With Goethe, Barfield conceives of art as “the mediator between unknown laws operating in the object and unknown laws operating in the subject” (quoted in Worlds Apart 50). He quotes admiringly Plotinus’ dictum that “The arts do not simply imitate what they see but reascend to those principles [logoi] from which nature herself is derived” (quoted in Speaker’s Meaning 50).
We must be careful, however, not to expect too much from a history of art. The history of art does not equal the evolution of consciousness:
“Art-the practice of visual representation-has a history, a history moreover which is on record for study and reflection. . . . literature also has a history . . . [and] the study of it may indeed give us the history of ideas about perception. What it cannot give us is the history of perception itself. Whereas, if it be true that human perception in general is somehow inextricable from human practice in visual representation, then, since representation undoubtedly has a recorded history that can be studied, it must also be true that perception itself has a history; that it has by no means always been the same as it normally is today.”
Our understanding of the history and nature of art cannot, of course, be separated from our understanding of the evolution of consciousness.
“As long as nature continued to be apprehended as image [as it was for the Greeks and for the Middle Ages], it sufficed for the artist to imitate Nature. Inevitably, the life or spirit in the object lived on in his imitation, if it was a faithful one. For at the same time, it could not help being more than an imitation, inasmuch as the artist himself participated the being of the object.”
But as nature fell victim to the idolatry of the modern age, the artist was increasingly plagued by a paradox which necessitated a deleterious redirection of creative energy:
“the imitation of an idol is a purely technical process; which (as was quickly discovered) is better done by photography. Today an artist cannot rely on the life inherent in the object he imitates, any more than a poet can rely on the life inherent in the words he uses. He has to draw the life forth from within himself.”
Not surprisingly, Barfield has little time for abstraction in general and modern art in particular, upon which he heaps his most profound sarcasm. “In so far as they are genuine,” Barfield writes in Saving the Appearances,works of art
“are genuine because the artist has in some way or other experienced the world he represents. And in so far as they are appreciated, they are appreciated by those who are themselves willing to make a move towards seeing the world in that way, and, ultimately, therefore, seeing that kind of world.”
Modern artists, with their “pictures of a dog with six legs emerging from a vegetable marrow or a woman with a motorcycle substituted for her left breast” (Saving the Appearances 146), forget this (for Barfield at least) indisputable aesthetic credo. Longing to “escape from the slavery of imitation by penetrating to the creative source from which life springs, and to create afresh from there” the modern artist ‘rather than infringe the tabu,” seeks instead “to escape by expressing any imbecile whim and inventing any insipid abstraction, which will avoid the charge of ‘naturalness'” (Unancestral Voice 144).
The great lesson of modern art—that man participates in a directionally creator” relation to the natural world (a lesson available as well in the physics department)—remains to be learned.
“We had come at last [Barfield concludes in Saving the Appearances]to the point of realizing that art can no longer be content with imitating the collective representations, now these are themselves turning into idols. But instead of setting out to smash the idols, we have tamely concluded that nothing can now be art which in any way reminds us of nature—and that practically anything may be art, which does not. We have learned that art can represent nothing but Man himself, and we have interpreted this as meaning that art exists for the purpose of enabling Mr. Smith to “express his personality.” And all because we have not learnt—though our very physics shouts it at us—that nature herself is the representation of man.”