THE FUNCTION OF ART
AS AN EXPRESSION OF
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
I AM no artist: I am a geologist - in other words I am simply a prospector whose field is the past; and I have therefore no right to address this gathering. Nevertheless, I have recently had occasion to concern myself with human energy, its value, its use, and its future; and in so doing I have had to examine the various forms assumed by the activity of the world we live in. And this is what I thought I could more or less distinguish, but what only you, who are artists, can see completely, can express unambiguously, and can make real.
In the first place, so far as I understand art, it is a universal perfection which appears as a luminous fringe around every form in which the vital is realized, as soon as the realization attains the perfection of its expression. There is a supreme art in the fish, the bird, the antelope.
In man, however, art, true art, becomes something more than this. It ceases to be a fringe and becomes an object, something endowed with a special life. It becomes individualised; and it then appears in the world as the form assumed in the world by that particular exuberance of energy, released from matter, which characterises mankind.
A large proportion of this excess of energy in quest of employment is no doubt absorbed by science and philosophy. Science and philosophy would never have been born, nor would they continue to develop, had not the earth possessed, as a result of technological progress, a constantly increasing store of power available for use. At the same time, they are closely connected with the collective fulfilment of the human organism; and we have no difficulty in seeing them as a legitimate and essential extension of life's progress.
In art, on the other hand, we still find, unimpaired, the freedom and even the imaginative fancy, which is characteristic of an ebullition of energy in its native form. In the shimmer of radiance it casts over human civilisation, does it not make us think of the countless tints, prodigal and yet without function, which decorate the calyces of flowers or the wings of butterflies?
The question then arises for the engineer or biologist, whose primary concern is to measure the spiritual yield of things, 'Is art simply a sort of expenditure and dissipation, an escape of human energy? Its characteristic being, as is sometimes said, that it serves no purpose? Or is the contrary true, that this apparent uselessness hides the secret of its practical efficiency?'
As many others have done before me, I have asked myself this question: and it has seemed to me that, far from being a luxury or a parasitical activity, art fulfilled a threefold necessary function in the development of spirit throughout the ages.
In the first place, I maintain, art serves to give the over-plus of life which boils up in us the first elementary degree of consistence through which that drive, initially completely internal, begins to be realized objectively for all of us. A feeling may be vivid, but it still lacks something, or cannot be communicated to others, unless it is expressed in a significant act, in a dance, a song, a cry. It is art that provides this song or cry for the anxieties, the hopes, and the enthusiasms of man. It gives them a body, and in some way materialises them.
Thereby, too, by the very fact that it gives these impulses a sensible form, art idealises them and already to some degree it intellectualises them. The artist, I imagine, would be wrong, and indeed has often gone astray, in trying painfully to introduce a thesis or doctrine into his work. In his case, it is intuition and not reason that should be dominant. But if the work does truly issue from the depths of his being, with the richness of musical harmony, then we need have no fear: it will be refracted in the minds of those upon whom it falls, to form a rainbow of light. More primordial than any idea, beauty will be manifest as the herald and generator of ideas.
Through its power of symbolic expression, art thus gives the spiritual energy that is being produced on earth its first body and its first face. But it fulfils a third function in relation to that energy, one that is the most important of all. It communicates to that energy, and preserves for it, its specifically human characteristic, by personalising it. Science and thought, it is true, call for an incommunicable originality in those who excel in them; but the thinker's originality, or the scientist's, may well be swallowed up in the universality of the conclusions he expresses. The scientist is comparatively soon swamped in the collective creation to which he devotes himself. The artist, precisely because he lives by his imagination, can ignore and counterbalance this cancelling-out of the human worker by his work. The more the world is rationalised and mechanised, the more it needs 'poets' as the ferment within its personality and its preservative.
In short, art represents the area of furthest advance around man's growing energy, the area in which nascent truths condense, take on their first form, and become animate, before they are definitively formulated and assimilated.
This is the effective function and role of art in the general economy of evolution.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's contribution, 13 March 1939, at an artists' luncheon arranged in Paris by the Centre d'Etudes des Problemes humains. (Toward The Future, translated by René Hague, London 1975)
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