Art has always been a harbinger of historical trends, especially in the West. As declining religion gave way to proxies—political religions, new-age kookery, myopic scientism, and sacralized hedonism—art heralded the way.
If you’re surprised at how we ended up in the philosophical rabbit hole we live in today, you haven’t been paying attention to the licentious parade of agitprop, erotica, and narcissistic art populating the artistic imagination for the past 60 years. It’s not unrelated that an Impressionistic movement fuzzifying the borders of objective reality birthed a reaction 200 years later in Donald Trump’s beautiful wall.
This being so, examining the history of western art yields fruitful cultural self-reflection. So let’s do a little thought experiment on the man of the hour, Jesus, focusing on his gravitational pull on culture and art, as a philosophical totem signaling an attitude toward reality. What did artistic renderings of him mean for culture and subsequent history? And what did the loss of halos on Jesus portend for western history?
The Halo Signifies the Objectivity of the Word
The halo, borrowed from pagan art, endowed a subject with divinity. Early Christian iconographers haloed Christ to affirm his divinity, as the “Logos made flesh.” The concept of Logos is critical, because arguably the loss of a logo-centric cosmic architecture explains the decline of the West. How so?
The Greek word Logos means word, reason, or rationality. Logos is the basis of communication, by which two people commune with an objective quantum of conceptual stuff. Logoi (words) are what exist in an objective, material world of distinct and defined things, and Logos is their animating principle. In your mind, as your thoughts go from one communicable concept defined by clear, objective parameters (and a name) to the next, Logos is at work.
Logos is arguably the secret sauce of the West, leading to its quest for universal and objective truths that are accessible to all peoples equally, through the medium of human language. Logos trumps opinion, culture, myth, tradition, and idiosyncrasy. Logos is how reality can be knowable and communicable.
Our age, however, posits the ultimate plasticity and un-communicableness (save through math) of reality. Atoms and void alone are real and work in their weird ways to generate an ever-changing cosmos of evolving beings. As the deconstructionists taught us, any pretense to eternality is nothing more than human projection. Any culture, custom, or ethic is as valid as it is idiosyncratic. This pierces everything Logos stands for.
In this matrix comes Christ, declared by his followers to be the incarnate Logos, the primary, eternal Word through which all other beings come into being. With Christ’s resurrection and session to God’s right hand, a new reality is in play: something has defeated flux. Christ’s advent planted a rallying flag for subsequent Western thought: Here within the boundaries of this man’s flesh and blood is the very communication of Eternal Truth into our world. In this ever-changing world of flux, there is one material thing (the flesh and blood Jesus) that cannot and will not change. This sets the foundation for seeking fixed truth as such, as well as the premise for multiple cultures to communicate mutually accessible truths.
Back When Halos Mattered
Here is a Byzantine depiction of Christ typical of the era. The scene is golden and heavenly, lacking any earthly naturalism, save the flesh and blood person of Jesus and the saints below. This is key, for though the realm of God is ineffable, there sits the Logos in perfect communion. Permanently lodged in God’s company (golden heaven) is exactly what Adam lost and Christ restored.
More than that, because this is a son of man, Christ’s ascension and sitting at God’s right hand paves the way for the rest of humanity to enter into divine realms, witness Truth itself, and communicate it. Christ represents not only the Logos incarnate—on the divine side—but the capacity of humans to commune with that Logos, on the human side. You might say there’s peace on earth and God is well-pleased with man when Christ was born.
As a philosophical statement, Morris Berman rightly recognizes what’s going on in early Medieval art: “[E]xperience with the ‘god within’ [the Gnostic path] was effectively closed off.” For him, with his sympathies for Gnosticism, Christianity in the late ancient world became “cocooned,” typified by the “frozen body, and a frozen God” in the “stiff iconography of Carolingian art.”
Byzantine art has no tolerance for a “God-outside-the-box” piety we see frequently in our “spiritual but not religious” times. God is strongly bordered in the body and blood of an ascended Jesus, and by implication (because it’s an altar piece) in the church’s sacrament at the altar. As a philosophical totem, truth is divinized, and clearly demarcated, objective, external to us, and accessible. Eternal truth is open for business!
What Berman calls the “rediscovery of the Self in the eleventh and twelfth centuries”—when artists, incidentally, began signing their works—coincided with the rise of Gothic art, where Jesus is still haloed, but is seen in far more human, earthly contexts. Earthly naturalism enters art in the Gothic era; the gold background is gone, traded for a more natural blue.
We’re beginning to see a Jesus not enshrined in the heavens but in a more subjective context, opening up the possibility of “interiority” (Berman’s word). The characters in the paintings are not static icons of heavenly humanity, but earthly figures dealing with the tragic event of the cross, whose experience we are invited to share. Truth as a static object of contemplation, separated from us, is transitioning ever so subtly into something immersed in a subjective human context.
So far, so good. The halo still remains. The shift from the “now” of Jesus, the heavenly Lord of the Church, to the “then” of his life on earth anticipated the Renaissance quest for “ad fontes”—going back to the source. This is exactly what the gospels themselves do: draw the heart and mind to the historical events and teachings of Jesus.
The Halos Fade
But in the Renaissance, halos begin to fade. In this painting, full naturalism is on display in a balanced, if staged, setting. In philosophical terms, it’s like the Logos loses its upper case. The pure naturalism suggests an obsession with accuracy regarding the elements of the external world—with the logoi—anticipating the Scientific Revolution, but nothing in the painting is clearly divinized.
It suggests a question: Can the West go on with a pursuit of objective truth without a divinized Logos fueling that pursuit? The painting suggests an optimism—consider the serene landscape and calm expressions on the viewers’ faces—in a positive answer.
In subsequent art, the Mannerism and Baroque movements of the seventeenth century, various elements of subjectivism further distanced the Logos from his static place in heaven. By now the halo all but disappears.
This era presaged developments in philosophy from Rousseau, who divinized nature and established the role of human imagination in engaging with it. Nature is not static, so neither is the imagination (and art) which engages it. Mannerism’s gimmick of elongating bodies to give the illusion of movement began—again, ever so subtly—the move away from objective reality to the subjective experience of it. Baroque technique emphasized emotional subject material supported through the use of rich colors and light/dark contrasts.
Like Byzantine art, seventeenth-century art is distanced a bit from naturalism, but where Byzantine art is supernatural, symbolic, and reflective, the latter suggests an integral role of the artist, as a manipulator of emotions. Again, it fits the era of Rousseau, but also we see Nietzsche’s shadow creeping in, where due to the lack of any static objective reality, the artist must create reality.
On the heels of Hume’s skepticism about objective reality and Kant’s transcendentalism, the Impressionism movement begins the descent into full subjectivity. By now not only are halos rare, but so is Jesus, the Logos himself—there’s not a lot of Impressionistic religious art. Obviously in Impressionistic art nature plays a prominent role, yet, untethered from the orbit of the Logos, the boundaries of nature itself seem to dissolve into fuzzy and blurred mindscapes, the emphasis fully centered on the subject’s role in engaging, and determining, what nature means.
The idea of “artist as creator” articulated by Nietzsche arose almost in inverse proportion to the gradual loss of halos in art history and the rise of the self as the center of all meaning. Where art used to be a folk craft, and paintings unsigned, this changed with that “rediscovery” of the self in the Middle Ages. As the self and its impressions, emotions, and interpretations gradually trumped any pretense to objective truth, it slowly became its own creative force, creating its own realities. The one most adept at this creative activity became, in a sense, a new god, upending the Logos. This was Nietzsche’s exact prescription for modernity.
Certainly the art world paralleled his ideas. If the goal of deconstructionism is to tear down the logo-centric cosmic architecture of the past, trends in art history anticipated our era right about the time Impressionism devolved into subsequent modern art movements like Expressionism, surrealism, and abstract art. Put another way, are we surprised a culture fixated for several decades on truth as an impressionistic “what it means to me” or “I feel that” devolved into the expressionist understanding of the self in body art, or Hollywood’s surreal storylines, or the abstract re-definitions of marriage and gender? Nature doesn’t tolerate a vacuum, and when culture breaks out of the Logos’ orbital pull, it’s anyone’s guess what will fill the void.
So Where Does This All Lead?
The perfect terminus for our thought experiment on art history would be an image which, in the fine tradition of “Piss Christ,” might as well be titled “Piss Holy Spirit.” It’s a complete upending of the artistic tradition of golden rays coming from God into the Virgin. Here, the urinator takes the role of God, sending his own golden streams into Mary’s bosom.
Self as God. Pissing on sacred tradition, precisely at the point where the Logos became flesh. Herbert Marcuse said (referenced by Maureen Mullarkey in a great essay), “The truth of art lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality to define what is real.” Certainly this breaks any vestigial role the Logos had in establishing reality, literally pissing on the whole notion.
What does all this mean for today, particularly with the rise of Trump and the role of art during his administration? (Again, read Mullarkey—read a bunch of her, for that matter—for a fuller treatment on this question.) On one hand, avant garde, leftist artists have no one to blame but themselves if they’re worried about Trump and lurking fascism. What the hell do they think happens when you vacate and disorientate the human soul, when you tear down the West’s primary source of meaning, the Logos? Gee, people seek some sort of external order, a leader? There’s a reason the Nazis claimed Nietzsche as their own.
In Nietzsche’s shadow, per Marcuse, artists fancied they’d be the new leaders of a new age. Instead people have weighed the options—hmmm, reality show star versus anemic, pierced weirdo pissing on everything I hold sacred—and have made their choice.
On the other hand, they need Trump and the perception of a fascistic state, because it puts them in the context at which they’re most naturally suited, the role western art has created for the artist. They need to feel oppressed, because iconoclasm is their oxygen. (Read more about the psychological pathology here.)
They need to feel like the very cosmos is shackling their self-expression, all the better so their artistic ejaculations can earn the designation of “transgressive.” That’s because on Marcuse’s terms, non-transgressive art is not art. Things going their way are anticlimactic, a downer, reality being what it is. Therefore the pretense of “defining reality” must ever be possible, just around the corner, but never attained. They should thank Trump voters.
For the rest of us, a gander at the sublime meaning of an icon of the nativity, depicted by someone who believes in the Logos—might be just what’s needed this season.