many in the country who would return us to a period of “Bread and Circuses” at best or an era of primitivism, tribalism, collectivism, occultism and all manner of escape from reality (and responsibility) at worst.  There are many also bent on creating divisions where none need exist:  between black and white, between men and women, between mind and body, reason and emotion, art and meaning.  Raw sensationalism pervades TV, movies, the visual arts, popular fiction, music and sex, as it must in the absence of values.  The media mongers trip over each other in their rush to explore the souls of serial killers, rapists and child molesters, but few even think to explore the souls of heroes, creators and achievers.  We live in an age that is emotionally conflicted, and much of our art and most of our institutions reflect this conflict.  Without valid values as guides, we are offered the false alternatives of emotional indulgence or emotional denial, encouraged either to let our feelings run hot and wild without the restraint of reason or else accept reason sterilized into a cold rigid formalism that anesthetizes feelings; look to contemporary music for especially salient examples.

But let us not despair!  If nothing else, the destruction has been so devastating that a new path may now be cleared to redirect our culture toward re-examined and redefined values.  In order to gain energy for the charting of a new map from the ideological starting point, however, we need fuel—emotional fuel.  This means nurturing not only the mind, but the heart and the soul as well.  This means championing beautiful and life-affirming art and the ideas that inspire it.  Or to put it in reverse, we must champion rational, life-affirming values and the art that expresses them, for fine art is values made physically manifest.  In a society where increasingly militant group identity causes polarity, we must seek commonality among individuals who share universal values and eternal truths that hold for all humankind.  In a time when “decaditis” is fracturing contemporary history literally into ten-year bits, we must honor timeless verities.  In an artistic climate that glorifies ugliness, we must revere beauty.

Beauty:  Order.  Proportion.  Balance.  Harmony.  Grace.  Beauty possesses redemptive powers all of its own, as in nature.  But when beauty is created by human hand, it can be even more redemptive, more powerful, because it is created with intent.  In their elevated art forms (beyond utilitarian function and decor), some expressions of beauty are also permeated with the highest of human values, letting each of us, individually, experience our own best self as surely as if our own soul were turned inside out and visible to us reflected clearly and sharply from a mirror.  Mathematical beauty can become an end in itself in art as exemplified by the best abstract sculpture and painting; but this is not the highest purpose of art because it lacks human content.  Nor is beauty, per se, the raison d’etre of high art—“high art” is here defined as art expressing such a depth and universality of humanistic meaning that it transcends not only its local subject matter but also its own time and place and becomes a projection of a heightened reality; thus, it acquires metaphysical relevance and the power to strike a spiritually sympathetic chord in the very center of our beings qua human beings.  In short, high art, in addition to an expression of aesthetic values, communicates timeless and universal human values. 

Beauty can be, however, the “charm,” the form, the vehicle that incites the “aesthetic arrest” in us, immediately capturing our rapt attention while delivering deeper messages in slower tempo for our inner contemplation.  Beauty, then, can exist in many forms both natural and man-made without being high art, but high art cannot exist without beauty of form.  Beauty can be both physical and mental; it can be both an identification and an evaluation; this is why beauty and truth dovetail so perfectly, why the greatest art is both beautiful and true: art and ideas.  In Western heritage art forms, this means representationalism in the visual arts, tonality and melody in music, grace and intelligible expressiveness of movement in dance, and the reverberating interaction of structure, rhythm and meaning in written works, all of which afford artists an immensely rich vocabulary for unlimited communication through the combined power—via a supremely thoughtful integrative process—of both aesthetic and metaphorical means.

Sight, touch, sound and intellection—not to mention the mysterious and wondrous realm of the imagination—can all be stimulated and satisfied through these art forms because the forms themselves are malleable and limitless; they can stretch, bend, twist, turn, expand and reduce to accommodate endless meanings.  In humanistic art, form (physical presentation) always serves content (ideas and values).  The attributes of beauty reside inherently in the human form and in the forms of the natural world.  Beauty can be found also in the integration of harmonies and the variations in melodies, in the order and complexities of rhythms, in textures and colors—all variously shaped by human intention into images and sounds that stir recognition, aesthetic pleasure and emotional-intellectual connection.  These same art forms, of course, can be distorted and made dissonant to serve perfectly proper artistic purposes, but to turn beauty against itself for the conscious purpose of deliberately offending human sensibilities and to defile the human figure, as is being done in too much art today, is to display a hatred not only for art but for life itself. 

Those of us who love life and the art that enhances living must seek out other like-minded individuals and join together in camaraderie and good will to enjoy and enrich our moments on this earth through art experiences that lift up our spirits, move us to contemplative thought and remind us why life is worth living.  Painters, sculptors, writers, composers, dancers, musicians, actors, poets, audiences, patrons.  All!We not only need to write about ideas but also to promote the showing of ideas in all their various and captivating forms through the only tangible means possible other than science: art.  Indeed, in a society becoming more illiterate by the minute, art may be the one dynamic powerful enough to envision for us a way to a better future.

The success of the Renaissance Europeans lay in the fact that they did not attempt to repeat the Greek ideal.  They reached back to Greece, as we must now do, only to create a true rebirth of ideas that they then made manifest, as did the Greeks themselves, through their own great art.  They redefined the Greek ideal to suit their own needs, to express their own context—David, not Apollo.  Now, it is our turn.  What will the next millennium heroes and heroines look like?   As we approach the beginning of this momentous turn of a century, we who seek the way to a better tomorrow must dedicate ourselves today to those human values that express the best within us in order to usher in a future culture that can outshine even the Golden Ages of the past.  And how better to express “the best within us” than through works of art that project the world at its most beautiful and man and woman in their most noble state?

The following quote (from an unknown source) seems pertinent here:

Pre-Renaissance nostalgia was not self indulgent and debilitating, but turned into a vigorous and revitalizing current which inspired writers, artists and craftsmen to give expression to the new mood... 

Obviously written in reference to the Italian phenomenon, the notion of a “new mood” resonates particularly well today.  If we look carefully, we can glimpse, as if wafting up like a fine mist from the troubled waters of our age, a rising concern for individual liberty in certain political sectors and a resurgence of a romantic spirit in certain of the arts.  It may just be that a faint scent of the perfume of hope is in the air.  Most definitely, our own desires to renew the values of beauty, humanism and the moral ideal should not be mere “nostalgia” for the past but a “vigorous” commitment to the future.  We should desire to create a rallying point of view that includes all of the fine arts.  We should desire to establish and support places and organizations where kindred spirits may learn about each other and combine efforts toward a common vision of fresh expressions of individualism and the beauties of the world in which we live.  We should support venues where the art of contemporary artists who express these life-serving values in their work may be promoted and brought to national awareness—“contemporary” meaning living artists, not a particular art persuasion (!).  Our attitude of devotion to ethos should not deny pathos, but it must emphasize the tenet that human struggle and suffering can become acts of affirmation by projecting visions of why the struggle is worthwhile.  We cannot salve (nor solve) the sorrows of humankind by continually lamenting over what is wrong; we must hold up what is right.  It is wasteful to fight against; it is productive to fight for.  Ours should be a declarative step toward establishing a nationwide, cooperative endeavor to create a rebirth (not a revival) of positive art and ideas that will give “expression to the new mood...vigorous and revitalizing.”

There is no doubt that we live in a dangerous but exhilarating time.  The prize is great but the stakes are high, for if we do not generate another Renaissance, then surely we shall suffer the default position of another Dark Age.  The art and ideas that we of a positive and humanistic persuasion choose to champion must be expressions not of division but of integration: mind, body and soul in harmony, passions elicited from value stimulation rather than sensory titillation, and brotherhood born from shared values rather than color, creed, gender or bloodline.  Those of us who understand the philosophical premises expressed through art are charged with far more than a simplistic call for a return to beauty or a poignant cry for a lost innocence that never existed.  We are charged with the more profound responsibility of giving expression to a deeper of renewed celebration—a mood that seeks not to escape reality but to embrace it, celebrating the joys, the hopes and the possibilities of life.  Human life.  We can curse the darkness as we should and do, but that will not be constructive unless we also draw back the curtain and let in the light.

Art imbued with beauty that expresses life-serving values and humanistic ideas (and ideals) is a potent manifestation of that light, the same philosophical flame ignited in ancient Greece, rekindled during the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment and reflected across all civilizations ever since in a myriad of forms that celebrate individual achievement and excellence.  America was founded as the political incarnation of that light.  Let us now, like Olympians who celebrate the wonders of physical excellence through sport, lift the torch high and illuminate the way to celebrate the wonders of a spiritual renewal through art.  As we approach the coming millennium, let us join together and gather the vision, the courage, the energy and the talent so abundant among us to open a new, clear channel through which our reborn values can flow from the fountainhead to the future, and in its wake, create the surging, shining wave of a genuine, lasting American Renaissance in art and ideas that will rise to take its place among the high watermarks of human history.

Copyright © Alexandra York. All rights reserved.