Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Difference between Fine Art and Propaganda

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.


Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 278.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Can the Descent of Modern Society Reverse?

To act as though man made history by his own purposes and decisions is a kind of spiritual blindness which bears within it its own downfall.

[xxxix] And it is precisely this spiritual blindness which is characteristic of modern civilization, a kind of hubris which leads to the frustration of social idealism and society’s turning away from those principles it professes to be following, in order to promote their opposite. Has there ever been a society which set a higher store on the ideals of humanitarianism than our own, and has there ever been one which, at the same time, allowed for the killing off of such countless millions of unborn infants? And has there ever been a culture which so repeatedly emphasized its concerns for the rights of man, and at the same time meekly acquiesced in the obliteration of those rights by totalitarian regimes in all parts of the world?

Written thirty-five years ago, in the midst of World War II, the following judgment of Christopher Dawson has a direct relationship to the condition in which the whole of the modern world finds itself today:
But this is just the truth which the modern world has denied. It has put its trust in the “arm of flesh”; it has believed the word of man rather than the Word of God. It has reversed the whole hierarchy of spiritual values so that our civilization has been turned backwards and upside down, with its face toward darkness and nonentity and its back to the sun of truth and the source of being. For a short time—whether we reckon it in decades or centuries is of small importance—it remained precariously skating on the thin ice of rationalism and secular humanism. Now the ice has broken and we are being carried down the flood, though we may delude ourselves that the forces that have been released are of our own creation and serve our will to power. 
Is it possible to reverse this process? No human power can stop this progress to the abyss. It can only come about by a profound movement of change or conversion which brings the human spirit once more into vital relation with the spirit of God. (The Judgment of the Nations [London: Sheed and Ward, 1942], 157)

Source: John J. Mulloy, “Preface to the 1978 Edition”, in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xxxviii–xxxix.

When Society Loses Its Higher Spiritual Ordering

Our own civilization, as Dawson points out, is one which has increasingly ignored the significance of the religious element, whether through prophecy or through the consecration of its social institutions to religious ends. The result is a widespread sense of spiritual dissatisfaction, which leads participants in the culture to look upon it with distrust and hostility. This not only withdraws from society the psychological support which it needs, but also, it leaves society vulnerable to movements of violence against its social structure and the values it embodies. “When the prophets are silent and society no longer possesses any channel of communication with the divine world, the way to the lower depths is still open and man’s frustrated spiritual powers will find their outlet in the unlimited will to power and destruction” (Religion and Culture [London: Sheed & Ward, 1948], 83).

[…] [xxxvii] But while society needs religion for its survival, it cannot return to religious belief simply by an act of the will, as a means of recovering its spiritual roots. This arises from the very nature of religion, from the fact that there is a basic difference between the motivations of religious feeling and those of political purpose. “It is useless to judge a religion from the point of view of the politician or the social reformer. We shall never create a living religion merely as a means to an end, a way out of our practical difficulties. For the religious view of life is opposite of the utilitarian. It regards the world and human life sub specie aeternitatis. It is only by accepting the religious point of view, by regarding religion as an end in itself and not as a means to something else, that we can discuss religious problems profitably” (Christianity and the New Age [London: Sheed & Ward, 1931], 172).

Now this conception of religion is so opposed to the modern attitude that it is difficult for modern man to accept it or appreciate its force. He is always asking whether religion serves this or that purpose, has this effect or that on the social order or on human behavior, as a way of deciding whether its existence is justified. It is man’s will rather than God’s which is taken as a standard, man’s conception of human welfare, not life seen in the light of eternity, which forms the basis for judgments concerning the significance of religion.

Yet this is discernment only on a superficial level; and even history itself testifies how limited and earthbound such ideas of human welfare and human destiny turn out to be. There is, as Dawson points out, an unpredictable character to events and outcomes in history which goes quite counter to rational calculations and makes the standards of a purely human judgment strikingly inadequate. “The real meaning of history is something entirely different from that which the human actors in the historical drama themselves believe or intend” (Religion and the Modern State [London: Sheed & Ward, 1935], 81). As an example of this, Dawson cites the contrast between the expectations of the Liberals concerning the purposes of the French Revolution and the harsh realities of the Revolution itself.


Source: John J. Mulloy, “Preface to the 1978 Edition”, in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xxxvi.

Prophets and Mystics Revitalize a Culture’s Religion

In every religion the religious aim of a culture is determined by the mission and the inspiration of its prophets and by the vision and spiritual experience of its mystics. Where these vital organs fail, religion becomes secularized and is absorbed in the cultural tradition to a point at which it becomes identified with it, until it finally becomes nothing more than a form of social activity….


Source; Christopher Dawson, Religion and Culture (London: Sheed & Ward, 1948), 81–82.

The Cultural Effects of Contrasting Visions of the World

The experience of Mohammed in the cave of Mount Hira, when he saw human life as transitory as the beat of a gnat’s wing in comparison with the splendor and power of the Divine Unity, has shaped the existence of a great part of the human race ever since. For a people which has heard thrice a day for a thousand years the voice of the muezzin proclaiming the unity of God cannot live the same life or see with the same eyes as the Hindu who worships the life of nature in its countless forms, and sees the external world as the manifestation of the interplay of cosmic sexual forces.


Source: Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion (London: Sheed & Ward, 1929), 76–77.

The Vitality of a Society is Found in Its Spiritual Roots

The central conviction which has dominated my mind ever since I began to write is the conviction that the society or culture which has lost its spiritual roots is a dying culture, however prosperous it may appear externally. Consequently the problem of social survival is not only a political or economic one; it is above all things religious, since it is in religion that the ultimate spiritual roots both of society and the individual are to be found.


Source: Christopher Dawson, Enquiries into Religion and Culture (London: Sheed & Ward, 1933), vi.

The Essence of History is Tradition

Hence the essence of history is not to be found in facts but in traditions. The pure fact is not as such historical. It only becomes [286] historical when it can be brought into relation with a social tradition so that it is seen as part of an organic whole. A visitor from another planet who witnessed the Battle of Hastings would possess far greater knowledge of the facts than any modern historian, yet this knowledge would not be historical for lack of any tradition to which it could be related; whereas the child who says “William the Conqueror 1066” has already made his atom of knowledge an historical fact by relating it to a national tradition and placing it in the time-series of Christian culture.

Wherever a social tradition exists, however small and unimportant may be the society which is its vehicle, the possibility of history exists. […] [287]

Yet even the religion that denies the significance of history is itself a part of history and it can only survive in so far as it embodies itself in a social tradition and thus “makes history.”


Source: Christopher Dawson, “The Kingdom of God and History,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), 285–287. Originally published in The Kingdom of God and History, ed. H. G. Woods et al., vol. 3 of Official Oxford Conference Books (New York: Willett, Clark & Company, 1938).


The fact does not tell the story; the story, as it were, tells the fact. It is the latter that gives pattern and meaning; it is the former that lacks meaning of its own. Moreover to arrange such disordered material, to give it narrative shape, is not to diminish historical particularity but to acknowledge it. To see meaning beyond the local is to see it in the local. After all, we grasp our truths in the solid, the tactile, the here-and-now. We exercise a faculty of imagination without which historical insight is impossible. […] In the parochial we [xxvi] glimpse the perennial. In time we grasp Time’s end, its very purpose and meaning.


Source: Dermot Quinn, “Introduction,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xxv–xxvi.

Culture Is Incarnational

Rationalists, [Dawson] realized, misunderstood religion precisely because they misunderstood culture as well. Indeed they misunderstood both for the same reason: their thin and etiolated behaviorism denied the possibility of a grander vision of man. Allowing religion no other purpose than the [xxiii] sanctification of social or private compulsions, they closed off an entire realm of man’s being. This represented, of course, the collapse of the very empiricism they claimed to uphold. A conclusion was contrived, then evidence adduced to support it: hardly a triumph of the investigative arts. Yet the circularity should not surprise us. With their functionalist view of culture and religion no other conclusion was available to them.

Dawson’s recognition of culture as a bearer of truth was the insight of an anthropologist but also, in a more profound way, that of a Christian. His understanding of man in society was, in the deepest sense, incarnational. […] Man grasps the divine in diverse, sometimes prosaic, ways. His spiritual insights come mediated through the materiality of the everyday. He understands the blessedness of the ordinary: the common meal, the shared sorrow, the unburdened heart. Slowly, too, he begins to understand the truth beyond these smaller moments: that the God who enters human history reveals Himself in living cultures, authentic communities. His face shines in material and sacramental ways, evident to those with eyes to see. This is not to say that culture itself is religion. Nor is it to say that one culture is much the same as another. Least of all is it to propose that human culture contains the entirety of the divine revelation. It is, however, to acknowledge that culture matters more profoundly than even cultural historians realize.


Dermot Quinn, “Introduction,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xxii–xxiii.

A Definition of Real Religion

Real religion, Dawson argued, must “embody itself in concrete forms appropriate to the national character and the cultural tradition” (Dynamics of World History, 88) of a people. […] A religion is real precisely to the extent that it integrates, and is integral to, the spiritual and physical lives of its adherents.


Dermot Quinn, “Introduction,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xxi.

The Religion of Enlightenment Utopianism

Late-eighteenth [xxi] and nineteenth-century utopianism was more absurd than most. But wherein lay the absurdity? Not so much in the ignorance of human history as in its faux religiosity. The great abstractions—Liberity, Equality, Fraternity; Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—always came in threes. They were secular trinities amply supplied with creeds, priests, keepers of orthodoxy, heresy-hunters, the fervent faithful. All they lacked was self-knowledge, awareness of themselves as profane theologies. Indeed, nowhere was this more apparent than in their understanding of religion itself. Philosophes fashioned a “purely rational philosophy of religion based on the abstract generalities . . . common to all forms of religion. For deism is nothing but the ghost of religion which haunts the grave of dead faith and lost hope” (Dynamics of World History, 88). It never occurred to the builders of the new society hat the religion they concocted—of society itself—was not enough. Such things cannot be concocted anyway, put together as from some recipe book of socially useful devotion. Real religion, Dawson argued, must “embody itself in concrete forms appropriate to the national character and the cultural tradition” (88) of a people. The late-eighteenth-century version was manifestly ersatz.


Dermot Quinn, “Introduction,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xx–xxi.

When Idea Becomes Ideology

But patterns of thought, and patterns within thought, are also organic. If civilizations grow and decay, the same might be said of philosophical systems. They become rigid, hard and unyielding, forgetful of their first impulses. A theory becomes a Truth; an idea becomes an Ideology. […] Consider Dawson’s account (in “Progress and Decay in Ancient and Modern Civilization”) of the revolutionaries and reformers of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. All of them believed in “the coming reign of the great abstractions—Humanity, Liberty, and Progress” (57). The phrase is pure Dawson, capturing at once the naïveté and dogmatism of the revolutionary generation. Promoters of enlightenment never understood that worship of rationality was itself irrational; that systematic and compulsory optimism was a guarantee of pessimism and gloom. They never understood that their contempt for history was itself historically rooted, the product of a particular time and place. The slow, vegetable growth of human communities meant nothing to them. All that mattered was mechanics. A new society, precise as a piece of clockwork, promised the happiness to which all men were entitled.


Dermot Quinn, “Introduction,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xx.

Secularism Destroys True Individuality

It would be hard to offer a better description of secularism than “religious emotion divorced from religious belief.” Nor are we likely to find a more accurate account of the spiritual vanity characteristic of the contemporary world. There is, perhaps, only one serious difference between Dawson’s day and our own. When he wrote, half a century ago, he complained of a secularism that was essentially collective. Democracy, nationalism and socialism are movements larger than the individual. This is their point. Nowadays, the secular mind fixates on the purely personal, shrinking from the social. Its preoccupations are curiously private: the cult of the body, authenticity, sexual license, the New Age in all its mystic vapidity. Secularism has become the numinosity of the narcissist. Postmodern man elevates a monstrance and sees at its center a mirror.

There is an obvious irony here. This self-worship is ignorant of the sources of the self. It prizes a rootless individualism, undifferentiated from place to place. In the name of local truths—my right, my body, my opinion—it banishes localism, replacing it with compulsory cosmopolitanism, the standard self-absorptions of Everyman. In the name of distinctive identity it produces identical “individuals.” Yet it is in the local and regional where a person is formed and made. Dawson, the most urbane of thinkers, was unsettled by this derogation of the provincial and the parochial. He knew that cosmopolitanism—the same citified culture the world over—produced homogenous [sic] [xx] cities, homogenous citizens. Urban man, deracinated and despiritualized, forgot the sources of his moral vitality: family, region, local clay. As with early civilizations, so with late: the closer to the land the better.


Dermot Quinn, “Introduction,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xix–xx.

The Scientism Within Sociology

From the beginning sociology has been haunted by the dream of explaining social phenomena by the mathematical and quantitative methods of the physical sciences and thus creating a science of society which will be completely mechanistic and determinist. The path of sociology is strewn with the corpses of defunct systems of “social physics,” “social energetics” and “social mechanics,” and their failure does little to discourage fresh adventures. Such systems have little use for history or for social reality; they content themselves with generalizations that have no significance and with “laws” which are nothing but false analogies.


Christopher Dawson, “Sociology as a Science,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), 22. Originally published in Science for a New World, ed. Arthur Thomson and J. G. Crowther (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1934).

No Philosophy of History Is a Philosophy of History

No historian need be taken seriously who claims that his only interest is the past itself, as if such a statement needed no further justification. To dismiss a philosophy of history is a philosophy of history, if a paltry and inadvertent one. […] Few are good at philosophy and history.


Dermot Quinn, “Introduction,” in Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Washington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), xiii.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Fr. Benedict Ashley on the Difference between Imitation in Art and Photographic Copies

An imitation, therefore, is just the opposite of a photographic copy. The photograph is the unselective reproduction of the mere appearance of a thing. An imitation is the selection of a significant form, of those appearances which reveal the nature or essence of something. A photograph is made by a machine that is without intelligence. An imitation is the work of an intelligent man who sees through the accidents to the substantial reality of things and produces a sign that enables us to do the same. That is why a melody, [258] or an abstract painting, can be a true imitation, although they are far from a mechanical reproduction of anything. Between the melody or the design and the emotion which they imitate, there is a real similarity, a selective and interpretative likeness of movement and pattern existing in utterly different materials.


Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 257–258.

Fr. Benedict Ashley on How Music Stirs the Emotions

In order to signify these emotions by a musical pattern we need to produce a series of notes that move toward or away from sounds that are pleasant and unpleasant. A pattern of concordant or related notes seems pleasant, a pattern of unrelated notes seems unpleasant. The pleasant pattern seems restful and suggests a state of bodily relaxation; the unpleasant pattern is disturbing and indicates bodily tension. When a design is suggested but not completed, then we are in a state of anticipation and tension until it is completed. In this way a piece of music is a constant alternation between the building up and tearing down of a musical design, and this movement to and from an expected pattern or order signifies the emotions. If we see an expected design dissolving or incomplete, the emotions of sorrow are signified; if we see it building up in spite of obstacles, the emotions of joy are signified.

In dancing we have a similar alternation of visual patterns. In painting, sculpture, or architecture there is no actual movement, and at first it might appear that they could never signify the flow of emotion. But every motion begins and ends in rest, and in a static design it is possible to indicate that a motion is about to begin, or has just ended, by showing a design which is not quite complete, but suggested. Hence a picture in which a design seems to be dissolving or ready to fall apart suggests something sorrowful, and a picture in which the design seems just to be arriving at completion suggests triumph and joy.


Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 254.

Fr. Benedict Ashley on the Different Emotions Evoked by Music

What then about pure music, which seems to be free of any obvious emotional content? When we listen to the music of Bach, we do not sense, to be sure, the same violent and obvious emotions as in a piece by Tschaikovsky [sic], or Wagner. We say that the music seems “intellectual.” The reason for this lies in the fact that there are two kinds of emotion. Some emotions are so violent that they carry us along, blinding our intelligence and clarity of thought. Other emotions are controlled, measured by our intelligence, kept in balance and harmony by our thought. Such emotions do not blind us, but rather sharpen our intelligence and help us to think more acutely.

This is not a difference in the intensity of emotion, but in its discipline. Controlled emotion can be much more profound and intense than sentimental, dissipated emotion. Many people who compare the music of romantic composers like Wagner to classical composers like Mozart and Bach at first find the classical music “cold,” “intellectual,” a mere pattern of sounds; but after they know it better they come to see that it signifies most intense and deep emotion.


Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 253.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Fr. Benedict Ashley on the Form of Fine Art

[247] Chapter II: The Forms of Works of Fine Art

The Notion of Form

“Form” Is an Analogical Term

If we are ever to think clearly about the problem of “form” in art we have to realize that this word has many meanings; it is an analogical, not a univocal term.
In the broad sense of the word, “form” is relative to “matter,” so that whenever we have some sort of material, some elements or parts put together in a sort of an order, arrangement, or structure, we may call that structure “form.” In this broad sense, all the nine kinds of accidents […] are “forms,” because all of them give some kind of order to the thing in which they exist.
Among the accidents, however, the one which most truly deserves the name of “form” is quality, the category which answers the question, “What kind of thing is it?”
Hence among the kinds of quality the proper sensible qualities of things which directly affect our different senses may be called “forms.” Color is the form of things perceived by our eyes, sound the form of things perceived by our sense of hearing. Of these, [248] color and sound especially deserve to be called “forms” because it is by sight and hearing that we can best discriminate one kind of thing from another.
In the last chapter (see page 242) we saw that color and sound are forms of the common matter of the fine arts; the reason for this is that they give different qualities to paint, or glass, or stone, or to vibrating strings and columns of air. But although they are forms of the common matter, they are themselves the proper matter of the fine arts.

The Most Proper Sense of the Word “Form”

Although the term “form” may be used in these broad senses to apply to any accident, and particularly to any kind of quality, in the strictest sense it belongs only to one species of quality, namely, to figure.
If we ask most people what “form” means, they will spontaneously answer: “shape” or “figure”; and they will probably be thinking of the shape or figure of a beautiful woman. Thus “form” means “figure.” If we wish to distinguish the connotations of the two words, we may say that “form” means a perfect regular figure. Figure and form are kinds of qualities, but they are qualities very closely related to quantity, and may be defined as follows:
Definition: a figure is a quality which is the boundary of a quantity.
Thus in geometry we construct and study such figures as the straight line, the curved line, the triangle, the polygon, the circle, the cube, and the sphere. Each of these is a quantity having a definite boundary. For example, the circle is an area (quantity) bounded by a curved line equidistant at every point from the center. These boundaries of quantity are its figure, and this figure is not itself quantity but a quality of quantity; it is a form of the quantity.
Closely connected with quantity and figure are four other categories: place, position, vestition, and timing […]. If I draw the figure of a triangle on a sheet of paper, I can put it in various places on the page. I can also turn it in various positions; for example, with the vertex upward or downward. Similarly, the human [249] figure may be in various places, and in various positions (sitting, standing, lying down), and it may also be clothed (vestition) in “form-fitting” or in baggy garments. Finally, as the hands of a clock move through various positions on the dial, we can mark out parts of time to correspond with the parts of the circular figure; or as a runner speeds to his goal, we can mark off parts of the time to correspond with his progress along a straight line. Thus timing and the other categories we have just mentioned are closely related, and we can think of a series of events in time as arranged in a sort of pattern or figure.
Thus “form” strictly means figure, but it may also be applied to other categories closely connected with quantity. Quantity and the other categories which we have just mentioned all provide a foundation for the various relations […] of equality and inequality, similarity and dissimilarity, nearness and distance, before and after, so that in describing figure we must also take into account these various relations.
We often refer to figure in painting, sculpture, or architecture as a “pattern” or a “design.” In music the analogous arrangement of different tones in time may be called by the same names.

Design Is Essential to Fine Art

It should now be evident that a work of fine art that does not have form in the sense of good design could not possibly achieve its purpose. A work with poor design would lack the most basic type of beauty. It might have expensive materials, beautiful colors, or rich sounds; it might portray an interesting subject, or tell a moving story, but it would lack form. It would be the material of a work of art as a pile of bricks is the material of a building, but it would not be the completed work. A girl may be healthy without being very beautiful.
Oddly enough, many people miss this point. Girls are sometimes admired for beauty who really do not have it. A girl with bright eyes, a glowing complexion, or a pleasant manner is often thought beautiful, although actually she does not have regular features nor a good figure. Similarly, in judging works of art many people are inclined to think that a work of art is good if it has bright colors, or if [250] it is about some subject that they personally like. A man who likes hunting is likely to think that a brightly colored photograph of the woods is a fine work of art; and a woman who likes children is likely to think that a picture of a sweet baby painted in lovely pastel shades is a masterpiece.
This is not unnatural, and we need not object to people enjoying bright colors and pleasant subjects. But we must recognize that it is not the work of art itself they are enjoying, but merely something accidental to it. That is why the opinions of the public and the opinions of experts in matters of art sometimes seem so far apart. The public cannot understand why a prize at an exhibition should be given to a rather dull looking picture of some apples on a table cloth, while a flashy picture of a beautiful girl is passed over by the judges. The difference is principally in the fact that the judges are looking for the form of a work of art, and in the picture of the apples they find a most complicated and interesting design, while in the flashy picture of the girl they find very little design at all.
The public, on the other hand, has perhaps not learned to look for design and probably does not even realize that it is the very essence of art. Good design may be greatly aided by brilliant, beautiful colors, and it should tell us something interesting and human (as we will see below); but without it all the colors and subject-matter in the world cannot produce a work of art. The same is true of music; brilliant or rich sounds, or easily memorized tunes, or a great deal of lively and noisy rhythm does not make a good piece of music, nor does the fact that the music is patriotic, or romantic, or tells a clever story. Without musical form or design such music is like a collection of pretty silks and laces that has not been cut and sewn to make a dress. It is the possible material of a work of art and nothing more.

Abstract Art

It is the growing recognition of this true conception of art that has led to the surprising development of abstract painting and pure music in the last fifty years, a development which has outraged the public and which they find it very difficult to regard as anything but “insane art,” or “boiler-factory music.” In an abstract painting [251] or sculpture the artist gives us a pure design which seems devoid of all meaning (“What in the world is it supposed to be?”) and which frequently is devoid of appeal in color or careful finish (“A child could do as well!”). By giving us a work which seems “crude,” sketchy, unfinished, the artist is trying to get us to forget about the mere superficial qualities of color and neatness, and by not picturing anything definite he is trying to get us to concentrate on the pattern. It is rather like a football coach deciding that the crowd is becoming more concerned about the hot-dogs, the pennants, the chrysanthemums, the marching bands, the majorettes, the cheer-leaders, and the mascots than about the game of football itself; so he decides to cut them all out and give the spectators nothing but a hard-played game by a team in dirty uniforms. The public would not like that, but the real sport fans wouldn’t mind at all. They would be happy to concentrate on the game. In similar fashion abstract art and pure music are intended to be works of fine art cut down to the essentials with little appeal to the ignorant public, but with a very direct and strong appeal to those who really know what art is all about.

Significant Form

We have just given the case for abstract art, but we hasten to add that the public is not altogether mistaken in its astonishment at this type of art. The figure or shape or design of things is only an accident. The human mind, however, is made to know reality, and the accidents of things, although real, are only the most superficial aspect of reality. Reality consists of things, of substances which exist in themselves. Accidents cannot exist in themselves but have reality only because they exist in substances. Until our mind penetrates accidents and grasps the substances of things it is unsatisfied. Perhaps at a circus or fair you have bought a paper cone full of pink “cotton-candy” spun out of sugar, and you remember that when you bit into it you found it was hardly more than slightly sweet air. The world of accidents is just as unsubstantial to the appetite of our mind.
Accidents are the natural signs […] of the substantial nature in which they exist. A man’s color, height, shape, weight, [252] etc., are the outward signs of his human nature. When our senses take in these accidents our mind at once begins to try to read their meaning and to discover what they signify. Of all the accidents those which are most significant to us are the figure, the sounds, and the motions of things. If we see the shadow of a dog, hear its bark, or see it streak across the lawn after a rabbit, we recognize it immediately and we understand what its nature is.
So habitual is it for us to read the natures of things through their figures that when we sit idly watching the shifting forms of the clouds or the fire, or when a psychologist shows us an ink-blot, we immediately see in these random shapes the likeness of animals or human faces. The same is true of sounds, for if we listen to the wind or the waterfall for some time, or the sound of the wheels of the train on the track, they may begin to suggest words and voices to us. The tendency of children or of insane or delirious adults to see figures in the shadows and hear voices in the wind is only an exaggeration of a universal human tendency to seek for meanings in every shape and sound.
A form which quickly reveals a nature and which thus acts as an effective sign is a significant form, in contrast to one which seems meaningless. The reason we resent abstract painting and music is that it seems to promise a meaning which we can never discover. Purely abstract art is inhuman, because it offers us a mere surface, a flow of phenomena instead of the reality we naturally crave.
It certainly is legitimate for the mathematician to abstract from all reality except the accident of quantity, because he is a scientist, and science sometimes gains by sacrificing depth for the sake of exactitude […]. The artist, too, may feel that by making his picture very mathematical he is gaining in clarity of form what he is losing in richness of content, but this sacrifice becomes too great when nothing but mathematical pattern is left. The history of art shows that cultures like that of the Jews or the Mohammedans (who, for fear of idolatry, banished the use of representation in art and confined themselves to abstract designs) did not achieve artistic greatness.

[253] The Function of Emotion

Emotion and Abstraction

As a matter of fact, the abstract art of today is really not so abstract as it appears. Most of it actually has some meaning or significance because it conveys emotion. Very little music has even attempted to reproduce natural sounds (except as an incidental novelty); yet music does convey emotion, and has a rich emotional meaning. In an analogous way, visual design which seems to resemble nothing in particular may have a definite emotional content, and may convey a sense of joy or gloom, agitation or serenity. If it were not so, then architectural designs would not convey any mood to us—and they obviously do. Who has not felt the sense of serenity in the façade of the Parthenon, or the sense of prayer in the interior of the cathedral of Chartres? Abstract painting is a visual design which signifies emotion in somewhat the same way as music does.
What then about pure music, which seems to be free of any obvious emotional content? When we listen to the music of Bach, we do not sense, to be sure, the same violent and obvious emotions as in a piece by Tschaikovsky [sic], or Wagner. We say that the music seems “intellectual.” The reason for this lies in the fact that there are two kinds of emotion. Some emotions are so violent that they carry us along, blinding our intelligence and clarity of thought. Other emotions are controlled, measured by our intelligence, kept in balance and harmony by our thought. Such emotions do not blind us, but rather sharpen our intelligence and help us to think more acutely.
This is not a difference in the intensity of emotion, but in its discipline. Controlled emotion can be much more profound and intense than sentimental, dissipated emotion. Many people who compare the music of romantic composers like Wagner to classical composers like Mozart and Bach at first find the classical music “cold,” “intellectual,” a mere pattern of sounds; but after they know it better they come to see that it signifies most intense and deep emotion.

How Can a Design Have Emotional Significance?

Granted that “abstract” designs and musical patterns often signify emotion, it is rather difficult to explain how this can be. We need to recall what an emotion is:
Definition: An emotion is a movement of our sense appetites toward an object presented to the imagination as pleasant or away from an object as presented to the imagination as unpleasant, with an accompanying physical change.
So, for instance, when we imagine a delicious dish of food we have a hungry impulse that moves us toward it, and we feel our stomach begin to get active and our mouth begin to water. […]
In order to signify these emotions by a musical pattern we need to produce a series of notes that move toward or away from sounds that are pleasant and unpleasant. A pattern of concordant or related notes seems pleasant, a pattern of unrelated notes seems unpleasant. The pleasant pattern seems restful and suggests a state of bodily relaxation; the unpleasant pattern is disturbing and indicates bodily tension. When a design is suggested but not completed, then we are in a state of anticipation and tension until it is completed. In this way a piece of music is a constant alternation between the building up and tearing down of a musical design, and this movement to and from an expected pattern or order signifies the emotions. If we see an expected design dissolving or incomplete, the emotions of sorrow are signified; if we see it building up in spite of obstacles, the emotions of joy are signified.
In dancing we have a similar alternation of visual patterns. In painting, sculpture, or architecture there is no actual movement, and at first it might appear that they could never signify the flow of emotion. But every motion begins and ends in rest, and in a static design it is possible to indicate that a motion is about to begin, or has just ended, by showing a design which is not quite complete, but suggested. Hence a picture in which a design seems to be dissolving or ready to fall apart suggests something sorrowful, and a picture in which the design seems just to be arriving at completion suggests triumph and joy.

[255] Ugliness and Beauty

We can now understand why a work of art, if it is to have emotional meaning, must not be simply a perfect geometrical design or pattern; why it must contain something which is imperfect, incomplete, ugly, and disordered. It is not possible to present the pleasant in an effective and intense way without also suggesting the unpleasant, or at least the less pleasant. A piece of music which was all sweet chords, or a picture which had a perfect balance of pure colors, would seem emotionally empty because they would not suggest to us the movement of emotions from the unpleasant to the pleasant. A story with no villain, no conflict, no danger is bound to be insipid. That is why good works of art at first sight sometimes seem shocking or strange or depressing. It is because we have noticed the unpleasant element, and have not yet perceived how this unpleasant element is present only as a means to intensify the emotional movement toward the pleasant. The apparent disorder exists only to bring us to a profound order, just as in the universe sin and sorrow exist only to awaken us to the pursuit of true happiness.
This does not mean, however, that there must always be something ugly for there to be something beautiful. God is Beauty without ugliness of any sort because he is Eternal Beauty. But creatures arrive at beauty and goodness only by a long journey, and every journey not only has a goal, but also a place of departure. We journey toward Beauty only by leaving ugliness behind.

Natural Signs of Emotion

It may appear very surprising that we are able to read the emotional meaning of a piece of music or a design just by looking or listening to it, even when we have had no training in these arts. And yet people spontaneously understand the joyfulness or sadness of a great deal of music and design. The reason is that we are naturally inclined to read this visual or musical language of the emotions because the appearance of our bodies and the sound of our voices are natural signs of our emotional states.
Even a small child soon learns to read its mother’s emotions from her facial expression, from her calm or nervous gestures, and from the tone of her voice. When we watch a fine actor we are amazed to [256] see how his body and his voice seem to reveal his interior feelings by their slightest changes. Thus the human body in its movements, postures, expressions indicates the interior tension or repose that accompany emotion (see definition above, page 254), and so does the human voice which is so affected by the muscular tensions of the face, throat, and chest, and by our breathing.
When our body is in repose (standing or sitting easily), it forms a perfect symmetrical pattern; and so, in a similar state, does our face. When we are moved by emotion, this pattern is disturbed and goes through a series of shifting appearances until we return to repose. In dancing or acting we see this alternation of repose and movement. The voice also has its rest and repose, silence or a clear, even tone. When we are moved, the voice rises or falls, grows stronger or weakens, and then returns again to repose. It follows, then, that the pattern of design or of music of which we have been speaking is natural to man, so from our acquaintance with the human body and voice we quickly come to read this natural language.

Imitation in the Fine Arts

Art as Imitation

We can now understand the famous saying of the great Greek philosopher, that art is imitation. In Greek the word is mimesis, the same word from which comes our word “mimic.” No doubt Aristotle particularly had in mind the actor who mimics or imitates a character in a story. He says, however, that music also is imitative (Politics, VIII, 1340a, 19), because it so subtly portrays the emotions. By this he means that the work of art is a significant form, as we have already explained, not that it is a photographic copy of the appearance of something. If he had meant the latter he certainly could not have cited music as an obvious example of imitation, since music is no obvious likeness of anything.
Some have argued that “imitation” was taken by Aristotle to mean that the artist does for his work of art what nature does for the things it produces. According to this theory, just as nature helps the seed to grow into a beautiful tree, so the artist develops a design from [257] some germinal idea and embodies it in his material. It is perfectly true that human art does imitate nature in this way, but this is true of all arts—of farming, of medicine, of engineering, of teaching—and would not be especially characteristic of the fine arts. Yet Aristotle uses the term “imitation” as the specific difference of the fine arts to define them in contrast to these other arts.
Aristotle tells us himself (Poetics, IV, 1448b, 4 ff.) that the fine arts are imitations in the sense that they lead us to knowledge. By comparing the work of art with the thing it imitates we come to know something which we did not know before. How is that possible? How do we come to know by comparing the picture of a man with a man?
We can understand the answer to this question if we recall that we human beings learn to define things by comparing similar things and then noticing the differences. It is in this way that we come to distinguish between what is essential and important and what is accidental and insignificant. Hence when an actor “imitates” or mimics someone else, we first make a comparison between two persons who are unlike each other (the actor and the one he imitates) and then we notice their similarity, the tricks of gesture, gait, expression, and pronunciation which make them startlingly similar.
When we recognize this similarity we are very interested, because previously we had never realized the distinctive personality of the person who is being imitated. But when we see these traits put on by an entirely different person, we see them plainly and clearly and appreciate them as we never appreciated them before. The mimic has said to us, so to speak: “Here is the very essence of Mr. So-and-So. Now you know what Mr. So-and-So is really like, although you never realized it before.”
An imitation, therefore, is just the opposite of a photographic copy. The photograph is the unselective reproduction of the mere appearance of a thing. An imitation is the selection of a significant form, of those appearances which reveal the nature or essence of something. A photograph is made by a machine that is without intelligence. An imitation is the work of an intelligent man who sees through the accidents to the substantial reality of things and produces a sign that enables us to do the same. That is why a melody, [258] or an abstract painting, can be a true imitation, although they are far from a mechanical reproduction of anything. Between the melody or the design and the emotion which they imitate, there is a real similarity, a selective and interpretative likeness of movement and pattern existing in utterly different materials.

The Scope of Imitation

Emotion and Action

Up to this point we have shown how even when works of painting or music seem very abstract or “non-objective” they may actually imitate the emotions. But emotions do not exist of themselves, they exist in human beings. It is the human being who is a substance, and emotion is only one of his activities. Nor is it the highest human activity. Man fully lives, not merely in feeling and suffering, but rather in thinking, willing, loving, choosing a course of action, and executing it. Furthermore, it is not merely in some passing experience that he truly lives; rather it is in his habitual, deliberate way of life that his character and personality are truly realized. If art were confined to imitating man’s emotions, it would be able to show us only a very fleeting and superficial aspect of reality.
Hence it is that in poetic works, which are the fullest and most complete type of art, the writer does not merely portray emotion (this is paramount only in lyric poetry, see page 216), but deals with human action, that is, with human life as a whole. The scope of the imitation of a poetic work, therefore, extends beyond emotion to the whole of man’s nature and life, and to the world in which he lives.

The Scope of Music

Is it possible for the arts which do not use words to go beyond emotions in their work of imitation? It would seem that music cannot go further, unless it is united to words or drama as in a song or opera. Music represents emotion, and in that emotion we sense the control of reason and of virtue which gives that emotion its own balance and symmetry. But music alone can never tell us the objects of these emotions (the thoughts), nor the characters that feel them, nor the situation that provokes them.
[259] In hearing a piece of music we witness someone’s noble sorrow, or exultant joy, but we do not know who it is that feels these emotions, nor why. On this account music is very limited in its scope, although it compensates for these limitations by its extreme subtlety and power in imitating what it can imitate. The words of a poet or the expressions of an actor fall far short of music when it comes to imitating the shades and changes of feeling.
It is for this reason that music is so often used in connection with other arts, along with words, or as an accompaniment to acting or dancing. This is also the reason why it has such intense appeal to people of deep emotions, while it may seem tedious and empty to those who are more interested in the other aspects of life.

Limitations of the Other Arts

Architecture, which has been called “frozen music,” has even narrower limitations. It cannot show the shift or changes of emotion, but only a certain mood or atmosphere of grandeur, or peace, or comfort, or whatever it may be. It may be said to imitate a habitual state of character or emotion, rather than the emotion itself. Abstract design has these same limitations, and in spite of the great fashion at the moment for such designs, we may be sure that people and artists will soon tire of so limited a medium. Abstract design has neither the power of music, nor the scope of representational art.
Why is it so popular at present? Partly, it would seem, as a reaction to the mechanical, materialistic, photographic ideal of art which is so prevalent in our mechanical age, but mainly because the artists of today are very ignorant of the fulness [sic] of reality. Like so many experts, they are narrow specialists and they find nothing to imitate which they know well except their own emotions. It is well known that among writers lyric poetry is the one field in which the young writer can excel, since it requires a minimum of knowledge and experience with life, and only a sufficient sensitivity on the part of the young poet. Abstract painting and sculpture are the lyric form of the visual arts, and today’s artists, cut off from the fulness [sic] of life by their lack of education and general culture, tend to devote themselves to it. This is by no means all their own fault; it is largely due [260] to the fact that in modern life the fine arts have lost their social function and have become very narrow […].
Acting and dancing have a much wider scope, since vision is the most informative of all our senses. Before the “talking picture” was invented, the silent movies had proved that it is possible to go very far in telling an effective story without words. Nonetheless, everyone is aware that the silent movies were very limited in their dramatic scope. Without words it was difficult to express the shades of motivation, and the story had to be confined to very broad simple effects. The same is true of the ballet which can tell a simple story and express the related emotions very clearly—more clearly than can a play. Yet a ballet becomes confusing if the story takes on any complication or subtlety of plot, character, or thought.
In painting and sculpture even motion is eliminated. Hence these arts cannot effectively tell a story. The efforts of some painters to suggest a story in a picture is more clever than successful. To be sure, the technique of the comic-strip may be tried. In Chinese painting, in illustrations for manuscripts and books, in some primitive Italian and Flemish painting, and in certain large groups of mural paintings, successful efforts have been made to portray the separate incidents of a story in a succession of pictures. Even here, however, each picture has to have an interest of its own, and a single picture conveys a story only feebly.

The Imitative Function of These Arts

What these arts can do is to portray the repose that completes precedes action, and by showing this repose as imperfect to suggest the action which is coming to rest or about to begin. In the famous Greek statue of the discus thrower, for example, we see the athlete poised to release the discus. In Michelangelo’s statue of Moses we see the great lawgiver just about to rise from his seat in righteous anger. In the “Winged Victory” in the Louvre we see the goddess of victory just coming to rest on the prow of a ship and ready to fold her wings, and in Michelangelo’s Pietà we see Our Lady gazing in silent grief after receiving the body of her Son. The history of Egyptian and Greek sculpture or of the painting of the Renaissance shows the gradual development of the art by which the artists learned to [261] suggest, in a static design, this beginning or coming to rest of motion. In the later periods of Greek and Renaissance art this skill was so abused that the static design was destroyed by motions too violent for successful portrayal without actual acting or dancing.

The Matter of the Arts as Limiting Principle

In fine, each of the arts tends to be limited in its scope by the effective possibilities of the matter. It pertains to the perfection of these arts to widen their scope, but not to do violence to it. The great musician tries to give a dramatic and intellectual quality to his music. The painter and sculptor attempt to suggest action in repose. The poet seeks to give a vivid pictorial and sound impression in his poem. All, however, if they respect their own art, will not attempt to compete with the other arts, nor try to do within the limits of one material what could be better done in another.
The musician who tries to paint a picture or tell a story, the painter who tries to turn his poem into a piece of music or a painting—all are striving to do the impossible, and thereby violating the nature of their own art.

Objects of Imitation

Since an imitation receives its form from the object imitated, we need now to ask: what objects are imitated by the fine arts? The answer must be given in terms of two principles:
1. An artist should seek to imitate what is most beautiful in itself insofar as he can.
2. But he is limited in this by the kind of matter he uses.

The Beauty of the Divine

If we consider the first principle, then, of course, the most beautiful of all things is the One God in the three divine Persons. God’s Being is seen especially in the Father, his Truth especially in the Son, and his Goodness in the Holy Spirit. Since beauty is a kind of goodness (namely, the good of knowledge), the Beauty of God is seen especially in the Holy Spirit. Since beauty is the splendor of truth, it is especially especially as the Holy Spirit is the very splendor of the Word of God that he is Beauty.
[262] After God the most beautiful reality is the Triumphant Church (taking its Head and its members together) as it will be after the last judgment. This Church will then include all glorified rational creatures and the whole glorified physical universe as its temple. The damned in hell will remain to render this glory more clearly, in the same way that something of ugliness remains in a work of art as the sign of the catharsis achieved. In this Church our divine Saviour [sic] and Our Lady are most beautiful. By reason of his human nature, our Lord, who is a divine Person, is fitted to our knowledge, and is thus most beautiful to us. But even more evident than the beauty of our Lord as man is his sublimity, whereas his beauty is found most clearly for us in Our Lady, who so perfectly resembles him. Our Lord’s beauty appears especially in his actions, his life, since it is by these that his Person is manifested to us. For this reason the history of the Church (and in it the story of our Lord’s life) is the most beautiful of dramas. The life of Christ is also strongest in its catharsis, since we can completely identify ourselves with him who has become our brother, and his life moves from the extremes of sorrow to those of perfect joy. It is in the Sacrifice of the Cross and in the Resurrection that this catharsis attains its goal.

The Beauty of the Human

Among other human beings, the saints, who most resemble Christ, are most beautiful; and their heroic actions, especially martyrdom, share the tragic power of his own life. But it is particularly in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (which is a sacramental imitation of the Sacrifice of Calvary, truly re-presenting it) that this beauty is found at its highest.
It is also found, however, in the humble life of the home where he lived in Nazareth, and in his daily contacts with weak humanity. In these incidents is found the comic spirit, ranging from the burning satire of his exposure of the Pharisees, to the gentle humor with which he dealt with his disciples. The sublime sorrow of his life, however, prevents the comic from being seen there fully, but it is fully evident in the life of his members in the Church, who alone of men can afford to laugh at themselves. The sublimity of our Lord’s life, on the other hand, is fully seen only in the entire panorama [263] of history outlined in the Bible and filled in by the details of secular histories.

The Chief Object of Imitation

Thus it is human action (whether tragic or comic) which is the chief object of imitation in fine art. For this is the highest object which appears perfectly adapted to our understanding and sympathy, and hence the one which produces in us the most perfect purification of our emotions (catharsis, see pages 152 ff.) and the most perfect contemplation of the beautiful. Divine things and cosmic things are represented, but as they are reflected in human action, as its law and goal. When we see human life in relation to its ultimate consequences beyond this life, in its relation to God and the society of the universe, we have a tragic vision. When we see human life in relation to the less consequential affairs of everyday life in human society, we have the comic vision. In the former the catharsis is more profound, because it is a lasting joy attained by conquering sorrow. In the latter the joy attained is less perfect and final; it is the commonplace joy of daily life.
When we consider things below man we consider them as ordered to man and reflecting human life, as similar to man and sharing in his beauty or ugliness. Sometimes they appear as obstacles to his action (hence as ugly), sometimes as the instruments and appropriate setting of his action (hence as beautiful). Such humble things also have a sublime aspect, since they reflect the cosmic order of which man is not the highest part. They suggest to us man’s subordination to the Creator who made both man and ant. Thus in looking at apples on a table, not only do we see a design, but also a reflection of man in his daily domestic life, and, further still, a reflection of the mystery of the universe in which man finds himself as a part. Seeing the reality of the apples in sunlight we realize that the world is not our work, but the work of someone greater than ourselves whose art is infinite.
Consequently, the landscape painting, the still-life, the picture of animals, the poetic description of the weather, are subordinate and minor objects of imitation in art which take their meaning from their relation to human life and to God.

[264] The Division of the Fine Arts

Since human action is the principal object of imitation in the arts, especially as it reflects the divine action, we can now consider how we can give a classification of the fine arts. We can do this by seeing the ways in which this object can best be imitated in the different materials of words, color, or musical tone, which we have seen are the proper matter of the fine arts. The division rests on the three possible objects of imitation: action, character, thought, and on the three possible kinds of matter: words, musical design (which includes both melody and rhythm), and visual design (spectacle). Words and musical design must include movement, but visual design may be either moving or static. Words have their significance by convention, musical and visual design by the natural expressiveness of the human voice and body.
Finally, the difference between the dramatic and non-dramatic manner is basically a difference between the joint use of the arts to produce a synthetic work (in which human action is represented on the stage in all its aspects) and the individual work of poetics (where the other arts are omitted). Thus Aristotle’s division of the arts (Poetics, I) according to objects, means, and manner is observed in the following division:

Classification of the Fine Arts

A. The synthesis of the fine arts, the drama:
Definition: The drama is a work of fine art whose form is the representation of human acts in their relation to divine and human law, along with the characters who act and their thoughts about their acts,
and whose matter is words, along with moving musical and visual designs whose significance is derived from the natural significance of the human voice and body in repose and motion.
B. The individual fine arts, each of which produces a part of the drama but which may produce independent works:
I: Literature (poetics):
A poetic work excels in representing the element of thought by means of conventional signs or words, along with spoken musical design.
II: Music:
A musical work excels in representing character as it shows itself in emotion, by means of a pattern of sounds.
III: Visual Art:
1. Dancing excels in representing character as it shows itself in the movements of the human body, by means of a visual design using such movements.
2. Painting and sculpture excel in representing character as it shows in the repose of the human body, by means of a visual design using this repose.

3. Architecture and the crafts provide an appropriate setting or instruments for human motion or repose, by a visual design adapted to these.


Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 247–264.

Fr. Benedict Ashley on the Matter of Fine Art

[229] Part Two: The Fine Arts
[230] [An illustration of Palestrina and Pythagoras]
[231] Chapter I: The Matter of Works of Fine Arts

Why We Need Fine Arts

Our Share in God’s Creative Power

God is our heavenly Father. He made all things by his creative power, and now he rules over the world he has made so as to guide its development until it is a perfect and finished work of art.
To us men, whom he made in his own image, he has given a share in this fatherhood. He said to Adam and Eve, “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28).
Thus, along with other living things, man has the power from God to multiply, to increase and perpetuate his kind in the world. Yet this share in creative power is more than the mere physical reproduction which plants have. Even among animals the parents not only beget their young, but they feed, shelter, and even train them. Human young need to be carefully raised and guided for many years. A human father begets his children and then he must provide for them. Not only must he gather food from nature, but he must [232] cultivate food, and he must invent means of clothing and shelter. Hence men develop the useful arts by which to take the things provided by nature and develop and modify them so that they better serve human needs.
When man applies art to nature, he is only bringing nature to the perfection which God has intended it should have. Man by his art co-operates with God in perfecting nature. If, on the other hand, man misuses his art to destroy nature or to turn it to evil uses, then he is taking side with the devil, who above all desires to destroy God’s work and to bring it to naught.

Our Share in God’s Governance and Teaching

When a father has provided his family with its material needs by his skill in the useful arts, his task as father has only begun. Children need food, clothing, shelter, and many material things, but they have far greater need of education. The father educates them so that the image of God which is in them may develop, and they may become not only like their earthly father, but like their heavenly Father. “Be you therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
A father helps his children develop to perfect maturity in two ways. First he helps them develop right habits of living, which we call moral virtues, so that they are temperate, and brave, and just. Without these virtues they would be weak and enslaved by every temptation; with them a man grows up self-controlled, strong, honest, and truly free. Without his father’s guidance, without his encouragement, and sometimes his punishments, a child would find it very difficult ever to develop such virtues. But his father knows how to guide the child, because he himself has the virtue of prudence. Prudence is like art, in that both help a father carry out his work. Art, however, perfects material things, while prudence perfects human beings in their actions. Thus prudence is the “art of life” and greater than any useful art.
Secondly, a father teaches his children not only to live rightly, but to know how to live. It is the intellectual virtues which are the developed powers by which we know things […]. Under his father’s guidance the child learns the useful arts himself, [233] and he also learns prudence to govern himself and others. These are the practical intellectual virtues, and without them a child could not become a father and help others. But the father also teaches his child to know, not only the things which man can make and control, but also the greater things which God has made, the universe and man himself. Above all he teaches the child to know God, their heavenly Father. The virtues by which we know these things are the theoretical intellectual virtues of understanding, science, and wisdom.

Civic Fathers and Spiritual Fathers

Our own earthly father, however, is not able to do for us everything that he would wish. As a child grows he needs guidance that his family alone cannot provide. Hence part of our moral development comes not only from our natural father, but also from our civic fathers, the officials of the government. By their laws and regulations the President, the Congress, the Governor, the State Legislator, and all the officials of the government help us to become good citizens. Even when we are adults and have ourselves a share in government, we need also the help of our fellow citizens and of their representatives to guide our lives and help us become perfect in virtue.
Similarly, we need not only to be taught by our fathers, but we need also wise and learned men who have a profounder knowledge to teach us in order that we might develop perfectly in wisdom. Our universities, our scientists and writers, and our teachers in the lower schools, all devote their lives to study of the truth and to teaching it to others. Even when we ourselves become expert in some field of knowledge, we will not be able to know everything for ourselves. We will need to seek the help of those expert in some other field, and we will need light form those great minds who see deeper into truth than we.
These governors and teachers did not give us physical life as did our own father, and yet they are truly our fathers, since they give us the perfection of our moral and intellectual life. But this is still not enough. For our heavenly Father has willed that we should be prepared, not only for this life, but for life with him in heaven. There we will come to know him face to face, and we will see that he is [234] three divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our education would never be complete unless we were prepared also for this.
For this reason our heavenly Father sent us his Son to redeem us from sin and to begin on earth his heavenly kingdom, the Church. Our Lord is both a King to govern us in developing the supernatural moral virtues which culminate in the theological virtues of hope and charity, and a Teacher to help us develop the supernatural intellectual virtue of faith which should grow into wisdom. In order to carry out this mission in his Church as it grows here on earth, he has given us the Pope as our spiritual ruler and teacher, and under him the bishops and all whom they commission to guide and teach us. Thus the bishop and priest is most truly our father, for in baptism he gives us spiritual birth, and by his teaching and guidance and through the other sacraments he educates us supernaturally for life with God.

Pleasure and Happiness

Our heavenly Father and our earthly fathers beget and provide for us and educate us because they love us. Because they love us they wish us to be happy. True happiness is not something that can be merely given to us; it is something which we must earn and possess for ourselves. Even our heavenly Father does not give us the joy of heaven until we are prepared for it by a life of merit. Happiness is a reward and it completely pays for all the effort we have undergone to earn it. The way to happiness, however, is only by effort and by striving, and hence by suffering.
Our heavenly Father and our earthly fathers, therefore, do not pamper us, or keep us from work and effort and suffering just because they love us. To keep us from these hardships would also keep us from earning true happiness. Nevertheless, because they love us, they try to make the way of effort as easy as possible for us, although it can never be without pain. When God made Adam and Eve he intended that the road to heave should be very easy for them, and still he gave them a test, the test of obedience and of sacrifice. Because they failed that test, he had to subject them to a harder way.
The way in which God makes our way as easy as possible is by giving us pleasures as the reward of efforts, just as an earthly father [235] gives his children little treats when they do well. Pleasure is not happiness, because it is a passing thing, while happiness endures; but pleasure is like happiness. It is the foretaste of happiness that should lead us on to the real thing.
If we review the various things a father does for his children, we will see that each ahs its reward of pleasure. Thus the physical activities of eating, drinking, of begetting children, of sleep, of comfort, even of physical exercise, all are pleasant, and this pleasure makes it easier for us to perform them. How tedious having to eat three times a day would be, if there were no pleasure attached to it! When these activities are carried out reasonably and moderately they can make life very pleasant and healthful, but when they are indulged in to excess they make us sick, or they so enslave us that we are unable to seek true happiness. The man, for example, who has become a slave to food, or drink, or sexual pleasure may tell us that he is happy, but truly he is miserable; and happiness can never be his, neither in this world nor the next.
The useful arts, therefore, not only make useful things for us, but they also try to make these things pleasant. The cook not only makes food to nourish us, but also to be attractive both to our eyes and our taste. The furniture maker not only makes a bed in which we can sleep, but strives to make it one in which we can sleep with comfort and which is attractive to see. All this is good and a part of civilization. If God has made the physical world not only useful but very, very pleasant, then we also should strive to make our works of useful art not only useful but pleasant. Yet it is important for us not to become soft and luxurious. The nation that spends too much effort in making life easy and pleasure soon is enslaved to physical needs and cannot gain true freedom and happiness.


A wise father not only makes a home a pleasant place to live but he also uses pleasure in a child’s education. He teaches the child moral virtue by obedience and discipline, but he also permits a child to play. The freedom of play is very pleasant. This pleasure is not merely physical like that of food and drink which even a tiny infant enjoys. The pleasure of play comes also from our imagination, [236] skill, and intelligence. A child only gradually learns how to play, and when he plays he is very much awake and using his imagination and mind. More complicated games are possible only for youths and grown men.
Why do we need play? Because it gives us pleasure and rests us from serious work and effort, and yet it is not mere rest and idleness, for it, too, contributes to our power to make a greater effort. When a soldier is being trained to fight, from time to time he is allowed to play some game. This is both because it is relaxation after his intense training, and because even while playing he is hardening his muscles for further effort. Thus recreation is a pleasant form of activity which rests and restores us for renewed effort. Children play hard. The young athlete plays hard. Yet for both this is a preparation for something more serious, or it is not true recreation.
Recreation is of two kinds, corresponding to the two kinds of education and the two kinds of serious human activity. Moral activity with its constant effort at carrying out one’s duty and responsibilities has its counterpart in the kind of recreation we ordinarily call games—whether physical sports, or intellectual games like cards or chess. In all such games we find the element of a contest, either against an opponent, or against one’s own score. In this way our emergency or fighting emotions, which are so constantly required in carrying out our moral duty, find rest in a game in which we have the pleasure of winning, without threat of losing anything really serious. Thus games are character-building for the youth, teaching them courage, responsibility, and fairness, and for the mature man they provide a suitable recreation from his duties in which he can still maintain his health.
There are also mental games which have the element of a contest: chess and checkers, cards, puzzles, etc. These do not have the same advantages for physical health, but when played with moderation they are good for the health of the mind.
The second kind of activity is the enjoyment of truth or contemplation. Many people are hardly aware that such an activity exists. To them it might seem a mere waste of time. Yet it is the highest of all activities and the source of every other activity which is fruitful. God himself rests forever in contemplation, and yet he has [237] created the entire universe and governs it every minute. The author of Genesis, knowing how quick man is to ignore this activity of contemplation, teaches us about it by showing that at the end of the six days in which he created the world, “God rested.” It is to keep this alive in our life that we are commanded to abstain from servile work on Sundays and holidays, so that we may give some time to rest in the vision of God’s truth.
All recreation, whether physical, mental, or contemplative, is a preparation for further activity. It rests and renews our strength. But contemplative recreation is more than just recreation; it is a foretaste of contemplation, and contemplation is not a preparation for activity, but the highest activity of all, the goal and end of every other activity.

The Fine Arts

The fine arts produce works which are not only useful but beautiful. Something is beautiful when it delights us merely to look at it. Hence works of fine art have their value, not in being used, but in being contemplated. When a piece of music is played, or a movie shown, or a novel read, we do not do anything with it, but simply listen and look and enjoy.
Thus the fine arts provide us with recreation, but it is a special kind of recreation. It is not primarily physical, like sports, nor is it a mental contest, like chess or cards. It is a contemplative recreation through which we begin to learn what contemplation is, and why it is so delightful. The pleasure we get from the fine arts helps us to understand what God’s happiness and the happiness of heaven are like, where eternity passes in the vision of God’s perfect beauty. The man or woman who does not appreciate beauty can never conceive how heaven is a place of perfect happiness, because they have never experienced any pleasures except those of the body or of competitive activity.
Making a work of fine art is a combination of all these forms of recreation. It takes physical skill like a sport. It also is a kind of puzzle in which the artist struggles with his material to give it the form he has conceived for it. Finally, it is a kind of contemplation, because the artist has always before him the beauty which he wishes [238] to produce. Hence, of all recreations, the making of something beautiful by singing, dancing, painting, writing, or acting poetry is the most inclusive.

Where the Fine Arts Lead

The contemplation which we first taste in the fine arts is not, however, the end of contemplation. It is only the opening of a road. Works of art represent reality, but they are not the greatest realities. Once art has opened up to us the beauty of the world about us, we want to know that world better. It is no accident that the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, all of whom were great artists, also became great students of natural science , nor that the advance of science in the Middle Ages also brought an advance in the fine arts. In natural science we come to contemplate the order of God’s world, as Adam did when he first looked on it.
Art also opens up to us an understanding of human life. Through plays and novels, music and painting, our experience is broadened and we begin to appreciate the sufferings, struggles, and joys of other human beings, the drama of the rise and fall of nations and empires. Hence the fine arts lead us on to the social or moral sciences.
Finally, from the fine arts we wish to come to know Beauty himself, God the Holy Spirit. It is God’s beauty which is reflected in the beauty of our world. It is his love and mercy which are reflected in the story of human life. It is when we come to meditate about God in the light of faith and with the love of charity that we come to know him, and that we arrive at true contemplation. The saints like St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi were so fascinated with the beauty and drama of the world that they thought of God every moment of their lives. So absorbed were they in thinking of him that they spent many hours in prayer, sometimes whole nights and days. When we see a movie, we are absorbed in the story for an hour or two and then we grow tired. What a marvelous vision St. Dominic and St. Francis had that held them enthralled for days at a time!

The Liturgy and Fine Art

The saints enjoyed this contemplation as the fruit of many years of effort to achieve it. In order that all of us might learn to pray [239] to God in this way, the Church with the most wonderful art has perfected the liturgy, which is a sacred drama wherein all the fine arts are employed to assist us in prayer. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the great prayer of Christ in which, through the priest, he offers himself for all of us. In it is the great prayer of the Catholic Church which publicly unites itself with Christ in this Sacrifice. Hence it is carried out with all the beauty of a drama, in a noble setting, with rich vestments and solemn music.
Unfortunately, in the crowded life of today where men are so often starved for contemplation, or filled with the cheap and monotonous “contemplation” provided by television, the liturgy is often not celebrated with full solemnity. We become accustomed to a low Mass crowded into a half-hour, and people often avoid the High or Solemn High Mass where the liturgy is celebrated with its full rites. One of the most important things in education is to learn to appreciate the Solemn High Mass, to be able to sing it, and to learn to co0operate with its celebration by the making of vestments and the serving of the altar.
The diagram on the next pages shows how all the arts are combined in the liturgy and how historically they grew out of it.
Liturgical Drama:
Sacrifice to God by a visible sign, with explanatory story.
  1. Final Cause: Catharsis (The quieting of emotions by delight in 1) an imaginative or sensible sign which 2) leads to contemplation of God as end of human life).
  2. Formal Cause (object of imitation)
    1. Imitation
      1. Principally of human action or plot (story of human life in relation to God)
      2. Secondarily
        1. Of thought (deliberation about action)
        2. And of character (person who thinks and acts)
    2. Mathematical order, easily perceptible in an imaginative or sensible sign
  3. Material Cause (means of imitation)
    1. Principally by words (which alone can directly represent thought) – Poetics
    2. Secondarily by
      1. Sound (which represents emotion, the key to character) – Music
      2. Sight (which represents exterior action)
        1. Principally by motion of body – Dancing and Acting
        2. Secondarily by place for action (setting)
          1. Architecture and Crafts
          2. Sculpture and Painting (images of superhuman actors)
  4. Efficient Cause
    1. Composer
      1. Principal (God as Inspirer acting through angel or other intermediary—the “Muse”)
      2. Secondary
        1. Artists having Liberal Arts of Poetics and Music
        2. Artists having Servile Arts of Dancing, Architecture, Sculpture, or Painting
    2. Executor: A performer who is not a composer
    3. Audience or critic: One who gives an interpretation to the work
[239] The Matter of the Fine Arts

Is There a Dictionary for the Fine Arts?

In Part One, Chapter 1, on the Art of Storytelling (pages 25-58), we have seen that the matter used by the storyteller is words. In the diagram [above] we see that the other arts use sounds and sights for their material. Words we can find in the dictionary. Is there a dictionary of sounds and of sights?
As a matter of fact, there are color-charts and color-dictionaries which give us an orderly arrangement of all the colors, and there are phonograph records and tapes which give us samples of all the kinds of sounds that can be produced by the human voice or by a full symphony orchestra. We will here consider only in a very elementary way some of the characteristics of sounds and sights which are the matter of the fine arts other than poetry.

[242] Common Matter

The artist begins his work by wishing to form something out of matter. He wishes to carry out the command of God which gave Adam power over material creation. When man molds and forms and arranges material things according to some idea in his mind, he is using this God-given power. When he does this for a good purpose, to produce something which is useful or beautiful, then he is imitating God himself, who made the world in its original state and gave it to man that man might help him bring the world to its final perfection. Thus the wise artist is God-like, but he remains God-like only when he respects the matter with which he works and uses it as God wishes him to use it.

Proper Matter

These various materials, however, are not chosen by the artist because of all their qualities, but only for certain ones needed in the work of art itself. Hence they are only the media or bearers of the qualities which the artist actually uses as the matter of his art. What are these proper qualities? They may be any of those qualities which we can directly sense: color, sound, texture, hardness or softness, temperature, smell, taste—all of which we call the proper sensibles. Actually, however, only color and sound have an importance place in art, because only hearing and seeing give us a distinct impression, and without such clarity beauty is not possible.
It will be readily granted that taste, smell, heat, and cold play little part in works of fine art, although they may have some importance in poetic works. However, the sense of touch as it makes us aware of textures, figures, tensions, and motions, does seem to be a real factor in both the musical and the visual arts. We feel the impact of the beat of a drum, and we would like to touch the smooth curves and volumes of a statue. Even in painting, the roughness or smoothness of the paint has a definite effect upon us. Again, in watching a dancer we seem to feel in ourselves the motions of the dancer’s limbs. This “in-feeling” is called empathy, and we experience it even when looking at buildings which appear to us very massive and heavy, or light and soaring. Everyone knows how the [243] designers of automobiles try to make the lines of their cars suggest a feeling of speed.
The reason that touch plays this role seems to be because it is the most certain of the senses and the one which makes us aware of the actual presence of things. (Did not St. Thomas the Apostle want to touch our Lord after the resurrection to make sure he was really there?) Thus sensations of touch reinforce and confirm what we know more clearly, but less certainly, by our sight and hearing. Hence a play on the stage is somehow more exciting than a movie or television play, because the actual presence of the actors affects us. Nevertheless, although touch reinforces sight and hearing, the information it gives us by itself is too vague to constitute a principal material of a work of art.

Characteristics of Colors and Tones

Color has three aspects: (1) hue; (2) purity; (3) brightness. In hue colors range through the spectrum or rainbow, in which we see clearly the four primary colors (red, yellow, green, blue) and two secondary colors (purple and orange), and colors which are transitions between these.[1] Of these latter red-green, yellow-blue, purple-orange seem to form contrary pairs called complementaries. In purity, the colors of the rainbow are (approximately) pure. By adding white to them, a tint (pastel color) is produced, by adding black a shade. White, black, and their mixture grey, are neutral colors, that is, white is a blend of all colors, black a negation of all colors, grey a mixture of white and black. In brightness, colors may range from very dim to very bright, but dim colors appear as shades, and very bright colors tend to look whitish. Pure yellow is very bright, pure purple very dark; the other hues are intermediate.
Similarly sound has three aspects: (1) pitch; (2) quality or timbre; (3) volume or loudness. In pitch, tones range evenly from very low to very high, but in such a way that any tone sounds very similar to those tones which have 2, 4, 8, etc., times as many vibrations per second as itself. Some similarity is felt between a tone and any [244] higher tone (overtone) which is related to it by a simple ratio between the number of vibrations of each (1:3, 1:5, etc. […]). In timbre, tones have different qualities owing to a mixture of the lowest tone with various of its overtones. Thus the quality of a violin is similar to the human voice, but very unlike the sound of an oboe or French horn. When a tone has no distinct pitch but is an unrelated cluster of sounds it is called a noise. When it has a definite and sustained fundamental tone it is called a musical tone. In loudness, tones range from very faint whispers to very loud crashes.
The human power to distinguish the fine differences of colors and tones is very great, but we must train ourselves by constant observation to make these discriminations. Look at your hand and see how many different tones of color there are in flesh. Note the color of its shadows. Place it in different positions and in different lights to notice how these colors shift and change. Listen carefully to the voices of others. Can you tell just why you recognize the voice of a friend? What is peculiar about its pitch, its timbre? It is by learning to discriminate colors and tones that we make ourselves sensitive to what the artist is doing, and by studying the work of the artist we come also to be more sensitive to color and tone.

Quantity in Matter

Besides color and tone (and other proper qualities), our senses also perceive aspects of things that are common to more than one sense (technically called the common sensibles). These are quantity, position, figure, and motion. Quantity and position, we know, are distinct categories. Figure is a species of quality, closely related to quantity, since a figure is simply the boundary of a quantity. Position results from the relation of one part of quantity to another next to it. Motion is found in every category. To these we might also add time, which is the measure of a motion and which is known by sensing motion of some sort. Thus we can see the size (quantity) and figure of a colored square, but we can also know these aspects of the square by touching them, although we cannot tell its color except by sight. We can see the motion of a fan, and we can also feel and hear it.
[245] These common sensibles are all quantitative and measurable, while the proper sensibles are qualities. From one point of view, it is this quantitative aspect which is most important for art, since it makes design possible […]. But we must also remember that unless such designs were presented vividly in color or tone they would lack something of beauty, since they would not be so clear to our power of knowing which is rooted in external sensation.

The Matter of Poetics

If we consider the words out of which poetry is made as sounds, then they are the same tones we have already discussed. But words are also conventional signs which bring to our mind something other than themselves […]. What comes to our mind when we hear a word? First of all, the essence or nature for which it stands (some words, however, stand only for grammatical relations) which is known by our intellect; for example, the nature of a dog, the moon, or a flower. Hence the matter of poetry is, first of all, objective concepts (things known […]), just as the matter of logic, dialectics, or rhetoric. But along with this concept there also come to mind the images or phantasms connected with it, as well as other concepts and images similar to or contrasted to it, which follow it by the law of association (recall and memory). Hence a single word, like the word “rose,” may bring to our mind a flood of ideas, all of which are matter for the poet.
Poetry is different from all the other arts because
  1. It lacks a direct appeal to the external senses, but it can appeal to our interior senses of imagination and memory. Hence in a way it can include the matter of all the arts.
  2. It has the power explicitly to present to us intellectual concepts, while the other arts can only imply these.
Thus poetry by reason of its matter is the most perfect of all the arts and in a way includes them. On the other hand, it has certain defects which prevent it from replacing the other arts:
  1. It lacks a direct appeal to the external senses. That is why we try to make up for this by combining poetry with music (the sound of poetry spoken or sung, or even of prose) or acting, as in the theater.
  2. It represents imagery in a vague way so that it cannot form a true design with mathematical beauty. The poet may talk of the beauty of the moonlit landscape, or of music, but he cannot convey to us their actual beauty of pattern.

1. This is a simplification of color theory which is quite complex. Green is regarded by some as secondary color blended from yellow and blue. Neither pure purple nor pure red are actually found in the spectrum and can be obtained only by a mixture of lights.


Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 229–245.