Brooding about Byzantium : a dilettante confesses

Unrepentant dilettantism

Perhaps it’s only in art history & aesthetics that dilettantism has been granted a status beyond dubious dabbling. (1) Many a non-academic ‘connoisseur’ looms large in the art world. And the great art historian Panofsky admitted that the “synthetic intuition” needed to grasp art’s intrinsic meaning “may be better developed in a talented layman than in an erudite scholar” .
Because, apart from factual knowledge and erudition , appreciating and understanding art always requires an act of imaginative recreation, which is subjective.

But alas, give people a license to dabble without diligence (2), and they will abuse it. Therefore , also in the art world, earnest art historians have come to detest the exalted devotion of blithely ignorant aesthetes who wallow in their own intuitive sensitivity. (3) (4)

But, despite humbly acknowledging dilettantism’s limits, it was as an unrepentant amateur (5) that I took the train to London to indulge in one of my most cherished but unsubstantiated dilettante obsessions: Byzantium…. (6). And on that train I was defiantly reading Walter Pater, the patron saint of 19th century exalted aestheticism, who wrote so seductively and so misleadingly about art history.
As it has been put aptly: “in the uncertain twilight of Pater’s scholarship cultural history became imaginative misrepresentation”. (7)

"Imaginative misrepresentation"

Imaginative misrepresentation ….. how much of the consoling elegance and cohesion of art history itself is not due to imaginative projection, which offers a pleasing synopsis ex post? How much of the beguiling attraction of art history does not lie in the fact that, using the remaining mute artifacts as props, it pretends no less than to tell us the story of the life of the human mind (“Geistesgeschichte” )?

Winckelmann , the ‘first art historian’, having come under the spell of the "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" of the rare remaining Antique statues, and despairing at how much was irrevocably lost , wrote:
[…] contemplating the collapse of art […] we […] have as it were only a shadowy outline of the subject of our desires remaining. But this arouses so much the greater longing for what is lost, and we examine the copies we have with greater attention than we would if we were in full possession of the originals. In this, we often […] believe [we] can see something where nothing exists. […] One always imagines there is much to find. “(8)

And then, Byzantium….! If ever there was a candidate for imaginative misrepresentation! This twilight Roman-Christian empire, flourishing in the Greek East in the wake of the fall of ‘old Rome’. A 1000 years shrinking empire now best known for its defeats: in 1204, the brutal sack of Constantinople by Byzantium’s barbarian westerns cousins who were on a crusading rampage ; in 1453, the pivotal date we all learned at school : Constantinople conquered by Ottoman Turks.

Luxurious Byzantine Byzantium.... Byzantium of the Byzantine Icons….., of which so many, (maybe the best?), were destroyed during 100 years of ruthless iconoclasm, or got lost due to human neglect & vandalism, eagerly collaborating with the destructive processes of nature and time. (9)

Oh I did diligently start reading a ‘real’ historical book about Byzantium, conscientiously tracking the imperial reversals of fortune with its military victories and defeats, with its inventory of administrative and legal achievements, with its economic and sociologic ramifications . And just as diligently, I duly peered, at the London exhibition, into the glass cases which displayed domestic objects, imperial parafernalia, jewels & more jewels and other material remains of the ‘real' Byzantine life.

Mesmerizing folds & golden ribbings

But I must confess that, of this grand medieval civilization that lasted a 1000 years, what has enduringly captured my imagination are folds …. yes the vicissitudes of folds, of “delicate gold striations defining the folds of cloth”. What gave Byzantium a lasting place in my imagination, is the fate of these golden highlights & ribbings in panel paintings & mosaics… (10)

Indeed, something as seemingly futile as how folds of clothing are rendered, is pivotal in any story of the life of the mind – because tracking the fate of these folds, shows how the elegance of graeco-roman anthropocentric and figurative art made way for the “clumsiness” of western-christian schematically-abstract and spiritual art. And it shows how at the same time some of the graeco-roman artistic formulas had some sort of afterlife in the decorative and hieratic conventions of Byzantine art, which in their turn were transformed by Italian painters into a renewed elegant naturalism, announcing the humanist-christian Renaissance.

So Byzantium, for me, is about images….., about the scattered artistic traces it left. Byzantium is about what it salvaged from Antique imagery, and how it transmitted this classical heritage under the form, as it were, of dried food, as mummified conventions that only needed to be hydrated by later Italian artists to spawn a renaissance. (11)

Byzantium is about these imposing hieratic images , about shimmering gold in half-dark domes ….. It is about the seduction of lost splendor as well as of a lost meaning of that splendor. Byzantium is about enchantment and mourning. Byzantium is so seductive for our imagination since so little of authentic early Byzantine art has been left, since we “can only grope for its character from nothing better than the surviving canvases of its imitators” (9)

Byzantium is about all the tragic longings which generations of poets and aesthetes have projected in it. (12) (13)

And as one who has never been to Ravenna, who has never wandered about in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and who has never been to the St Catherine monastery on Mount Sinai, I do solemnly declare being utterly enthralled by Byzantium.

A dilettante’s feverish footnotes
Etymology: Italian, from present participle of dilettare to delight, from Latin dilectare — (more at delight) Date: 1748
1 : an admirer or lover of the arts
2 : a person having a superficial interest in an art or a branch of knowledge : dabbler
(2) am paraphrasing here an erudite flowervillain
(3) Erwin Panofsky, more sternly this time : “As I have said before, no one can be blamed for enjoying works of art “naively” – for appraising them according to his lights and not caring any further. But the humanist will look with suspicion upon what might be called ‘appreciationism’. He who teaches innocent people to understand art without bothering about classical languages, boresome historical methods and dusty old documents, deprives naiveté of its charm without correcting its errors”
(4) thus the impeccably erudite Warburg detested Bernard Berenson, the flamboyant connoisseur-aesthete. Berenson indeed didn’t have any qualms to venture fanciful attributions without rigorous scholarly evidence but based mainly on “certain intuitions”. And Walter Pater, that other quintessential 19th C aesthete, produced delightfully imaginative essays, which were however “ manifestly lacking […] rigour in matters of fact “.
(5) personally I don’t see the amateur and the professional as competitors - The amateur is just that: “in the best sense of the word, a lover of [the arts and] of learning among the general citizenry “ . (Robert Darnton in a NYRB article). And the amateur will be devoted to his or her domain of predilection in a very personal way. The amateur's devotion is tinged with subjectivity, especially when it concerns a humanistic discipline (as opposed to say physics or mathematics). Because, it is laden with our very personal questions & obsessions that we (the amateurs) come to the humanities.
And in my experience the amateur will gladly accept lessons from the professional and will not mingle in scholarly discussions. But does this mean then that amateurs and professionals can never communicate on an equal level? Well, in matters of taste and personal judgment they can, of course, in their quality of thinking & judging human beings. But much less so indeed in matters of objective , scholarly purport.

****WARNING**** This picture of the humble amateur is not the whole truth though … There is a subterranean Faustian arrogance at play too, the Amateur does entertain a secret universalist yearning …

Yes, there's a hidden hubris of the Dilettante, who, at times, exults in the (deceptive) vastness & swiftness of his intuitive imagination as opposed to the slow & methodic grinding of the toiling specialist ….

(6) Exhibition at the London Royal Academy of Arts:
Byzantium 330-1453
(7) Adam Phillips in his introduction to Walter Pater’s “The Renaissance”
(8) J.J. Winckelmann, History of the art of antiquity
(9) Bernard Berenson – Studies in Medieval Painting (which contains not quite scholarly correct articles about Byzantine art, but may nevertheless (or rather : therefore) offer exactly the sort of imaginative reconstruction that serves my own not-quite-corroborated Byzantium-construct…. :
Iconoclasts, native rebels, Bulgars and Turks seem to have participated joyously in Nature’s destructiveness […] there are in the east only fragmentary traces of mosaics before 1300 [..] Outside […] a few noted shrines such as those on Mt Sinai. […]
The pictures of eastern origin that we see in the West are all of later date. They are specimens of the mummified art to which we are commonly accustomed to apply the word Byzantine, although they date from a time when the Christian eastern Empire was dying, or dead
Until the great Venetian betrayal in 1204, Constantinople, despite many vicissitudes, was the metropolis of European and of nearer Asia civilization. There is no reason for assuming that traditions of good craftsmanship were ever lost there, as again and again they were lost in the West, or that the ideals of form were dragged down to the barbarous puerilities to which we declined in our darkest centuries. […]
Imagine that all the pictures done in Paris by Frenchmen had disappeared, and that we could grope at their character from nothing better than the surviving canvases of […] imitators”

(10) The “delicate gold striations defining the folds of cloth”
Byzantine art
Byzantine art offers the fascinating spectacle of the nimble mixture of surviving graeco-roman naturalistic forms, Christian spiritualism, and Byzantine hieratic & decorative splendor. And one cannot be but moved by the awakening in early 13th century Italian painting, which started transforming these conventional Byzantine golden notations of the folds into something both naturalistic/representative and elegant.

So these Byzantine icons & mosaics with their decorative shimmering gold , with their hieratical, timeless visual incantations beyond earthly reality, not only continued as a barely unchanged & mummified Icon-tradition in the orthodox countries , but also contained the seeds of the Italian Renaissance’s elegant naturalism, harking back to the greco-roman gracefulness. In such a way that John White lyrically notes of this Italian transformation of Byzantine conventions : “
“The complicated linear symbols for the folds are caught, like chrysalids in the very act of transformation, at the moment of their softening into rich, material forms.

(11) Panofsky : La renaissance et ses avant-courriers dans l’art d’occident – « La tradition byzantine qui, pour reprendre la comparaison immortelle d’Adolf Goldschmidt, a transmis l’héritage classique - y compris bon nombre des ‘pathosformeln’ – à la postérité « sous la forme d’aliments déshydratés que l’on hérite de famille en famille et qui peuvent être rendus digestibles par l’adjonction d’eau et l’effet de la chaleur »
(12) Yves Bonnefoy – Byzance :
Son impersonnalité, que si pauvrement on lui reproche : elle rêve pour nous
La forme est une écriture qui, dans sa simplification, sa recherche des symétries, peut suggérer une connivence de l’universel et de l’être , où s’efface notre présence - , puis découvrant que ses gauchissements, ses flexions, ses élongations dans le canon de Byzance sont autant de refus de cette rêverie dangereuse.
Un certain faste peut célébrer la transcendance d’un lieu . De même un dénuement conscient de soi peut rappeler la forme à sa charge terrestre, la substance
Et à mi-chemin de ce dénuement et de grands rituels, il faudra définir l’élégance, qui est une des filles de la douleur er , de Ravenne à Mozart, de Botticelli à Tiepolo, hante toutes les œuvres anxieuses de l’Occident. C’est Byzance qui la première a enseigné cette ascèse, qui demande au luxe l’éveil à tous les pouvoirs de nos sens, mais ne vit en ceux-ci que pour y méditer une absence. L’art byzantin, qui a désigné l’absolu, en sait aussi la distance. Il n’est pas, comme parfois Venise et souvent Rubens, l’assez vain déploiement d’une illusion de triomphe. »

(13) WB Yeats :
“But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come”

Part III of the angels trilogy : kitsch & misanthropy

I ‘d better bring this fluffy angel stuff to its close now. Not good for my street credibility at all. Although, frankly, angels dó belong to the streets, as firmly as rap-artists and hard-boiled detectives. Where else but on these mean streets, will a solitary wanderer find accompaniment in many an angelic statue?
Sure, angels are kitsch. So what, just another argument for their non-elitist street credibility! Kitsch, after all , does address (exploit?) the most genuine & heartfelt of human longings.

Yeah – angels are definitely all-inclusive symbols and can be substantiated with quotes ranging from Pico della Mirandola (1) to Robbie Williams (2) !

But there’ s something very pessimistic and misanthropic about angels too…. There’s a whole brooding tradition which pitches angels & their qualities against the woeful limitations of mere men & women. Montaigne did that (3), Pascal (4) did it and even Robbie Williams (2) does it. (5)

Then again – angels in the Robbie Williams version are of course nothing but fantasies of outcasts looking for something to fix their spurned affections on. But darn you reader, if you’re going to be disdainful about that. Lookin’ fer sumtin’ an someone ta love in an unfriendly world – why, this is not merely about teenage tearjerkers!

Anyone who, for whatever reason, does not quite fit into the dominant discourse of his or her environment, knows the dilemma - either go for the full integrity of the self, go for the self-assertion of the right to be and to be as one is(6). No compromises. And remain a proud misanthropic minority of one.

Or compromise, be selective in what you show, do not flaunt the full self. Accept being loved not for your full self but rather despite your true self (and for everyone’s sakes, don’t be bitter about that). And (the single redeeming feature of this charade), seize the opportunity (however warped, however imperfect) to love back.

As James Baldwin movingly wrote (7) , in an altogether different political context of revolt against white Western dominance, (as if he had to justify any lapse in unwavering aloofness vàv the dominant system):

“Whoever is part of whatever civilization helplessly loves some aspects of it and some of the people in it”.

fluttering footnotes
(1) See comments to
part II of the Angel Trilogy
(2) See comments to part I of the Angel Trilogy
(3) « [les hommes], au lieu de se transformer en anges, ils se transforment en bêtes, au lieu de se hausser, ils s’abaissent » - « [men] instead of transforming themselves into angels, they transform themselves into beasts, instead of raising themselves, they lower themselves »
(4) “L'homme n'est ni ange ni bête, et le malheur veut que qui veut faire l'ange fait la bête. » - “man is neither angel nor beast, and as ill-luck would have it, he who strives to be like an angel, acts like a beast”
(5) Now, quite apart from my own angel-spielerei here – and speaking as the earnest humanist I am: Montaigne may be more of a pragmatic & tolerant humanist than the crypto-catholic Pascal… Indeed, to Montaigne man has his dignity, precisely as man, i.e. as neither angel nor beast. As he states in the introduction to his essais: “ ma conscience se contente de soi, non comme de la conscience d’un ange ou d’un cheval, mais comme de la conscience d’un homme » - « my conscience will stick to itself, not as the conscience of an angel, nor as that of a horse, but as the conscience of a man” - But on the other hand, how modern this observation of Pascal, that a fundamentalist striving for absolute virtue turns men into monsters …
(6) Think I am paraphrasing Pat Barker here.
(7) Found the quote in a New Yorker