The Eternal Present Essay - Critical Essays

Sigfried Giedion


In Giedion’s view, art is a fully autonomous mode of the human spirit. He spends no time at all on historical or sociological causation, even rejecting it with some scorn. For a formalist, he is surprisingly indifferent to stylistic influence along a chronological continuum; each great work of art is an independent mode of the human experience and represents an achievement others can use. Great artworks come in clusters; it is very rare that there are revolutionary works of art. Yet each work is a variation on a basic theme, not an item in a line of stylistic descent. One of Giedion’s epigraphs to the first book is from Ezra Pound: “All ages are contemporaneous.” That is, each work, whether from the twentieth century or from 10,000 b.c.e., is equally significant to the study of human history.

Much of The Beginnings of Art is devoted to tracing the development of what might be called a “vocabulary” of art. That is, ancient peoples were slowly developing the forms that enabled them to cope with the meaning of their lives. Before elaborating on this point, Giedion sets down certain basic principles. He states that art is essential for organizing the inner life and reconciling the inner life with the outer world. The most effective weapon for survival in a hostile world is the symbol, and the necessary instrument for symbolization is abstraction. The most important formal means for creating the abstract symbol are transparency, simultaneity, and movement. In characteristic fashion, Giedion intersperses his discussion of ancient art with a discussion of modern art, which has returned to the same devices. Modern art is never absent from any of these books, since Giedion believes that one of the most significant developments of the twentieth century is the recovery of these ancient symbolic devices.

The major symbols of this early period are hands (in all prehistoric and primitive cultures the handprint is featured), circular forms of various kinds (including balls, rings, and perforations), the great fertility symbols (vulvae, phalli, and breasts), and the symbols of bisexuality (he uses the word “androgyny,” but “hermaphrodite” would be a better word since it is the combination of the two sexes into a unit that is important). All these symbols serve the purpose of relating people to the primary forces of life.

Yet the greatest symbol is that of the animal, and Giedion devotes the longest section of The Beginnings of Art to it. The animal is the most impressive of the forces of nature. It is essential food, but it is much more than that; the animal is necessary to the vast interconnectedness of all things, the flow of all life into one. Giedion surveys an astonishing...

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