order to understand traditional art, we must be able to appreciate the
context into which it is inserted. Indeed, we must change the viewpoint
we moderns are accustomed to have on art. For the children of our historical
time, begun in the Renaissance, an evaluation of art is determined only
by the individualization of a series of separate objects or artifacts,
to which aesthetic characteristics are assigned in conformity with parameters
fixed by a "taste" as fickle as fashion. The same occurs with the subjective
philosophical and scientific concepts that, like items for consumption,
are one thing today and another tomorrow, without anyone's taking any genuine
interest in them except in function of the status they confer on those
who pretend to cultivate them.
On the contrary, no traditional artistic manifestation has a coincidental, arbitrary value set by an imaginary tribunal. Nor is it assigned a personal value in the sense of being a creative production issuing from the hands of a particular artist who seeks to indicate something of greater or lesser personal inspiration. For that matter, traditional artists are anonymous. Their main interest lies in being the expression of one concept in relationship with other, complementary ones, all now shaping a veritable symphony of interrelated meanings. In consort, those meanings mold the culture of which particular beings are the children, and in which they realize themselves, in the broadest extension of the word. After all, this culture represents the total sum of their individual possibilities.
For this reason, true works of art are symbolic, in the sense that they are the testimony of a series of ideas, which solidify in distinct manifestations and must necessarily produce objects manufactured with art-artistic objects-to the extent that they are faithful to an original archetype. And it is obvious that, unless that ideal archetype is known, be it cosmogonic, philosophic, or cultural, little can be appreciated of traditional art; this is not to deny its beauty of form, or the richness and technique with which it has been developed, and these will be the door to a far greater appreciation of this art, an appreciation directly tied to a deeper knowledge of what the works in question really represent. For the-genuinely interested-contemporary viewer, such works ought to found their value not on mere aesthetic enjoyment, such as it is understood today, but on their evocative potential, such as might open to us the doors of contemplation, which is authentically constituted by the direct perception of beauty.
But this cannot always be attained spontaneously or naturally. Rather the contrary: in most cases it will be the product of a training, a patient and concentrated apprenticeship. This will be specifically the case in a society like our own, a society totally alienated from symbolic keys and cosmogonical knowledge, a society that really ought to detach itself from its aesthetic prejudices and gradually begin to recover the capability of seeing the truth, which is now utterly befogged by all manner of created interests.
Jorge Luis Borges tells us: "Music, happy states, mythology, faces shaped by time, certain twilights, certain places, seek to tell us something, or have told us something that we ought not to have lost, or are about to tell us something. This imminence of a revelation unproduced is perhaps the aesthetic event." These words could well be a description of what we feel when confronted with the Precolumbian arts-architecture, crafts, codices, and so on, taken as expressions of their culture-that is, when we come face to face with the symbols of a traditional society and attempt to know the "world" by their intermediary.
Our first experience in the presence of the Precolumbian is an impression of mystery, of the sealed enigma, manifested in an apparently arranged and cohesive manner, the fruit of a thought unknown to us, a reality that escapes us and at the same time is manifested before our eyes. As we have already noted, this is a characteristic proper to all symbols-that they must be taught and learned in order to be known-and it becomes obvious in the ancient symbolical, mythologic, and ritual art of the New World as the expression of an overall conception of life, which the arts magically repeated and represented in a constant way that is enigmatic to us today. In this order of ideas, to the end that we may understand traditional cosmogony and theogony, perhaps we contemporaries ought to regard the world as a work of art-consider the universe to be the object of the most perfect design and the most finished, complete artistic manifestation. (After all, it contains everything possible, at the same time as containing every possibility.) Thus, the world will be the artistic act par excellence, the total expression of the creator-artist.
Subsequently, the authentic culture and true art traced by traditional and/or primitive men from the cosmic model and its archetypal laws and structures (the earthly city is a reflection of the heavenly city; see chap. 15) would be the loftiest and most extraordinary of human creations, and man would be an intermediary, as well as an architect in the image and likeness of the universal architect.
Culture and art, then, would be symbols, or complexes of symbols, revealing, through the great ritual act of a vibrant, vitalized society in movement, the possibility for metaphysical realization-for the superhuman and the supracosmic. Culture and art will be the mediators. Culture itself would have the form of a work of art, and an adequate launching pad for reaching the supernatural, were we only able to see that culture in its roots as the original response to all questions and needs, from the greatest to the humblest-the human response to the unfathomable mysteries of life.
Now, cultural manifestations would hold a different meaning for us; we should re-evaluate them, in conformity with these new parameters, and we should no longer regard them merely as a pile of attainments in the area of the useful and the material; or just as pretty things, exclusively profane and therefore completely relative; or as antiques; instead we should look upon them as living symbols representing powerful ideas, and energies, capable of springing to life through our understanding. Now the outline of cultural forms would be charged with meaning, and social, economic, and political organization, its uses and customs, its technology, its astronomical conceptions, would be forms of its art, organized by their authorities, priests, and chiefs, in charge of the people's life and preservation, their governance and their destiny-who performed a role in the world, as did the nation itself-in conformity with precise standards, of mythic origin, perfectly regulated by tradition, revealed in a nontemporal moment and constantly re-applied in the present. That is, art would also be the complex of actions, of rites performed by a traditional society that shapes its culture (as object of art), by means of man as artist and re-creator (as subject of art).
We must indicate, furthermore, that art in a traditional society is a rite, and that the basic presuppositions of societies of this type-such as the Precolumbian-include in their vision of the world the interrelationship of all things. A consequence of this interrelationship is an animate universe, whose parts all function in mutual solidarity, a universe that can be influenced by the magic rite of art, both on an individual level and in the expression of huge mass representations. (Of course, a like magic rite may take forms as strange for persons of today as the ceremonies of ritual execution or sacrifice intended to placate and order the cosmic energies personalized by their deities.)
Hence the fact that traditional dances and songs are invocations and spells, and the totality of social and personal actions an ongoing act of worship. Man as artist re-creates, perennially, the divine plan, the cosmic model, and, in identification with the numina and the spirits, is the manifest ontological protagonist of the creative act, as we readily observe in the case of the initiates, priests, and shamans. Rite, magic, and art are synonymous, then, and particular representative objects, such as certain statues (misnamed idols), artifacts of worship, talismans, and so forth, are charged with energies and power.1
At the same time, for a traditional civilization or a primitive society there is no distinction between art and science, since both disciplines refer to the same thing. After all, they are both instrumental ways of knowing, and of manifesting the known, through a set of symbols-through a symbolism-which reveals on the human level the secrets of the cosmos and nature, and thus revives those secrets, activating them through the precise, necessary acts that have the capacity to transmit, in orderly fashion, these same mysteries and the energies that mold them. Indeed, there is no divorce whatever between science and art, and all authentic science is actually practiced with art, and thus balanced and clear, as the imperative of harmony requires. The same occurs with the distinction between the various arts, which is only formal. A painter 'poetizes', a writer paints, a musician does architecture, an architect combines rhythms, and so on. Actually, all of these artists manifest something that transcends their work: invisible images and archetypal structures that, while exact in themselves, are expressed in different ways-generating distinct codes, but preserving the one sole unseizable essence of the hidden mover that is developed in these seemingly dissimilar discourses.
The latter phenomenon is also that of the various traditional doctrines and cultures, in which the deities are identical, and point to the same principles, despite their having different names and at times seeming to vary in their attributes. This was already known to the Western ancients. Plutarch, in his moral treatise, Isis and Osiris, tells us:
The true artist, then, is a mediator between the known and the unknown-between an invisible level of reality, and a level manifested by its intermediary. He is a magician, or better, a shaman, who knows himself by way of himself, and who reveals to his people the mysteries of the hidden world by way of a journey, or immersion in the underworld, whence he extracts the treasures of creation-of Truth or Beauty-emulating, throughout, the figure of the Demiurge, with whom he identifies.
Art, then, should likewise be considered in relation to the esoteric and initiatory, as the traditional and primitive societies have done: unanimously, they have seen in the arts and crafts ritual forms of apprenticeship and knowledge, as we know to be the case with the medieval guilds and confraternities, legacy of the Romans' colleges, as well as in countless instances of kings and sages. Examples of these latter would be, among the Hebrews, David of the harp and psalms, to whom the plan of the Temple was revealed, and his descendant, Joseph the carpenter. Among the Mesoamerican natives, we could cite the celebrated king of Tezcoco, Nezahualcóyotl, as well as, almost surely, the entire ruling class of the náhuatl, those excellent poets and singers, who recited their books of "paintings," the marvelous codices that still astound and enchant us today. At the same time, they taught and recalled the cosmogonical, rhythmical, cyclical, and calendarical content of these codices, in schools established specifically for this purpose.
Indeed, the Mesoamerican calendars expressed the science of rhythms and cycles, and thereby constituted the core of all cultural and private manifestations-the axis of the life of peoples and persons, who wove their existence around them. As comprehensive works of art, they housed within them all sciences and cognitions, and for centuries constituted the maximal expression of these peoples, regulating everything, from the name (and destiny) of persons-that is, their identity-to those same persons' rites and social activities. This regulation occurred not after the fashion of the merely profane calendars to which we are accustomed, but as the interrelation and perfect combination of all possibilities, connected in a fantastic dance. In this marvelous, transcendent universe, nature and its realms, rocks, plants, animals, human beings, gods, the movements of the planets and stars, the history of all these, their symbolic colors, the cardinal points, the weekly, monthly, and annual cycles, and the great eras-that is, space and time harmonized by the exact and fully reliable magic of numbers-played a decisive role. In this universe everything was included, not only in the present but in the past and in the future as well, in virtue of the laws of analogy and of the indefinite return.
In a context of these ideas, nothing will be more extraordinary as a scientific discovery and work of art than agriculture itself (the culture of the field), which denotes a real knowledge of the cycles and rhythms in which it is precisely founded.3 Let us recall, however, that, while culture is art, art shapes culture, too. And we must appreciate here not only the civilizations of sedentary peoples, who have crystallized their knowledge and abilities in the cultivation of the field, as well as in the stable construction of their homes or cities of wood or stone, or in their calendars; but we must also see the value of the art and science of the nomadic or seminomadic peoples (of whom some engaged in a certain amount of farming, and were ruled by particular cycles), who molded and created a culture perfectly adapted to their characteristics and adjusted to their needs. The nomadic societies were also traditional peoples, with a cosmogony and a clear and precise culture, and not savage hordes sunken in bestiality, as some imagine. Such is the case with numerous tribes of North America (United States and Canada) as with the southern cone of South America (Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile).
Actually-to continue with our discourse-we ought to see religion as art, ways of living as art, different ceremonies as art, social and political organization as art, and so forth. That is, we ought to see all symbolic manifestations as artistic-having the capacity to transmit and re-create the ontological energies of the cosmos and so modify it. Innumerable Precolumbian images, charged with power and beauty, will now suddenly fill the mind: the art of the tattoo, and body painting, the austere technique of applying Eskimo instruments in fishing and hunting, North American basketmaking, ceramic portraits-Mochicas and Chimus,-the art of feather arrangement, medicine everywhere, the textiles of Paracas and Guatemala, the Toltec, Nahuatl, Mayan, and Andean cities, temples, and monuments, and thronging ceremonies of dancers with their incredible clothing and headdresses, those gigantic spectacles of movement and color. Then there are the gold work of Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica, objects of jade, and the huge Olmec sculptured heads, artifacts of daily use in general, Mayan writing, ball games and other ritual and sacred games, war as a "sport," the roads of Yucatan and of the Incas, Incan hydraulic engineering, and that of Tenochtitlan, installed in a lake, oral tradition (stories and legends), picture writing, symbolic adornment fashioned of all possible materials, codices and holy books, poems, music: the architecture of resounding space (and art of the fleeting time, so that today we have only the instruments with which it was created), of rhythmic base, intertwining the melodies with the sounds of nature: the singing of the wind in the leaves, the murmur of the rivers and the rumbling of the sea, the chirping of the birds, the sudden tinkling of bells, the onslaught of bellowing beasts, the thundering of the storm. . . .
All of this constitutes part of traditional, or sacred, art, which, as the reader will readily grasp, is completely different from what is understood nowadays by "religious" art. Actually, the difference between sacred art and religious art is the same as that between the symbol as a traditional and/or primitive society conceives it (as an acting energy-force), and allegory understood as the "illustration" of a truth that has ceased to be palpable in itself and hence must be represented in some other form. There is an obvious distinction (a space, let us say) between these two ways of seeing the symbolic-the second being a degradation of the first and closely bound up with a loss of "vision" due historically to the gradual darkening that typifies the "fall" and the end of the current cycle, where the authentically metaphysical, and real knowledge, have been supplanted in our culture by religious devotion and piety of a moral content, as our art unfailingly attests.
Nor, despite the fact that it constantly deals with transcendental themes-or precisely for that reason-does art have to be engouled, solemn, and boring, not to say affected, or obstreperous, or eccentric, as we so often see in the architecture, sentimental prints, and current religious music with which one fancies the faithful to be moved to sanctimony, to the "sublime," or converts to be won. On the contrary, traditional art is entertaining, dazzling, even comical, as we are given to know by mythology, and by the fables narrated orally and collectively.
Indeed, it can be light and even grotesque, as evinced by the sacred-courtly art of all peoples, in which buffoons (to cite only one example), as a reversed image of the attributes of royalty, have played roles of this type. Laughter, too, like play, is cathartic, and both effect breaches of level in the tedious ordinary versions of the spatio-temporal, readings produced by the senses to which we tend by reason of our nature, as we bury ourselves in forgetfulness of the self.
We must add that, as to the subjective appraisals that render a particular work ugly or beautiful, they can be only secondary-as they are relative-in a type of view such as the one that we are here expounding. For the traditional conception of art, any work that translates, gives knowledge of, or manifests the mystery of the unknown at the sensible level is necessarily beautiful, because it is a part of the whole, and therefore the whole itself, which renders authentic art a theophany.
Throughout these pages, we have seen the importance attributed to symbol (and thus to myth and rite) in a traditional society, which revolves around the sacred from start to finish-and expresses it through the artistic manifestation-regarding it as the central element in its vision of the world and therefore the marrow of its culture. The only thing that we have done is to call attention to what all ancient societies have attested, and what their sages (or persons of knowledge) have revealed in testimony of their inspiration: the symbol and the symbolic way as esoteric, magical vehicles for an approach to the most secret arcana of the mystery of being-that is, of man and the universe.
Today, however, symbols and myths are unknown to us. This is extremely grave, when we consider the endless rites of purification, the ceremonies of every kind, the constant reverence paid to the deities in order to continue to obtain their benefits and not alter the cosmic equilibrium, and so on, practiced by traditional and/or primitive societies. Seeing that these rites are regarded as indispensable for the individual and social life, the question arises how human beings and society have been able to subsist thus far. After all, in our modern era, as for many years now, they have not been performed. The answer is clear. One need only glance at a newspaper, or look around, to see the manifestation of a total crisis that now threatens our very integrity on a universal scale. We ought to know that the "end of a world" has always been produced by the chaos generated by the degradation of the symbol, with its consequent absence of Knowledge and proliferation of darkness.
True, a number of criteria have been indicated in this work to explain the concepts of symbol, myth, rite, cosmogony, and art, as well as certain fundamental symbols such as those of the center and the axis, the quaternary, the distinction between the sacred and the profane, and so forth. Nevertheless, this book is addressed to a Western, contemporary readership steeped willy-nilly in the values and criteria of modern society. For the actors or protagonists of a traditional and/or primitive culture, the concepts listed above, beginning with those of symbol, myth, rite, and art, have no reason to exist-for the majority, they do not even have a name in their vocabulary-since they are experienced in a direct fashion, and have no need of an intellectual explanation or of a reflection, in order to be, in the best of cases, authentically understood. They simply constitute the individual and group life, and as such are included in the totality of their thoughts, beliefs, and actions, which are not limited to indicating the sacred, but generate it, as well. We, the children of this "civilization," are the ones who must perform the long labor of swimming upstream against the current to find the original and the permanent, which at the same time can only be the simplest, most practical, and most intelligent.
But in no way will our journey be in vain. Quite to the contrary, this return to the sources is indispensable, since in this fashion the psyche executes a complete turn upon itself (upon the total content of its images), and thus we regenerate our present, which is tantamount to finding ourselves, to discovering a meaning for life and accepting destiny. Actually, if we think about it, what we have here is an extraordinary opportunity: the opportunity to attain ultimate Knowledge and Supreme Identity, in all of their concrete reality, by the routes of the comprehension of cosmogony, ontology, and metaphysics-a comprehension manifested by the art of all peoples, in this case by the Precolumbians, in perfect correspondence with those of the Old World-through the mediation of Truth, also called Beauty, that stage of consciousness that lies dormant in the soul of the spectator and at times even of the person who is the artist.
In the case of the indigenous cultures, the scaffolding of preconceptions, impressibility, and fantasies is vast. To pull down our false interior structures and emerge from ignorance will be a true intellectual toil-in which study, meditation and concentration on the symbol, traditional forms, the philosophy and anthropology, physics and metaphysics, together with the art of the early Americans, will serve us as cathartic vehicles of knowledge. In other words, they will permit us to escape our so lightly accepted appraisals, and those conditionings of ours to which we so foolishly and fatally cling. And this toil of comprehension and synthesis will prepare the ground for a new mental field, a space that will be different, in which things, and the vision we have of them and of ourselves, will be different, and will be experienced as more authentic and real, in the sense of no longer conceiving them (or no longer conceiving ourselves) as beings isolated from all context and simply objects among other objects. Instead, we shall choose to experience ourselves as subjects of universal Knowledge, and thus as sharers in something living and mysterious, ever current-and thereby ahistorical, or transhistorical-open to realization by each individual in the secrecy of his intimacy.
Both for those born in Europe and for Americans, the discovery, in these current times, that the symbols and cultural manifestations of the Old and New World refer to the same realities, and are essentially identical (in spite of the fact that their culture and education deny those symbols and their meanings and for that reason are ignorant of the identities) is an emotional and intellectual shock. The authentic acceptance of this fact is equivalent to an in-depth task performed upon oneself, one that will issue in the abolition of an entire world of hollow images and the consequent birth of new perspectives of every kind. It is likewise the reconciling of the opposites that characterize two seemingly contradictory cultures, and an assimilation of the legacy of both at that point at which they do not exclude, but complement each other. It may even mean the finding, in a personal way, of the meaning of the discovery of America, sung by Saint John of the Cross as the sighting of a "strange island;" image of a genuinely new world, symbolically located in what were then the Indies, later to become the "terra firma of the Ocean Sea," a mythical paradise having direct connections with a new possibility of being, which is the same thing as finding in an individual a historical destiny in a meaningful world.
|1||"It should not be surprising that persons most lacking in instruction should take statues as blocks of stone or wood, just as they see in steles, tablets, or books only stones, wood, or bound paper" (Porphyry, On the Images of the Gods).|
|2||Let us recall that numbers are concepts of relation.|
|3||We should note that the Precolumbians always attribute this revelation of agriculture, like the "gift" of maize, to a god.|