Thoughts about the Celtic World

Studying the intense ornamentation of the BM's Celtic Art Exhibition gave rise to its diametric opposite, and made me wonder about the relationship between the emergence of the ornament-free International Style of architecture in the early 20thC and beliefs in the triumph of rationality. In that era they believed the Nietzschean proposition that the intellect would ultimately triumph over the anarchy of the unconscious by eliminating sentiment and superstition and thus a new world order would arise from the ancient chaos with the human will in place of gods. Well, in a way it did—for that was the intellectual seed-bed both of Communism and Nazism—with consequences nobody imagined. It must have seemed at the time that the simple certainties of science, medical progress and reason offered a radical route-map to sweeping away disease, squalor and the inherent corruption of capitalism.

Aside from the irony of this perspective a century later, after the destruction of the Arab social order by Western militarism and consequent tide of refugees now sweeping into Europe—not to mention the backwash of terrorism—it's strange how psychically uninhabited Modernism now seems.

Spending time with the Exhibition Catalog studying the intensity of the Celtic craftsmen's cornucopious use of ornament embellishment and symbol has led me to think a lot about the world as they saw it. Nowadays our imaginations are circumscribed by ease with which smart devices and the visual familiarity of mass reproduction trumps what we can laboriously produce unaided. It is the very extent of our knowledge that disempowers us and, paradoxically, the very ease with with which we can produce images that devalues them.

Before the 18thC there was no restriction on anyone's imagination because there was no body of knowledge accepted as objectively true: no one knew what the land mass of the earth was, and few had any conception of life in the remoter parts of their own continent. Prehistoric technologies like farming and metallurgy were regarded with awe and but also with wonder. Yet in this world everything was possible: to their kinsfolk, rich and poor, every storyteller, every smith, was a magician whose power was limited only by their capacity to convince.

To me the fabulous artefacts of that complex, diverse yet illiterate, civilisation transcend time to speak to us of an engagement with the energies of the natural world – that wide, mysterious, psychically-inhabited darkness bordering their small enclaves. Those who left this vivid record did so in the face of an unpredictable and deeply unsafe environment, where survival itself couldn't be taken for granted and where each had first to invent the very tools and technologies which they employed to such memorable and harmonious effect.

Thus it seems to me that it was the very difficulty—the hard grapple with the very grain of existence—that imbues their creation with such extraordinary numen and vertu. If they were going to make it at all they needed to make it beautiful not merely because it occupied weeks, if not months or years, of intense labour on which their entire economic future might depend, but also because each object, being unique, represented a score card of the skills they had acquired. Therefore the motifs and symbols they used needed to be those which were most valued and potent within their communities.

Looking at them now you can sense a chaos of overlapping belief and value systems whose vigour and syncresis formed a folk art tradition that was still visibly alive in the gargoyles and misericords of medieval church craftsmen. Consider this seventh century Bible where, in place of a cross, the cover is plastered with the triskeles, a primitive trifold symbol of energy surviving to this day as national icons of Sicily and the Isle of Man.  

The exhibition brought home to me again the numen / psychic resonance / artistic power we have lost by the ease and safety of our lives and art. We may have gone a great way towards eliminating religion, disease, discomfort and physical distance - yet in the process Westerners have also lost almost everything from which the Celts derived authenticity: the indefinable magic of identification with a landscape, the intense bond of tribal identity and its cultural certainties, the intuitional qualities of shared belief and ultimately a dynamic relationship with the natural world. It was a wonderful way to reconnect with the way out weirdness that was the Celtic world.

We cannot turn back the evolutionary clock, any more than we can reenter childhood, but we can revisit and cherish these primitive parts of our collective psyche in a similar way that we can reinvigorate our minds by contact with the freshness of children's minds.

This is perhaps one of the great functions of scholarship – and the one we are in greatest danger of submerging by requiring all education to be market-driven.