The Creative Wellsprings of Classical, Romantic and Realistic Art-Forms

Sri Aurobindo takes issue with the idea that art which is based on reason and intellectual rules or developed technique represents true classical art; rather he treats this as an imitation of classical art.  He defines the source of inspiration and focus of each of the three major lines he discusses, classical, romantic and realistic.  The first finds its source in the expression of the universal through the art; the second tries to express the uniquely individual elements of life, and the third works to portray the external form, albeit with an attempt to express through this form the inner spirit or sense that the form represents.

“The spirit of the real, the great classical art and poetry is to bring out what is universal and subordinate individual expression to universal truth and beauty, just as the spirit of romantic art and poetry is to bring out what is striking and individual and this it often does so powerfully or with so vivid an emphasis as to throw into the background of its creation the universal, on which yet all true art romantic or classical builds and fills in its forms.  In truth, all great art has carried in it both a classical and a romantic as well as a realistic element, — understanding realism in the sense of the prominent bringing out of the external truth of things, not the perverse inverted romanticism of the ‘real’ which brings into exaggerated prominence  the ugly, common or morbid and puts that forward as the whole truth of life.  The type of art to which a great creative work belongs is determined by the prominence it gives to one element and the subdual of the others into subordination to its reigning spirit.  But classical art also works by a large vision and inspiration, not by the process of the intellect.  The lower kind of classical art and literature, — if classical it be and not rather, as it often is, pseudo-classical, intellectually imitative of the external form and process of the classical, — may achieve work of considerable, though a much lesser power, but of an essentially inferior scope and nature; for to that inferiority it is self-condemned by its principle of intellectual construction.  Almost always it speedily degenerates into the formal or academic, empty of real beauty, void of life and power, imprisoned in its slavery to form and imagining that when a certain form has been followed, certain canons of construction satisfied, certain rhetorical rules or technical principles obeyed, all has been achieved.  It ceases to be art and becomes a cold and mechanical workmanship.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 14,  The Suprarational Beauty, pp. 139-140

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