"One can hardly avoid the suspicion that the voices he has lent to the art of the past are meant to drown a deep fear of the silence which would fall if Spengler were right: Though the Wei Bodhisattvas and those of Nara, Khmer and Javanese sculpture and Sung painting do not express the same communion with the cosmos as does a Romanesque tympanum, a Dance of Shiva or the horsemen of the Parthenon, all alike express a communion of one kind or another, and so does even Rubens in The Kermesse. We need but glance at any Greek masterpiece to see at once that its triumph over the mystery-laden East does not stem from any process of the reasoning mind, but from the 'innumerable laughter of the waves'. Like a muted orchestra the surge and thunder, already so remote, of ancient tragedy accompanies but does not drown Antigone's immortal cry: 'I was not born to share in hatred but to share in love' (pp. 635-6). Who would not prefer the driest philological gloss on the exact meaning of Antigone's 'immortal cry' (which is not a cry but a reasoned statement in a momentous argument) to this 'surge and thunder'? For if we trouble to analyse the content of the paragraph we discover, as only too often with Malraux, that it dissolves into a truism. Buddhist art (the names of the schools which produced Buddhas are mere ornament) differs in spirit from Hindoo, Greek, and Christian art but they all (including Rubens' genre) are religious. Even Greek tragedy is (and who ever doubted that?). Perhaps the rhetoric serves no other purpose than to hypnotize and bulldoze the reader. But it is surely more charitable to assume that strings of names and rows of images function like the names of divinities in ancient incantations to reassure the writer rather than the reader. They may be an expression of that authentic Angst which is the true root of the expressionist hysteria--the anxiety of that utter loneliness that would reign if art were to fail and each man remained immured in himself.
To return to sanity does not mean to ignore these problems but to face them. Perhaps they are not quite as formidable as they look. They become formidable only through the adolescent 'all-or-nothing' attitude that colours so much of the writing of Malraux's generation. To the question whether we can understand the art of mentality of other periods or civilizations, or whether all is 'myth', the answer of common-sense is surely that we can understand some better, some worse, and some only after a lot of work. That we can improve our understanding by trying to restore the context, cultural, artistic, and psychological, in which any given work sprang to life but that we must resign ourselves to a certain residue of ignorance. In art, as in life, on certain elemental levels men of different civilizations have understood each other even though they were ignorant of each other's language. On others only an acute awareness of the context in which an action stands may prevent our misunderstanding. This commonplace philosophy would hardly bear stating if it had not some relevance to the 'Museum without Walls'. For it is remarkable that this Museum only contains sculptures and paintings. Where the medium of art is words we can still distinguish between degrees of understanding. True, once in a while we have witnessed a metamorphosis of works of literature which parallels the examples adduced by Malraux. The tragic Shylock or the neurotic Hamlet may be a case in point. But by and large we know it needs a greater imaginative effort to understand the Roman de la Rose than to enjoy Pride and Prejudice, and we can say why. Nor are we frequently in serious doubt whether a piece of music is intelligible to us or not. We realize that in Oriental music we cannot distinguish a dirge from a ditty because we lack familiarity with the framework of harmonic conventions on which musical meaning so largely depends. Perhaps the way out of the expressionist impass must lead through an analysis of similar relationships in the visual arts. It was the optimistic faith in the efficacy of colours and shapes as a universal language that landed us in this dizzy philosophy of myth and metamorphosis. Even shapes and colours acquire their meaning only in cultural contexts. The less we know of this context the more we are forced to dream it up. We may enjoy this challenge to our imagination and relish the sense of mystery that is aroused in us by what looks remote, exotic, and inscrutable. This is one of the reasons why our age is so ready, as Malraux says, 'to admire all it does not understand' (p. 598). But we may come to see that our fathers and grandfathers were not quite wrong, after all, when they thought that we understand certain styles better than others. That a Rembrandt self-portrait or a Watteau drawing 'means more' to us than an Aztec idol or a Negro mask. Not that we need forego the pleasure of looking at stimulating forms even where we do not understand. We also look at rocks or driftwood. Only we must try to relearn the difference between stimulation through self-projection, which, when applied to art, so often passes for 'appreciation' and that enrichment that comes from an understanding, however dim and imperfect, of what a great work of art is intended to convey.* We need not worry about these distinctions every time we look at a work of art. What matters is only that we should not surrender our sanity by losing our faith in the very possibility of finding out what a fellow human being means or meant. Critical reason may be fallible but it can still advance towards the truth by testing interpretations, by sifting the evidence, and thus widen the area of our sympathies while narrowing the scope of myths. It will need a good deal of clearing up, after the expressionist earthquake, to reconstruct the Museum on these more modest but more secure foundations. Meanwhile we owe a debt to André Malraux for having recorded with such verve and intensity the impact of this traumatic experience on a rich and sensitive mind."
* I'm including the footnote Gombrich put here: "Intention in art is not everything. Neither is expression. But where the intention is missed our response to the rest will also go wrong." The passive voice in that sentence in the main text is crucial.
--from E. H. Gombrich, "André Malraux and the Crisis of Expressionism" (a review of The Voices of Silence), The Burlington Magazine, vol. 96, no. 621 (Dec 1954), pp. 374-378.