On The Disappearance of Masters

One of the impulse that led me to scrutinize the process of gradual vanishing of presence Master archetype in the consciousness of Western artists was an article by Janusz Krupinski "Master died" published in "Wiadomosci ASP" (no 13, 1999). This question relating to the death of a particular artist can be formulated in more basic sense also: whether there are true Masters in our time? And if not, how did it come to their disappearance from the widely defined world of Western art?

The very word "Master" can lead to many misunderstanding. The controversy raging around the above- mentioned article is one of the evidence of it. Indeed the term "Master" is often confused with a spiritual leader, authority or even academic teacher. Let us try to specify the meaning of the word "Master", while excluding these qualities, which in any case should not be combined with this definition:

The master is not a guru.
The master is not the same as authority but certainly he has it.
The master is selfless and he doesn't combine his teaching with achieving any kind of material benefit.
The master may not know that he is a master. It happens that during his life the Master is not recognized and his impact begins only after death.
The master doesn't impose on anyone his deepest intuitions. However, if in the field of his benign attention an appropriate student appears, the Master tries selflessly and gently, by using veils, views and paradoxes to support his spiritual quest.

But let's return to the fundamental question: whether in our time, time of great confusion of meanings, Masters still exist?
Difficult question. It is highly possible that some line of spiritual transmission has not yet expired. So it is in India, Tibet, Nepal and the Greek Orthodox Church (St. Mount Athos). And if so, someone disposes of entrusted message.

However, there is another question: why in the era of rapid flow of information we do not have any messages about the custodians of this knowledge? Why are those who probably met the Master silent and those who have no chance of such a meeting openly scuff at such a question? Let's investigate then, though necessarily briefly, the process of removing the figure of the Master from the collective and individual memory of the West and why, in the opinion of people dealing with culture, the question of the Master has become anachronistic.

In the first part of this argument I will try to show the slow process of transition from the sacred anonymity and expression the Glory of God through creation in the Middle Ages (Theophilus Monk, Cenino Cennini, Dionysius of Furny) to personalism and the lofty pride of artists and historians of the Renaissance (Giorgio Vasari). In the second part I will try to show in a nutshell how Kant and Hegel, patrons of a wide and influential philosophical movement, through the strengthening of the trends that emerged in the Renaissance, contributed to the final elimination of the Master from the consciousness of Western artists. In the third part I will discuss the most important of the twentieth century attempts to answer our question. Such an attempt has been taken by the author of Glass Beat game, Herman Hesse.

We all probably remember well from the school years what an optimism, pride and belief in the unlimited possibilities of the human characterized artists and theorists of the Renaissance. For this reason, I will only occasionally quote the views of Vasari "Lives of Famous Men", and I will almost omit treatises on painting by Leonardo da Vinci, Alberti or Lomazzo. On the other hand I will look more carefully, though necessarily fragmentary at two treatises that are legacy of the Middle Ages Ė "On Divers Arts" by Theophilus Monk and "A Treatise on Painting" by Cennino Cennini from 14th century and the only early Christian treatise on painting which has been preserved for our times - "Hermeneia" by Dionysius of Furna. Although "Hermeneia" was written only between 1730-1734, it is actually a compilation of much older texts, which are an expression of spirituality similar to medieval though slightly different theology of the holy image.

Theophilus Monk in the preface to his treatise "On Divers Arts" present himself as" a humble servant of the servants of God, unworthy of the name and the vocation of a monk" and describes himself as "weak and almost nameless man trembling before the terrible trial." While Cennini writes his treatise at the feet of the throne of God Himself and the Blessed Virgin and St. Anthony of Padua and to commemorate all saints and holy Lord. On the other hand, Dionysius of Furna refers in his introduction to the figure of St. Luke, the saint patron of painters, adding: "Also I, miserable, I wanted to become his follower, I began to cultivate painting pictures ...". And at the dedication puts the characteristic formula: "The most wretched of the painters, the monk Dionysius of Furna."

Let us compare these three introductions with a preface and climate of monumental work of G. Vasari's "Lives of Famous Men" to understand what a reverse of hierarchy occurred at the beginning of the Renaissance (see e.g password Renaissance in the book "100 superstitions" by J. Bochenski). Vasari, in his introduction, does not bow to God but to the Prince, who as the good Lord, will assess his efforts. But it is not a nod of humility but nod of pride and exaltation. Also two words of the title of his book gives much food for thought: "lives" and "famous". Let's recall what the importance and significance have for medieval people hagiography, showing them the way to eternal life. Vasari thinks only about temporal fame (fama), not eternal glory (gloria) due only to God Almighty. Saints who imitate (imitatio) of Christ, are here replaced by famous men, who focus on a possible perfect imitation (mimesis) of nature (in this context it is necessary to mention the late medieval collection of spiritual advices "On Imitation of Christ" by Thomas á Kempis).

It is not difficult to note that there is no trace of the old spirituality in the treaties on painting by Leonardo and Alberti, there is only a pseudo-scientific approach to the activity called painting. Although the symbolism of a window is present, but a window is no longer a window on eternity, but a window on the temporality, on a landscape stretching out a window. And the same Leonardo recommends making mirror a master. More or less at the same time Vasari spares no effort to justify the earth's fame of artists of the Renaissance by bringing them to the rank of ancient gods on Parnassus.

On the contrary Theophilus, Cennini and Dionysius - put great emphasis on humility, reference to the tradition and the succession after the Masters. For Theophilus important is arduous and patient progress of an adept on the path of mastery, not in the eyes of the world, but before God and His will: "Those who master the art, should not boast of it as a special good that they didn't received, but let him humbly rejoice in God, from whom and through whom all things are happening, and without whom there is nothing."
Cennini also validates his mastery by referring to the tradition and the succession of the following masters: Agnolo Gaddi, father of Agnolo, and the greatest of the greats Ė Giotto. And Dionysius of Furna dedicating his manual to "all students preparing for painting", confesses in a spirit of humility: "I did my best to multiply insignificant talent given me by Lord" and declares "with great effort and investment of time I learned diligently from my childhood, imitating according to my abilities, the master of Thessaloniki, Manuel Panselinos ...".

Theophilus', Cennini's and Dionysius' thinking remains in constant relationship with the tradition and the Absolute. Cennini claims directly that the art is a consequence of the event that took place in Paradise. The fall and wine of our forefather Adam that is, the loss of image and resemblance of God Ėon this Theophilus', Cennini's and Dionysius' thinking is based on. The act of painting is an attempt to regain the lost image and likeness, which is more important than creative activity- always hungry external applause and recognition.
In other words, for Theophilus and Cennini and Dionysius act of painting is associated with a desire to at least partially recover the lost image and resemblance of God. It is the loss of paradise innate knowledge, that made Adam the one who knew God, causes, according to Cennini, need to practice the art. While for Dionysius act of painting is a vocation and duty associated with the Gospel parable of the talents.

You can also relatively easy find in these concepts the presence of elements derived from the thought of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. He claimed that the elevation of the matter is greatest when starting from the lowest point. The process of reaching the state championship is similar: is a transformation of consciousness in which the humiliation of the matter is the same as the Incarnation of the Word of God. The process of reaching the state of mastery is similar: is a transformation of consciousness in which the humiliation of the matter is analogous to the Incarnation of the Word of God. That is why Cennini doesn't bow before Prince, the Pope and History, and having earthly fame for nothing, he evokes at the end of the treaty "glory in another world for ever and ever. Amen."

Theophilus Monk also denied the possibility of any "earthly reward for his art," and if he spoke about glory, it was not earthly fame, recognition in the eyes of men, but the glory of the Divine Name.
Dionysius thinks similarly when he writes "the art of painting is pleasing to God. Therefore, those who practice it with reverence and zeal, enjoy the grace and praise of God." But he also warns: "whereas those who deal with art carelessly, self-serving and greedy should think and regret it before the end of his own."
While in Vasari's conception the artists gain the status of "divine" artists with the verdict of History or an art historian, and so human. The Renaissance artists aren't in any way theonomic, they rather boast their autonomy. It is significant that Vasari, recognizing the Egyptian origins of painting to be uncertain, points to the Greeks (Zeuksis and Appeles) as those who invented painting. In this context, it is astonishing that the painting is considered as an invention. In the work of Vasari there is no any mention of Paradise and the Fall of Adam.
The intention of the Renaissance theoreticians confirms the fact that Giotto, a master of the Christian mysteries and medieval allegory, on whom Cennini relied, Vasari describes as "being under the influence of nature."

Thus, we stood at the starting point of gradual removal of the Master from metaphysical consciousness of the West, face to face with the modern usurpation of post- renaissance personalism.
Let's see how, after the blows that were inflicted by the theorists of the Renaissance to pre -renaissance concept of reaching the mastery and so characteristic for mature Middle Ages desire to create incarnational images such as the Shroud, a head Ė cloth (Mandylion), Man of Sorrows - unfolded fate of Masters in the West.
In times closer to our own time, a new way of philosophical thinking appeared, which is in some range represented by Kant and Hegel. Leading representatives of this influential direction by their concepts completely cut off from the source of inspiration, which drew the old Masters. Things lost their substantiality, became objects, things in themselves. Slowly belief, that even the most miserable thing is of double beauty: as a work of divine creation, and as a reflection of God's beauty, was forgotten. The blank space after the Master will occupy brash and disrespectful all the canons self-proclaimed genius.

Kant in the "Critique of Judgment" states that genius is a gift of nature and he lays dawn the rules of art. Before Kant the word "genius" meant someone who has achieved perfection in craftsmanship and ease of creation according to the rules of art. Kant modifies this definition: "genius is innate disposition of the mind, by which the nature establishes regulation for art." Thus Kantian genius does not need to learn to follow the rules, but he establish them by himself. Subsequent practice of artists of the West showed that the first two components are relatively easy to implement. In contrast, a much more difficult thing is to establish their own rules. Now it does not surprise us anymore, that Kant in his pleadings do not use the word Master. Natural genius, according to Kant, is pure originality without a Master. Hence, among other things, it comes contemporary endless pursuit of the artist for novelty in art.
However, Kant warns: "the product of genius is unique, one should not imitate him, because such imitation becomes monkeying". But who remembers about this warning nowadays?

Besides modified word genius Kant used, setting down the side the term of beauty, the concept of double sublimity, mathematical and dynamic. The mathematical sublimity is a kind of fullness situated beyond human possibilities of imagining and representing. Dynamic sublimity is internal potential of the mind which senses its own greatness and moves toward the Absolute. Kant doesn't mention whether such experiences create even the minimal conditions for emergence of the Master. But it is hardly surprising that one can not detect any attempts of this kind in the thoughts of Kant. And the extent to which the Kantian conception of genius contribute to lead the artists astray to creative lawlessness we can relatively easy learn from the further course of Western art and from interpretative troubles which provides us informal art situated outside the phenomenological aesthetics.

In the margin should also be noted that the process of slow displacement of religion by aesthetics began with a term derived from the Greek notion of aesthetics, which was first used by AG Baumgarten, a student of Leibniz, as the title of a book Aesthetica in 1750. Kant himself was so fascinated by this word that used the aesthetic judgment as evidence of the existence of God, and concluded that the aesthetic experience is more basic than a religious one.
Also Hegel, entitling his monumental work Aesthetics, was under hypnotic influence of this word. Hegel's conception of art is almost theology in pure form. According to Hegel, art is an epiphany and in every of its form includes divinity. The development of art is associated with the development of the idea of God. The concept of development allows Hegel, like Vasari, introduce to his reasoning historical aspect. Therefore, Hegel divides the process of historical development of art in three stages: symbolic art (primitive), classical art (Greek), the romantic art (Christian).

But do not let us be deluded by those sublime words of Hegel. Despite of the positive preliminary remarks, the final assertion are depressing for both skeptics and for those awaiting a meeting with the Master. Hegel comes to the astonishing, for those time, conclusion is: European art has lost its highest justification and has become a thing of the past. Religion, within which the arts flourished Ė died. Where religion dies, art also withers and decays. For the development of art a certain spiritual minimum it is necessary. Below this minimum art disappears and dissolves in pure concept and its place is taken by philosophy. At first glance, in the twentieth century it seemed that Conceptualism is the fulfillment of this prophecy, but dissolving in the pure concept is not the end. This announcement found much worse confirmation in later artistic reality.

In this context, we can't omit the twentieth-century attempts to restore the presence of the Master in the Western culture. The initiator of such an endeavor, by showing relation disciple-Master is the author of the novel The Glass Bead Game - Hermann Hesse. Hesse seems to be one of the last initiated and authorized to give a competent answer on this issue. The relationship between master and apprentice, according to Hesse, is a special kind of spiritual bond which is based on a community aim. A person of the Master himself is a guarantee of the existence of invisible reality, which in turn determine the spiritual bond between disciple and Master. A mortal danger to such a relationship is probability to deify a person of the Master. In this context, there is also the problem of responsibility of the Master for a student. One can say that the Master, not causing dependence of a follower, leads him to the edge and shows a land of opportunities, which stretches up to them, but he doesn't accompany him in a further journey.

You can accuse Herman Hesse, that he sacrifices and absolutises figure of the Master. Master, according to him, is the liberation for the truth, the truth about oneself. But for anguished and deconcentrated mind of the artist of the third millennium, subordination and obedience to the Master is not acceptable. Contemporary Artists are afraid, like the devil of holy water, of primary questions and from the horizon of their thinking question not only about the presence of truth, but also beauty and good disappears.

In the context of the foregoing, it is necessary to note, that Jerzy Nowosielski by the act of artistic expression and depth of his views also referred Ė not in the literal sense - to the concept of mastery on some other level, difficult for us to access.
There's a connection between the attempts to answer the question: "where are the Masters" with a case of Roman Opalka. This "Master without disciples", whose conception is completely misunderstood in Poland, reduced to contemptuous definitions such us "enumerations of Opalka" or "writing digits" is an example of pure mastery; unfortunately, so far it remains in a gray area of non recognition. This kind of efforts that sometimes are taken within Western art, appear to be spiritual attempts temporarily, in their deepest sense, undiscovered.

I think that hidden significance of this type of research can be appreciated only from the perspective of an appropriate time distance and in conditions of perceiving art that are not available to us so far.
It seems that contemporary artists are not only mutilated, but also spiritually dead. Everything what they touch is changing, like in the story about mythical King Midas - not in gold, but in jarring, dissonance, pretending, simulation, deformity and faeces ... . But who among of postmodern artists would agree with Plotinus that "ugliness, it is by all measures hideous insult "or would accept Herman Hesse's opinion that "each of us [...] should seek, where perfection, to the center, not the periphery." Metaphysical consciousness of the artists at the turn of the millennium has been severely depleted. Post-modern artist can not, because of his morbid individualism, agree to the presence of the Master. The situation is ambiguous - some herald once again the end of art, and others, practicing traditional art, refuse any reflection on this issue, hoping that "somehow it will be" and the final judgment had not fallen yet.

Meanwhile, the art of the late twentieth and early twenty first century was heavily influenced by the destructive, agnostically oriented intellectuals. It could nothing worse happen to art already weakened by vulgar Dadaist antics.
It is enough to specify some basic differences between traditional phenomenological esthetics and postmodern ones to see that these are actually two different worlds. Let's pinpoint them briefly. Traditional esthetics accept Unity, postmodern Ė multiplicity, traditional - universal mind; postmodern - transversal mid; traditional - identity, postmodern - the difference; traditional - metanarratives; postmodern Ė anti-logocentrism , traditional - painting, divinity; postmodern - artefact, idol, simulacrum; traditional: reflection, attention; postmodern: deconcentration, inattention; traditional: integrity, professionalism; postmodern: pretending (simulating), spoofing, freedom and irony ...

In addition, Western art, imbued in nihilism, contaminated by atheistic humanism, using blasphemy, mockery and symbolic violence, long time ago found itself beyond the reach of subtle radiation of religion. And the emergence of appropriate forms of spirituality is a long process, depending on the condition of art, and especially religion. Both of these types of activity of the human spirit draw inspiration and the power from the same Sources. They are emanations of the same human aspirations and support each other on the basis of the spiritual experience of man. If one weakens the other dies ...
Artists of the West, rejecting any relationship with religion as oppressive system of values, in advance doom to failure their sometimes naively sincere, but one-dimensional artistic efforts. And they doom themselves to spiritual atrophy and getting stuck in the field of indelible boredom and chronic lack of a deeper justification.

Art, which under the onslaught of the electronic media, started a dangerous flirtation with ahrimanic and satanic energies, no longer faces a Hegelian dissolving in the pure concept, but in naked crime. In this situation, place of the art, contrary to the predictions of Hegel, certainly will not take philosophy. It also found itself in serious troubles. Who today can devote himself to philosophy, love of wisdom? Now wisdom became taboo...

Does the current art manifesting constant readiness to participate in this spectral performance of simulation actually dissolve in the area of Evil? Or maybe will the Masters return? Maybe their withdrawal is not final? But if in the West, in this spiritually sterile land of Ulro, anyone is still waiting for their return?

Cracow, December 2000. Revised in 2007

Władysław Podrazik