The burden of the eight lectures here translated into English is the ineluctable connection between art and the spiritual world; and to see this central idea in context we must glance back over the history of aesthetics.
The Far East has always taken it for granted that the roots of art lie in the spiritual world. Ancient treatises describe it as expression informed by divine beauty: the Chinese shên, the Indian rasa, meaning essence, tincture, flavor, overtone of meaning, “what flashes in the lightning.” The Oriental technique of vision serves this theory, and Oriental practice bears it out. The art critic Coomaraswamy, late curator of Far Eastern art at the Boston Museum, puts it this way: “Heaven and Earth are united in an analogy.”
Western culture started with a similar outlook. Plato held that pure art (not mere representation) is allied with the supreme, therefore of intrinsic worth; and Plotinus developed further this doctrine of universal beauty. Christian artists during the first thirteen centuries agreed; and the Schoolmen, including Aquinas, gave it philosophical support. Meister Eckhart sums up their attitude: “In making a work of art the very inmost self of a man comes into outwardness”; that is, man's highest principle, the “image and likeness of God.” Thus the perfection of art — its wholeness, harmony, lucidity — “prepares all creatures to return to God.”
But the Renaissance shifted emphasis. As thinking became more and more man-centered instead of God-centered, spiritual awareness withered and died, until the eighteenth-century Baumgarten was insisting that art, as an imitation of nature, arouses “sensuous knowledge,” nothing more. During the materialistic nineteenth century this theory spread and hardened. Millions were now so absorbed in the earth and their own bodies they saw art as a matter of mere taste, or empathy, or sensation.
Yet the view of art as spirit-born never lost exponents. During that period Goethe called it not nature but nature as it might be; and Hegel argued that it belonged, no less than philosophy and religion, to the realm of the ideal. Most artists shared this viewpoint; to name a few, Blake, Tchaikovsky, Coleridge, Van Gogh, Tolstoy, Rodin. To the philosopher Schopenhauer intuition-based contemplation-causing art was a redemptive force freeing man from the tyranny of the will. And at the turn of the century Croce called it a language of the spirit fostering the unification of mankind.
Today the issue is more sharply drawn. Naturalism, the philosophy dominant in the West, has no room for God, the soul, immortality, freedom, or a theory of art as an influx of the spirit. But if materialism rages, the countermovement shows a mounting strength. To quote some representative spokesmen of our time: William Butler Yeats says that “the laws of art are the hidden laws of the world.” T. E. Hulme (leaning on Worringer and echoed by Charles Williams) that there are two kinds of art, the nobler of which is non-objective, classical, “geometrical,” spiritual. And the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman: “It is my opinion that art lost its creative urge the moment it was separated from worship.” Nor do artists stand alone in this controversy. The theologian Paul Tillich once told me that to him the closest synonym for “spirit” is “meaning” (and of course art is concentrated meaning); the psychologist Carl Jung that spirit lies behind the collective unconscious (and of course art reveals the unconscious).
Clearly Rudolf Steiner belongs to an age-old stream flowing sometimes aboveground, sometimes below, but never, since the beginning, dry.
In another sense he is unique; and these eight lectures touching on architecture, sculpture, painting, costuming, music, drama, poetry, and the new art of eurythmy, increase his extraordinary contribution to an ancient discussion. His frame of reference is nothing less than cosmic. Or say “the immanent space in the heart.”
Here some warnings and reminders. These lectures have a looser construction than matter shaped originally for publication. Their movement is not the straight line of logic but the spiraling, the turning-back-upon-themselves-while-yet-going-forward, suitable for contents which, having to do with the spirit, ask for quiet musing, for meditation. Because he spoke to an audience familiar with his teachings, Dr. Steiner assumes a certain body of knowledge. And he never corrected the transcripts. Moreover, having dealt previously with other aspects, he does not pretend to cover all the problems of art; only certain key questions, informally. And most important: Though his findings are presented not as theory but realities discovered by direct spiritual perception, that is by looking behind the scenes of a “play played eternally before all creatures,” they can be, and Dr. Steiner would say ought to be, judged strictly on their merits.
A reader with these facts in mind is better equipped to weigh what he finds here and nowhere else.
Reaffirming with the ancient Mysteries the inseparability of the good (morality), the true (science) and the beautiful (art) — three spheres connected not by likeness but analogy — Dr. Steiner stresses the aridity of matter-bound thinking and its enmity to art; and in the process makes points which, owing to absence of the pontifical manner, may deceive by their simplicity, may seem at first flush of limited scope when, actually, their implication for culture and the wellbeing of mankind reach out and out; for example (choosing at random), his statement that true architecture offers man the lines along which, when projected into the cosmos, the soul in life or death can expand; that true sculpture builds on the life-giving formative forces lying behind physical structure; that true painting relies on not spatial but color-perspective, color being an entire world in itself; that modern music, seeking depth in the single tone rather than in harmony or melody, begins, just begins, to find its way back to the spirit from which it descended; that poetry depends upon the relation between breath and pulse, nerve system and blood system; that eurythmy, as “expressive gesture,” is linked with the invisible gesture-system which is language; and that imagination is the child's power of growth transformed for loftier purposes. ...
Such insights can, by quickening creativity, multiply works “determined outwardly to use and inwardly to delight.”
And perhaps such insights have a special significance for America. Elsewhere Dr. Steiner has observed that, to achieve balance, Russia needs philosophy, America art.