Friday, 26 April 2013

Id Quod Visum Placet: A Christian Worldview of Aesthetics and Art -- Part 2

The Image of God
Human beings are the only creatures in the world who make art—that is, who create images, literary works, musical compositions, for the sheer sake of creating. This uniqueness is as undeniable as it is important. It cuts to the very heart of naturalistic understandings of the world; it overturns behaviouristic models of psychology; it demands an explanation. As G.K. Chesterton (2008) remarked in his inimicable way,
It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man. (p. 12)
An Evolutionary Explanation?
Denis Dutton makes a very similar claim in his book, The Art Instinct, commenting on the claims that artistic endeavours are carried out by other animals. To the example of monkeys in zoos painting pictures, he replies by pointing out that the monkey merely enjoys splattering pigment on paper. For the monkey, it is not art, that is, creation, but rather an act of destruction and defacement. The only reason it looks like a picture is because the zookeeper takes the paper away from the monkey at just the right time. If the paper is left with the monkey, it will continue to spatter it with paint until it becomes a muddy brown blob, or is otherwise torn up (Dutton, 2009). He remarks as well that the monkey, after the image is taken away and displayed, shows no further interest in it. It does not gaze upon the image, but pays it no more attention whatsoever. Dutton goes on to describe the Bower Bird, which does seem to create art, in the form of highly decorative nests. But even this form of grand architecture cannot be considered art—that is, creation for creativity's sake. It serves but one purpose—mating. Dutton reiterates the point that Chesterton made some eighty years earlier: art is the signature of man.

Yet Dutton (2009), being himself a materialistic philosopher, cannot accept Chesterton's own conclusion about what sets man apart from the beasts. Despite the yawning chasm that separates humankind's creativity from the instinctual efforts of monkeys and bower birds, he attempts to sketch an evolutionary origin to the "art instinct" in humankind, claiming that it is a blend of both the survival instinct (concluded from people's propensity for liking paintings of landscapes) and the sexual instinct (claiming that, like the bower bird, humans started being creative as a form of strutting). Somehow, over tens of thousands of years, the survival instinct to live in hospitable environments and the sexual instinct to impress one's mate, evolved into the desire and the ability to create for creativity's sake. In all of this, however, Dutton fails to account for the sharp distinction that he himself made between the bower bird's bowers and, for example, Fra Angelico's frescoes. At what point did human creations go from being merely biologically-motivated products, to "art"?

The Failure of the Evolutionary Model
The example of Fra Angelico was not merely put forth because he is my favourite artist, but precisely because his works in a particular way are devoid of the evolutionary motivations that Dutton claims underlie human art. Fra Angelico was not, primarily, a painter of landscapes, but of devotional religious images. Being a friar, sexual instincts were hardly at play, since he was celibate. One could suggest that monetary remuneration was a consideration, except for his vow of poverty. The evolutionist might reasonably claim that not every artist throughout history needs to be specifically motivated by the instincts which led to the development of the art instinct. This is especially true of an Early Renaissance artist, so far removed from the man in the cave painting reindeer on the walls. Yet sexuality and survival fail to account for perhaps the most common theme of art through the ages—the same theme that was Fra Angelico's own exclusive focus: art as worship.
Metanarrative and "Metaesthetics"
Religious elements have been a constant of artistic expression for as long as there has been art. From cathedrals in the Middle Ages to the Parthenon of ancient Greece, to the Pyramids of the Egyptians, religious monuments have dominated the landscapes, and have been decorated with statues and paintings of gods and heroes (Janson and Janson 1995). Predating even these, archaeologists have discovered other, more ancient worship sites, such as Stonehenge (c. 2000-5000 BC) (Janson and Janson, 1995), and, thousands of years before that, the temple ruins of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, dated c. 10,000-11,500 BC (Dietrich, Heun, Notross, Schmidt, Zarnkow, 2012). Even the cave art of which Chesterton speaks above is thought to have magical motivations (Janson and Janson, 1995). Beyond merely survival or sexuality (though certainly related to each to a point), the human impulse to create is tied directly to a human impulse to worship. In what sense evolutionary biology can explain how ideas and instincts regarding transcendence could emerge in a purely naturalistic universe have yet to be satisfactorily explained. The artistic impetus in humankind is what sets us apart from all other creatures; our creativity is a key dimension to what it means to be created in the image of the Creator.

What Is Art?
Artists, philosophers, critics, and scholars have pondered this uniquely human activity that is art. Over the centuries, various definitions have been put forth. For Plato and other classical philosophers, Art was any special craft or skill, no matter toward what end it was directed. Until the concept of "Fine Art" was introduced during the Renaissance, various forms of science were classified together with painting and the composition of music (Tillman and Cahn, 1969). With the Renaissance and the advent of the modern era, the distinction was made between "fine arts" and the sciences and other disciplines. Art came to be seen as the celebration, imitation and manufacture of beauty (Danto, 2003). However, the current post-modern thought tends to divorce art from beauty, and even goes so far as to reject beauty from art on principle. The changing philosophical attitude towards art's relationship with beauty serves to highlight the fact that while there is certainly a connection between art and beauty, they are not the same thing.

If art is not necessarily the human creation of beauty, then what is it? Leo Tolstoy, reacting to the modern notion that art is about beauty, insists that no real definition can be ascertained until we put that understanding aside, and realise that art isn't "about" something else at all, but is, rather, "one of the conditions of human life" (1962, p. 378). He explains that, like language, art is one means of communication between persons. Viewing it in this way, we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man. Every work of art connects the artist with each viewer who views the work, and connects one viewer to another. This relationship goes beyond the immediate present, but because of the enduring nature of art, extends throughout time for as long as the art itself exists. Tolstoy contrasts art with the language of words in that while words convey thoughts, art transmits feelings (1962, p. 378).

Gregory Wolfe picks up this idea in his book, Beauty Will Save the World (2011), when he compares our fragmented culture to Babel. He writes:
Art, like religious faith in general and prayer in particular, has the power to help us transcend the fragmented society we inhabit. We live in a Babel of antagonistic tribes—tribes that speak only the languages of race, class, rights, and ideology. That is why the intuitive language of the imagination is so vital. Reaching deep into our collective thoughts and memories, great art sneaks past our shallow prejudices and brittle opinions to remind us of the complexity and mystery of human existence. The imagination calls us to leave our personalities behind and temporarily to inhabit another's experience, looking at the world with new eyes. Art invites us to meet the Other—whether that be our neighbour or the infinite otherness of God—and to achieve a new wholeness of spirit. (p. 22)
Art, then, is the act wherein the artist seeks, on the one hand, to express him- or herself through the transformation of material things, and on the other, to communicate on another level than the propositional and unite with others in a much more intuitive way. While art needs not be completely focussed upon beauty as its end, there is a transcendental quality to art all the same. It bridges time and space, opening ourselves up to others.

Art and Meta-narrative
If art is communicative, then it needs something to communicate. If it is participatory, then it needs to participate in something. Being a quintessential aspect of humanity, clearly art must participate in the overarching human story, and convey the human condition. In other words, good art needs a meta-narrative This is the root of the criticisms made against "modern art" (which is really "post-modern art"; most people tend to very much enjoy "modern art" rightly understood). Post-modernism can be understood as the rejection of meta-narratives—or, as Chesterton put it, "Everything matters—except everything" (2012),—and this is reflected in its artistic expressions. Either there is no clear meaning to the image (which is itself the work's "meaning"), or the meaning is a purposeful (if crass) subversion of institutions and meta-narratives, such as the Church and the Gospel (consider the "Piss Christ" by Andres Serrano, 1987; or "Apparitions" by Soasig Chamaillard, 2011).

It is the quality of good art, on the other hand, that it brings that story home to its viewers, that they are able to enter into its narrative, in which they find the artist, themselves, and each other. Overarching concepts such as good and evil, truth, love, and, yes, beauty, are integral to art, even if they are not the sole purpose of art. That is, we do not do art solely to create something beautiful, but since beauty is, as we said earlier, a transcendental—that is, a fundamental characteristic of being, art will possess beauty in some degree, just as it will possess goodness and truth (Maritain, 1962).

The purpose of art is not to make truth-claims or ethical statements; however, as Philip Leon writes, "it presupposes the ethical experience in the sense that no art, at any rate, no great art and least of all great poetry can be produced or appreciated except by men who are sensitive to good and evil" (1925, p. 623). It is this meta-narrative thrust proper to art that leads us to the proper association it has with aesthetics. Unlike the modern ideology that put art at the service of beauty merely for the sake of pleasure, art and beauty should rather serve their own transcendental purpose of drawing people out of themselves and into that relation with the Other, of which Wolfe spoke above. To participate in the peculiarly post-modern penchant for neologisms (Janson and Janson 1995, p. 903), one might call this approach to art, "Metaesthetics", that is, infusing the beautiful into art not as an end in itself, but as a means of propelling the receiver of the artistic experience out of his or her own presuppositional milieu, into the realm of intuition and imagination, where those presuppositions can be challenged and, if need be, altered. Of this "metaesthetical" approach to art and beauty, Jacques Maritain (1962) writes, quoting the poet, Charles Baudelaire,
Beauty, therefore, belongs to the transcendental and metaphysical order. This is why it tends of itself to draw the soul beyond the created. Speaking of the instinct for beauty, Baudelaire, the poète maudit to whom modern art owes its renewed awareness of the theological quality and tyrannical spirituality of beauty, writes: " is this immortal instinct for the beautiful which makes us consider the earth and its various spectacles as a sketch of, as a correspondence with Heaven... It is at once through poetry and across poetry, through and across music, that the soul glimpses the splendours situated beyond the grave; and when an exquisite poem brings tears to the eyes, these tears are not proof of an excess of joy, they are rather the testimony of an irritated melancholy, a demand of the nerves, of a nature exiled in the imperfect and desiring to take possession immediately, even on this earth, of a revealed paradise." (p. 480)
Maritain attributes this effect of a transcendental experience of beauty to love, claiming that the delight taken in beauty excites love, and that love leads to ecstasy—that is, being outside of oneself (1962). It is this ecstatic effect of beauty which leads to the "radical decentering" mentioned by Scarry in part 1, which leads to equality and justice. Fr. Robert Barron, president of Mundelein Seminary, sums up this process, describing it as a sort of "alchemy of the soul", awakening it to participate in the beautiful, to imitate it, and then to share it (Barron, 2013). This process is automatic in the human soul, regardless of one's faith or lack thereof. Recently an atheist friend of mine posted a status on Facebook describing seeing a flock of swans flying over his car in the sun during his commute. He happened to watch as the sun shone through the wings of the swans, lighting them up into a dazzling gold. He told me, when I asked him what the experience did to him, "the sight gave me a sense of belonging in that moment, as if I was somehow invited to be part of something deeper and more intimate than the mere act of driving my car home" (Kane Freeman, personal correspondence, April 13, 2013). The third part of Fr. Barron's alchemic process, the sharing, is what prompted my discussion with Kane in the first place—his very desire to freely and publicly describe the event on Facebook. Kane, of course, is right, even if he himself doesn't know the full import of the feelings arising within him: he was indeed being invited to be part of something deeper.
References for Part 2
Barron, R. (2013, February 19). "To evangelize through beauty." Catholic News Agency.

Chesterton, G. K. (2012). Heretics. London, England: Catholic Way Publishing.

Chesterton, G. K. (2008). The Everlasting Man. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications.

Danto, A. C. (2003). The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art. Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Company.

Dietrich, O., Heun, M., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K., & Zarnkow, M. (2012). The role of cult and feasting in the emergence of Neolithic communities. New evidence from Gobekli Tepe, south-eastern Turkey. Antiquity, 86(333), 674-695. Retrieved from:

Dutton, D. (2009). The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Janson, H.W., & Janson, A. F. (1995). History of Art, Fifth Edition. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Leon, P. (1925). Aesthetic knowledge. In E. Vivas & M. Krieger (Eds.), The Problems of Aesthetics: A Book of Readings (pp. 619-625). New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Maritain, J. (1962). Art and beauty. In F. A. Tillman & S. M. Cahn (Eds.), Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics: From Plato to Wittgenstein (pp. 474-483). New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Tillman, F. A. & Cahn, S. M. (1969). Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics: From Plato to Wittgenstein. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Tolstoy, L. (1899). What is art?. In F. A. Tillman & S. M. Cahn (Eds.), Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics: From Plato to Wittgenstein (pp. 373-388). New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Wolfe, Gregory. (2011). Beauty Will Save the World. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books.

1 comment:

Jill said...

This... I can't explain how much this touched me. I often tear up at beautiful things and never knew why exactly. This just seems right to me. Your quote: "It is at once through poetry and across poetry, through and across music, that the soul glimpses the splendours situated beyond the grave; and when an exquisite poem brings tears to the eyes, these tears are not proof of an excess of joy, they are rather the testimony of an irritated melancholy, a demand of the nerves, of a nature exiled in the imperfect and desiring to take possession immediately, even on this earth, of a revealed paradise." (p. 480)