If today you invite a stranger to discuss art over a nice cup of tea, it would come as a surprise if you went into any subject besides paintings once you had sat down together. Go back a couple of millennia to hold that same conversation with a conservative Roman, and you’ll find that a diversion into the more practical topics of carpentry, weaving, or any other kind of trade or profession is not only natural but inevitable. The difference between the two discussions is the tea…or rather the ‘T’. A Roman would not have discussed A-R-T but A-R-S, and by that Latin term, he would have referred primarily not to sculpture and pottery (much less to oil on canvas) but to crafts, trades, and skills in general. Indeed, as the root of the word suggests (ar-, to join), ars has always been about any matter in which people fit old things together in order to create new ones, and in ancient times, this would have been thought of first and foremost from a pragmatic point of view.
So what happened to the word? Why would a stodgy, grizzled Roman like Cato the Elder have concerned himself with the joining of wood to build wagons in place of the joining of colors to please the eye? Indeed, there can be no doubt that, had Cato been our converser, we would have begun this imagined dialogue with the driest exposition on how to build a miserly carriage and ended it with the averring of some oddly arrived at conclusion that Carthage must be utterly destroyed! That sort of discussion would be a far cry from its modern analogue, which would inevitably take on a register much removed from the practical concerns of daily life, since modern idiom has come to assume a certain allowance that our ancestors never made for the inutile. Aristotle would suggest that this evolution is one of progress, that it is only natural for a society, once having achieved a surplus of whatever is necessary for survival, to begin taking an interest in beauty and truth for their own sakes rather than for some ulterior end (Metaphysics 1.980 ff.).
The Jews in the wilderness and on the mountaintop said: It is meet to be here. Let us build an altar to Jehovah. The Roman […] brought to every new shore on which he set his foot […] only his cloacal obsession. He gazed about him in his toga and he said: It is meet to be here. Let us construct a watercloset.
We can detect such a progression in the development not only of language but also of ‘myth’, as it were. I refer to myth as a convention of semiology, however remote the concept might seem from the Postmodern world. If we put yet another question to that contemporary stranger of ours and ask him what are the foundational myths of our society, he might tell us that the commonest myth he knows of is that a toilet flush will change direction depending on what hemisphere it’s in, when in fact this is not true. Of course, our philological minds would have hoped for a rather different kind of answer—and in ancient Greece or Rome, those hopes would not have been disappointed. At least to our assuagement is the knowledge that modern literature may play an analogous role to this dated concept of myth and may show equally well the lexical shift. Indeed, the very fact that myth has been replaced by literature intimates the progression from practical to impractical. In place of a craft that is necessary to society, the modern world has an unessential art that is taken up at leisure.
So let us briefly skim through this apparatus, this artistic compendium of myth or literature or whatever you’d like to call it. We begin with the Greeks and Romans, whose interest in ars and τέχνη centered around the crafty joining of things for needful purposes. The joining of materials to create goods and the joining of persons to create persons. Indeed, the latter kind of joining is spoken of openly in Greco-Roman myth, especially in the form of comedy. We need look no farther than the character of Circe, a seductive temptress, or of Lysistrata, a masochistic wife, or of Dido, a desperate bedmate—no farther than these to realize that human copulation, in ancient Greece and Rome, was a needful craft, and it was assumed by the society that one could no more abstain from that kind of joining than from the necessary building of miserly carriages. This was the character of pagan myth, and it wasn’t until Christianity came to the forefront of Western culture that our inveterate myths about love began to revise dramatically.
It follows that Medieval literature regards the art of procreation as a kind of sacred taboo. Explicit references are replaced by innuendoes, and with the expurgation of so many long-winded discussions of the bedroom, space is made for a whole new kind of discussion: a version of romance that concerns the spirit rather than the body. Hence, poets of the dolce stil novo are at leisure to praise the spiritual virtues of the beloved rather than being bounded by the “inescapable” drives elicited by the body. There is now an Art of Courtly Love, rather than a craft. The basic assumptions about romance have transformed entirely. Pretty soon it will seem aberrational to suggest that Sex is the tyrannical despot of the human will, and of course, the moment that such a suggestion becomes so anomalous as to shock and appall will be the very same moment that it is opined most forcefully.
But setting aside this apprehension at present, we continue with the Renaissance artists of literature. Here we still find plenty of vulgar innuendoes, in Shakespearean comedy for example, but nothing more explicit. In Shakespeare and Spenser there is now a more refined interest in virtue, which has developed out of Medieval philosophy. Medieval thinkers were the sort of folks that would run around organizing and categorizing every little thing they possibly could. They would have liked nothing better than to fully index the human soul, and the assumption of this assiduously compiled index is what allowed a poet like Spenser to allude to “The Twelve Virtues”, with everybody pretty much knowing what he meant (thank you Thomas Aquinas).
Moreover, so rational an assumption about human nature—the assumption that it is systematic and organized—is an underlying myth in the Age of Reason as well. Kantian morality and the concept of Natural Rights would have never been possible had we still been living under the anarchical rule of Sex. Our understanding of Nature had by now been entirely reformed. Mother Earth, the reckless, dictatorial, juggernaut, whom primitive man would propitiate for a favorable harvest, had been supplanted by an enlightened Nature, a civil, rational ideal.
This rational outlook on love and life in general continues to dominate society into the Romantic era. Of course, our mythology becomes more mystical, and there is now a prevalent belief in the irresistible power of passion, but the latter is always held in tension with an optimistic confidence in man’s aptitude to comport himself with diffidence and decorum even when he is under duress. By now, Sex has fully abdicated her throne in favor of a Philosopher King, who we might call Reason, Truth, or at least Beauty. The former tyrant is cloaked deeply in an abstruse garment of circumlocution, and in her place this transcendental other is believed to rule more democratically over nature.
Lest anyone should scoff at this crude generalization, let me be clear that I am referring not to a hard and fast rule about literature, but to a basic assumption inherent in language. This is where the analogy between myth and literature breaks down. By myth, I mean the assumptions built into language forming the ideological backbone of society. These assumptions may be predominate in the literature of the culture, but of course, any person or author is equally at liberty to contradict the presuppositions of an audience for rhetorical effect. If one should bring up Marquis de Sade as a counter example to the general outlook that I have described, then I respond that the foundational writings of sadism held rhetorical force precisely because they contradicted the foundational myths of society at large. And so too with the foundational writings of Freudianism. This is the apprehension that I alluded to earlier. It is one of the frailties of human nature that, if left to her own devices, she will deconstruct immediately, contradicting whatever is most fundamental to her existence. If there exists a society—as I argue there does—which has progressed from the tyrannical rule of Biology toward the democratic sovereignty of Beauty, then left to itself, that society will do everything in its power to oppose its own existence as such. What I mean is that unless we had all been more careful, the onset of the Freudian age was inevitable simply because it wasn’t yet actual.
So what’s it to us if society is reverting to an older form of itself? I might answer this question by turning once more to the authoritative wisdom of Aristotle—provided that my dear, Postmodern readers will find it in their hearts to forgive me for being so ingenuously classical. I maintain that the reformation of romance I have described is properly considered progress. Progress brought about by the onset of Christianity. Progress bringing about the onset of freedom. I could hardly imagine a sadder fate for the societies of the Western world than to surrender their own dearly established cultural democracy and allow this neologism of “art” to fall once more into obscurity before it has even fully flourished. I fear it may be by this impending lexical shift, by which we hope to obliterate the last encumbrance of freedom, that we will instead do away with freedom all together.
In short, I believe that the cultures of the Western world stand at an exciting point in their history. When the stakes are as high as I have described and we have so much to lose, we have equally as much to gain. Our modern mythology is more conscious than it has been for several millennia of the greatest Adversary of human reason. In this way, man’s desperate need for divine grace has never been more blatantly obvious, and our potential to recognize and respond contritely to that need may be enough to elevate art, love, and life generally to a quality which it has never before achieved. Not a quality of earthly happiness and prosperity, but of austerity and supernatural joy. We stand then both individually and collectively at a parting of ways. As human fallibility confronts us head on in this uncertain age, this age in which the integrity of reason itself has been called into question, we may either respond with blissful denial and a naive faith in Human Potential, or we may surrender every last surety and confidence that we held in our own ingenuity to be utterly reformed by the hand of God.