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              The Art of Living : A tribute to AKC


                                                                                              Rama P.Coomaraswamy




                "The artist is not a special kind of man, but

                 every man should be a special kind of artist

                 ...every man who is not a mere idler and parasite,

                 is necessarily some special kind of artist, skilled

                 and well contented in the making or arranging

                 of some one thing or another according to his

                 constitution and training." [AKC 1943: 97]




     Ananda Coomaraswamy (AKC), is perhaps best known as an "art critic" and or an "exponent of Oriental art." This is unfortunate as it tends to categorize him as an academic whose work is of interest only to those involved in the study of the history of painting, or in the East as a supporter and abettor of nationalist aspirations. His concerns were far broader - indeed, one might say universal, for he was concerned with the purpose of life and the ordering of a just society which would facilitate man's achievement of true happiness. In so far as every man is or should be an artist - that is the maker or creator of things that are both useful and beautiful - the understanding of the true nature of art is essential if we are to fulfill our true destiny. The universal nature of these principles draws upon solid Catholic as well as Oriental sources.


     Much depends upon "rhetoric" or the proper use of language, an art form at which AKC was a master. Art for example is not something to be hung on the wall, for art remains in the artist. It is the artifact, the object made by art which is to be used - if indeed it has any real use. "We cannot do without art, because art is the knowledge of how things ought to be made, art is the principle of manufacture (recta ratio factibilium), and while an artless play may be innocent, an artless manufacture is merely brutish labor and a sin against the wholesomeness of human nature." [Lipsey I 1977:29] Again and again he stressed that it is normal for a man, any man, be he king or carpenter, be he surgeon, author or toolmaker, to be an artist. "...the human artificer works - or should work - like the Divine Artificer, with only this important distinction, that the human artificer has to make use of already existing materials, and to impose new forms on these materials, while the Divine Artificer provides his own material out of the infinitely "possible," which is not yet, and is therefore called "nothing..." [Lipsey I 1977: 54] He does not work with his hands or with already existing materials, but « thinks things, and behold they are. It is towards this perfection that the human artificer tends: at least, if he did not think things, they would not be." [Lipsey I 1977: 55] It is in this sense that the artist is "creative." Now it is clear that most of us in the modern world are not free to be creative or true artists. The greater majority of the work force - whether laboring in a factory or working as a secretary - is condemned to a "servile" form of labor, not fit for free men and women. They must perform a physical act devoid of any creativity, which is in fact what Aristotle would call a "slavish" act. Their only freedom is "to work or starve which is not a responsible freedom, but only a legal fiction that conceals an actual servitude..." [Lipsey I 1977: 40] Such a view he explained "is hardly flattering to those whose admiration of the industrial system is equal to their interest in it." He noted that Aristotle defined as "slaves" those who had nothing to offer but their bodies (Politics 1.5.1254b. 18) and that "political freedom does not make of assembly-line workers and other ‘base mechanics' what Plato meant by ‘free men.'" "A system of manufacture governed by money values presupposes that there shall be two different kinds of makers, privileged artists who may be "inspired," and underprivileged laborers, unimaginative by hypothesis since they are required only to make what other men have imagined, or more often only to copy what other men have already made. [Lipsey I 1977: 31] The fact remains that "most of us are doing forced labor, working at jobs to which we could never have been ‘called' by any other master than the salesman; that the very few, the happy few of us whose work is a vocation and whose status is relatively secure, like nothing better than our work and can hardly be dragged away from it." And thus we have developed the concept of a leisure state, a state of pleasure to be enjoyed apart from our daily work. But even here our pleasures are corrupted, because "We are no longer sure what kind of life it is that we ought for our own good and happiness to imitate, and are for the most part convinced that no one knows or can know the final truth about anything: we only know what we "approve" of, i.e., what we like to do or think, and we desire a freedom to do and think what we like more than we desire a freedom from our errors." [Lipsey I 1977: 23]


     Mediaeval theologians did not write treatises on art as such, but used the productions of art to illustrate the principles upon which all activity must be based. In similar manner, AKC used the crafts, above all painting, to the same end. Before however providing a brief summary of these principles, one must turn to his criticism of the modern concepts of art as taught in our colleges and art academies.


     Basically moderns "look upon the arts from two points of view, neither of them valid: either the popular view that believes in a ‘progress' or ‘evolution' of art and can only say of a ‘primitive' that ‘that was before they knew anything about anatomy' or of ‘savage' art that it is ‘untrue to nature'; or the sophisticated view which finds in the aesthetic surfaces and the relations of parts the whole meaning and purpose of the work, and is interested only in our emotional reactions to these surfaces." [Lipsey I 1977: (?)]


     With regard to the former, "we designate cultures of the past or those of other people as relatively ‘barbaric' and our own as relatively civilized,' never reflecting that such prejudgments, which are really wish-fulfillments, may be very far from fact. Every student of the history of art discovers, indeed in every art cycle a decline from a primitive power to a refinement of sentimentality or cynicism. But being humanist himself, he is able to think what he likes, and to argue that the primitive or savage artist ‘drew like that' because he knew no better; because he (whose knowledge of nature was so much greater and more intimate than that of the ‘civilized' or ‘city' man) had not learnt to see things as they are, was not acquainted with anatomy or perspective, and therefore drew like a child!" [AKC 1943 & 1956: (?);Lipsey I 1977: (?)] We are indeed careful to explain when we speak of an imitation of nature or study of nature we do not mean a ‘photographic' imitation, but rather an imitation of nature as experienced by the individual artist, or finally a representation of the nature of the artist as experienced by himself. Art is then ‘self-expression'" [Lipsey I 1977: 62] As Van Gogh put it:"real artists paint things not as they are... but as they feel them." It is no wonder then that we have "an insatiable interest" in the life and feelings of the artist who has been described as "painting his psyche on the canvas."  The consequence is that every modern artist "must be individually ‘explained'; his productions are "not communicative of ideas... but only serve to provoke reactions. Whereas civilized societies since the dawn of man have "called their theory of art or expression a ‘rhetoric' and have thought of art as a kind of knowledge, we have invented an ‘aesthetic' and think of art as a kind of feeling." Works of art are often described as "significant," but rarely are we told what they are significant of.  How often one hears the comment about a piece of contemporary ‘art': "I don't know what it means, but I like it." We forget that Plato refused to give the name of ‘art' to anything that was irrational (Gorgias 465A), that he taught there was no real speaking - another art form - that did not lay hold upon the Truth. (Phaedrus 260E) The contemporary view is well expressed by art critic Georges Braque has stated, "the only valid thing in art is the one thing that cannot be explained."


     Which brings us to another contemporary viewpoint, namely that the appreciation of art involves a certain sensibility to its aesthetic qualities. "By sensibility we mean of course an emotional sensibility; aisthesis in Hellenistic usage implying physical affectibility as distinguished from mental operations. We speak of a work of art as ‘felt' and never of its ‘truth,' or only of its truth to nature or natural feeling; ‘appreciation' is a ‘feeling into' the work. Now emotional reaction is evoked by whatever we like (or dislike, but as we do not think of works of

art as intended to provoke disgust, we need only consider them here as sources of pleasure): what we like, we call beautiful, admitting at the same time that matters of taste are not subject to law....The purpose of art is to give pleasure; the work of art as the source of pleasure is its own end; art is for art's sake... questions of utility and intelligibility rarely arise, and if they do are dismissed as irrelevant." "To say that art is essentially a matter of feeling is to say that its sufficient purpose is to please; the work of art is then a luxury, accessory to the life of pleasure." [AKC 1943 & 1956:64(?); Lipsey I 1977: 64(?)]  "To equate the love of art with a love of fine ensations is to make of works of art a kind of aphrodasiac." [Lipsey I 1977: 14]No wonder then that "the modern artist is neither a useful or significant, but only an ornamental member of society" [Lipsey I 1977:28]; that his products are enjoyed by the wealthy, but are neither useful nor meaningful to the average man.


     What then is the traditional or catholic view of art?  "The active life of man is of two sorts, either a doing or a making. These are the realms respectively of conduct and of art; the one is governed or corrected by prudence, the other by art." [Lipsey I 1977:20] "Works of art are means of existence made by man as artist in response to the needs of man as patron and consumer." [Lipsey I 1977:112] Art is the manipulation or arrangement of materials according to a design or pattern, preconceived as the theme may demand, which design or pattern is the idea or intelligible aspect of the work to be done by the artist." In other words, the artist first conceives the theme or pattern of the work in his mind, and then makes this "form" manifestly present in his work. It is this pattern or idea that the artist "imitates," and which gives intelligibility to his work. If "all the arts, without exception, are to be imitative." The question must then be asked, "imitative of exactly what?" Not imitative of some phantasy which the passions of artist can arouse in his psyche, not imitative of the "accidents" of nature as we see it (which a photograph can do better), but imitative of a divine pattern. This is true as much for a spade as for an altar, for agriculture is indeed a divine art. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas taught that "art" is the imitation of Nature in her manner of operation," (Summa 1.117.1) not nature as we commonly understand it, but Natura naturans, Creatrix Universalis,Deus. In other words, traditional art is "not concerned with Nature, but with the nature of Nature." "This imitation or re-presentation of a model involves, indeed a likeness, but hardly what we usually mean by versimilitude. What is traditionally meant by ‘likeness' is not a copy, but an image akin and ‘equal' to its model; in other words, a natural and ‘adequate' symbol of its referent. [Lipsey I 1977:20]


     Some clarification of these concepts can be derived by considering Rhetoric. The original Greek meaning of this word is skill in public speaking, but can also be applied to writing. In the traditional viewpoint, speaking is the effective expression of a thesis. There is a very wide difference between what is said for effect and what is said or made to be effective, and must work, or would not be worth saying or making. It is true that there is a so-called rhetoric of the production of ‘effects,' just as there is so-called poetry that consists only of emotive words, and a sort of painting that is merely spectacular; but this kind of eloquence that makes use of figures for their own sake, or merely to display the artist, or to betray the truth in courts of law, is not properly a rhetoric, but a sophistic, or art of flattery. By ‘rhetoric' we mean, with Plato and Aristotle, ‘the art of giving effectiveness to truth.'" [Lipsey I 1977: 14]  As AKC was fond of saying,  "the beauty of the well turned phrase is the splendor veritatis.


     We have said that Art is the imitation of Nature in her manner of operation Nature's manner is to imitate the form of humanity in a nature of flesh. We have also spoken of "form" "The form of humanity does not only exist in this way, but also - for the middle ages and the east, if not for us - in a nature of light, transformally. This means that to make our statue right we must have understood both human nature and the nature of stone, or wood, or whatever our material: only so can we imitate the form of a man in the nature of stone or wood." "Similitude is with respect to the form" (Summa1.5.4. St. Basil, De spiritu sancto.) It is important that we understand exactly what is meant by "form" in this philosophy. For example, we say that "the soul is the form of the body." "Form" is logically prior to the thing; the artist conceives the form before he makes the thing, or as the Middle Ages put it, the artist proceeds "by a word conceived in the intellect" (Summa 1.45.6) This procedure is an act of imagination, viz the entertainment of an idea in an imitable form. This is the "art" by which the artist works. "The knowledge of form is not a knowledge derived from the finished artifact or from nature...," nor is it a phantasm that the artist seeks in his own subconscious. Rather, as Plotinus says: "the crafts such as building and carpentry which give us matter in wrought forms may be said, in that they draw on pattern, to take their principles from that realm and from the thinking there"(V.9.11). And so it follows that as Augustine says, "the standard of truth in the artifact is the artificer's art; for then only is the arch truly an arch when it agrees with this art." so that "it is by their ideas that we judge of what things ought to be like."(De Trinitate IX.6.11) Elsewhere AKC points out that "art can have, not only ‘fixed ends', but also ‘ascertained means of operation'; that it is not only for those who sing here to sing of Him, but to sing as He sings." [Iengar and Coomaraswamy 1993: 62]


     We have not as yet spoken of "beauty," but suffice it to say that what is "de-formed" will lack beauty - though of course some people will as Augustine pointed out, like what is ugly. "And so it is that we begin to understand in what sense the form of a thing is called the "formal cause" of its appearance and how the perfection of the thing itself is measured by the degree to which it faithfully reflects the form or idea of the thing as it subsists in the image-bearing light or, in other words in the Divine Intellect....This mental image or form according to which the thing is made is called the "art in the artist" and, as in the case of the Divine Art, is the "formal cause" of the thing's appearance.." The human artificer works - or should work - like the Divine Artificer, with only this important distinction, that the human artificer has to make use of already existing materials, and to impose new forms on these materials, while the Divine Artificer provides his own material out of the infinitely "possible," which is not yet, and is therefore called "nothing." [Lipsey I 1993: 62] Art then "implies a transformation of the material, the impression of new forms on material that has been more or less formless." [Lipsey I 1977: 15]


     The true artist is "inspired" by which AKC did not mean "moved" by unconscious drives. "It is always by the Spirit that a man is inspired." (Fig) "Christ, ‘through whom all things were made,' does not bear witness (express) of himself, but says ‘I do nothing of myself, but as my Father taught me, I speak.'" and as John said, "he that speaketh from himself seeketh his own glory." So it is the divine within the artist that inspires him. AKC quotes Plato: "Do we not know that as regards the practice of the arts (with particular reference to the divine originators of archery, medicine, and oracles, music, metalwork, weaving, and piloting) the man who has this God for his teacher will be renowned and as it were a beacon light, but one whom [Divine] Love has not possessed will be obscure." "And so the maker of anything, if he is to be called a creator, is at his best the servant of an immanent Genius (i.e. God); he must not be called "a genius," but ingenious." He is not working of or for himself, but by and for another energy, that of the Immanent Eros, Sanctus Spiritus, the source of all "gifts." [Lipsey I 1977: 33]


     If  the human artist derives his forms from the divine original - if he makes all things "in accordance with the pattern that was shown thee upon the mount" - it follows that all true art is symbolic. Not symbolic in the usual sense of the word, not an arbitrary sign selected by either the artist or the patron, not appointed to the work by psychoanalysis, linguistics or symbolist art, not the imitation of a perceptible, but rather the imitation of an intelligible model. Turning to architecture to clarify this concept, I quote from Adrian Snodgrass' The Symbolism of the Stupa:


In the traditional Indian view, a building, if it is properly conceived,satisfies both a physical and a metaphysical indigence; it has a twofold function: it provides "commodity, firmness and delight" so as to serve man's psycho-somatic, emotional and aesthetic needs; and also serves him intellectually, acting as the support for the contemplation of supra-empirical principles. In this view an adequately designed building will embody meaning. It will express the manner in which the phenomenal world relates to the Real. [Snodgrass 1985: (?)]


     Snodgrass continues: "All things that exist, images, words, language, physical and mental phenomena - are symbols of the supra-empirical levels of reality. Every existent thing is a "reflection" of an archetypal Form." One must not be misled by Jungian ideas which place and derive the archetypes from the "collective unconscious," which is a human, if not sub-human source. "The essential Form and the material substance of the entity respectively constitute its intelligible and sensible aspects."


     The artist then, like the Divine Artist, creates symbolically. As St.Thomas says, the artist "operating by a word conceived in his intellect and moved by the direction of his will towards the specific object to be made, "is the cause of the becoming of things. AKC quotes Walter Andrae to the effect that mankind "makes symbols, written characters, and cult images of earthly substances, and sees in and through them the spiritual and divine substance that has no likeness and could not otherwise be seen." The net result is that Christian, and indeed, all traditional artistic  symbolism can be spoken of as a "calculus" (Emile Male). It is not the private language of any individual or culture, but "a universal language, universally intelligible." Again, as Walter Andrae said, the purpose of art is "to make the primordial truly intelligible, to make the unheard audible, to enunciate the primordial word. Such is the task of art or it is not art." [Lipsey I 1977:36 footnote]And again, AKC: "The artist's function is not simply to please, but to present an ought-to-be known in such a manner as to please when seen or heard, and so expressed as to be convincing. The artist has no license to say anything not in itself worth saying, however eloquently; that it is only by his wisdom as a man that he can know what is worth saying or making." [Lipsey I 1977:318]


     In what way is a work of art beautiful? "Seeing that God alone is truly beautiful, and all other beauty is by participation, it is only a work of art that has been wrought, in its kind and its significance, after an eternal model that can be called beautiful." Beauty in this philosophy is the attractive power of perfection." "And since the eternal and intelligible models are supersensual and invisible, it is evidently ‘not by observation' but in contemplation that they must be known. Two acts then, one of contemplation and one of operation are necessary to the production of any work of art." [Lipsey I 1977: 24] Now things are made to be used, and it goes without saying that artifacts that are useless, no matter how much they may please us, can never be beautiful. "The distinction of beauty from utility is logical, not real." [Lipsey I 1977: 25]


     Now all this may strike one as being of only theoretical interest. Such is far from the case, for it has in view the last end of man which is not the accumulation of innumerable toys, but his eternal happiness. "A traditional civilization - [that is one based on these principles] - presupposes a correspondence of man's most intimate nature with his particular vocation. The forcible disruption of this harmony poisons the very springs of life and creates innumerable maladjustments and sufferings....The distinctive characteristic of a traditional society is order. The life of the community as a whole and that of the individual, whatever his special function may be, conforms to recognized patterns, of which no one questions the validity" [Lipsey I 1977: 290]The way of life and the way of work are one and the same way, and as it says in the Bhagavad Gita, "Man attains perfection by the intensity of his devotion to his own proper task." "All tradition has seen in the Master Craftsman of the Universe the exemplar of the human artist, and we are told to be "perfect even as you Father in heaven is perfect."[Lipsey I 1977:64]


     This view of art, which is also a view of life, is based on an anthropology of man almost forgotten in our day. Traditional societies understood the nature of man as based on Spirit, Psyche and Body, the latter two being united in the "psycho-physical" which included thinking processes. As Boethius said, the man who seems himself as an animal who reasons has forgotten who he is. The true artist then is a metaphysician who seeks to know and live in the Spirit (or Truth, Beauty which are but names of God). From the time of Descartes on (with roots going farther back) the "Spirit" lin man has been virtually ignored. Often described as the "doctrine of the two selves," the artist, and every man should be an artist, seeks to know and adhere to the true Self or Spirit which must be distinguished from and directive of the psycho-physical or lesser self. AKC gives a clear expression to these principles in the following passage:


"To ‘think for oneself' is always to think of oneself. What is called ‘free thought' [for the painter, self-expression] is therefore the natural expression of a humanist philosophy. We are at the mercy of our thoughts and corresponding desires. Free thought is a passion; it is much rather the thoughts than ourselves that are free. We cannot too much emphasize that contemplation is not a passion but an act; and that where modern psychology sees in "inspiration" the uprush of an instinctive and subconscious will,the orthodoxy philosophy sees an elevation of the Artist's being to superconscious and supraindividual levels. Where the psychologist invokes a demon, the metaphysician invokes a daemon: what is for one the ‘libido,' is for the other ‘the divine Eros.'" [Ansshen 1947: 162]


     “Through the mouth of Hermes the divine Eros began to speak."[Hermetica (?):Prologue] We must not conclude from the form of the words that the artist is a passive instrument, like a stenographer. ‘H' is much rather actively and consciously making use of ‘himself' as an instrument and vehicle. The man is passive only when he identifies himself with the psycho-physical ego, letting it take him where it will; but is active when he directs it. Inspiration... cannot work in the man except to the extent that he is ‘in the Spirit.' It is only when the form of the thing to be made has been known that the artist returns to ‘himself.,' performing the servile operation with good will, a will directed solely to the good of the thing to be made. The man incapable of contemplation cannot be an artist, but only a skilfull workman. It is demanded of the artist to be both a contemplative and a good workman." [Ansshen 1947:161]This does not deny to the artist the ability to "express himself," because nothing can be known or done except in accordance with the mode of the knower. So the man himself, as he is in himself, appears in style and handling...The uses and significance of works of art may remain the same for millennia, and yet we can often date a place oplace of a work at first glance. But the artist whom we have in view is innocent of history and unaware of the existence of stylistic sequences. Styles are the accident and by no means the essence of art. [Ansshen 1947: 163]


     It follows them that the artist, by plying his craft, perfects his soul. He is not interested in glorifying himself, but in giving glory to God, and hence like the surgeon or the priest, has no desire to leave his personal mark upon his work. "The anonymity of the artist belongs to a type of culture dominated by the longing to be liberated from oneself. All the force of this philosophy is directed against the delusion that "I am the doer." I am not in fact the doer, but the instrument; human individuality is not an end but only a means. The supreme achievement of individual consciousness is to lose or find (both words mean the same) itself in what is both its first beginning and its last end. All that is required of the instrument is efficiency and obedience; it is not for the subject to aspire to the throne; the constitution of man is not a democracy, but the hierarchy of body, soul and spirit. Is it for the Christian to consider any work "his own" when even Christ has said that "I do nothing of myself"? [Ansshen 1947:164]


     Those that would export the industrial system to those parts of the world "not yet spoiled," would do well to consider the effects of destroying native crafts and replacing them with the production of machine made goods, the goal (last end) of which is to provide profits for investors. While the craftsman is worthy of his hire, he does not work for profit, but for the good of the work to be done. The devastating effect of industrializing so-called backward countries, of reducing artisans to the level of "wage earners" whom AKC called "the hired and fired man,"[Ansshen 1947:170] can be seen in the de-culturation of these societies and the readily available artifacts produced.  Both artist and patron are victims, for in fact "nothing ought to be made, nothing can be really worth having, that is not at the same tine correct or true or formal or beautiful (whichever word you prefer) and adapted to good use." [Lipsey I 1977:28] Hence, as AKC stated, "should we propose to raise our standard of living to the savage level, on which there is no distinction of the fine from applied or sacred from profane art, it need not imply the sacrifice of any of the necessities or even conveniences of life, but only of luxuries, only of such utilities as are not at the same time useful and significant." [Lipsey I 1977:28]


     AKC was often accused of being a "mediaevalist," of wishing to return to the Middle Ages. However preferable the Middle Ages might be in comparison to our current "civilization," such was not what he advocated. The forms of society can be varied, as indeed they are in various cultures. It is a return to the principles that underlie these various forms that he advocated. The greater majority of moderns are denied the opportunity to be artists, that is to say, to be creative and to live their lives in such a way as to be conducive to their eternal happiness. It is true that one can save one's soul while working in a factory - but never by working in a factory. As Eric Gill has said, one might become a saint by being thrown to the lions in the Colosseum, but, this by no means indicates that we must condemn ourselves to the martyrdom of factory work. "Manufacture without art is brutality" (Ruskin), and to force mankind into this setting is to make of him a brute, to reduce him to the level of an animal that "lives by bread alone." There can be no corrective to the problems of the modern world until and unless there is a return to the principals of traditional society - not the principles of AKC - but to those of traditional life and art, which he made his own. This in fact is what he did in his own life, for his work was with the written word, and in this he himself was a traditional artist  par excellence.





Ansshen, Ruth Nanda, Ed. 1947. Art, Man and Manufacture in Our Emergent Civilization.

                                         New York: Harper Publishers.


Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. 1943 & 1956. Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art. (Formerly  

                           titled « Why Exhibit Works of Art? »). London: Luzac & Co., (1943) & New   

                           York: Dover Publications (1956).


Hermetica: The Ancient Greek and Latin Writings which Contain Religious or Philosophic

                  Teachings Ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus. Ed. W.Scott, 4 vols, 1924-1936.


Iengar and Rama P.Coomaraswamy, Ed. 1993. Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power, 2nd edn.

                                                         New delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.


Lipsey, Roger, Ed.1977. Coomaraswamy. I- Selected Papers: Traditional Art and Symbolism.

                       Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series LXXXIX.


Snodgrass, Adrian. 1985. The Symbolism of the Stupa. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell (Studies on Southeast