text > A Lebanese rappel à l'ordre

A Lebanese rappel à l'ordre: Georges Daoud Corm (1896-1971)

I

Once there was a great empire. It was a spiritual empire, a moral kingdom whose subjects lived in contentment, peace and prosperity. Even though its greatness began in the distant past­­ – at the site of the sacrifice of the Son of their Lord – it saw its steadiest rise during one particular epoch called the “Renaissance”: a series of cultural movements that spread over several centuries across several realms (mostly in the Western part of this empire). It was during this Renaissance that this moral kingdom reached its highest peak. But the learned priests and umanisti of the empire regarded the Renaissance only as an episode – though of the most significant kind – in a long-lasting struggle of man against nature, a struggle that man has waged since his earliest days on earth. In man’s ongoing battle to overcome his animal nature, his most efficient weapon proved to be the Arts and Letters: a range of disciplines and sciences developed over centuries but which also reached their highest degree of precision during the Renaissance. The Arts and the Letters brought order into chaos; they imposed the most refined cultural forms upon the world, fixing crude sensual reality within a firm regime of signs, images and sounds. Music transformed natural noise and wild cries into the most pleasant dramas of the passions, and the plastic arts – by far man’s most formidable weapon in overcoming his animal condition – represented man in the image and according to the greatest ideals of the spiritual kingdom. In those days the men of the Arts and Letters were not simply artists but magicians and priests—they did not simply paint pictures but sought pathways into the higher realms of the spiritual, the noumenal and the transphysical. Their work was not easy. New sciences discovered during the great epoch of the Renaissance conditioned these artist-priests to long years of training and discipline. But their hard work was spiritually rewarding, for it opened completely new possibilities for representing in stone or on canvas – and with a degree of plastic sensitivity never since surpassed – the divine spectacle of Life in which the dignified Human Being stood at the very center.

And then one day, all of this ended.

What began as a few bold intellectual ideas and adventurous artistic experiments by a few reformers – mostly out of frustration at not being taken seriously by the spiritual elites of the moral kingdom – gradually began to have disastrous effects. The enormous amount of work that had been done by generations of artists-priests over the centuries – spreading, together with the borders of the empire, over the five continents of planet Earth – now began to be discredited and ridiculed. The empire was assaulted from all sides by its enemies, assembled under the banner of materialism. Under its spell the youths of the empire and its colonies began to think only about satisfying their senses (as in the dark days of the state of nature), or about how they could dismantle the established social and cultural system (demanding social revolutions and class equality). In this assault on the cultural empire, a certain brand of artists – called “progressives” or “modernists” – played a particularly destructive role. They disparaged and denigrated the highest and most enduring cultural ideals, proposing instead cheap tricks and hoaxes that they – along with their supporters in the art markets and certain unscrupulous critics – called “modern art.”

But not all is lost. There is still hope that the empire can be saved. This hope is particularly strong at the peripheries of the empire—in some of its former colonies that the empire has recently granted the status of independent states. There is hope that the elites of these lands will become the new guardians of the human soul, of the Arts and Letters; that they will continue to examine the spiritual landscape of the Human Being, the most perfect creation of God Almighty.

II

This fable of the rise and decline of the European humanist tradition (for this is the moral empire of which it tells) is inspired and informed by a far more complex vision, one held by the Lebanese painter, writer, poet and cultural activist Georges Daoud Corm (1896-1971).[1] Corm’s ideas – his critique of modernism and his belief that the Middle Eastern Orient that had given the world its major religions must step forth once again to be the guardian of the humanist heritage[2] – will be discussed in more detail and in all its seriousness below. For now, this tale of a humanistic empire should be considered as a performative act, as the inevitable reaction of a modernist to Corm’s brand of humanism. His humanism today can only be taken with a grain of salt, not only for its arch-conservative stances and its language (full, by today’s standards of “politically incorrect” stereotypes) but also because we are dealing here with a very unusual form of humanism, one that is informed by the intellectual history of Western Europe, yet also draws from the energies of the Middle Eastern cultural context. To put it in other words, Corm’s critique is universal in scope – a critique of modernism as a product of twentieth-century European culture – and particular in its application, since it is first of all a critique of the impact of modernization on former European colonies and above all in his native Lebanon, as well as in Egypt, where the painter spent a considerable part of his life. These two countries were, indeed, at the forefront of artistic modernization in the Middle East. In fact, one can even go so far as to say that Corm’s critique of modernism and modernization is in itself a form of modernism—though a conservative one, taking the shape of a Lebanese rappel à l'ordre that would hold the mainstream modernism of its time accountable for its disrespect for tradition. It is, in a way, a Middle Eastern arrière-garde: an unavoidable, perhaps dialectical component without which the processes of artistic modernization in the Middle East would have been incomplete or even improbable. Moreover, Corm was not alone in holding such views, for he belonged to an entire generation of artists (some of the most renowned being Moustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi) who during the 1950s and 1960s felt alienated from the cultural processes taking place in their country.

As a true humanist, Corm is a universalist. His humanism forms the very core of his painting, but it also manifests itself more clearly in his literary, critical, and journalistic writings, in his poetry and cultural activism. His vision of humanism – in retreat before the forces of the modern world but still able to be preserved intact in the Orient – receives particular prominence in his Essai sur l'art et la civilisation de ce temps, one of his most controversial texts. Written in two stages during the 1960s, the Essai clearly articulates Corm’s aesthetic, political and civic positions, and can be called a manifesto of “Lebanese painterly humanism.” Here the author delivers a harsh critique of modern times in general and of modernist artistic currents in particular. Corm critiques the very ideology of modernism, its “make it new” mantra, its obsession with radical gestures, its formalism and dehumanization of art, its obsession with new techniques, styles, idioms and media. Written at a time when the ideology of modernism had begun to catch up with the imagination of young Lebanese artists, the Essai reads today like a desperate warning to his countrymen of the coming modernist inferno, where decadence and anarchy in the fine arts dance their ronde infernale, their infernal round. Reading the Essai, one has the impression of a last-ditch attempt to prevent artistic modernism from entering the Levant or the Middle East, an attempt to resist the institutionalization of modernist ideology and its transformation into a cultural norm, as had been rapidly occurring in Western Europe and the United States since the end of World War Two. Perhaps Georges Daoud Corm imagined Lebanon as one of the last outposts of the cultural humanist empire, of the great European civilization—a garden, or an island-state (like that island of Utopia once invented by another humanist); perhaps he imagined a lonely peak amid a flooded world, after a sudden meltdown of the classical ice-caps, an island of pure spirit upon a swampland ruled by commercialism, consumption and political unrest.

From today’s position, and regarded against the background of twentieth-century radical thought, Corm’s brand of humanism tends to strike the reader as extremely conservative. In the 1950s and 1960s, his views provoked various polemics in the local press, and even then his ideas felt a bit “old-fashioned.”[3] His grammarian’s beliefs in the rules and norms of the Arts and Letters, as well as his belief in a rational and centered subject, in a soul well-shaped by culture and civilization, in a morality determined by religious faith, in a genuine knowledge of good and evil—all of this stood in sharp contrast with the radical thinking of the “progressive intellectuals” (in quotation marks, as Corm himself would have written it). It is difficult to imagine Corm’s humanist thought against the background of the major twentieth-century anti-humanist thinkers—all of those who proclaimed the death of man, of the autonomous subject, of metaphysics, of God, of the soul. Corm’s belief in a subject in full control of its destiny and of its freedom and moral judgments is a far cry from the fashionable ideas of the modern world, from the existential and phenomenological doctrines of Being according to which the Self is abandoned in or thrown into the world, from the structuralist and post-structuralist subject caught in the overarching web of social systems and structures, from the psychoanalytic subject whose freedom and life itself is predetermined and pre-conditioned by irrational drives and repressed unconscious forces. Corm’s humanism can hardly even be placed next to those twentieth-century theorists who at one point or another have been branded or have regarded themselves as “humanists”—to thinkers, for example, like Georg Lukács, whose aesthetic realism sought its basis in the ideal of human solidarity and class struggle, or like Emmanuel Lévinas, whose “humanism of the other” is informed by the sense of responsibility that we as humans carry towards the world, or like Edward Said and his self-criticizing “democratic humanism.”[4] Corm’s humanism seems quite rigid, and hesitant to compromise. These hesitations are manifest when he speaks about artistic norms, when he refuses to accept a world in which man is not the measure of all things and is not anymore at the center of the universe, in his Luddite mistrust of machinery and gadgetry, and in his distaste for psychoanalysis, Marxism and the American “way of life.”

A critic embarking upon a close study of Corm’s humanism and of the Essai sur l'art et la civilisation de ce temps faces many challenges, challenges that often have to do with what one might call intellectual honesty or integrity. It requires something of an effort of will to navigate untroubled amid his ideas and his language, especially encountering certain of his opinions about jazz, tribal art, women, surrealism, or abstraction. One must chart a narrow course, while refraining from hasty conclusions.

So why read Corm today, and what can we learn from his brand of artistic humanism—one which draws exclusively on the achievements of European civilization while seeking application within his immediate Middle Eastern context?

As I suggest above, Corm’s humanism can be regarded as a reaction to the advance of modernism in the Middle East. In light of his prolific critical and political writings and engagement with questions of art theory and aesthetics, he might very well be called the captain of the Lebanese artistic arrière-garde. If one fails to see this quality in his conservative art theories, to recognize in them the avant-garde’s dialectical backlash, one cannot form a wider picture of the unfolding of artistic modernization in Lebanon and the Middle East. Moreover, Corm’s understanding of the history and nature of art and his critique of modernism offer an opportunity to look at a series of questions – concerning aesthetics, the history and philosophy of art – outside of their traditional American-European context. The present text also seeks to blend artistic attitudes pertinent to the Middle East with established European theories of art; it aims at placing such attitudes and beliefs in relation to certain aesthetic and artistic philosophical systems.

Before proceeding to the Essai sur l’art et la civilisation de ce temps, we should look first at Georges Corm’s views regarding the origins, nature and history of art, as well as the background on which the Essai will later be projected. My interpretation here is inspired by, and assembled from a variety of his articles written during both his Egyptian and Lebanese periods, from a loose collection of reflections, perceptions and actions and the ways they resonate with those of other thinkers. But in the process we can also hitch rides, so to speak, on certain influential theories of art, on the way to a better understanding of what George D. Corm was up to. We will take a particularly long ride on Hegel’s running-board, as far as his train of thought permits.

III

Georges Corm believed that art has its origins in the necessity early humans felt to transcend their animal nature and reach the light of consciousness. He elaborates some of his broader views on art – that is, art in its long-term, transhistorical perspective – in a conference presentation dedicated to the art of portraiture, delivered in Cairo in 1952.[5] Here, Corm embarks on a journey through the history of art, through epochs and civilizations, and as a humanist he designates art – more specifically the art of portrait painting, which he often calls a paysage de l’ȃme [a landscape of the soul] – as the main motor force in the historical transformation of the human race. For Corm, art lies at the very origins of the evolution of the human, setting what had been little more than animals on the path of humanity and civilization. His views on the origins and evolution of art sound somewhat familiar, bringing G.W.F. Hegel’s thoughts about art particularly to mind.

In the beginning – in Hegel’s philosophy of art – man lives in a fully sensuous state of existence. His ultimate goal is the satisfaction of the senses, of the appetites and instincts. Humans live in packs and their behavior, though somewhat more complex, is not much different from that of animals. It is at this stage that humans first begin to impose, on the nature that surrounds them, something of their humanity. “Man as mind begins to reduplicate himself,” by impressing on nature the seal of man’s internal being.[6] Above all, as early man seeks to surpass his animal nature, the first “artworks” that appear are representations of bison, horses, mammoths, or reindeer, on the walls of caves or carved from animal bone.

In Cairo, Corm shows slides of such early art. He deploys the critical vocabulary of his time, insisting that these drawings and figurines were unsurpassed in their fidelity to living movement, their precision of form, their sobriety of expression.[7] He believes that it was in these early artworks that the soul (Corm’s key conceptual and ethical category) first started to emerge from the dark animal realm of instincts and reflexes. It was this new kind of man-made object, in which man mimics or symbolizes his fear of the natural world, that was the first step towards the brightness of human consciousness, and even today (in 1952) artists continue a battle that began 30,000 years ago—the battle for the human soul.[8]

Hegel also helps us understand the historical stages that will eventually lead early art to modernism. For Hegel, when early humans begin to make art they do something radically different than what they did in their pure animal state: they impose upon their surrounding reality something that had not been there before. By carving or depicting a bison or a horse, they form a completely different relationship with these entities: they no longer attempt, for example, to chase or eat them. The animal depicted on the wall of the caves or carved out of ivory is not a particular or concrete bison but an idea of a bison, a universal concept, and as a universal it is an abstract product of mind.[9] The emerging universality of the carved bison, its transition to concept, is the beginning of knowledge, or as Corm would have said, of the soul. At this early stage of the soul, art is the most efficient way of overcoming the foreignness of outside reality, of overcoming man’s fear of nature, as well as his sensuous desires. Through these new kind of objects that we call “art” today, man began to disinterestedly contemplate the phenomenal world. In Hegel’s words, man begins to produce himself within the medium of external things, and the product of this external self-reproduction is what constitutes art or beauty.[10] Through art, humans also began to mediate their fear of and relation to nature. There is, however, a price to be paid for these discoveries. The emergence of consciousness brings about a distanciation, an estrangement of humans from the natural world, from their initial habitat, in a dialectic of progress and alienation. This is the beginning of humanization, of civilization or (as Freud would have said) the beginning of man’s discontent caused by the clash between his animal drives and the repressive attitudes of this civilization.

In Cairo in 1952, Corm projects a figurine carved in ivory about thirty thousand years ago.[11] He asks his audience to look carefully at the face of this Upper Paleolithic woman:

Look at it closely, this prehistoric ancestor … I know nothing more sincere, more eloquent, nothing more poignant than this face. Look at this low forehead, these eyes sunken in their sockets and apparently lacking lids, this elongated nose hardly rising free of the face…look at this formless mass of the mouth and chin: almost, you could say, the muzzle of an animal.[12]

For Corm, true art begins at the moment when the prehistoric “artist” attempts to represent the human figure, and above all the head and the face. This is part of a broader humanist conviction that the human face is a window into the soul, the anchor of subjectivity and the most significant aspect of identity. In a sense, the face is not even part of the body, like the head, but something separate—a map of subjectivity.[13] In other words, the depiction of the face is the beginning of representation, and of humanity—if indeed animals do not have a face (an idea associated with Emmanuel Lévinas,[14] perhaps following Heidegger’s notion that an animal does not have a hand).

This early representation of the human face discussed by Corm in Cairo – its features no longer animal but “not yet those of a human being”[15] – again resonates with Hegel. Recall that Hegel sees the history of art as unfolding in three main art-historical stages: Symbolic, Classical and Romantic. These three terms refer to different sets of relations between Idea and form. For Hegel, the Idea (Idee) does not refer to something static and subjective that exists in our individual minds but to an objective state of the universe at a particular historical period; the Hegelian Idea is an ongoing objective process and also an act of overcoming the divide between subject and object. Beauty, along with art, is the product of the unification of form with this Idea, or as Hegel famously put it—art is the sensuous semblance of the Idea. In other words, a work of art is something like an Idea imbedded in sensuous or objective form. There are other concepts that Hegel, and his numerous critics and interpreters, have used to describe this relation between the Idea (or sometimes the “Ideal,” as with the Idea of beauty) and form: as that between content and form, for example, or message and medium, or in some cases between signifier (form) and signified (Idea).[16]

The art-form in the Symbolic state – the stage that Hegel associates with Oriental, Egyptian or Indian art – is where the content of art (the Idea) is not yet in perfect harmony with its form. In this stage humans are at the very beginning of their intellectual inquiries about themselves and the world around them. Here then, art most often deals with the natural world, animals, their human hunters, and so forth. The Idea is not yet clear and determined; neither is the human mind yet fully conscious of itself. The content of art, for this reason, still operates for the most part symbolically, attributing religious or supernatural meanings to natural forms. The main task of the symbolic artist is to “fit” content into form or adjust form to content (adjusting a stone, for example, to look like a bison). This art is not yet representational, in Hegel’s sense of the word.

Corm draws very close to Hegel’s Symbolic art-form in his discussion of the Paleolithic figurine in Cairo. When in symbolic art, according to Hegel, as the Idea enters the form (in this case a piece of ivory) it produces distortions; it creates a kind of formal distress. The Idea, or content, does violence to the form. Corm, with his description of the “distorted” face of the figurine – its mouth resembling an animal muzzle – gives an example of the distortion produced by the incompatibility and disharmony between Idea and form. It is not just that the form is not yet ready to accommodate the Idea, but that the Idea itself is not yet fully determined: humans haven’t yet completely overcome their animal urges and impulses, and they haven’t yet fully realized their true essence as  conscious and self-conscious beings.

For Corm, at this stage man does not yet have the “fully-formed” or “redeemed” soul that will begin to emerge with Christianity. And at Hegel’s Symbolic stage, again, the question “What is man?” remains unanswered, and for this precise reason Idea cannot yet harmoniously correlate with form. Form and Idea are alien to each other. Corm’s discussion of the ivory figurine also brings to mind Hegel’s encounter with the Sphinx. For Hegel, the Sphinx – half animal, half human – is the perfect illustration of the Symbolic stage, showing the distortions caused by the encounter of the indeterminate Idea and form. The Sphinx is also an illustration of the pain that the human spirit must overcome as it begins to transcend its animal nature, making the transition from what Corm would call the darkness of the animal condition (the state of “pure being”), to free self-conscious reflection. This struggle for liberation plays out on the face of the ivory figurine, as an extension of its soul—but at this stage it is still not clear what the human really is, and much less whether the Venus of Brassempouy or the Sphinx are human, animal, or something else.

It is only at the next stage that these questions begin to be answered. For the Lebanese humanist Georges Corm, Ancient Greek civilization with its classical art is the epoch of both human gods and godly humans; it is the time when the soul makes peace with the flesh, and corporeal perfection reflects a perfection of the soul—the two are in perfect harmony.[17] Here, the soul finds true expression in sensuous form: content and form, message and medium are now perfectly suited to each other. In the Classical art-form, says Hegel, the Idea enters of its own free and complete accord into the form without distortion or equivocal meaning. The spiritual can now be fully revealed in the sensual because the soul, or in Hegel’s words, the Idea has finally found itself. Now, the Greek artist can take the Idea, or content, of art directly from what Hegel calls the “national religion,” that is, a set of ideas, beliefs and myths shared by an entire community of people. At the same time the Classical art-form now conveys what is essentially and Ideally, or beautifully, human—the perfect shape of the human body. There is no more indeterminacy, there are no muzzles, no hints at man’s animal nature. Man comes to realize that his essence is adequately revealed in this perfect human body, and that he is now also capable of raising and answering such questions as “What am I?” or “Where do I come from?” and “Where am I going?” The classical artist has read Plato, Aristotle and other great thinkers of Greek antiquity, who have reflected on human nature and on how man can understand the universe by understanding himself. The transition from Symbolic to Classical art is a transition from a set of abstract ideas struggling to enter sensuous material and producing formal distortions, to a new art-form in which the content of art concretely realizes the true individuality and nature of the human being. In other words, where before the artist struggled to express something he did not fully grasp, now all his ideas are clear, for he understands himself.

However, in the conference in Cairo, as the parade of Greek sculptures progresses, Corm soon appears to depart from this dream of perfection: “Look at them,” he says, referring to a man and a woman of the 3rd century BC, “they seem to have woken from a heavy and gloomy dream.”[18] Corm finds these sculptures, perfect and beautiful as they are, lacking: there is no real personality or subjectivity in the classical “human gods,” and for Corm – the portraitist and painter – art is primarily about depicting the landscape of the soul, the inner life; art is about revealing the inner spiritual complexity of the epoch-making heroes. He writes:

We have all read and interpreted Homer, at the very least when we were schoolchildren; we all know that Homer was the great poet-storyteller of the Greek heroic period. But Homer the man would have remained, for us, an abstraction, a name without a face, without concrete reality, if an unknown sculptor had not immortalized, in a bronze bust, the physical and spiritual features of the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey.[19]

What is missing is the individual’s uniqueness, the emotional and behavioral manifestations of the individual—and this is precisely what, for Hegel, distinguishes the Classical from the Romantic stage of art. For Hegel the Classical art-form – unlike the Symbolic – does show evidence of individuality, but this is expressed externally, in human corporeality, and not as internalized or inwardized experience. The Classical art-form lacks, in Hegel’s words, the “actuality of self-existent personality, the essential characteristic of which is self-knowledge.”[20]

It is only with the arrival of the Romantic art-form that one can truly speak of the artistic expression of self-knowledge, self-consciousness and self-understanding. Art can now express human essence not in the physical shape of the perfect human body but in the internal states of the personality weighted by self-conscious thought. This had never happened in ancient Greece, partly because the Greeks, Hegel believed, had a very different attitude toward death: they did not fear death in the same way that those in the Christian era would. And for Hegel, the expression of personality, of Subjektivität, and the fear of death are intimately related.[21]

Georges D. Corm believed that the true pinnacle of art in all of history was the Renaissance. It was during this revival that artists fully revealed the complexity of the spiritual landscape, the manifestations of the soul: mystical impulses, enthusiasm, goodness, simplicity, purity, modesty, and so forth.[22] But where does the Renaissance fit into Hegel’s schema? There is a difference of opinion among Hegel’s numerous interpreters as where to set the boundary between the Classical and the Romantic stages. While some believe that Hegel intended the Classical art-form to reach well beyond the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and end with Romanticism, others see it ending much earlier, during the classical antiquity of Greece.[23] This difference of opinion is significant, for this is also where Corm’s and Hegel’s views begin to diverge. For Hegel, the Classical art-form represents the youth of art and of the Spirit in general—with the Symbolic period as the childhood and the Romantic period as the old age of the human spirit. The further humanity strays from the Classical art-form, the harder it is to find the most harmonious or ideal relation between the Idea and the sensuous form.

For Corm, it is the Renaissance revival of Classical form that is the true standard of artistic excellence. The Renaissance is the epoch where the soul and the artistic means of expressing it have both reached the highest stage of perfection. Corm’s high esteem of this epoch is based precisely on his conviction that here artists have gained the very skills that permit the representation of human personality or subjectivity in its full complexity. It is the epoch where “une simple et bonne bourgeoise,” like Mona Lisa, was depicted by Leonardo to convey, in its rich particularity, the general spiritual qualities of the human beings of that time.[24] Hegel also acknowledges that in Romantic art (if we agree with those who regard the Renaissance as part of Romantic form) the personality is expressed in its self-conscious inward intelligence, in its fullest and most complex internality—rather than in the sensuous externality of the human body, as in the Classical period. But unlike Corm, Hegel does not see this as a necessarily higher form of art; for him, there is a crisis of the Romantic art-form, caused by the fact that with the advance of Christianity, the Idea has attained such a degree of complexity that it cannot be easily or accurately translated into plastic form. The absolute inwardness of the self-conscious subject, and its relation to the divine or Absolute, can now only be properly expressed through poetry, religion, or music. This is what opens the way, eventually, to the scandalous Hegelian thesis of the “end of art.”

At the Cairo conference, as Corm reaches the end of the nineteenth century, he makes an abrupt stop—as if to suggest, in his last three sentences, that art has essentially ended.[25] And it has ended exactly at the beginning of modernism, which will be fully addressed in the Essai sur l'art et la civilization de ce temps.

IV

For Hegel, the latter phase of the Romantic art-form carries within itself the seed of art’s own dissolution. Over time, the Idea, or content, of art has attained such a degree of self-reflectiveness that it can no longer be accurately translated into sensuous form. The artistic form is now meaningless and helpless before the Idea, before the spiritual complexity of modern subjectivity. Then with the advance of the post-Romantic phase of art, that of modernism in the twentieth century, sensuous form – dropped, forgotten or abandoned, as it were, by the Idea – begins to take on a life of its own, becoming increasingly preoccupied with its own properties and materiality. In twentieth-century art criticism, such tendencies are often described as “formalism.” On the level of Idea, on the other hand, this crisis in art is manifest in such concepts as “dehumanization,” “despiritualization,” or “denaturalization.” Corm’s critique of modernism touches upon some of these issues.

Corm’s Essai sur l'art et la civilization (1966) brings to Lebanon and to the Middle East a dispute that, for centuries, had divided the great moral empire—a battle between tradition and progress. Written in French – the lingua franca of Lebanon’s Christian Maronite intellectuals – the Essai addresses a broad set of issues while aiming toward the local context, for like Corm’s other activities (artistic and cultural, political and social) it unfolds around one central concern: the cultural identity of the newly-formed state of Lebanon. In some ways, the text can be regarded as an attempt to assert an artistic program, a cultural policy or a “state aesthetics,” one that would truly rise to meet the aspirations of the Lebanese elites at a particular moment in history.

The Essai was written during Lebanon’s so-called  “golden age,” in the 1960s and early 70s.[26] In this period the country witnessed the most rapid modernization in almost every sphere of its social life, and Beirut was regarded as a dynamic cultural center, attracting Arab intellectuals from many countries in the region.[27] Radical transformations were also taking place in the arts. For instance, in 1964 (two years before the publication of the Essai) abstract art, for the first time, completely dominates the fourth edition of the Sursock Salon, and does so again in 1967.[28] The yearly program of the Baalbeck International Festival – an institution that has significantly contributed to determining Lebanon’s cultural identity since the late fifties – gives an impression of these changing artistic sensibilities. Initially very conservative, folkloristic and classical, from the early seventies the Baalbeck program displayed such names as Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, André Masson, and Louis Aragon.[29] Its emerging new cultural vision stood at the opposite end of the spectrum from Corm’s (and that of other painters of his generation such as Moustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi) neo-classicizing painterly humanism. Suddenly, these older artists felt alienated from the cultural life of their country. The manifesto-like quality of Corm’s Essai can be regarded as a counter-reaction to this rapidly changing cultural landscape, a voice among many others within a complex context shaped by various discourses: Arabism and Europeanism, Lebanism and Phoenecianism, secularism and sectarianism, West and East, socialism and capitalism, materialism and spiritualism, traditionalism and modernism.

Corm’s position in the pages of the Essai is more fully elaborated across other articles and letters, and on the whole amounts to an outline of a modern utopia. He imagines Lebanon as a classically-arranged, high-walled garden that might preserve the Arts and Letters from modernist intrusions. Like his father Daoud Corm half a century earlier, Corm sincerely believes that the Orient might in fact become a sanctuary for the great humanistic heritage that Europe has brought to its full perfection and then unexpectedly abandoned.[30] This sanctuary, however, was more exclusive than some might have liked. Corm, for instance, was reluctant to admit the Arabic artistic heritage, for the simple reason that the arabesque – a significant Arabic contribution to visual culture – does not concern itself with anthropomorphic representations, and accordingly it cannot truly express the complexity of the human soul.[31] For Corm, the arabesque is as decorative and ineffective for the perfection of the soul as abstract art. Muslim art, according to him, stopped evolving five hundred years ago, and art that does not evolve is condemned to perish.[32] If the government is to succeed in turning Lebanon into a touristic destination, for example, it must establish a “Service des Beaux-Arts” that would deploy Beauty, Taste and Harmony to develop this country and the city of Beirut.[33] We can only infer that such a bureau would never have accepted the value of abstract art, or jazz, or contemporary music, poetry, and dance, which again, cannot be admitted into the classical garden for the reason that these forms are given their impetus by “primitive” cultures, by what Hegel would have called Symbolic art-forms at their very early stage of the spirit.[34] It is only the advanced tradition of Western art, as expressed in the art of the Renaissance, that can serve as a model and guide for Lebanon. Corm’s defense of the norms and rules of the Arts and Letters formed the core of his brand of painterly humanism, which we call here “Oriental” or “Lebanese” because he envisioned this region as a protected area, a park where these European norms and rules would be safeguarded against the contamination and incursions of international modernism.

Corm begins the Essai by asking what it is that has brought down the great Christian humanist civilization—“the most extraordinary civilizing expansion in history”? What happened to the moral empire that reached its pinnacle in the nineteenth century, when its glorious laborers no longer aspired but to the “calm enjoyment of goods already acquired?"[35] The answer is “materialism.” The descent began with the writings of Karl Marx, who provided Russian revolutionaries with an effective ideological weaponry to carry out a materialist revolution and sabotage the social and moral structures established within the borders of the Russian Empire. This led to the creation of the USSR. The second force that toppled the humanist empire – also with roots in Western Europe – originated much earlier, when certain Europeans crossed the Atlantic in order to conquer the riches of the North American continent. This led to the formation of the United States—a country governed exclusively by the laws of Commerce and Industry imposing their harsh market-determined rules in all directions. For Corm, Soviet dialectical materialism is by far the worse ideology of the two, and if he had had to choose between the two antagonistic forces of the Cold War, he would have chosen what he perceived to be the lesser evil, the United States. Here, at least, American elites remained firmly attached to Christian ideals, as were the large majority of the population, though still struggling daily with the temptations of capital accumulation and material comfort.[36]

Alongside these major forces, the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud is another factor that has contributed to the fall of the moral empire, with its enormously detrimental impact on the morals and the manners of the masses, especially in the United States. Corm writes that psychoanalysis encourages children to behave in accordance with their animal instincts, and that it encourages their parents not only to ignore their parental duties, but to change spouses with the first conjugal difficulty. The modern family – the institution that served as the cornerstone of humanist civilization – is also disintegrating. All this warns of a return to that primary animal stage that man has worked so hard to overcome over centuries of humanist civilization.

Finally, the last factor that Corm believes has contributed to the fall of classical humanist values and to the rise of modern art is American advertisement, imposed on the mass of citizens in countries all over the world. A false optimism forms the basis of American advertisement—“such and such an American drink is a miraculous source of vitality... such and such an American film […] is […] a colossus of cinematographic industry and the masterpiece of masterpieces ... you cannot win your beloved except by using a certain beauty cream, a certain soap... .”[37] But even its worst lies are, again, much less dangerous than the Marxist-Stalinist lie, because the latter dares to deny the very concept of the soul, the very thing that human beings have been struggling for the past tens of thousands of years to perfect.

In their wake, these combined forces bring what Corm calls the “triumph of the materialist Arts and Letters.”[38] The rapid modernist takeover of the arts – supported as it is by art merchants and a certain clique of intellectuals[39] – has led to the complete disappearance of the human being from the work of art. For a humanist, this is of major significance:

What is remarkable in this evolution of the plastic arts is that at the same time that the materialist powers were suffocating the human soul, the expressionist School, Picassoism, and Art Informel were, in their works, dislocating human forms, were dismembering and disintegrating them, in anticipation of the day when the abstract school would make man and his works entirely disappear.[40]

The human being – the highest and most perfect of God’s creations – is erased from the arts by the so-called “avant-garde.” This is the same assault carried out by Marxists of all sorts, mercantilists, psychoanalysts and the mad men of Madison Avenue, leading to the complete abolition of the human subject from modernist art.

About four decades before Corm published his essay, José Ortega y Gasset had drawn attention to this very situation, noting that modern artists had ceased to represent human forms in their works. He called this phenomenon the “dehumanization of art.”[41] For Ortega y Gasset, the process of dehumanization has nothing to do (directly at least) with materialism, Marxism, psychoanalysis or advertising, but rather with a contradiction at the heart of modern art. In the twentieth century, it becomes imperative that modern art not use its content to make spiritual or transcendental claims, but instead attend to, or develop in accordance with its own nature or essence.[42] Ortega y Gasset asks his readers to imagine that they are looking at a garden through a window:

Our eyes adjust themselves so that our eyes penetrate the glass without lingering upon it, and seizes upon the flowers and foliage. As the goal of vision towards which we direct our glance is the garden, we do not see the pane of glass and our gaze passes through it. The clearer the glass, the less we see it. But later, by making an effort, we can ignore the garden and by retracing our focus, let it rest on the window-pane. The garden disappears from our eyes, and all we see of it are some confused masses of color which seem to adhere to the glass. Thus to see the glass and to see the window pane are two incompatible operations: the one excludes the other and they each require a different focus.[43]

Here, the garden represents art’s claims and content, and the window pane art’s nature or essence—another set of terms for the Idea and form discussed above. Dehumanization in art begins when the pane of glass becomes dirty and opaque, and when artists, instead of cleaning the window – through which the “classical garden” was once visible – become obsessed with the smudges and smears, with the countless finger-prints left on the surface of this medium over the centuries. The confused masses of color that seem to adhere to the glass are what make up the modernist painting, and the main task of the modernist painter is in fact to challenge the old and widespread belief that a picture is—as Alberti once believed—a window onto the world (just as the face was a window into the soul). While some artists – Corm among them – kept peering through the window to depict the garden, the world or the soul, others preferred to “smudge” its surface, doodling abstract patterns, meaningless scribbles, and other non-representational fantasies. All of this was done, of course, in order to make the spectator realize that there was no garden on the other side of the glass, and perhaps nothing at all, if not the gardener’s own beliefs and views presented as “natural” and “historically given.” But the problem was, as Ortega y Gasset suggests, that the great majority of people simply could not readjust their focus to look at the surface of the glass, the painting, or of the world around them, preferring instead to look “through” it. This looking “through” is often called ideology.

This inescapable incongruity between garden and window, or between Idea and form, is what sometimes is understood as the “death” or the “end of art.” Of course, the “end of art” was never about artists ceasing to make art. It was about the moment when art could no longer help us understand ourselves and the world around us. Both the world and art had changed: the world no longer needed art to tell it what it was or what it wanted anymore, and art, realizing this, decided not to follow the world but find a life of its own. If one is to believe Hegel, art had lost for good that special status as well as the “world-historical” relevance that it had once enjoyed in Ancient Greece or during the European Renaissance. Some have argued that the “end of art,” as Hegel foresaw it, was entirely about the end of art as a means of representing the world, where art had finally to renounce “the normative authority of nature.”[44] It is this renunciation that has led to the divorce between Idea and form.

On the level of form, critical discussions of this separation solidified into the discourse of “formalism,” with its eternal search for “pure” form (that is, form preoccupied with its own physical properties and appearance) according to such themes as “painterliness,” “flatness,” “sculptureness,” and so on. One could even say, at the risk of oversimplifying, that at the “end of art,” both Idea and form acquired permanent resident status in different and mutually hostile political systems. While in the West, and in the post-World War II United States in particular, “progressive” art chose the path of formalism (without, of course, completely abandoning content, which to a great degree was channeled into advertising)—on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in the Soviet bloc, Stalin’s chief ideologues welcomed the Idea, the content, of art. The Stalinists, late-blooming classicists, were constantly blamed by the opposite side for using art as a weapon of “propaganda” and “ideology.” In turn they responded that the capitalists were using form, or formalism, as disinformation or advertising to sell their latest ideological product marketed under the brands of “liberty” or “freedom.”

As we have seen, Corm’s list of factors contributing to the rise of modern art differs quite significantly from those offered by other critics. According to Corm, it was both the Soviet ideologues and the American businessmen who had put in peoples’ heads the idea of abandoning the search for the soul and for spiritual perfection. All that was now left was “materialism,” either in the form of the “communist utopia” or the American “way of life.” Though Corm’s Essai streamlines and often over-simplifies the situation, his arguments still faintly resonate with those of other critics, particularly as he lays the blame on materialism for bringing down the humanist empire. We can treat his faults gently – especially in his harsh diatribes against Marxism, psychoanalysis, surrealism, jazz, contemporary art, “savages,” and the American “way of life,” to name a few – and focus instead on what he designates as the causa prima of the fall of the moral empire and of the traditional Arts and Letters. Of course, unlike Hegel and his interpreters, Corm would never go as far as to claim that the human soul, the Idea or the human quest for self-understanding have reached such a level of complex inwardness that they can no longer be translated into images, or that natural representations cannot express the depth of the modern human soul. Corm would also have never supported the idea that modern artists had turned away from nature to abstraction (or non-figuration) because the act of representing the garden beyond the window had lost its significance, or that in a world of mechanical reproduction, nothing is left for the artist than to turn his or her painterly gaze inwards. For Corm, the abstract artists are still working in relation to nature. As a traditional painter and as a tireless gazer into the classical garden, Corm did not understand or see in the experiments of the modern formalists any of their so-called “painterliness,” nor did he recognize the “essence” of painting or its expressions of freedom trumpeted around that time by the champions of American Abstract Expressionism. What he saw, instead, in modernist abstraction were representations taking the form of decoration: modernist artists’ “models [are] everywhere in Nature in millions of combinations of lines and colors... in a slab of striated marble, in the wing of a butterfly, in a peacock’s tail, in the leaves of certain plants... in anatomical plates of the intestines [...] and ad infinitum.”[45] Similarly, the surrealists and the exponents of Art Informel plagiarize “the uncouth and grimacing statues of the primitive tribes of the five continents, and the same with the drawings and colorings of children and schizophrenics.”[46]

In other words, he saw in abstraction a representation of nature, but of a nature that does not truly express the complexity of the human soul. Instead of a landscape, there is just a slab of marble, instead of a human being, just the intestines, and so on. By materialism and by “materialist Arts and Letters,” Corm also means “formalism”—which for him is despiritualization, dehumanization, the complete abolition of the Idea or of representation, and the sole fixation on “formal” or material properties (“just paint on a flat surface,” as Clement Greenberg would have said).

V

In all the battles waged above, Georges Corm falls squarely and consistently on one side. He is on the side of the Idea, of content and message. As a convinced humanist, he could never have agreed that artistic content or the soul might one day become in-expressible in artistic form or even irrelevant for human self-understanding. He could not have seen how one could still call oneself an artist without looking right through the window pane at the flowers, foliage, leaves and the gardener—in other words, at the world. A modernist might say that he had become stuck in Hegel’s Classical or early Romantic phases, or that he was using an outdated artistic language to reflect upon contemporary phenomena. For many (Hegel included) this was not a wise thing to do. In each art-form there is one genuine relation between Idea and form. In the Classical phase, the Idea enters form freely, of its own accord. But that magnificent song has “been sung once and for all.”[47] In the post-Romantic period, resorting to an earlier art-form to convey a contemporary message runs the risk of turning art into an ideological vehicle.

It was Georges D. Corm’s fate to arrive on the stage at a time when Lebanon was coming to terms with its identity as a country. Perhaps Corm’s love for classical form, as outdated as it may have looked in the mid-twentieth century, was (through him) Lebanon’s own way of formulating a cultural reaction to the advent of modernism. This had happened some decades before in other countries that, at some point, had sought a “second” or “third” way out of history: in Soviet socialist realism, in German national-socialist realism, in American public and social realism during Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration. Why could not Lebanon have its own modernist anti-modernist reaction?

Hegel would have said that all such classicizing tendencies have been consigned to the proverbial dustbin of art history because Idea did not enter form of its own free accord – as it was in ancient Greece – but was coerced, pressured, by larger political forces. This, naturally, resulted in distortions, deformations, and visual aberrations. In other words, when classicizing tendencies are enforced in Soviet, and today still in North Korean socialist realist art, when the Idea or the “fundamental nature of the universe” is forced to relate in one fixed way or another to sensuous form, this produces distortions similar to those produced in the earliest stages of the soul, in the Symbolic art-form.

In the cultural life of his country, Georges Corm’s art and writing was an expression and a result of these struggles. He was the painter of the emerging Middle Eastern modern bourgeois subject, a subject he envisioned and cast in those established, idealized forms that had reached their technical heights in a glorious but distant epoch of the moral European empire. In other words, Corm’s work today could be seen as a kind of Lebanese “socialist” or maybe “bourgeois realism,” a certain necessary and unavoidable reaction to international modernism, a modernist-counter-modernism – which we have decided to call: “Lebanese Painterly Humanism.”

Octavian Esanu,
Beirut, 2013

This text was published on the occasion of the exhibition Lebanese Painterly Humanism: Georges D. Corm (1896-1971) organized at AUB Art Galleries in 2013 and can be found in this publication



[1] Georges Corm – the son of Daoud Corm (1852-1930), considered one of the first professional painters in Lebanon – was born in 1896. From 1919 until 1921 he studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In the late 1920s Corm played an active role in the establishment of the first independent Lebanese art institutions (a museum, an art and music school, the medals of the new state). In 1930 he emigrated to Alexandria, Egypt. Upon his return to Beirut in 1956 he reintegrated in the cultural life of his country, exhibiting and publishing. Georges Corm died in 1971 in Beirut.

[2] See Georges Corm, “Un itinéraire” in Georges Daoud Corm: Un Peintre du Liban (Beirut: Édition Librairie Antoine, 2007), 32.

[3] See for instance, B.R., “Georges Corm contre l’homme moderne,” L’Orient, 13 March, 1967, in Georges G. Corm ed., Les archives du peintre Georges Daoud Corm entre 1915-1971: combats pour les arts et la culture au Liban (Kaslik: Pusek, 2009), 82.

[4] See Emmanuel Levinas, Humanism of the Other, trans. Nidra Poller (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006); Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

[5] Georges Daoud Corm, “Sur le portrait dans les arts plastiques, a travers les ȃges” (conference presentation at the Circle of Youth, Cairo, Egypt, April 18, 1952), in Les archives du peintre Georges Daoud Corm, 56-66.

[6] G. W. F. Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, trans. B. Bosanquet (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993), 35-36.

[7] Corm, “Sur le portrait dans les arts plastiques, a travers les ȃges,” 58.

[8] See Corm’s description of early art on pages 58-60 in Ibid.

[9] See M. Inwood, “Commentary,” in Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, xv.

[10] Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, 36.

[11] The list of slides projected in the Cairo conference are missing from Corm’s archive. It can be only presumed, according to the description, that he was speaking of the Venus of Brassempouy—the High Paleolithic female figurine found in the south of France in 1892.

[12] Corm, “Sur le portrait dans les arts plastiques, a travers les ȃges,” 58.

[13] See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), 168.

[14] See Tamra Wright, Peter Hughes and Alison Ainley “The Paradox of Morality: An Interview with Emmanuel Levinas” in Robert Bernasconi and David Wood The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other (London: Routledge, 1988), 171-72.

[15] Corm, “Sur le portrait dans les arts plastiques, a travers les ȃges,” 60.

[16] For form and Idea as signifier and signified, see Stephen Bungay, Beauty and Truth: A Study of Hegel’s Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 57. For Hegel’s use of the term “Idea” (Idee) see Alexander Magee, The Hegel Dictionary (London & New York: Continuum, 2010), 112-15.

[17] Corm, “Sur le portrait dans les arts plastiques, a travers les ȃges,” 61.

[18] Ibid. 61.

[19] Ibid., 61-62.

[20] G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Art: Being the Second Part of Hegel's Aesthetik, in Which Are Unfolded Historically the Three Great Fundamental Phases of the Art-activity of the World, trans. William McKendree Bryant (New York: D. Appleton, 1879), 87.

[21] Ibid., 91.

[22] Corm, “Sur le portrait dans les arts plastiques, a travers les ȃges,” 61.

[23] For the view that the classical art-form lasted into the Renaissance and beyond, see Michael Inwood, “Commentary” to Hegel’s Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, xxx. Jack Kaminsky, on the other hand, argues that the classical art-form ended in Ancient Greece, and that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are part of the Romantic art-form. See Jack Kaminsky, Hegel on Art: An Interpretation of Hegel's Aesthetics (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1962), 46.

[24] Corm, “Sur le portrait dans les arts plastiques, a travers les ȃges,” 58.

[25] Ibid., 66.

[26] The Essai sur l'art et la civilisation de ce temps was first published in 1960s in the Lebanese journal Al Chirah (or Al Shiraa) and then re-published in 1966 as a separate volume by the Beirut publisher Dar An-Nahar. See Georges Daoud Corm, Essai sur l’art et le civilisation de ce temps (Beirut: Dar an-Nahar, 1966). Corm’s Essai was translated into English by Catherine Hansen (2013) and into Arabic by Jacques Aswad (2013).

[27] See Sune Haugbolle, War and Memory in Lebanon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 44-48.

[28] Sylvia Agemian, “Georges Corm au Musée Nicolas Sursock” in Georges Daoud Corm; Un peintre du Liban, 18.

[29] See for instance XIX Festival International de Baalbeck (Beirut, 1974).

[30] See Georges Corm, “Un itinéraire,” 32.

[31] Georges D. Corm, “L’Art Arabe et le Liban.” Le Réveil, 25 March, 1922 (25), in Corm, Les archives du peintre Georges Daoud Corm, 25.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Georges D. Corm, “Lettre d’un chrétien libanais à un musulman libanais” (unpublished), approx. 1970 in Corm, Les archives du peintre Georges Daoud Corm, 103.

[34] For Corm’s views on jazz, contemporary dance and music, see Corm, Essai sur l’art et le civilisation de ce temps, 76.

[35] Corm, Essai sur l’art et le civilisation de ce temps, 74.

[36] See ibid., 75-76.

[37] Ibid., 75.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 78.

[40] Ibid.

[41] José Ortega y Gasset The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture, and Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968).

[42] The idea that painting must not, like literature, deal in narrative images has been around for a while. Lessing’s essay Laocoon (1766) was among the earliest to draw attention to the differing economies of the arts, where the visual arts are spatial while poetry, literature and music are temporal arts. In the 20th century Clement Greenberg defends abstract art as a painting that attends to its own nature and essence, which is to say its colored flatness and not narrative, in the influential 1940 essay Towards a New Laocoon.

[43] Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art, 68.

[44] Robert Pippin, The Persistence of Subjectivity: On the Kantian Aftermath (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), n. 1, 282.

[45] Corm, Essai sur l’art et le civilisation de ce temps, 78.

[46] Ibid.

[47] G. W. F. Hegel and Thomas Malcolm Knox, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) p. 608.)