Art as, Yes, Humility

By Eli Siegel


         And the fire-robed god,
Golden Apollo, a poor humble swain,
As I seem now. —The Winter's Tale

Humility is the willingness to see things other than oneself as having meaning for oneself. This humility makes for pride; for pride, in the long run, comes from the comprehensive and accurate way one is affected by reality, the universe that is under one's nose and is far away. The artist is more humble than is customary, because, as artist, he wants things to mean more and more to him; he wants to see more and more. To see is to be humble. All seeing, while an expression of oneself, is also a submission. In artistic seeing, humility and submission are pride and grandeur.

In the matter of humility—and not only there—art is like science. We have heard much of scientists faithfully going after the truth, subjecting themselves to the fact, yielding to data—going commendably by Bacon's statement that to obey Nature is to command her. The humility of Newton is renowned, and rightly so. The artist, though, is just as humble. To see is to be humble; but, what is less discernible, to be pleased is to be humble, too. To be pleased by an object, by what it is, its form, texture, color, relation, is felicitous, sometimes magnificent, humility. It is a humility one has to learn. The theologians are right: we are not born humble; in a way, it is more difficult to learn authentic humility than it is to learn Sanskrit or acrobatics or how to do fine lace work. The self gets in the way of humility; and artists have had to learn how to stop the tendency of the narrow, limited, fearful, monarchic self to interfere with pure, rich, just seeing. The artist, like everyone, has had to struggle—however quietly, obscurely—here; yet if the artist had not been victorious somewhat, there would be no art. Art can be regarded as the embodiment of the successful humility of a person before the shows of existence, before existence itself. Successful humility is pride.

To Be Serious Is to Be Humble

That artists have wanted to be humble we can see in history. How Seurat wanted to see what went on in color—how what it was could be perceived, and shown. He saw for himself, and he was ready to learn from both other painters and from scientific treatises on color. His joy in color, there in the first place, led him to study, to try, to show, to please deeply, to please now. Whistler, with all his fetching bravado and defiant elegancies, was humble as he thought of lights and dark and water and space. To be serious is to be humble: Whistler was serious.

In primitive painting, the humility is more apparent than in the work of such polished personages of delineation as Van Dyck, Whistler, and Degas. Yet humility is wherever art is. One can't paint a lion, or a lemon, or a girl, or a mountain top, or a package of assorted nails, or stains on a waistcoat—unless there is a humility towards what one is looking at. The eye is a most cunning instrument of humility and lordliness. True lordliness, the lordliness of art, has humility as its source.

Wölfflin, in his Art of the Italian Renaissance (1913), says this of Ghirlandajo: "The object itself gives him pleasure." It is true that having an object give one pleasure makes one exult a little, inclines one to call oneself favorable names. But our contentment with ourselves arises from the achievement of humility. Every time the self finds something pleasing in what is not itself, there is a blow to its independence, its dark sway. The more we are pleased by something not ourselves, the more our "selves" are in jeopardy, that is, our selves as supreme, sinful and dull. The iniquity of the self is its boredom: that is art's subtle homily. So when Ghirlandajo, or anyone, found pleasure in an object, he was disciplining his separate, aloof personality. Honest pleasure is a disciplining of that in us which wants to find pleasure, importance only on home territory.

Seeing, Emotion, and Knowing

There are three things present in art, as they are in science, before either art or science takes tangible expression. These are seeing, emotion, and knowing. Art accents the seeing and emotion, while science accents the seeing and knowing. But all three are present in both.

When seeing and emotion become knowing in art, the knowing is pleasure; there is pleasure, too, when seeing and emotion become knowing in science (though that is not what is accented or brought forward). Seeing and emotion, become one in a mind, make the object have form or beauty; that is, when there is no rift between what we see and our being for or against what we see, at that moment the object has form for us. This is not the place to deal with all the concomitants of seeing and emotion become one. What is necessary to say is, that when the self sees and has emotion at once and accurately, there is a pleased humility. This is the humility that goes with the apprehension of beauty, the activity of art. To see reality as good, or as lovely, or as just, implies a salutary humility in the person who sees.

The greater the artist the more humble he is. Humility and pride are in a most interesting togetherness in Leonardo da Vinci. Both grandeur and a sweet submissiveness are in this passage from Wölfflin's Art of the Italian Renaissance:

The painter is to him the keen universal eye, which ranges over all visible things. Suddenly, the inexhaustible treasure-house of the universe was unlocked, and Leonardo seems to have felt himself bound by an intense love to every form of life. Vasari relates a characteristic trait; he was sometimes seen to buy birds in the market in order to set them at liberty. The fact appears to have made a great impression on the Florentines.

Humility at One with Pride

Art, itself, is humility at one with pride. In art, the successful humility is the soul's swellingness. The relaxation of the ego is its might. It is as if we could suddenly be like a minute, green thing of life, even while we were ourselves. To dare insignificance, sincerely, while we have what is our stature, is akin to the annulment of self the artist goes after—as, it may be said, does the scientist, the mystic, the idealist in general. Our desire to extinguish self is equalled in its subterranean ferocity only by our desire to assert it.

Art, as a thing, has, then, solved the problem of humility and pride. But art is not the artist, just as the farmer's harvest is not the farmer. The artist, as a person, tries to be as wise as his truest work: things can be wiser than we are: a dish represents, inanimately, the ultimate in that reconciliation which is wisdom. So artists have had a time with exultation and debasement, announcement and retreat, defiance and recession, trumpeting and murmuring. This difficult time can be seen in the lives of artists mighty and minor: in the lives of Michelangelo, Morland, Rembrandt, Modigliani, Gericault, Romney, Raphael. As good a place as any to ponder the matter of humility and pride is in the life of Masaccio as told by Vasari. I should say that, with Vasari as a text, Masaccio, as simply a man of Florence, did not answer the question of humility and pride.

There is Masaccio

He wants renown, as Vasari tells us. But how humble he becomes. He gives himself to reality: his acquisitive self abstains. Here is a most touching, grave account of intense artistic humility and grandeur:

He reflected that, as painting is nothing more than an imitation of all natural living things, with similar design and colouring, so he who should follow Nature most closely would come nearest to perfection. This idea of Masaccio led him, by dint of unceasing study, to acquire so much knowledge that he may be ranked among the first who freed themselves of the hardness, the imperfections and difficulties of the art, and who introduced movement, vigour and life into the attitudes, giving the figures a certain appropriate and natural relief that no painter had ever succeeded in obtaining before.

Masaccio, then, is intensely pious. He is a "votary" of nature, as the word was. It needs to be seen that when one studies nature feverishly and steadily and truly, one is just as humble as the devotee in religion, or as the follower of some "master" in our South and elsewhere. Wherever the narrow self is given movement, width, precision, love—there is humility. Yet, where there is some division between our pride and humility—where our pride and humility are not as much a one as the rim and depth of a cup—there is trouble; and I am afraid Masaccio had it.

Vasari says:

He was very absent-minded and happy-go-lucky, his whole attention and will being devoted exclusively to his art, and he paid little attention to himself and less to others.

This doesn't sound so good. There is a "too-muchness" of something. Somewhere the artist and person are both ahead of and behind each other. And this sentence from Vasari has its mournful aspect, too:

Not feeling at ease in Florence, and being urged by his love and devotion to art, he determined to go to Rome in order to study and surpass his rivals.

The Masaccio who wanted to study is not that Masaccio who wanted to "surpass his rivals." In art, creation and competition are as much at war as blood and bad germs.

In Two of Masaccio's Works

The questions of serenity and confusion, energy and shame, are to be seen in two of Masaccio's most distinguished works. In these paintings of the early fifteenth century, painted by a man not much more than twenty, Masaccio does solve problems corresponding to those of pride and humility. In The Tribute Money, composition brings together dignity and uncertainty, assurance and restlessness. In The Expulsion, torment is both unrestrained and still.

And it is interesting to see how later artists showed humility in their desire to study Masaccio. Vasari says:

His labours deserve unstinted praise, especially as he paved the way for the good style of our own day. That this is true is shown by the fact that all the celebrated painters and sculptors from that time until now have become excellent and distinguished by studying in that chapel...

Then Vasari gives a long list of painters who went to the Brancacci Chapel in Florence to learn from the paintings of the earlier Florentine. Among them were Fra Filippo, Baldovinetti, Verrocchio, Botticelli, Leonardo, Perugino, Frà Bartolommeo, Albertinelli, "the divine Michelagnolo Buonarroti," Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo—in short, as Vasari informs us:

All who have endeavoured to learn the art have always gone for instruction to this chapel to grasp the precepts and rules of Masaccio for the proper representation of figures.

The Triumph of Humility

Masaccio studied reality, was humble as to reality; and later he, and his works, now reality and art in their turn, were studied with humility by painters with conscience and purpose.

Study is humility. Love is humility. Art is study and love; and is the triumph of humility, when we can see it as it truly is.


© 1971 by Definition Press

NOTE: "Art as, Yes, Humility," was published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, number 837, April 19, 1989.