Spengler on ‘Imitation and Ornament’

The following quote is from Oswald Spengler’s seminal work, ‘The Decline of the West’. While reading this it is great to notice the parallels between his ideas and those of Iain McGilchrist. ‘Imitation’ belongs to the realm of the Master, while ‘Ornament’ – to that of the Emissary. Spengler seems to be one of the few historians who perceived entire cultural and artistic patterns by employing right hemisphere ways of knowing and being-there. His systematisation and categorisation might require some updating, but the method itself, so neglected and alien to today’s experts in the field is certainly fertile and deserves to be revitalised.

“All art is expression-language. This expression is either ornament or imitation. Both are higher possibilities and their polarity to one another is hardly perceptible in the beginnings. Of the two, imitation is definitely the earlier and the more characteristic of race. Imitation is born of the secret rhythm of all things cosmic. Every live religion is an effort of the waking soul to reach the powers of the world-around. And so too is Imitation, which in its most devoted moments is wholly religious, for it consists in an identity of inner activity between the soul and body “here” and the world-around “there” which, vibrating as one, become one. As a bird poises itself in the storm or a float gives to the swaying waves, so our limbs take up an irresistible beat at the sound of march-music. Not less contagious is the imitation of another’s bearing and movements, wherein children in particular excel. It reaches the superlative when we “let ourselves go” in the common song or parade-march or dance that creates out of many units one unit of feeling and expression, a “we”. A “successful” picture of a man or a landscape requires the executant to be an adept who can reveal the idea, the soul, of life in the play of its surface. In certain unreserved moments we are all adepts of this sort, and in such moments, as we follow in an imperceptible rhythm the music and the play of facial expression, we suddenly look over the precipice and see great secrets. All imitation is in the broadest sense dramatic; drama is presented in the movement of the brush-stroke or the chisel, the melodic curve of the song, the tone of the recitation, the line of poetry, the description, the dance.

Ornament detaches itself now from Imitation as something which does not follow the stream of life but rigidly faces it. Instead of physiognomic traits overheard in the alien being, we have established motives, symbols, which are impressed upon it.

The intention is no longer to pretend but to conjure. The “I” overwhelms the “Thou”. Imitation is only a speaking with means that employs a language emancipated from the speaking, a stock of forms that possesses duration and is not at the mercy of the individual.

Only the living can be imitated, and it can be imitated only in movements, for it is through these that it reveals itself to the senses of artists and spectators. To that extent, imitation belongs to Time and Direction. Ornament, on the contrary, is something removed from Time: it is pure extension, settled and stable. Whereas an imitation expresses something by accomplishing itself, ornament can only do so by presenting itself to the senses as a finished thing. It is Being as such, wholly independent of origin. Every imitation possesses beginning and end, while an ornament possesses only duration. In every [cultural] springtime there are two definitely ornamental and non-imitative arts, that of building and that of decoration. In the longing and pregnant centuries before it, elemental expression belongs exclusively to Ornamentation in the narrow sense. […] But with the dawn of the great Culture, architecture as ornament comes into being suddenly and with such a force of expression that for a century mere decoration-as-such shrinks away from it in awe. The spaes, surfaces and edges of stone speak for themselves. […]

The spell of the great Ornamentation remains unbroken till in the beginning of a “late” period architecture falls into a group of civic and worldly special arts that unceasingly devote themselves to pleasing and clever imitation and become ipso facto personal.

Then comes the gleaming autumn of the style. Once more the soul depicts its happiness, this time conscious of self-completion. The “return to Nature” which already thinkers and poets – Rousseau, Gorgias and their “contemporaries” in the other Cultures – begin to feel and proclaim, reveals itself in the form-world of the arts as a sensitive longing and presentiment of the end. A perfectly clear intellect, joyous urbanity, the pain of a farewell – such are the features of the last decades of a Culture of which Talleyrand was to remark later: “Qui n’a pas vecu avant 1789 ne connait pas la douceur de vivre”. […]

At the last, when Civilization sets in, true ornament and, with it, great art as a whole are extinguished. The transition consists – in every Culture – in Classicism and Romanticism of one sort or another, the former being a sentimental regard for an Ornamentation (rules, laws, types) that has long been archaic and soulless, and the latter a sentimental Imitation, not of life, but of an older Imitation. In the place of architectural style we find architectural taste. Methods of painting and mannerisms of writing, old forms and new, home and foreign, come and go with the fashion. In the end we have a pictorial and literary stock-in-trade which is destitute of any deeper significance and is employed according to taste. This final or industrial form of Ornament – no longer historical, no longer in the condition of “becoming” – we have before us not only in the patterns of oriental carpets, Persian and Indian metal-work, Chinese porcelain, but also in Egyptian (and Babylonian) art as the Greeks and Romans found it.”

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