Andre Malraux and his Metamorphosis of the Gods tapped into the less than independent pretensions of modernism…
…But whatever the amalgam of ideas, the precise mixture was Malraux’s own; and it was sweepingly, exhiliratingly persuasive when the “world beyond” of Malraux’s theory is in some measure a religious world. The view that art is determined by faith- by man’s picture of himself and his gods- makes at least as much sense as the more familiar idea that it is determined by society, or economics, or history; because ultimately, all these in their turn are determined by fate. The thery also works negatively, when it is applied to pictures in no obvious way connected with religion; a Renaissance canvas glorifying man also says something about faith, or its absence. The break in Malraux’s great arch occurs when he tries to equate the “world beyond” with the world of art itself.
In the preface to La Metamorphose, which actually reaches beyond the time-span of the book itself, Malraux writes: ‘The Milmaid’ by Vermeer, ‘The Housekeeper’ by Chardin certainly do not belong in a world of Truth in the sense of the Egyptian statues or the kings of Chartres…Nor do they belong to the exalted world of the unreal which, in the cases of Michelangelo and Rembrandt, succeeded to the eternal. The sculptor of Zoser undertook to ‘eternalize’ a Pharaoh; Vermeer did not undertake to do so with a milkmaid. And yet the word ‘eternalize’ stops us. Did Vermeer not also try to lift something out of time?”
Vermeer painted his picture that way because he wanted it to “enter the world in which the surviving works of the past are united…The Egyptian sculptor believed that he could release his model from time. Vermeer wanted to release his picture from time.” ( to be continued)…
Derek Allan:Thus while we continue to use the word art—hallowed, after all, by centuries of usage since the Renaissance—its meaning has altered fundamentally. Moreover, and most importantly for our purposes at this conference, the change is signalled not only by the nature of the art created, but also by the range of works resuscitated. For in falling back exclusively on that ‘immemorial impulse of creative art: the desire to build up a world apart and self-contained’, modern art has simultaneously opened our eyes to that same impulse in a vast range of works from other cultures whose admission to the ranks of art had never previously been contemplated.
Now we can begin to see the deeper significance of the ‘aesthetic revolution’ I discussed at the beginning of my remarks, and reason why it took place.We today, Malraux is arguing, inhabit a world of art that is quite unprecedented and radically different from that which preceded it. The combination of an agnostic culture—a culture that owes allegiance to no fundamental value—and the discovery by Manet and subsequent artists of an art that relies solely on its own power to create another world, has made us progressively aware, for the first time, of this same power in countless works of the past and of other cultures. Every work of art—every object, that is, that we now call a work of art—whether from our own culture or from another, has at its core, Malraux is saying, this same ‘urge to build up a world apart and self contained’ or, in the terms I used earlier, the urge to construct a coherent world rivalling the chaos of appearances. The emergence in the West over the past century of an art dependent exclu
ly on this power has simultaneously made us aware of this same quality in the works of the distant past and of other cultures.
This is why we have, for the first time, welcomed into the world of art—the new world of art—objects from cultures as various as Pre-Columbian America, Ancient Egypt, Africa, India—and of course Byzantium as well—all of which, previously, were rigorously excluded.