ANANDA K. COOMARASWAMY SYMBOLS AND SIGNS

The caves of Altamira

Since the most remote antiquity Man has used symbol

as means of communication were everyday reality

Acquires a character of sacred, or the other way around

The Sacred become tangible through symbols.

B. A.

Dr. Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (1877-1947)

Symbols and signs, whether verbal, musical, dramatic or plastic, are means of communication. The references of symbols are to ideas and those of signs to things. One and the same term may be symbol or sign according to its context: the cross, for example, is a symbol when it represents the structure of the universe, but a sign when it stands for crossroads. Symbols and signs may be either natural (true, by innate propriety) or conventional (arbitrary and accidental), traditional or private. With the language of signs, employed indicatively in profane language and in realistic and abstracted art, we shall have no further concern in the present connection. By “abstracted art” we mean such modern art as willfully avoids recognizable representation, as distinguished from “principial art”, the naturally symbolic language of tradition.

The language of traditional art—scripture, epic, folklore, ritual, and all the related crafts—is symbolic; and being a language of natural symbols, neither of private invention nor established by conciliar agreement or mere custom, is a universal language. The symbol is the material embodiment, in sound, shape, color or gesture as the case may be, of the imitable form of an idea to be communicated, which imitable form is the formal cause of the work of art itself. It is for the sake of the idea, and not for its own sake, that the symbol exists: an actual form must be either symbolic—of its reference, or merely an unintelligible shape to be liked or disliked according to taste. The greater part of modern aesthetics assumes (as the words “aesthetic” and “empathy” imply) that art consists or should consist entirely of such unintelligible shapes, and that the appreciation of art consists or should consist in appropriate emotional reactions. It is further assumed that whatever is of permanent value in traditional works of art is of the same kind, and altogether independent of their iconography and meaning. We have, indeed, a right to say that we choose to consider only the aesthetic surfaces of the ancient, oriental, or popular arts; but if we do this, we must not at the same time deceive ourselves so as to suppose that the history of art, meaning by “history” an explanation in terms of the four causes, can be known or written from any such a limited point of view. In order to understand composition, for example, i.e. the sequence of a dance or the arrangement of masses in a cathedral or icon, we must understand the logical relation of the parts: just as in order to understand a sentence, it is not enough to admire the mellifluent sounds, but necessary to be acquainted with the meanings of separate words and the logic of their combinations. The mere “lover of art” is not much better than a magpie, which also decorates its nest with whatever most pleases its fancy, and is contented with a purely “aesthetic” experience. So far from this, it must be recognized that although in modern works of art there may be nothing, or nothing more than the artist’s private person, behind the aesthetic surfaces, the theory in accordance with which works of traditional art were produced and enjoyed takes it for granted that the appeal to beauty is not merely to the senses, but through the senses to the intellect: here “Beauty has to do with cognition”; and what is to be known and understood is an “immaterial idea” (Hermes), a “picture that is not in the colors” (LankāvatāraSūtra), “the doctrine that conceals itself behind the veil of the strange verses” (Dante), “the archetype of the image, and not the image itself” (St. Basil). “It is by their ideas that we judge of what things ought to be like” (St. Augustine).

Beauty has to do with cognition pict. by rosenthal

It is evident that symbols and concepts—works of art are things conceived, as St. Thomas says, per verbum in intellectu—can serve no purpose for those who have not yet, in the Platonic sense, “forgotten”. Neither do Zeus nor the stars, as Plotinus says, remember or even learn; “memory is for those that have forgotten”, that is to say, for us, whose “life is a sleep and a forgetting”. The need of symbols, and of symbolic rites, arises only when man is expelled from the Garden of Eden; as means by which a man can be reminded at later stages of his descent from the intellectual and contemplative to the physical and practical levels of reference. We assuredly have “forgotten” far more than those who first had need of symbols, and far more than they need to infer the immortal by its mortal analogies; and nothing could be greater proof of this than our own claims to be superior to all ritual operations, and to be able to approach the truth directly. It was as signposts of the Way, or as a trace of the Hidden Light, pursued by hunters of a super‑sensual quarry, that the motifs of traditional art, which have become our “ornaments”, were originally employed. In these abstract forms, the farther one traces them backward, or finds them still extant in popular “superstition”, agricultural rites, and the motifs of folk-art, the more one recognizes in them a polar balance of perceptible shape and imperceptible information; but, as Andrae says (Die ionische Säule, Schlusswort), they have been more and more voided of content on their way down to us, more and more denatured with the progress of “civilization”, so as to become what we call “art forms”, as if it had been an aesthetic need, like that of our magpie, that had brought them into being. When meaning and purpose have been forgotten, or are remembered only by initiates, the symbol retains only those decorative values that we associate with “art”. More than this, we deny that the art form can ever have had any other than a decorative quality; and before long we begin to take it for granted that the art form must have originated in an “observation of nature”, to criticize it accordingly (“That was before they knew anything about anatomy”, or “understood perspective”) in terms of progress, and to supply its deficiencies, as did the Hellenistic Greeks with the lotus palmette when they made an elegant acanthus of it, or the Renaissance when it imposed an ideal of “truth to nature” upon an older art of formal typology. We interpret myth and epic from the same point of view, seeing in the miracles and the Deus ex machina only a more or less awkward attempt on the part of the poet to enhance the presentation of the facts; we ask for “history”, and endeavor to extract an historical nucleus by the apparently simple and really naive process of eliminating all marvels, never realizing that the myth is a whole, of which the wonders are as much an integral part as are the supposed facts; overlooking that all these marvels have a strict significance altogether independent of their possibility or impossibility as historical events.

1895 painting by Edwin Austin Abbey shows the Arthurian knight Sir Galahad discovering the fabled Holy Grail.

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About theburningheart

Blog: KoneKrusosKronos.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in ANANDA K. COOMARASWAMY, Ancient Civilizations, Archetypes, Language of Signs, Metaphor, Myth, Mythology, Symbology, Symbols, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to ANANDA K. COOMARASWAMY SYMBOLS AND SIGNS

  1. Semra Polat says:

    But when Jesus felt [persistence in] disbelief from them, he said, “Who are my supporters for [the cause of] Allah ?” The disciples said,” We are supporters for Allah . We have believed in Allah and testify that we are Muslims [submitting to Him].Surat ‘Ali `Imran [3:52] – The Noble Qur’an

  2. What an interesting discussion of symbols and what is conceived…!

  3. Maria F. says:

    I love
    “We interpret myth and epic from the same point of view, seeing in the miracles and the Deus ex machina only a more or less awkward attempt on the part of the poet to enhance the presentation of the facts; we ask for “history”, and endeavor to extract an historical nucleus by the apparently simple and really naive process of eliminating all marvels, never realizing that the myth is a whole, of which the wonders are as much an integral part as are the supposed facts; overlooking that all these marvels have a strict significance altogether independent of their possibility or impossibility as historical events.”
    I like that!

    • theburningheart says:

      Thank you for your comment, few people now days fathom the importance of myth, on many post in my blog I stress the importance of myth to the point I wrote a post titled :MYTHOLOGY VS HISTORY, A SEARCH FOR A RATIONALE OF BEING on September 2011.

      I particularly find hideous, and of no use the rationalization of myth, like is common now days by different authors, or movies were they try to come with a somewhat plausible rational explanation to a story who is based totally on myth like for example King Arthur.
      Authors and movie directors, following the fashion of our technological dark age, based on science, and logical way of thinking with pretentious to historical accuracy, rush to give us their take in to these myths, ignoring that their creators conceived them with their own very different view of the world as we have today.

      Not only that, what they portray it is not accurate historically, since we all agree to be a myth, to begin with, like debating what type of pipe Sherlock Holmes smoked, since now Sherlock Holmes, and the many takes we have on him, it’s possess of a mythical character, since coming from the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a fictional character who never existed.
      But in their eagerness to rationalize Myth, they had lost the point of such stories! Which of course is not to appeal to our objective left side brain, but to our subjective right side brain, our Hearts…
      I guess every age will be at one point a dated, an old fashioned take, to be interpreted by the zeitgeist of the moment, not necessarily better, correct, or accurate, just another view, who will have no doubt their critics, and historians, with many takes on it…

      Thank you for your comment, and your awareness of the importance of myth. 🙂

  4. Reblogged this on Lo Specchio di Eva and commented:
    Il simbolo è qualcosa che unisce. Strumento di guarigione,amante della definizione pur nella sua elusività, ma anche magico portatore di distruzione. Non scaturisce dalla fantasia, tutta razionale, ma direttamente dalla psiche, funzione primaria dell’Anima. Splendido articolo di Burningheart.

    • theburningheart says:

      La ringrazio molto, apprezzo la vostra comprensione e la vostra gentilezza, per reblogging questo articolo 🙂

    • theburningheart says:

      Eva Ho visitato il tuo blog di recente, ma non esiste un pulsante mi piace, né un modo per lasciare un commento, non so se si imposta in questo modo perché si vuole in questo modo, o qualcosa è sbagliato con la tua pagina?
      saluti comunque 🙂

      • Carissimo Theburningheart, come hai visto ci sono stati un po’ di cambiamenti ultimamente e sono ancora in corso, è bellissimo averti qui e stiamo mettendo a punto un modo semplice per mantenere i contatti. Non posso perdermi i tuoi splendidi articoli, e ti invio il link del Sito in ogni caso.
        http://www.lospecchiodieva.com/
        A presto e calorosi saluti!

  5. “…The mere “lover of art” is not much better than a magpie, which also decorates its nest with whatever most pleases its fancy, and is contented with a purely “aesthetic” experience….” Who said this, please?

    • theburningheart says:

      That was Ananda K Coomaraswamy, who argued that the ancients even if they appreciated art, the symbolic was a more important issue, and that Myth posses a great value, something that in our times pass by over our contemporary understanding, in our pursuit of historical facts, since few of us can decipher the holistic, and Spiritual wisdom of Symbol, and Myth. 🙂

      • Thank you.

        I would like to suggest to him that he, himself should use some other symbol of non-discriminating taste. Sure myth did and does have value. However it is a myth that most people have the leisure, now or then, to learn more than what it takes to get from one day to the next. And they are, and were, worthwhile humans. For most people, having enough food and shelter from bad weather was and is symbolic of hard work, perseverance, and planning ahead. Do ants have more or less value than Magpies, Mr. Coomaraswamy?

        This is all Magpie song. Must all musicians also be visual artists or versant in the archaic symbols of every culture?

        Visual embellishment is a matter of personal preference, skills, and resources.

        Actually, he should have edited that one sentence out. His essay, in my opinion, would have been better.

        During one period of my life, the majority of the people I was in contact with were blind. Most of them had value as gorgeous sentient beings …. but the Magpie has always had superior visual discretion. One blind man with no light perception, since birth, was an expert in tactile reading of symbolic embellishments on (ancient) pottery, and pottery shards. But he did not decorate his home with it, nor did he know if it was “pretty”.

        Why find fault with the nature of a Magpie? The Magpie is true to his own nature. There is much to be admired in that. Why pick on a bird as a symbol of what not to be?

        OK rant over.

      • theburningheart says:

        I am sure if he would be alive to hear your argument,he would have changed that, dear.
        Thank you for your valuable input! 🙂

      • Big grin 😀 My best debates are with the beyond my reach. 😀

        Thank you, Kind Sir.

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