Saturday, September 20, 2008

Art, Reason and Beauty

I reply that art should be called nothing else than right reason about things to be made. Their good does not consist in any disposition of the human will but rather that the work that comes to be is good in itself. The artist is not praised as an artist because of the will with which he works but because of the quality of what he makes. - St. Thomas Aquinas
Now Aquinas is speaking of art in a broader sense than "fine art" but the principle clearly applies. It is the precise opposite of what modernists think of art. They think art is beautiful because it expresses the artist. This is as absurd as saying that art (in the more general sense) derives its worth merely from the fact that it was made by men (as if it could be useless in and of itself but of worth since it is a token of self expression). This subjectification of quality within art is most painful in the fine arts of the modernists (who contradict Aquinas here) which is why their art looks like this:But there was a time when art looked like this:

When I pulled this image up on my computer screen, my son who was sitting on the floor coloring immediately jumped to his feet and ran to the computer. "What is that picture of?!" he asked in wonder. I didn't answer. He said, "I think that's a picture of heaven" and I just smiled. Poor uneducated child. He hasn't been to modern art school yet... so who can blame him for not knowing that self expression, not beauty, is what matters in art.

This reminds me of the time my younger brother was in my living room and I played a Slovakian version of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent (listen here) and he came in as if memorized, and said in that inquisitive tone that can't be mistaken: "what is that?". It's the question that we always ask when confronted with beauty - what is that beauty? where does it come from?

There is a certain objectivity in art. Otherwise, what good is it?

I wonder why such aversion to beauty in art by the liberals. After all, these modern artists are pretty much all liberals aren't they? It's largely liberals who sip cocktails at these gallery crawls isn't it? It's the liberal who sees something objectively beautiful like "The Roses of Heliogabalus" above and sees only stereotype and confinement rather than raw beauty. The liberal sees freedom from social stereotypes of beauty in the first picture. Isn't this a picture of sin? The liberal sees freedom in the ugliness of sin and only restriction and confinement in religion. Isn't this a picture of damaged reason?

In light of my essay entitled "Liturgy & the Song of the Cosmos", I was delighted to read this phrase from Pope Benedict's book "In the Beginning":
Our confrere added that Christian preaching today sounded to him like the recording of a symphony that was missing the initial bars of music, so that the whole symphony was incomplete and its development incomprehensible. With this he touched a weak point of our present-day spiritual situation.
I emphasized the line above to call attention to the concept of art being comprehensible. We do not think of music in this way. For music to make sense, it needs the potential to not make sense. So in that regard, we don't think of music as "making sense" or "not making sense", we think of it as something which need not (and cannot) be bothered by objectivity of any sort. But music, as any other art, needs certain features to compose a comprehensible form.

Beauty intends to communicate and art which lacks beauty fails to communicate. Communication needs to be comprehensible or else it is not communication. Therefore, art needs to be comprehensible or it is not art. Ugliness is both comprehensible and communicative but it is not good. But modern art isn't merely ugly (I mean some of it is) in a way that communicates ugliness (say as a medieval portrait of demonic battle); it is ugly in the sense of lacking communication; it is ugly in the sense of failing at the very thing it is expected to do.

I also want to call attention to the last line in which the bishop declares that the problem is a spiritual one. The context above is modern preaching which lacks a call to repentance. We can clearly see the parallel here. The liberals want art without beauty and forgiveness without repentance.

Liberalism is a spiritual disease that eats away at reason in various ways. This would be evident enough if they only failed to recognize beauty, but what is far worse is that they fail to recognize the superiority of beauty to ugliness.


Gretchen said...

Lovely post. My almost 18-year-old daughter will soon be off to college as an Art major. I'll certainly pass your post along to her tonight.

Principium Unitatis said...

Well said Tim. Thanks very much for this post.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Neal Judisch and Family said...


Nice. In connection with what you said about the navel-gazing-creative-anti-realistic tendencies of contemporary visual art, I can't help but be reminded of a relevant passage in Ratzinger/Benedict's _The Spirit of the Liturgy_:

"Thus our world of images no longer surpasses the bounds of sense and appearance, and the flood of images that surrounds us really means the end of the image. If something cannot be photographed, it cannot be seen. In this situation, the art of the icon, sacred art, depending as it does on a wider kind of seeing, becomes impossible. What is more, art itself, which in impressionism and expressionism explored the extreme possibilities of the sense of sight, becomes literally object-less. Art turns into experimenting with self-created worlds, empty "creativity", which no longer perceives the Creator Spiritus, the Creator Spirit. It attempts to take his place, and yet, in so doing, it manages to produce only what is arbitrary and vacuous, bringing home to man the absurdity of his role as creator."

There is a sense in which such productions really are outbursts of human creativity; but, as you suggest, a creativity confined and compromised by its panting efforts to remain unshackled by any boundaries it didn't itself produce -- even if the price-tag attached to this maneuver inevitably means that works of such creativity aren't worth the canvas they're sneazed on.

(Didn't Chesterton have a quip about this somewhere in _Orthodoxy_? Something about art implying limitations; about a guy who wants to be free to draw a giraffe any way he pleased, and finding himself unable to draw giraffes as a result?)

Anyway, thanks for the post, man; keep these up. I enjoy your blog.


Andrew Preslar said...

Along these lines, I cheerfully recommend Etienne Gilson's The Arts of the Beautiful. Jacques Maritain, Responsibility of the Artist and, on a more theoretical level, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, is also good.

Neither Gilson nor Maritain were oppossed to abstract (i.e., non-representational) art, but both believed that the telos, or goal, of art is the creation of beauty, the standard of beauty being objective. However, the standard of the particular beauty to be created is, according to Maritain, the "creative intuition" of artist. Everyone who has ever painted or wrote a poem knows, in a rough and ready way at least, what this creative intuition is, and what it is for one's work to fail with respect thereto.

It is not beauty in the abstract that the artist wants to make, but a very particular thing, which, even if not "representing" some worldly object, must concretely embody his intuition, else it will be considered (by him) a failure, even if it is (objectively) beautiful.

This judgement may be based upon the (incorrect) assumption that the telos of art is self-expression. But it may otherwise (or also) be based upon the knowledge, uniquely available to the artist alone, that the created object does not correspond to his "creative intution."

The author is dissatistfied with a beautiful work, not as a man who objectively distances himself from a work of art (an observer), but precisely as an artist who has not brought into being that specific thing which he desired to create.

I can only suppose that musicians have similar experiences?

Tim A. Troutman said...

Thanks for the comments all.

Mr. Judisch, I just found your blog recently via Principium Unitatis and have added to my bloglines. Good stuff - I look forward to reading more. And I think I recall the quote from Chesterton although I'm due for a re-reading of Orthodoxy.

Andrew - If what you say is true, could the art be "comprehensible" if it fully achieved what the artist intended yet failed to have beauty?

I think if the artist himself has an incomprehensible intention for example, self expression for its own sake, the final product, even if perfectly satisfying the artist ends up like most modern art.

I mean I only assume that the artist above was fully satisfied with his work. Maybe I'm missing what you're saying though.

On the flip side, I've never as a musician produced music that fully satisfied what I intended to produce (except in cases of parody songs for example my masterpiece "You Can't Buy Love at Walmart" or my pride and joy "Wanderin' Ramblin' Breeze" which you would need to know certain inside jokes to understand.. eh I digress).

Andrew Preslar said...

Yes, exactly. If the artist's creative intuition is corrupt (morally and/or aesthetically), then even if he brings it to fruition in his work, the work would be objectively bad (morally and/or aesthetically). To quote the king of the LBC: now this type of **** happens all the time.

Tim A. Troutman said...

HAHAHA! Brilliant. Ok I follow you. Now you're speaking my language.

a thorn in the pew said...

Much of the art that was commissioned or popular from earlier than 1920, had a religious significance(some obvious, some interpreted or subtext). Very little(modern art) has relevence to our soul and seems to be more humanistic. When we remove the Creator from the created( et al) it becomes decor and interesting. It does not move people to thought or action.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Well said.

Emily said...

Your claims that "liberals" are destroying art are completely ridiculous, unfounded and unintelligent.

I am an art student in my teens who has very liberal political leanings, and I appreciate beauty in art more than anything. My favourite artists include those of the Renaissance Masters, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the Impressionists of the Victorian Era. Those artists were the ones who focused on pure, unadulterated beauty in art. On the other hand, I abhor the Andy Warhols and incredibly "modern" artists of the art world. Just like you, I think that beauty has been destroyed there.

Therefore, I think about art exactly the same way that you do. My political leanings are probably the very opposite, but that has no effect on how I feel about beauty. What a ridiculous notion. Beauty is a gift that can be appreciated and shared by ANYONE, not just conservatives. For someone who preaches the love of God, you should be ashamed for suggesting that only a certain group of people could appreciate and understand His gifts.

How will we all learn to love each other when there are people like you spreading such hypocrisy around?

Tim A. Troutman said...

Emily, thanks for your charitable input (I mean.. well I guess it wasn't all that charitable... but thanks anyway)

I think you're right else will we learn to love each other unless we call people hypocrites and call their claims "completely ridiculous, unfounded and unintelligent"... I guess you put it best... how will we learn to love others when there are "people like me" in the world?

I don't know how to do it Emily and I can certainly see how a hypocrite like myself would make it difficult for people to love others but hopefully we'll find a way that doesn't involve knocking me off.

But aside from all that, I didn't say that liberals don't appreciate beauty you've misunderstood me. All people appreciate beauty - it's intrinsic to our nature. I said that most modern artists are liberals (may have used the word "all" - its called a hyperbole) and that most of the people who go to modern art gallery crawls are liberals.

Some of (maybe most of) the greatest artists of our time are liberals. I'll be the first to admit that.

But I don't expect you to understand where I'm coming from on this because this is just one part of a much larger thought process that I've been blogging about for some time. It needs to be thought of on a macro level not on a "how does this relate to me" level. Because it isn't meant to speak about individuals but about humanity and our tendencies.

Thanks again for stopping by. (Not sarcastic, I do appreciate it).

emilyhyatt said...

Err...Tim. For lack of a better word, sorry. I realize I sounded quite dramatic and rude. I can be quick to pass judgement, especially about things I am passionate about, aned so I'm sorry for the words I used. They weren't the best ones. And in "hypocrasy", I too was speaking of humanity and our tendencies, not of you yourself, so I'm sorry if you took that the wrong way. And I realize that "peope like you" is almost always offensive, and I was an idiot to say that.

But I didn't mean to sound self-interested in "how does it relate to me", rather, I was making an example that politcal conservativism and liberallism don't have as much of a reign on something as universal as art. It's something wonderful and beautiful, and I really do wish that politics had nothing to do with it. Many so-called liberalls out there are fed up with this ultra modern movement, just like you and I am. With any luck, the movement is hopefully only part of the cycle of history, and we will return to slightly more classical art soon.

I suppose if one took a census of every 'modern' artist out there, they would have been liberals. However, you probably know that many great Victorian artists were very liberal and progressive for their time (take a look at Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Manet, and all of those Impressionists). I'm not sure of the political standings of the likes of Leonardo and Raphael, or even if they were political, but the point I'm trying to make is that good art has not been solely ignored by liberals and created by conservatives over the years. It's been a fantastic joint effort.

Again, I apologize for my brusque post, and for my generalizations and frank rudeness. I've actually written something about art and liberallism/conservativism, and though you may not completely agree with it, might you be interested in reading it? Some of the stuff we're discussing here comes up.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Emily, no harm done. Glad we could find some middle ground after all.