Tag Archives: the arts

David Jones and art for art’s sake.

For the first time in a numbers of years I’ve been reading the Epoch and Artist collection of Jones’ essays and find myself struck again by Art and Sacrament and by The Utile from 1955 and 1958 respecitvely. This is primarily because of what Jones says about the relationship to the making of art with participation in the Catholic Mass in a note to The Anathemata which has always puzzled me.

I’m puzzled because this is a view that’s given with some force and has, what I find to be, an unpleasant sting in the tail:

But I here confine my use of the word to those artefacts in which there is an element of the extra-utile and the gratuitous. If there is evidence of this kind of artefacture then the artifex should be regarded as participating directly in the benefits of the Passion because the extra-utile is the mark of man.

For which reason the description ‘utility goods’ if taken literally could refer only to the products of sub-man.

This is note 2 on p.65 of the 2010 Faber edition of The Anathemata the italicised adverb is in the original text. I write as a reader who is unsettled by both paragraphs and, although I have had conversations with the leading critics on this, what follows is intended in a readerly way rather than lit crit.

I’m unsettled specifically by this notion of direct participation and by the use of sub-man.

I am happy to accept that taking part can be an unconscious thing and that it therefore includes non-believers. What I’m agitated by is how it works, even for believers. Being far too curious in many things I do like to know the details of this kind of belief. I’ve spent many hours getting to the finer points of how the dialectic is supposed to function, how religious grace has been fought over by Christians since the time of Christ for example. In comparison the what I think of as the Jones Problem is a very, very minor concern.

It matters to me because the use of emphasis disrupts my enjoyment of the work as a whole and this particular poem that I consider to be the finest long poem of the 20th century. I also consider myself to be, in part, an explicator of Jones’ longer work and therefore feel a bit of a fraud because I’ve never got to grips with this.

‘Sub-man’ is different because it smacks of a number of ideologies that I find repellent. I’m prepared to accept that this was an accepted ‘type’ used to refer to some indigenous people to justify colonial expansion and slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries and the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews during World War II. Naively I had thought that all Western artists had rejected thinking in this way after the discovery of the camps in 1945. The above paragraph demonstrates clearly that this isn’t the case.

As with T S Eliot and many others, Jones was an admirer of the French Action Francaise party (which was both far-right and monarchist) in the thirties. He was also a keen reader of the works of Oswald Spengler which was intially appropriated by the Nazis.

To return to the passion, Art and Sacrament clarifies what is meant by participation and why the proposition is universal rather than confined to the Catholic mass. This is arrived at by a long and detailed argument and I realise that it didn’t sink in to my brain because its various twists and turns will have deterred me from giving it the attention that it deserves.

What follows is a much abbreviated summary of what I read as the central argument. This, as ever, is both tenuous and subjective and should not be taken as in anyway definitive. It has, however, given me as a reader a better handle on some of What Might Be Going On in the glorious complexities that make up The Anathemata.

The essential bits are the function of religion as a binding force, a kind of ligament that binds man so that he man be free. Then there is art as a making/doing of signs, the sacrament as strategy and the mass as the place where signs are done.

To give the full flavour of the arguments made in support of these, I would need to produce the essay in full. Instead, I reproduce below the passages that I find most helpful.

It was in order to convey this that I chose the art of strategy as my example. For strategy in so far as it partakes of art, offers less occasion for those particular misunderstandings which would tend to arise had something more recognizably an art, and immeasurably more typical, been chosen: for example had poetry, dancing, painting, sculpture, song or architecture been chosen.

But having made some attempt to indicate certain characteristics that are implicit in the activity of art we are now free to consider some more explicit manifestations of those same characteristics by which we recognize that the art of man is essentially a sign-making or ‘sacramental’ activity. We have come through a tangled wood of attempted definitions and have been hampered by unavoidable explanations, but now perhaps we are more free to deploy in the open and can see better how the front shapes.

As it is the sign-making or ‘sacramental’ character of art that is our chief concern, I shall, in the following pages, confine myself to a more explicit consideration of what that may mean, and especially what it may mean to us today in view of our civilizational trend.

and;

But brief reflection will show that Calvary itself (if less obviously than the Supper) involves poiesis. For what was accomplished on the Tree of the Cross presupposes the sign-world and looks back to foreshadowing rites and arts of mediation and conjugation stretching back for tens of thousands of years in actual pre-history.

finally;

But leaving Christians and their obligations altogether aside and speaking, for a while, as one unconcerned for the truth or untruth of the Christian documents, main tradition or divergent theologies, it remains true that in the signs referred to we have not only an element of art but some indication of the kind of activity that we predicate of Ars at her most abstract. This much should be as evident to those who imagine themselves to be antipathetic to the signs as to those who claim a love of them. A non-Christian person would rightly observe that these signs equally involve Ars whether the intention of the sign-makers is un-Catholic or Catholic. But such a person would also observe that in the latter case something further was involved. He would note that the intention in this case envisaged an abstract art par excellence; for nothing could be less ‘representational’ or more re-presentative or further from ‘realism’ or more near reality than what is intended and posited in this latter instance. He would note an extreme objectivity in the view that sign and thing signified are regarded as having a true identity. He would note the rejection of the opinion held elsewhere that such an identification overthrows the nature of a non-Christian person would rightly observe that these signs equally involve Ars whether the intention of the sign-makers is un-Catholic or Catholic. But such a person would also observe that in the latter case something further was involved. He would note that the intention in this case envisaged an abstract art par excellence; for nothing could be less ‘representational’ or more re-presentative or further from ‘realism’ or more near reality than what is intended and posited in this latter instance. He would note an extreme objectivity in the view that sign and thing signified are regarded as having a true identity.

I’m obviously not impressed by this ‘explanation’ and this isn’t because I’m a lifelong agnostic but rather that I still don’t have an explanation of how this might come about. I am, mostly, a materialist but I like to think that I’m reasonably accepting of things spiritual. I also accept that I have a soul and find that it is mostly fed by poetry.

I have to refute this notion of religious sign = artistic sign and the consequent participation in what the sacramental sign stands for by all sign makers and doers. At least I’m a lot learer on what Jones’ note intends and this does give me an additional hold on the thinking behind and within the Anathemata.

The following chapter was written as a kind of addendum to the first and part of it offers a clarification and defence of the term sub-man. First of all, I need to point out that Jones intends utile to mean that which is practically useful useful rather than art which isn’t. As was stated in the preceding essay, man is essentially a maker of art and the making of the merely useful is much less significant- hence the term in question.

I have just used the term ‘sub-man’ but that will not really do, except rhetorically. Also it is too suggestive of some primitive anthropoid or hominiform type, and that is not at all the association intended. On the contrary these apparently ‘sub-human’ works are the products of full homo faber, homo sapiens, modern man, and they are of course made and used by men, some of whom are in a high state of spiritual, moral, intellectual and aesthetical awareness. None the less these products are, to all appearances, ‘sub-human’ in quality. And they are not few, but many, not only many but ubiquitous and characteristic

I understand this but it feels like special pleading after the event by a man who now realises the offence that he has caused. Unlike the universal participation, I do understand how this is supposed to work but disagree with it, even without the sub-human quip. Jones claims that man has a special status as a maker of art because he has consciousness. Again this manages to be both too simple and complicated in equal measure.

There have been many over the centuries who have claimed that poetry is somehow closer to the truth than other art forms. This also strikes me as silly.

This ‘above and below’ way of thinking is a product of the very human desire to put things in order, to invent orders of hierarchy and then to argue about both. Both are constructs and have no grounding whatsoever in reality. Even if we apply the practical/creative split we find that it is perfectly possible to be a technically proficient artist just as it is to be an artistic technician.

In terms of the quote, Jones’ ‘it will not do, except rhetorically’ misses the point. It will not do at all, not in 1958, nor in 2021 especially in light of the growth of antisemitism across Europe. It’s significant that Jones doesn’t make a specific reference to the most obvious ways in which ‘sub-man’ can be defined and his defence / explanation is too convoluted and illogical to be taken seriously.

In conclusion, I’m disappointed and my view of David Jones the man has been diminished. I’m particularly concerned that I’ve spent the last decade informing others that Jones’ finest quality is his humanity. Sadly I feel the need to go back to the work to see if this view remains the same.

Incidentally, Faber published in 2017 a new edition of Epoch and Artist which is available from most UK outlets.