January 16 2015

An etherialization of our modern Western Art which took place in the course of the eighteenth century, when the sceptre passed from the art of Architecture to the art of Music and when the élan of the Western artistic impulse was thus, as it were, translated from the grosser medium of stone into the subtler medium of sound, has been traced out by Oswald Spengler in one of the most interesting passages of his magnum opus.

“About the year 1740, when Euler was beginning to establish the definitive formulation of Functional Analysis, there arose the Sonata, which is the maturest and the highest form of the instrumental style … . Therewith begins the reign of Music over all the other arts. In the field of the plastic arts Music banishes statuary and tolerates nothing but the completely musical and finikinly un-Hellenic and counter-Renaissance Kleinkunst of porcelain, which was invented at a time when chamber music was winning its way to a position of decisive importance. Whereas the plastic art of the Gothic age is architectonic ornament – rows of human figures – through and through, the plastic art of the Rococo period is a significant example of an art which is only plastic superficially, while in reality it is under the domination of Music – which is its opposite in the circle of the arts – and is speaking in the language of musical form. This reveals the degree to which it is possible for the technique that governs the foreground of artistic life to be in contradiction with the spirit of the world of forms which this technique creates (pace the usual aesthetic theory which assumes that spirit and technique stand to each other in the relation of a cause and an effect). Compare the crouching Venus of Coyzevox (A.D. 1686) in the Louvre with her Hellenic forerunner in the Vatican, and you will see the difference between plastic art treated as music and plastic art working in its own right. In Coyzevox’s work, the sense of movement, the flow of the lines, and the fluidity that has been imparted to the very essence of the stone – which, like porcelain, has somehow lost its solidity and mass – can be described most aptly in musical terms: staccato, accelerando, andante, allegro. Hence the feeling that somehow the close-grained marble is here out of place. Hence, too, the altogether un-Hellenic reliance on effects of light and shade: a device which corresponds to what has been the leading principle of oil-painting since Titian. The quality which the Eighteenth Century called colour – whether in an engraving or in a drawing or in a group of statuary – really means music. This quality governs the painting of Watteau and Fragonard and the art of the Gobelins and pastels. Do we not talk, from that day to this, of ‘colour-tones’ and ‘tone-colours’? And is this not a recognition of an equivalence finally attained between two arts that are superficially so different? And are not all such designations meaningless in reference to all Hellenic Art? Music even succeeded in recasting, in its own spirit, the Baroque architecture of Bernini. It re-cast it into Rococo; and the transcendental Rococo ornamentation is ‘played’ over by lights which are virtually musical tones, and which perform the function of resolving roofs, walls, arches and everything that is constructive and concrete into polyphony and harmony: an architectural music whose trills, cadences and passaggios carry to the point of identity the assimilation of the architectural semantic of these halls and galleries to the music which was conceived for them. Dresden and Vienna are the homes of this late and shortlived wonderland of chamber music and billowy furniture and mirror-rooms and pastoral poetry and porcelain-groups. This is the last expression of the Western soul: an expression of autumnal ripeness with a touch of autumn sunshine. The Vienna of the Vienna Congress saw it die and disappear.” [Footnote: Spengler, Oswald: Der Untergang des Abendlandes, vol. i (Munich 1930, Beck), pp. 318-20. […] The same theme is developed by Heard, G., in The Ascent of Humanity (London 1938, Cape), pp. 226-8.]

Translation presumably by Toynbee. Charles Francis Atkinson’s translation of this passage is here. His closing sentences seem preferable. “It is the final brilliant autumn with which the Western soul completes the expression of its high style. And in the Vienna of the Congress-time it faded and died.” Spengler has: “Sie ist der letzte, herbsthaft sonnige, vollkommene Ausdruck großen Stils der abendländischen Seele. Im Wien der Kongreßzeit starb er dahin.”

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934

2 Responses to “Etherialization”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Toynbee actually writes not “pastels” but “Pastelle”, an obvious misreading.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Etherialisation is happening these days with computer hardware, including phones.

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