Thursday, March 30, 2017

Fr. Benedict Ashley on the Purpose of the Fine Arts

[272] Some esthetes [sic] have gone so far as to say that a work of fine art is of value without any reference to human needs. This would be the theory of "art for art's sake" in its most extreme form. These argue that just as the works of God, sun, moon, plants, animals, and men were created just to be themselves, so man makes works of art just to exist as perfect works. This argument is insufficient. God does indeed produce creatures each of which has its own value, but the things less than man have been made for man's benefit, while man has been created (as the Catechism tells us) "to know, love, and serve God." Irrational creatures are ennobled by serving man and being used by him. Man is ennobled by serving his God. If this is true of God's works, which are substances able to exist in their own right, how much more true is it of human works, which are only modifications of the things which God has made?

Characteristics of Fine Art

Works of Fine Art Need Not Be Useful

[...] [273] [...] Thus some works of art are only useful (a trash can, a paper clip); others are both useful and fine (a beautiful teacup, a handsome automobile); others are only fine (a painting, a piece of music).

We should notice, however, that when a thing is both useful and beautiful there ought to be some relation between these two kinds of value. In the Victorian age there was a common notion that beauty and utility are opposites. Consequently when they wanted to make a useful object beautiful, they tried to disguise its use. They concealed umbrella stands inside statues, they made stoves look like little iron cathedrals, and they made grocery stores look like Greek temples. This we can call the error of ornamentalism. That it is an error we can see from looking at the works of God. The beauty of a horse is not merely due to its mane or its color; it is found in its lean, clean, swift look. But this appearance is based on the fact that its skeleton and muscles are perfectly fashioned for the use or function for which they are intended.

Much of the beauty of nature is found, upon careful study, to be a result of the usefulness of natural objects. Modern artists have begun to realize this, and they have put forward the theory of functionalism. According to this theory, if we make a building or an automobile or any other object truly useful, it will automatically be beautiful. Functionalism is an exaggerated reaction against ornamentalism. The true view is that the beauty of an object ought to grow out of its usefulness, but that beauty is something above and beyond the useful, not merely a result of it.

[274] A Work of Fine Art Need Not Direct Our Active Life

Since a work of fine art is not necessarily useful, it must have its value in helping us live well. Because this is so, one of the commonest views of fine art has been that its purpose is to teach us morals and to persuade us by its charm to do what is right. This indeed would be a very high value in a work of art, and without a doubt some works of fine art are most effective in this way. For example, our Lord's parables are beautifully told short-stories, and they deeply affect us and lead us to a better life. The great novelist, Tolstoy, argued that all fine art must lead us to love God and our fellowmen, and that this is its real purpose. Similarly, most poets have defended their work by saying that it had great moral value. "Let me make the songs of the nation," one said, "and I care not who makes its laws" [NB: Andrew Fletcher (1655 - 1716)].

Action and Contemplation

But moral teaching and persuasion is not the only value a work of fine art might have in helping us live well. Man has two kinds of activity which belong to him as a spiritual being. One is action in the ordinary sense (working, talking, making, leading, governing, loving, playing) by which he seeks his physical and social needs. We call this the active life, and it is lived by the business man, the man in government and communications. The other kind of activity (which seems to many not to be activity at all, but which is really the most godlike) is the activity of knowing. The scientist, the philosopher, the theologian, the mystic, all live this life which is most like the life which God himself lives. God lives a life of pure knowledge and love, and he has created and governs the world without in any way turning from that life of pure contemplation. It is this life which the saints in heaven share with him, and which we hope will be ours to share forever.

This contemplative activity is the highest kind of activity, but it is also a wonderful kind of rest or repose, a vacation of enjoyment, in which our activity is simply to enjoy ourselves. It is the highest kind of activity, because the active life of business and government exists only as a means to this end.

[275] The Fine Arts and Contemplation

It is possible, therefore, that the value of the fine arts lies not in directing our active life but our contemplative life. Which is it? The answer seems clear enough. In speaking of the fine arts we always emphasize their beauty. But beauty is that which pleases when seen (see page 339): We delight simply to look at it; we do not use it, nor does it lead us to do something, other than simply to look and enjoy. Thus the work of fine art is characterized by the fact that we enjoy looking at it, we take pleasure simply in knowing it—and this is just what we have said is the mark of contemplation. Although a work of fine art may improve us morally, this it shares in common with many other things, and what is more characteristic of it is that it is of contemplative value.

Does this mean that works of fine art as such have no moral significance? This again is one of the ideas of the "art for art's sake" school, and is an exaggeration. The contemplative activity of man is the goal of his life, but it must be moral. This means that we can take a true pleasure in contemplation only if what we contemplate is true—that is, God, or something which God has made as he intended it to be, or something which we have made which is in accordance with God's wisdom and law. If we were to take pleasure in looking at things that are sinful or monstrous or false, we would be going against our own nature which was made to know and love God. To be sure, a work of fine art may contain a representation of something sinful or evil as one of its parts, just as in speaking we may sometimes quote words which are false or blasphemous, but the work as a whole must be true.

Furthermore, not only must the work be true and good in itself, but it must be suitable for a particular audience. Things that are good or true in themselves may still be an occasion of sin for those who are weak.

The Moral Influence of the Fine Arts

These are negative requirements, but there are also positive ones. The things which we contemplate and enjoy influence us. We tend to become like those we live with and love, and we tend to become [276] like the things we contemplate and enjoy. This is not an immediate effect, but only a remote one, since we are not made evil simply by an occasional meeting with someone or something evil. But when this association is repeated, then the disposition to evil is produced in us. Hence the works of fine art which we contemplate have a remote moral effect on us, even when they do not actually tempt us to sin, or persuade us to do right.

Because of this fact, a work of fine art ought to make us delight in what is true, noble, courageous, hopeful, pure, charitable, so that we may become like these things. It ought not to make us habitually ambiguous, petty, fearful, sensual, gossipy. Finally, since human life is short, works of art which are not positively bad but which are trivial are a waste of time. We might be rather enjoying those which have a strong and true moral effect, even if this is a remote one. As we have seen, however, this moral effect is not the proper and specific character of the fine arts.

A Work of Fine Art Leads to Contemplation by Its Beauty

We have still not found a way to distinguish a work of fine art from many other types of human works. The things which are worth contemplating are so because they are true and beautiful. If they were not true, then, as we have said, it would be wrong to take delight in them. On the other hand, if they are not beautiful they are not delightful.

Of course everything which is beautiful must first be true, since we would not delight in knowing what is false—the false is not satisfying to minds like ours made to know the true. When people do seem to delight in what is false, this delight is perverse and unhealthy. On the other hand, everything which is true must also be beautiful, since a right-minded person cannot help but delight in the truth. It would seem, then, that the words of Keats, "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, that is all you know or need to know," are correct.

This is inaccurate, however. The beautiful adds something to the true, namely, a fittingness or appropriateness to the mind of the one who knows. Truth appears beautiful to us only when it is vivid, clear, perfectly achieved by our power of knowing. Thus all truth is beautiful to a perfect knower, but to human beings who have only [277] a weak power of knowing, much that is true has only a hidden beauty. To God and the angels this world appears marvelously beautiful, even though they see clearly the sin and disorder that fill it, because these evils appear only as the dark shadows which increase the splendor of its order as a whole. We stand so close to the world that we cannot see its whole design. We are like men standing at the foot of a skyscraper unable to see its beauty.

For us human beings the things that are greatest, most true, and most worth knowing are not always the most beautiful, while the things that appear most beautiful to us are not always the things most worth knowing. Works of art excel in beauty, but they need not always excel in the importance of the truth which they contain. But since time is short in this world, we should not waste too much of it on beautiful trivialities when it is possible to find works of art which are at once very beautiful and concerned with great truths.

A Work of Fine Art Leads to Contemplation by Catharsis

The Significant Form

A work of fine art, therefore, is above all something beautiful; yet this is not enough to define it, since many beautiful things are not works of art. On another page (248 f.) we have seen that beauty for us is found principally in mathematical patterns of color or sound. What is peculiar to the beauty of a work of fine art? It is not to be found merely in the fact that the work of fine art has a beautiful mathematical design.

We have seen in the last chapter (page 251) that such beauty is not fully satisfying to us because we naturally desire to know more than surface beauty. Unless the form is significant of some underlying nature, it seems trivial to us. If human art had only the beauty of mathematical design it would be inferior to natural things, whose forms are significant of the nature of the things. That is why the modern architect admires the functional beauty of natural forms, and despises the merely ornamental beauty of surface designs.

Hence the form of a work of art must be significant of the underlying nature, and we have already seen how this is achieved through imitation or representation (pages 256 f.). A work of art is superior to nature itself in this respect, since the imitation tells us [278] more than the original about the interior nature; an actor shows the character of the man he imitates more clearly than the man would reveal himself in real life. The artist by intelligent selection and emphasis of the significant details or properties of a thing helps us to see what is essential and unique in it (see page 252). It would seem, then, that imitation is the specific difference of a work of fine art, and it is by imitation that the artist leads us to contemplation, which would thus be the final cause of the work.

The Imitation of Art

This is indeed true, but it is still not sufficiently precise. Not every sort of imitation achieves the effect on us found in a work of art. It might be possible to draw a clever diagram of a plant, for example, which would be highly instructive as to its inner nature and function, without that diagram seeming to be a work of fine art. We expect the work of art to appeal to our emotions, to arouse our sympathy.

We can well understand why this is necessary if we consider that contemplation is hindered, not only by an unclear, confused, or obscure object, but also by dryness, distraction, weariness on the part of our feelings. If the artist is to help us contemplate, he must not only show us an object by a clear imitation, but he must also dispose us to gaze at it by arousing our interests and winning our sympathy. Works of fine art usually have some element of surprise, of the puzzling, of the dazzling, or of the fascinating, that wins our attention. We might say, therefore, that the work of fine art is an imitation arousing emotional sympathy, or something of that sort.

But again this does not seem sufficiently precise. What we have just described sounds like an advertisement or a piece of propaganda which is persuasive just because it arouses our interest, appeals to our feelings, and then conveys its message. A work of fine art is, indeed, very close to advertising, and yet it is utterly different. The difference is that the advertisement wins our attention and conveys its message in order to get us to do something, to buy the product. A work of fine art, on the other hand, wins our attention in order that we might repose in contemplating its beauty, desiring for the time to do nothing else.

[279] Imitation and Catharsis

This is indicated by the classical term catharsis, or purifying of the emotions. The advertisement channels our emotions to action, but it cannot be said to purify them. The work of fine art, after arousing the emotions of interest and sympathy, goes on to bring them to a repose in the beautiful object so that our vision becomes crystal clear. The emotions are said to be "purified" because they now aid us to contemplate, rather than hinder us.

When our divine Lord said, "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8), he was telling us that contemplation requires the purity and harmony of the appetites (the heart) as its indispensable condition. If our appetites are disorderly, they will never permit the mind to rest in the vision of beauty and truth. Permanent purity of heart can be achieved only by the virtues which are acquired by grace and patient effort, but the work of fine art gives to us a transient experience of this purity of heart. The sinful man hearing a great poem experiences, for the moment, something of the wonderful calm and clarity of soul which is the permanent possession of the saint.

Thus the work of fine art has imitation as its formal cause; yet this imitation must be such as to produce a catharsis of the emotions, ending in the contemplation of what is imitated. This is possible because the chief object of imitation in art is human action, and with human action we feel a natural sympathy. In watching a play, we witness the story (imitation) of the life of a man like ourself [sic]. This bond of similarity arouses our emotions. As the story by its significance begins to show us the order and beauty in human life, our aroused emotions are harmonized and begin to come to repose in the delight which we feel, and as they come to repose they are purified, so that our mind is free to delight in the beauty of the object without distraction.

This Contemplation is Recreative

At this point we seem to have discovered the specific difference which distinguishes the work of fine art both from things of natural beauty and from other works that have a merely persuasive value. But a problem remains. If it is true that the end of fine art is contemplative, [280] and that this requires a purification of the emotions, and that permanent purity of the emotions is achieved only by virtue, then it seems that a work of fine art is only a cheap substitute for being a saint or a man of wisdom. While we are being charmed by a work of art, we can look at life with vision and delight in it—but only for a few moments, and then the spell passes. The wise man and saint, however, have this vision and joy in life as their permanent possession.

In answering this objection we must first admit that works of fine art do often serve such secondary purposes:

1. They have an educational value for the young person. Such a person does not have the virtue or wisdom or power of concentration to be able of himself to enjoy a contemplative view of the world. When reading a fine novel, a great play, or listening to beautiful music, he is awakened, perhaps for the first time, to the wonder of contemplation. It is for him a foretaste or pledge of what he may achieve by a life of effort to find wisdom. That is why Plato so wisely told us that philosophy or the pursuit of wisdom begins when the soul is awakened by the beauty of poetry and art. Without this foretaste of the joy of contemplation we would never make the effort to attain it. This value of fine art is very great; but if it were the only value, then once wisdom were attained works of fine art would become unnecessary; they would be only for beginners.

2. They also have therapeutic (healing) value for the person who is emotionally ill. Aristotle's term "catharsis" is a medical term, and many have emphasized the fact that art has a calming effect on the emotionally disturbed. By reading a novel or watching a play, or particularly by listening to music, these morbid emotions are released and calmed, and balance is restored within the soul. There is no doubt that works of fine art have this healing power and that occasionally—in times of intense sorrow, of illness, or simply of moodiness—the enjoyment of art is an effective cure. However, this again is only a substitutional value, since it makes art useful only to a few and in exceptional situations.

[281] But there is a primary value in the fine arts even for the wise and healthy man. We have already said (page 277) that for us human beings beauty and truth are not always proportional. Some rather unimportant or merely probable truths are very beautiful, while some very great truths are so far above us that we achieve them only with great effort. We must rise, so to speak, above the human level to the divine. This is true of the deepest truths of philosophy, but it is even truer of the supernatural truths which we find so difficult to consider in prayer without distractions. Hence even for the wise man contemplation is an effort in this life. In the next it will be a bright vision and perfect repose; here it is a dark and hard way.

Consequently, even the wise man grows weary of the effort, and requires rest and recreation. Yet because he loves the truth which he seeks to contemplate, he does not wish utterly to put it aside. It is here that the work of fine art is so great a gift. The work of fine art recreates us contemplatively. It recreates us because it gives the pleasure of looking at something beautiful in a way that is effortless—or at least relatively easy compared with contemplation—and yet it is itself a continuation of contemplation. Such recreation is inspirational, since it both rests us and elevates our soul.

We may therefore conclude that the purpose of a work of fine art is primarily to give us a recreative form of contemplation, although secondarily it serves educational and therapeutic purposes.


Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 272–281.

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