Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Coomaraswamy, Tolkien, and faeries. Oh my!

            In preparing for the mirco-essay I spent some time considering Coomaraswamy’s work.  I must say that the more I consider what he says, the more I find it attractive, the more I think it is true. 

So why do I find his conclusion attractive?  It is very simple, it answers the “why” of art.  How can man create without a purpose?  Let me note that later in this post I will refer to specific types of art (such as theatre, literature, etc.) but the ideas are meant to be applicable to all art forms, or “Art” in general.

For a long time I have been plagued by a question that is usually posed as an application essay for theatre department scholarship grants at larger colleges.  It is; what is the purpose of theatre?  The academically acceptable answer is more or less “to put the problems of society, however ugly, on stage so that we as the audience can deal with those problems and start to drain society’s collective abscesses.”  This answer has never sat well with me.  It is far too secular, too limited, and leads to very distasteful and even hateful shows being produced.  It is also why some hail Theatre of Cruelty as genius.  So I knew I must search for a better answer.  After studying quite a bit of literature on stage magic and conjuring, which is in fact an area of serious scholarly research (see Conjuring Arts Research Centre and their scholar journal the Gibecière,) I came across a very agreeable conclusion that the purpose of theatrical performance, and art in general, is to re-enchant a disenchanted world that has been devastated by the rise of modernity.  This conclusion is a step closer to Coomaraswamy’s philosophy, for it reaches past the materialism of the modern world.  What Coomaraswamy has done is add the final piece to the puzzle with the addition of the necessity of the Divine for the purpose of art.  I can now say with confidence that the purpose of theatre and art is to make visible the invisible Divine order of the universe.

In my free time I came across a very interesting dramatic presentation of JRR Tolkien’s thoughts on myths and færie stories.  What is so interesting is that his thoughts are very nearly those of Coomaraswamy, although he is speaking about literature rather than visual art, and from a strictly Christian perspective.  Let me sum up Tolkien’s thoughts by recording a profound quote from the presentation.  “We make things by the law in which we are made.  We create because we are created.”  Think of Tolkein’s reference to myths and stories as references to “Art.”  Here is the link to the video.  In it Tolkein is speaking to CS Lewis before Lewis’ conversion.

The piece is taken from Tolkein’s lecture on Fairy-Stories from St. Andrews’ Andrew Lang Lecture series.


  1. A very nice post, Tyler. The connection to Tolkien and Lewis does make a lot of sense, and I like your thoughts on the purpose of theater. You might also be interested in Nietzsche's musings on Greek drama in The Birth of Tragedy, though he is certainly not a traditionalist in the way that Coomaraswamy is.

  2. I love this post. Scharfstein mentions in one of the chapters that humans are naturally curious and can't really settle on one definition of anything for long because we're constantly questioning things. I like the way you went about phrasing this. Two thumbs up.

  3. This video was really awesome! I believe that it will be in the eye of the person viewing a piece to determine, to them, what it really is, or what it really means. We as humans are curious individuals and must practice this curiosity by questioning things around us.