Friday, September 16, 2022

Text As Decoration

We know that puritans smashed statues and stained glass and whitewashed over representational art. Notice that they also forbade the theater when they could get away with it, as in the northern colonies in America. 18th Century theater was Tidewater Virginia, not Connecticut - and not much Pennsylvania or New Jersey either. Notice that puritan music was hymns, and usually not sung in ways meant to be beautiful. Everyone sang in whatever key they wished, at whatever speed they wished, whatever version they wished. This is very odd for a culture that stressed community, especially the interdependence of believers in a particular place. Yet such was their fear of beauty as a snare that they strove to eliminate it as a temptations. The Quakers did much the same, though in a different way. Both dressed plainly, and their architecture was unadorned, stressing functionality.

I first wondered if we have ever recovered from that. I grew up Congregationalist, the standard New England expression, theologically and culturally related to the Presbyterian and other Reformed groups of the time. The Dutch had just come out of their period of greatest painting, and they retained that tradition, but steadily in decline in terms of beauty, becoming formulaic, less dramatic, and always imitative. All those reformed traditions receded in all the arts. In Scotland there is almost no evidence of theater in the 1600s. Can you name a Scottish playwright from the 1700s or even 1800s? (Sir Walter Scott a little. James Barrie moved to London and is more 1900s anyway.) Now try Dutch dramatists.  Or composers. Only in the 20th C do the cultures descended from puritan/reformed idol-destroying Christians start to use the arts again - and they are largely secular figures with secular art. The English are more mixed, as their culture was both Anglican and Nonconformist, but you will find that the Nonconformist sectors lag in producing artists of any sort. With an exception.

Yet all cultures have art, as I learned in Anthropology 101, so the puritans must also have slipped it in somewhere. As I was at a Presbyterian (that is, descended from puritan) retreat center with plaque after plaque commemorating who had donated for a particular building, bridge, or walkway, I noted that the overall effect was of words written everywhere, concentrating on verses of scripture, names, and dates.

The artistic energy went into words. Those cultures produced novelists - and essayists, poets, historians, expositors of natural science. The decoration in the churches was often intentionally words as well, with verses written over arches in beautiful scripts.  I mentioned this to one of the presenters at the conference, Hannibal Hamlin of Ohio State, asking him if we had ever recovered artistically from art-destroying culture, and mentioning that "we" (reformed tradition) seemed to have switched to a style of using text as decoration without anyone formally deciding that. Words, especially words from scripture, could be highlighted, made beautiful with calligraphy and elaborate letter-forms, and displayed even in places of worship. He picked up what I was saying instantly and found it interesting.  He also noted that this is exactly what Islam has done as well, and for the same reason of forbidding graven images. Verses from the Koran made beautiful are incorporated into buildings and other public displays.


Grim said...

Scotland there is almost no evidence of theater in the 1600s. Can you name a Scottish playwright from the 1700s or even 1800s? (Sir Walter Scott a little. James Barrie moved to London and is more 1900s anyway.)

I propose this is overdetermined. Scotland had a royal court to serve as patrons for playwrights before 1603. Afterwards the court moved to London, and favored English plays in the southern language.

If it were merely about text as ornament, poetry would also be diminished during the same period. Yet Scottish poetry flourished in the 1700s. Unlike playwrights, who have to hire actors and build stage sets, poets just need to figure out how to get enough money to eat. The great Scottish poets of the 1700s, especially after the 1707 Act of Union, were the rebels and revolutionaries who opposed the political system. These include especially Alasdair MacDonald and of course Robbie Burns.

There were other poets of the period with international reputations because they absorbed the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment, which was highly regarded among the international Enlightenment. I think of James MacPherson, for example.

So, maybe it's not just about Calvinism and opposition to textual beauty; maybe it's also about money, and the ability of political centers to provide it.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yet poetry is also words, like novels and the other word-based art I mentioned. I didn't say that text was the only art, only that it seems to have been the main visually decorative art, in contrast to more Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican places. And poetry is also only words, unlike the theater, which depends on performance. I suppose one could say that it could be recited, and there was some attention to lyrics of songs.

Scottish theater even in Scotland tended to be Shakespeare. Perhaps the dramatists were following the money and would have done more had they stayed home, but we can only speculate on that.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I should have made a clearer distinction between art with words, which is often printed, though with much less attention to appearance and decoration, and the use of text as a visual decorative element.