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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Arts and Their Mission
GA 276

Lecture II

1 June 1923, Dornach

One result of anthroposophical spiritual science—once it has been absorbed into civilization—will be a fructification of the arts. Precisely in our time the human inclination toward the artistic has diminished to a marked degree. Even in anthroposophical circles not everyone thoroughly comprehends the fact that Anthroposophy strives to foster, in every possible way, the artistic element.

This is of course connected with modern man's aforementioned aversion to the artistic. Today the positive way in which Goethe and many of his contemporaries sensed the unity of spiritual life and art is no longer experienced. Gradually the conception has arisen that art is something which does not necessarily belong to life, but is added to it as a kind of luxury. With such assumptions prevailing, the upshot is not to be wondered at.

In times when an ancient clairvoyance made for a living connection with the spiritual world, the artistic was considered absolutely vital to civilization. We may feel antipathy for the frequently pompous, stiff character of Oriental and African art forms; but that is not the point at issue. In this and further lectures we shall be concerned, not with our reaction to any particular art form, but rather with the way in which man's attitude places all the arts within the framework of civilization. The necessity is to see a certain connection between today's spiritual life and the attitude toward art previously alluded to.

If today, as is customary, one sees man as the highest product of nature, as a being brought forth at a certain point in earthly evolution (part of an evolutionary series fashioning a variety of beings), one falsifies the position of man in respect to the world; falsifies it because man has, in truth, no right to the self-satisfaction which would enter his soul, inevitably, as an elemental impulse of soul, if he were indeed only the terminal point of natural creation. If the animals had developed in the way currently assumed by natural science, then man, as the highest product of nature, would have to content himself with this status in the cosmos; he would have no call whatsoever to create something transcending nature.

For instance, if in art one wishes to create, as the Greeks did, an idealized human being, one has to be dissatisfied with what nature offers. For, if satisfied, one could never inject into nature something which surpasses her. Similarly, if satisfied with the nightingale's and lark's song, one could never compose sonatas and symphonies; such a combination of sounds would seem untrue; the true, the natural, being exhaustively expressed by the birds.

The naturalistic world-conception demands that those who wish to create something content themselves with imitations of the natural. For it is only when we envisage a world other than the natural one that we can see a transcending of nature as anything but dishonesty and sham.

We must grasp this fact. But present-day human beings do not draw the logical conclusion from naturalism as it affects the arts. What would happen if they did? They would have to demand that people imitate nature; nothing else. Well, but if a Greek prior to Aeschylus had been shown a mere imitation of nature, he would have said something like this: “Why all that? Why let actors speak as people do in everyday life? If you wish to hear such things, go into the street. Why present them on the stage? It is quite unnecessary. The street is a far better place to find out what people say to one another in ordinary life.” In other words, only a person who participates in spiritual life has an impulse for a creative activity transcending the merely natural. Otherwise, where would the impulse come from? In all ages the human souls in which the artistic element flourished have had a definite relation to the spiritual world. It was out of a spirit-attuned state that the artistic urge proceeded. And this relation to the spiritual world will be, forever, the prerequisite for genuine creativity. Any age strictly naturalistic must, to be true to itself, become inartistic, philistine. Unfortunately our own age has an immense talent for philistinism.

Take the individual arts. Pure naturalism can never create an artistic architecture, a high art of building. Today the “art” of building leads away from art. For if people do not have a longing to assemble in places where the spiritual is fostered, they will not construct houses suitable for spiritual impulses, but merely utilitarian buildings. And what would they say of the latter? “Well,” they would say, “we build in order to shelter our bodies, to protect the family; otherwise we would have to camp out in the open”—the idea of utility being primary. Though such an attitude is not, perhaps, because of embarrassment, generally admitted, it is admitted in particular cases. Today many people are offended if the architect of a residence sacrifices anything of expediency to the principle of the beautiful, the aesthetic; and one often hears the statement: “To build artistically is too expensive.” People did not always think like that; certainly not in those ages when human souls experienced a kinship with the spiritual world. Then the feeling about man and his relation to the universe found expression in words somewhat like these: “Here I stand in the world, but as I stand here with a human form in which dwell soul and spirit, I carry within me something which has no existence in purely natural surroundings. When soul and spirit leave this body, then the relation between it and my physical environment will become manifest; this environment will consume my corporeal part. Only on a corpse do the laws of nature take effect.” Which is to say that as long as the human being is not a corpse, as long as he lives here on earth, he can, through his spiritual heritage, through soul and spirit, preserve from the action of physicality the substances and forces which the corpse will eventually claim.

I have often remarked that eating is not the simple process ordinarily imagined. We eat, and the foods entering our organism are products of nature, natural substances and forces. Because they are foreign to us, our organism would not tolerate them if we could not transform them into something totally different. The energies and laws by means of which food is changed do not belong to the physical earthly environment. We bring them with us from another world. These facts and much else were recognized, understood, when people had a relationship with the spiritual world. Today, however, human beings think it is the laws of nature that are active in the roast beef when it rests on the plate, when it touches the tongue, when it has reached the stomach, intestines, blood; they see the laws of nature active everywhere. The fact that roast beef encounters spirit-soul laws which man himself has brought from another world into this one, and which transform it into something completely different—this fact has no place in the consciousness of a merely naturalistic civilization. Paradoxical as it may sound, materialists feel embarrassed to state bluntly the above. Yet they live with this attitude of mind.

It affects our whole artistic attitude. For, in the final analysis, why do we build houses for ourselves today? To be protected while eating roast beef! Well, this is only one detail. But all contemporary thinking tends in that direction.

By contrast, human beings of the past who had a living consciousness of their relationship to the spiritual universe erected their most valuable buildings to protect the human soul against inroads from their physical environment. Of course, when I use modern words in this connection they sound paradoxical. In ancient times people did not express themselves so abstractly. Things were felt, they were sensed subconsciously. But people's feelings, their unconscious sensations, were spiritual. Today we clothe these feelings in well-defined words which convey, not inadequately, what souls experienced in more ancient times. They were aware that, when a man has passed through an earth life, he lays aside his physical body; whereupon soul and spirit must find their way back into the spiritual universe. Consequently, these people were concerned as to how a soul fares after death: how it can find its way back into spiritual worlds.

Today people do not worry about such things, but there were times when this problem of means was a fundamental concern; when (for this is pertinent) people said to themselves: Outside, there are stones; outside, there are plants; outside, animals. When absorbed by man, substances derived from stones, plants, animals, are worked over by the physical body. Its spiritual forces can overcome some minerals—for example, salt. Similarly, it possesses the spirit-soul forces necessary for the overcoming of purely plant constituents, and can transform the animal element into the human element. All of which points up the fact that the physical body is a mediator between the human being who comes down from spiritual worlds and this so alien earth. Thanks to the physical body we can stand upon this earth; can exist among minerals, plants and animals.

But when the physical body has been laid aside, then the naked soul enters a state fitted only for the spiritual world; and having laid aside its body must ask: How can I pass through the impurity of the animals in order to escape from earthly regions? How pass through the plant element which absorbs, attracts and condenses light? How—accustomed to living amid earthly plant-condensed light—pass out into far reaches of quite another condition of light? How, when I can no longer dissolve them through body-juices, pass beyond the soul-impeding minerals massed on every side?

In ancient times, during mankind's evolution, these were religious-cultural anxieties. People pondered on what they had to do for souls, especially dear ones, to help them find the lines, planes, forms, by means of which they could reach the spiritual world. Thus was developed the art of erecting burial vaults, monuments, mausoleums, which embodied in their forms, their lines and planes, that which the discarnate soul requires if it is to be unimpeded by animals, plants and minerals when ready to find its way back to the spiritual world.

These edifices took their characteristic forms directly from the cult of the dead; and if we wish to comprehend how they arose, we must try to understand how the soul, deprived of its body, finds its way back to the spiritual world of its origin. The belief prevailed that, because the soul has a certain relation to the discarded body, it can find the path out into the world of spirit through the architectural forms vaulting above it.

This conviction was one of the fundamental impulses behind the development of ancient architectural forms. Insofar as these forms were artistic and not merely utilitarian, they took their rise from edifices for the dead. In other words, artistic construction was intimately connected with the cult of the dead; or, as in the case of Greece, with the fact that each temple was built for Athena, Apollo or some other god. For just as the human soul was thought to be incapable of unfolding amid minerals, plants and animals, so the divine-spiritual natures of Apollo, of Zeus, of Athena, were thought to be incapable of unfolding amid external nature unless the spirit of man created for them certain congenial forms. Only if we study the way the soul is related to the cosmos can we understand measurements and proportions in the complicated architectural forms of the ancient Orient; forms which are living proof of the fact that the human beings from whose imaginations they sprang said to themselves: “Man in his inner being does not belong to the earth; he is of another world, therefore needs forms which belong to him in his character as a native of that other world.”

No true historical art form can be understood from merely naturalistic principles. To understand we must ask: What lies behind and is inherent in it? For example, here is the human body, the indwelling human soul. The soul, through its inherent nature, desires to unfold in all directions; and the way it would unfold, disregarding the body, the way it desires to carry its being out into the cosmos, becomes an architectural form.

Figure 1

O soul, if you wish to leave the physical body in order to regain a relationship with the cosmos, what aspect will you take on?—this was the question. The forms of architecture were, so to speak, answers.

Within the evolution of mankind this impulse toward outer expression of inner needs continued to work for a long time. But of course today, during the age of abstractions, everything takes on a different appearance. Which does not mean that we should wish to retrieve the past; only to understand it.

Another custom of the past, though not a very ancient past, asking to be understood: churches surrounded by graves. Not every person could have an individual tomb; the church was the common mausoleum. Therefore it was the church which had to answer, through its form, the ancient question of the soul: How [to] unfold, how [to] escape in the right way, from the body connecting me with the physical world? Ecclesiastical architecture bodies forth, as it were, the desire of the soul for its right after-death form.

To repeat: past cultural elements can be understood only in connection with the feelings and intuitions which people had out of the spiritual world. To understand a cemetery-surrounded church we must develop a sense for the feelings which lived in the original builders when they asked: Dear souls leaving us in death, what forms do you wish us to erect so that, while still hovering near your body, you can take them on and be helped? The answer was ecclesiastical architecture, the artistic element in which was directed toward the end of earth life. Certainly, all this undergoes a metamorphosis. What proceeds from the cult of the dead can become the highest expression of life (as in what we attempted for the Goetheanum). But one must understand things; must understand that architecture unfolds out of the principle of the soul's escape from the body, out of the principle of the soul's growing beyond the body, after passing through the portal of death.

And if we look in the opposite direction, toward birth, toward man's passage from the spiritual into the physical world, then I must tell you something which may make you smile, a little, inwardly; or, perhaps, you won't smile; in which case I would say, Thank goodness! For what I am going to say is true. You see, when the soul arrives on earth in order to enter its body, it has come down from spirit-soul worlds in which there are no spatial forms. Thus the soul knows spatial forms only after its bodily experience, only while the after-effects of space still linger on.

But though the world from which the soul descends has no spatial forms or lines, it does have color intensities, color qualities. Which is to say that the world man inhabits between death and a new birth (and which I have frequently and recently described) is a soul-permeated, spirit-permeated world of light, of color, of tone; a world of qualities, not quantities; a world of intensities rather than extensions. Thus in certain primitive, almost-forgotten civilizations, they who descended and dipped into a physical body had the sensation that through it he entered into relation with a physical environment, grew into space. To him the physical body was completely attuned to space, and he said to himself: “This is foreign to me, it was not so in the spirit-soul world. Here I am under the joke of three dimensions [While the book says joke, a better translation of ‘hineingespannt’ might be yoke! – e.Ed.]—dimensions which had no meaning before my descent into the physical world. But color, tone harmonies, tone melodies, have very much meaning in the spiritual world.”

In those ancient epochs when such realities were sensed, man had a strong desire not to take into his being what was essentially foreign to him. At his most perceptive, he sensed that his head had been given him by the spiritual world. For, as I have often remarked, our trunk and limbs in one life become our head in the next; and so on, from life to life. Ancient man felt the adjustment of his lower body to gravity, to the forces circling the earth; felt its imprisonment in space; and felt that what entered his physical body from his environment did not befit him as a human being bearing, within, an impulse from spiritual worlds. He must do something to bring about a harmonization with his new home.

That was why he carried down from spiritual worlds the colors of his garments. Just as, in ancient times, architecture pointed to the end of earth life, to the death-pole, so in times when man had a sense for the artistic meaning of the colors and styles of dress, the art of costuming pointed to the beginning of human life, to the birth-pole.

Thus (I repeat) ancient garments reflected something brought down from pre-earthly existence, reflected a predilection for the colorful, for harmony; and we need not be astonished that at a time when insight into the pre-earthly has withered, the art of costuming has shriveled into dilettantism. For modern clothing hardly conveys the feeling that man wants to wear it because of the way he lived in pre-earthly existence. But if you study the characteristically vivid garments of flourishing primitive cultures you will see that clothing is or can be a fully justified and great art through which man carries something of his pre-earthly life into earth life; just as, through architecture, he would receive impressions relevant to space-free, post-earthly conditions.

Peoples who still wear national costumes express, through them, the pre-earthly relationships which led them into a certain folk community. Their garments remember, as it were, their appearance in heaven.

Often, to find meaningful costumes, you must go back to more ancient times. And you will see not only that there flourished, then, painters, sculptors, and so forth, but that people of other occupations, during the whole period, were highly artistic.

If you look at Raphael's paintings, you will see that Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary are clothed quite differently; also that in all his works Raphael gives Mary Magdalene—essentially—her characteristic garment, and the Virgin Mary hers. He did this because he still experienced in living tradition the fact that a soul-spirit being, brought down from heaven, expresses himself through his garments.

Here lies the meaning of costuming. Modern man may say that clothes derive significance through the fact that they provide warmth. Well, certainly, that is one of their materialistic meanings. But it creates no aesthetic forms. Artistry arises always and only through a relation to the spiritual.

This mode in which things stand to the spiritual must be found again if we would penetrate to the truly artistic. And since Anthroposophy takes hold of the spiritual in its immediacy, it can have a fructifying influence upon art. The great secrets of the world and of life which must be revealed out of anthroposophical research will prove to be artistic; will culminate in art.

In this connection we must perceive something anatomical, already referred to. That part of the human organism which was not head during one earth-life transforms itself, dynamically, into head in the subsequent life. Then (this is self-evident) it is filled out with earth-substance. I have often explained that we must not make the silly objection: The physical body having perished, how can a head arise from it? The other objections brought against Anthroposophy are not, as a rule, much more clever; and this one is really cheap. But we are not concerned, here, with the physical filling out; only with a force relationship which can pass through the spiritual world. The relationship of forces which today inheres in all parts of our physical organism below the head (whether those forces move vertically or horizontally, whether they are held together or expand) has a spherical tendency, becoming thereby the force relationship of our head in our next earth life. When the metamorphosis of legs, feet and so forth into head takes place, the higher hierarchies cooperate. For all heavenly spirits work together. Small wonder, then, that the top of the head appears as an image of the vast space arching spherically above us. And that the adjacent area is an image of the atmosphere circling round the earth; of atmospheric forces. One might say: In the upper part of the head we have a faithful image of the heavens; in the middle, an adaptation of the head to forces which triumph in the chest, to all that encircles the earth. For in our chest we need the earth-encircling air, need the light weaving round the earth, and so forth. The whole organism below the head has no form relationship to the head's spherical form—it has a relationship of substance, not of form; but our chest has a definite relationship to our nose, indeed to everything pertaining to the middle part of the head. And if we descend to the mouth, we find that it is related to the third member of the human threefoldness, namely, to the organism devoted to digestion, nutrition, and motion.

Figure 2

We see how what has passed through the heavens to become head on earth (out of the previous headless body-formation) is in its majestic spherical form adapted to the heavens; whereas the middle part comes from what man is through earth-encircling orbits; and the mouth's formation from what earthly man is through earthly substance and the power of gravity.

Thus, in terms of European mythology, the head of the human being contains, above, as it were, Asgard, the castle of the gods; in its middle part, Midgard, man's earthly home; and, below, what also belongs to the earth, Jotunheim, home of the giants.

These interrelationships do not become clear through abstract concepts; they become clear only if we perceive the human head artistically, in relation to its spiritual origin; only when we see in it heaven, earth and hell. Not hell as the abode of the devil; hell as the home of the giants, Jotunheim. There lives in the head the entire human being: a whole.

We look at a person in the right way if we see in the spherical form of the upper part of the head the purest memory of his previous incarnation; if we see in the middle part, in the lower portion of the eyes and in nose and ears, a memory dulled by the atmosphere of earth; and in the formation of the mouth, that part of his previous human formation conquered by earth, banished to earth. In the configuration of his forehead the human being brings with him, in a certain sense, what has been passed on to him karmically from his previous earth-life. In the formation of his chin he is conquered by the earthly life of the present age; he expresses gentleness or obstinacy in his chin formation. If his previous organization, minus head, had not transformed itself into his present head, he would not have a chin at all. But in the formation of mouth and chin all current earth impulses are so strong that they press and constrain the past into the present.

Therefore no artistic person will say: That human being is striking because of his prominent forehead. Rather, he will pay special attention to its spherical shape, to the formation of its planes. Its protrusion or recession is less important than its spherical shape.

In regard to the chin he will say: It is advancing, obstinate and pointed; or: It gently recedes. Here we begin to understand the form of man out of the whole universe; not merely out of the present universe—there we find little—but out of the temporal universe, then the extra-temporal.

Thus through anthroposophical considerations we are driven toward the artistic element, and see that philistinism is in no way compatible with a true and living apprehension of Anthroposophy. That is why inartistic people find it so difficult to come into harmony with the whole of this teaching. Though, abstractly, they might with pleasure recognize their present life as the fulfillment of previous earth lives, they are unable to enter intimately into the forms which reveal themselves in direct artistic fashion to spiritual perception, creating and transforming: a necessary activity for anyone desiring to unite with the essential living anthroposophical element.

This is the foundation I wished to lay down in order to show how the unspiritual character of our time manifests in the most varied spheres; among others, in a widespread unspiritual attitude toward art. If mankind desires to save itself from the unspiritual, one factor in its rescue will be a reversal of this position.

A true life in the artistic: to this desirable end Anthroposophy can show the way.