Wilhelm Worringer was one of the most remarkable art historian/cultural theorists of the first half of the twentieth century. While he was a significant, if unintentional influence, on movements like Expressionism and different strains of abstraction, he seems to rarely be read at this point, while more dubious parasites on his work (such as Benjamin) have been glorified beyond reason. Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy (1907) was a key text for T.E. Hulme and Wyndham Lewis and his lesser known book on Egyptian art is remarkably consonant with much of what Lewis was arguing about art in the 20s and 30s. A student of Simmel, Worringer managed to be one of the best sociologists of modernity by not writing about modernity at all.
Egyptian Art (1928) was written as a polemic against what Worringer regarded as a false idea of Egyptian profundity, one accorded to them by a “glorification of the abstruse.” (27) He pinpoints an irony in the fact that what Europeans glorified in the Ancient Egyptians often seems formally comparable to that which they claim to despise about America (judging by the inclusion of Canadian examples, he means the northern continent in general). (x) His project then was to de-romaticize and de-heroicize the Egyptians, whose ancient civilization have been distorted through their late ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘degenerate’ phase after they had been infected by Hellenistic and Roman society and eroticized in their exotic qualities. False eroticism is coupled with false religiosity. If the Egyptians have a reputation for spiritual profundity this is due to the “fascinating power of the senseless. Nothing has a more profound effect than paradox.” (15) This paradox is the simultaneity of high material culture with a senseless ideal one. (16) The confusion of this resulted in immense fantasies for hidden or secret depths beyond the stereotypes and fancies, fantasies that are unattuned to the fact that “the heart-beat is audible only under pathological conditions.” (18)
He notes that nothing definitive has been established about the population of Ancient Egypt beyond their (ethnic) heterogeneity. Things were not ‘autochthonous’ but deposited (2), and yet the civilization managed to develop a homogeneous character. This character was determined by their very artificiality, making the question of their ‘origin’ or ‘native soil’ irrelevant. (2) Egypt had no culture in the limited sense that it grows from the soil, but it had a civilization that bloomed from artifice. This points to a general levelling through artifice (determined transformation by local conditions) that does away with spontaneity, freeing itself from natural history and ‘history even’ (the cult of fatherland). (3) Artifice creates greater uniformity. A hothouse (Oasis) civilization. If Worringer had seen Las Vegas, he might have pointed to it as the proper inheritor of Egyptian civilization. In both, he would detect the “over-estimation of the colossal.” (47) While, for some societies, the monumental is the result of an excess of vitality, one can as readily find it as a substitute in absence of vitality, an over-compensation for being a ‘stupefied’ civilization “which leads in a purely mechanical and automatic manner to an increase of size regulated by no inward measure.” (47)
Artifice is here often born through conversion. There is a paradox is this. The hyper-artificiality of the Egyptian civilization was simultaneously natural since that artifice was necessitated by the environment. (12) The ‘catastrophic’ inundations of the weather are converted through complex engineering to make the space fecund. Destructive forces are harnessed to this and the fertility of the land is bound to technology and ingenuous calculation. Though, he says, there is “a petty kind of joy” in this intelligence and its “finely woven carpet of fertile fields.” (5) The aesthetic line that develops here is that where “[e]xtreme artificiality triumphs over the immediacy of nature.” (5) This is part of the general character of the Ancient Egyptians. In keeping with this, the erotic pulse that stems from nature is largely absent. Over-cultivated, Egyptian culture had little sense of Eros “and only sexuality.” (7) This was also a sign of the civilization’s stress on life-preservation rather than squandering, as also shown in their lack of warrior spirit. So, “[t]he exponent of Egyptian ideas of life is not the soldier but the scribe.” (7) But this was a strictly practical form of learning, one concerned entirely with technicality, since even science had been de-eroticiszed and so had ethics, which were equally practical, right down to the spells cast in their holy texts. “Colonizing peoples, that is to say, artificial peoples, have no power of myth creation…” (12) Instead, there was etiquette and diversion. It was a culture devoid of a sense of decline or catastrophe, since both of those are symptoms of ‘vital tension’. (9) There was no sense of death and rebirth, no ‘time-feeling’ since ‘Timelessness is fatelessness’ and this was a sign of their pure outwardness, their lack of an inner history or world. Everything is eternal, devoid of tension. No rebirth is needed because there is little distinction between life and death (though the latter tends to be elided by euphemism). There is only renovation and shifts in décor. So, also no sense of biography with the trappings of inner life or character attributes, just a different head and name.
An artificial civilization is a conventional one, one without personality, with only stereotypes and formula. It is conservative, petrified “through [a] civilized hothouse culture [where] the freezing-point of individual immediateness has been passed.” (10) It becomes a civilization of enclosure that preserves its initial primitive moment of colonization as a luxurious moment to be rendered sacrosanct in the place of a myth. (12) It becomes a ‘museum-culture’ that transforms this myth into a system. This system of outward signs then serves to assimilate, quite indifferently to the content of anything that comes in by foreign route. The result was a variety of incompatible religious traditions, indifferently set side-by-side in the museum that Egypt took as its religion. (13) It was not so much a religion, in any common sense of the term, but a form of curation that retained ‘eternal proximity’ (14), maintaining different forms through lifeless convention. It was unsystematic and indifferent to contradiction. This was also true of the system of hieroglyphs, which indifferently retained their contradictions from all stages of their history, resulting in a ‘logically untransparent juxtaposition’. (33) Without rigid formality, it would have collapse into utter absurdity.
Egyptian style may be the greatest of styles. Here, we witness a singular and unvarying instance of the realization of an idea. This indicates the severe artificiality of the matter, were it not so, were Egyptian culture in close contact with the productivity of nature, it would demonstrate a frequent struggle and overcoming. Art seeks to unify through struggle and constantly splinters, thus its diversity. With the Egyptians, however, the unity is a given because there is no ‘inner development’. (23) No art of impulse (irrational natural growth), just of convention without any struggle for becoming (it is abstract from the outset). The ‘power of formation’ then is ‘lack of imagination’. (24) Egyptian art is pure surface arrived at almost instantly, without the recourse to dialectics necessary for the Greeks. “Lifted out of all the undercurrents of immediacy into the thin air of an artificially schemed existence, it creates for itself without effort perfections, but they are perfections operating only between two dimensions, and therefore finding no difficulty in being clear and unequivocal.” (25) Egyptian culture is a working over of what was there, not a working up from it. They worked over the irrational with the harshest means of reason. The naturalism that occurs in some of their art seems to be a literalness springing from a ‘despiritualized world’. (28) Only the shell is relevant and is then worked over by convention. Egyptian art does not dominate life but treats it neutrally and withdraws from the flux that seems to make it up. If it petrifies and makes artificial, this is not art itself because it does not offer wisdom but rationality. (71)
The pyramids are symptomatic of a will to art quite indifferent to the practical as well as to the organic physical character of the land. They are abstract in the extreme. What they manufacture is a kind of extreme immediacy. (38) But this immediateness belongs to the most inanimate and monumental possible. The monument then provides a permanent ‘interpretation’ which, in absence of an afterlife, merely extends this world to another form. Removed from utilitarian ideas, displaying little trace of effort, they are monuments to the intransitory. (40) The dead are protected in these structures and the living serve to protect them, in this protection, protecting themselves from the dead. This protection weighted the physical body while providing a ladder for the soul. Some pyramids, gilded or polished to catch the sun, were inscribed with the dead god-king’s claims to watch the beauty of the horizon. (44)
The will to art is a will to clarity, rigidity and abstraction, a domination of the orthogonal. (50) This is common to the highly angular construction of buildings and the cities designed to be constructed almost instantly, as a crystalline formation, without any sense of organic growth. Cold geometry and ‘stupendous’ petrification mark this. (53) Any detection of vitality in this is false. Neutrality reigns over all and monotony takes the place of vital rhythm. This is offset by the lightness also exhibited in Egyptian culture. There is extreme heaviness to the public and extreme lightness of private life with no organic link between them. But the private realm too is a hot-house and stands as indifferently beside the public world as the religious traditions it sets side by side, indifferent to their contradictions. This does not mean they were without rococo flourishes. The irrational love of flowers and plants displayed in many designs, however, reflect the psychological longings of people removed from nature. They are a cultivator or curator’s fancies. He notes the naturalism of the decoration that covered almost every surface in elaborate illusionism and the extent to which the symbolic played a far more limited role than the sensual. This presentation of petrified flowers is still only “hot-house fancy; it is a case of prattle shouted through a megaphone.” (64) Quality and quantity rarely seem to line up.