Thursday, August 14, 2014

Art & Beauty - Part I, Section III: An Integrated Art and the Metaphysics of Beauty

It is a rarely acknowledged fact that the difference between a craftsman and an artist as he is defined today is a fully modern one. Poiesis, for example, originally referred simply to 'making', which applied to the arrangement of all sorts of material things as well as to the art of poetry itself; mousike likewise referred not only to the composition of sounds, but to mathematical harmony as a principle, whether it was found in song, dance, poetry, or in the metaphysical order of the universe. Any art was simply something that was made, whether with a hammer or a lyre.

From Classical Greece to Imperial Rome through the whole of the Middle Ages there was an integration between what today might be distinguished as the 'rougher' and 'finer' arts; there was very little value placed on such a distinction in those societies, because they were both equally involved in the making of something. While there were several reasons for this, the chief one, especially during the Medieval era, was that the inhabitants of that period tended to view reality itself as something integrated, as something which really is the expression of a good and loving God; reality itself is something that is true, good, and beautiful, so naturally the difference between what we call a fine art and anything else was not nearly so obvious for the Medieval man as it is for the Modern man. The created world was already beautiful, it was already 'fine':

'[The Medievals] found it extremely difficult to separate the two realms of value [beauty and utility / goodness], not because of some defect in their critical sense, but because of the unity of their moral and aesthetic responses to things. Life appeared to them as something wholly integrated' (Eco, p. 16).

The world is good, and therefore beautiful - this is because it is the reflection of the ideal beauty of its Creator, at least according to the Medievals, who saw that their environment was one sustained only by Jesus Christ and His creative love. All art, therefore, from the simplest icon to the great buttresses of the cathedral, selflessly pronounced this love as the highest telos of its being; but these things were not 'works of art' per se, at least not as we Moderns define something as a work of art. These were fixed into the fabric of society as so many indispensable threads that informed the commoner no less than the nobleman of the sacred character that was their foundation and sustenance; these were as necessary for the Medieval as gasoline and the internet are seen as necessary for us, but neither worldview refers to these things as 'fine art'.

The function of art in this period, then, was not something luxurious, something that enclosed beauty and isolated it from the world, but was universally of an ecclesiastic or didactic nature: 'Painting... is the literature of the laity'. What Honorius the Theologian means here is that even those who cannot read can be taught what is right, particularly via the icons of saints and the paintings of Biblical history that adorned the insides of the country parish. This is all part of the Catholic tradition, the backbone of the Medieval civilization, and which explicates the truth of the Word and of the Incarnation through whatever worldly means it may possibly act through. Despite some enthusiastic demands for a more austere, 'humble' atmosphere in the Church from men like St. Bernard, the opinion that worldly beauty, as a glorious glimpse of heavenly beauty, should strengthen ecclesiastic life prevailed:

'Thus, when - out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God - the loveliness of the many-coloured gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner' (Abbot Suger).

A work of art was therefore of a didactic nature, because it was something composed to improve man's spiritual and moral welfare, to help him into heaven. Because a work of art had to be true in order also to be beautiful, its enlistment in this effort was inevitable. Man was educated by art, which itself was a servant of the Church. For any work of art to be admitted into church life and Medieval society as a whole, it had to be of greater use than merely something nice to look at or pleasing to listen to; it also had to reveal something true. It had to direct the viewer to a particular reaction, whether to encourage him in one way or discourage him in another. Art was above all a means to an end, which was ultimately the salvation of souls.

'For the Medievals, a thing was ugly if it did not relate to a hierarchy of ends centred on man and his supernatural destiny.... It was a type of integrated sensibility which made it hard for Medievals to experience aesthetic pleasure in anything which fell short of their ethical ideals; and conversely, whatever gave aesthetic pleasure was also morally justified....' (Eco, p.80).

So a work of art was always subordinate to something else - its purpose depended upon what that something else needed it for (recall Aquinas's 'second perfection'). A work of art was nothing in itself, for its telos needed the broader framework of society to be properly unfolded. A choral composition, for example, was not primarily judged on its merits independent of its utility, but on what it was used for, on how useful it was as something to be inserted into the Catholic liturgy or a monastic hymn. Licentious songs, rhythms, and aggressive dances that stir the blood, sexually lurid paintings, etc., regardless of how well these artifacts perform their task, i.e., how well they excite the passions of their audience, have no place in a monastic abbey, but they might have one in a lonely rural inn or a city brothel. Everything was directed to its proper end, just as Aristotle prescribed in ancient Athens, and the proper end for Medieval man was the saving of his soul. The final judgment of any work of art can essentially be traced to how well it worked to this end.

We can see, then, how there was no distinct separation between something beautiful and something useful; they were both one and the same thing. This was true to the degree where the thing's beauty depended on its use. If a thing was useless, it was fundamentally ugly; but if a thing performed as it was designed to perform, then it was beautiful. A work of art traditionally conveys both something specifically sacred and something
specifically domestic or mundane: '[From] the stone age onwards, everything made by man, under whatever conditions of hardship or poverty, has been made by art to serve a double purpose, at once utilitarian and ideological' (Coomaraswamy, 'What is the Use of Art, Anyway?'). A tool was never 'just a tool', but something which symbolically connected man to such primordial acts as tilling the fertile field which he saw as a divine gift, or fishing in the local stream which he equally saw as a divine gift. The tools were themselves crucial for the cultivation of these godly gifts. Whatever their sacred import, however, the shovel and the net were designed for two specific utilities and nothing else:

'If indeed we divert the work of art to some other than its original use, then, in the first place, its original beauty will be correspondingly diminished, for, as St. Thomas says... "if they are applied to another use or end, their harmony and therefore their beauty is no longer maintained", and, in the second place, even though we may derive a certain pleasure from the work which has been torn from its context, to rest in this pleasure will be a sin in terms of Augustine's definitions "to enjoy what we should use"....' (Coomaraswamy, 'Beauty and Truth').

If the fishing net were used to try and dig out the soil, or if the shovel were used to try and smash the heads of the fish in the water, the use of these things would dramatically decrease, and therefore also their beauty, despite whatever amusements we might derive from switching their roles (this applies also to fetishes and other sexual disorders, where the genitalia are used for activities other than their purposed ones). It is interesting to note, as a general rule, that the functional capacity of a thing largely corresponds to its aesthetic value; the better a thing operates, in other words, the more value we place on it as an artistic artifact. The armoured vehicles of WWI, for example, were clunky, block-shaped, prone to mechanical failure, and for the most part simply ineffectual. The tanks of WWII, on the other hand, developed into sleek, streamlined panzers with sloped, deflective armour, and which were much more effective. As they continue to develop into the 21st Century, they increasingly exude a more satisfactorily aesthetic outline alongside their capacity as useful fighting units; their aesthetic value correlates with their utilitarian value. While this is also true of swords and fighter jets and all sorts of other things, it is not an authentic rule to subscribe to since the number of exceptions to it are too many to discount; there is, to name but one of them, a more demonstrably aesthetic superiority in classic steam-engine trains than to the more effective electrically-powered 'bullet trains' of Japan. There is nevertheless, as the great millenia of human history evinces, something in this idea that utility and aesthesis should be kept bonded as closely as possible. We must also remember that the purely aesthetic content of a thing has remarkably little to do with its artistic value as such, that is, with the 'two perfections' we referred to in Section II.

It is, at any rate, important to note that this effectively meant that 'beauty' was indeed not the final aim of the artist, except as an 'accident', as it were, something which proceeds from art rightly made, and which may help us understand and enjoy a particular work of art: 'Beauty has nothing to do with art.... The object of art is right making. If things rightly made impress us as beautiful, well and good and so much the better....[But beauty] is an accident of right making. Beauty is that which attracts us to the truth or whatnot, just as beauty in cooking attracts us to good food and just as beauty in physical sensation attracts us to good action' (Eric Gill, 'Of Beauty'). The virtue of something made according to its end is going to bear its due proportions, and will therefore emanate something which we perceive as beautiful, because we naturally crave for order and we recognize the formal dimensions that reside behind the aesthetic experience. The proportions of something well-made, both in itself and in what it is used for, fulfil these cravings, and so we call it 'beautiful'.

To elucidate this point even further, beauty proceeds from something that we perceive as pleasing with our senses, and more emphatically something that we contemplate as true with our intellect. If something is truly made, it will consequently possess a degree of beauty, but beauty was never the aim; it was a happy accident: 'Beauty is the splendour of truth' (Plato). The beauty of something will attract us to it because we are not just mind, but mind and body, which means the only way to fully enjoy something is to enjoy both its intellectual quality and the sensible quality which comes from the formal organization of matter. The intellectual quality is the form, the proportions of the thing made to the thing imitated, and its purpose in the world; our comprehension of this and how it relates to our self is an example of participating in the beautiful, which is to say our participating in the real. The sensible quality likewise propagates the beauty of something rightly made, and the pleasure that we indulge in thereof is also a participation in the beautiful / real: 'id quom visum placet' ('that which being seen pleases', Aquinas).

Sensual pleasure is something real in itself for any being with an animal nature, which of course includes the human being. We sensually take pleasure in sexual intercourse, regardless of whether we love our companion or not; we sensually take pleasure in food, regardless of whether it is good for our body or even made well; and sometimes we sensually take pleasure in music, even if it is of a feeble, mindless nature. But, whether they are morally incriminating or made up of relatively harmless vices, all of these pleasures are restricted to the realm of sensation; the joy we derive from them is of a transient type. This is because, like everything else belonging to the purely material domain, they lack form, that precisely intellectual, that precisely human principle that organizes otherwise inchoate matter into something that corresponds to the fundamental order of the universe. All pleasures, following their appropriate organization, then become joys of the enduring type; they become something pleasurable not only in the physical sense, but in the intellectual as well. This is what satisfies both, which is what makes it the union of mind and body; this is what ultimately satisfies the human spirit, which consists of both.

The relationship between beauty and the intelligible is almost exactly identical, except that beauty persists where even sensual pleasure cannot go. The intelligible produces beauty, and the intellect apperceives beauty through the senses; like those physical pleasures which are properly ordered through the imposition of form and creative love upon matter, beauty is the natural consequence of the same imposition, only it lingers in the mind as an example of the enjoyment we possess as a result of that 'connaturality' between the understanding and the world that we also discussed in Section II. Moreover, memory and the imagination help this form of enjoyment endure in ways that go beyond the immediate experience, the purely sensual delight. Beauty is therefore in the subjective sense dependent on both the sensual data, because this is how it is originally perceived, and on the intellectual power, which alone can enjoy beauty apart from its physical dimensions; but beauty is also independent of either in the objective sense, because truth exists regardless of man's recognizance of it - or lack thereof. Beauty is only ever totally dependent on God, who alone is at once wholly Subject and wholly Object, and because only God is wholly true, wholly good, and therefore wholly beautiful.

The artistic doctrine we have outlined thus far necessarily precludes the modern aesthetic philosophy summarized by the maxim 'l'art pour l'art', a philosophy which seeks to isolate art and beauty from their true ends in order to concentrate purely on their aesthetic content. As we already know, traditional art theory teaches that art is something made in the service of something else, something that contributes towards the wider, public interests which were historically much more cohesive than those of our own cosmopolitan, culturally diverse societies. Today it is difficult to harness artistic beauty for greater ends because of this diversity and fragmentation - to the point where sometimes art becomes a mere tool for state propaganda. A religious painting for a cathedral, for instance, served a more communal interest than a contemporary painting which is destined for some obscure public gallery for the benefit of intellectual aesthetes alone. Another example might be the construction of a monument: in medieval society, the monument would commemorate what a great king or saint had done for the whole of his people, whereas in modern society the monument would commemorate some private party, whether it would be the Communist Lenin or the National Socialist Adolf Hitler; in the first example the statue lasts centuries, in the second the statue lasts only until another private party abolishes its predecessor, regardless of his successes or lack thereof. A specific ideology therefore trumps the actual health of the nation. The point of is that the beauty of art, which we must remember includes anything that is made by human hands, derives not only from the work per se but more importantly from the purpose it serves; its full significance is an objective, social one. It cannot only be a private relationship between artist and audience, because man as an individual has an extensive palate that includes many deformities and perversions, whereas man who is organically connected to his fellows is someone more deeply informed of the reality in which he lives.

That art is objective as well as subjective is self-evident according to these propositions that art is principally an imitation of something, and that it is meant for some purpose other than the mere pleasure of experiencing it on aesthetic grounds. Art, as Ruskin said, is more 'theoretic' than 'aesthetic'; it exists more in the eternal ideas than in the pleasant sounds and sights of human bodies or works of art. This is once again manifest from Section II, in which we discussed the fundamentally intellectual character of art, that art is the construction of a specific idea through the means of worldly matter. Art cannot be whatever one interprets it to be; any good art is something definite, because it proceeds from something definite. 'Non-representational art' is a contradiction in terms, for all art represents something. There is of course room for subjective experience of a thing, but only within the broad understanding of what a thing is in its essence. The meaning of a song about the death of one's beloved, for example, might very well be stretched to include the heartbreak involved in the rending of any relationship, but it surely cannot be understood as something expressing nuptial joy! The closer one approaches the objective quality of a song, the more that song will mean for him; the subject and object therefore become entwined, which is really the purpose of all human life and its search for meaning. Scruton describes what we are trying to say here with superior eloquence:

'We know what it is to love and be rejected, and thereafter to wander in the world infected by a bleak passivity. This experience, in all its messiness and arbitrariness, is one that most of us must undergo. But when Schubert, in Die Winterreise, explores it in song, finding exquisite melodies to illuminate one after another the many secret corners of a desolated heart, we are granted an insight of another order. Loss ceases to be an accident, and becomes instead an archetype, rendered beautiful beyond words by the music that contains it, moving under the impulse of melody and harmony to a conclusion that has a compelling artistic logic. It is as though we looked through the contingent song-cycle's protagonist to another kind of loss altogether: a necessary loss, whose rightness resides in its completeness. Beauty reaches to the underlying truth of a human experience, by showing it under the aspect of necessity' (Roger Scruton, Beauty, p.129).

To summarize this Section, art in the traditional (Medieval) world was constructed according to a hierarchy of ends which all served the society of man and the worship of God; it was not principally concerned with beauty per se, but with the making of things in respect to their destined telos. Beauty emerges afterwards as the 'happy accident' that yields a closer relationship between ourselves and the objective quality of the art. Beauty is at first the sensible experience in the natural good of the material world, i.e., in bright colours and visceral sounds; then it is the the intellectual experience in realizing the inherent kinship between our interior / subjective understanding and the exterior / objective world, viz. the realization of the connection between who we are and what the work of art is. Works of traditional art undoubtedly led to these experiences, which are indeed invaluable for the human condition, but that was not the real point. What they essentially sought was simply to instruct, to worship, and to recreate the world of God in the world of men, all in the deeper soteriological interest of reversing the Fall and moving man to a state of Grace. Being true to that higher purpose, and lacking the insidious separation of 'fine art' from utility, is what made it a more successfully artistic epoch than that of modernity.

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